The Directors of ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ On Creating Their Film’s Unique Look and Designing the Perfect Tribute to Stan Lee
Movies are only described as “designed by committee” when they’re bad. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse suggests it may be time to readjust our thinking on committees and designs. Its most high-profile creators are a pair of producers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who typically direct all their projects together. Three more men co-directed Spider-Verse: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Factor in several more producers who helped shape the project, and you definitely have something that was designed by a committee — but doesn’t feel like it was.
Instead, Into the Spider-Verse is one of the boldest and most inventive animated movies — and Marvel movies of any kind — in recent memory. It introduces us to a brand-new Spider-Man, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) who discovers he’s just one Spidey in an entire multiverse of heroes, including Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and Spider-Man: Noir (Nicolas Cage). Each Spider-Man (or woman [or ham]) is rendered in their own animation style, and the film perfectly balances the classic Spidey stuff fans know and expect with plenty of surprises.
When I spoke with Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman over the phone last week, I wanted to know what parts of directing Spider-Verse they were each responsible for, and exactly how they choose which of the dozens of Spider-Men in Marvel Comics they put in their terrific film. Plus, they talked about almost casting Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man again and how they handled releasing the first Marvel movie since the death of Stan Lee.
What is the division of duties like on a three-man directing team? Are you all responsible for everything or are there specific areas that each of you was in charge of?
Peter Ramsey: There were areas of expertise that we would end up leaning into more heavily, but it was all of depending on the demands of the movie and the schedule. It really was divide and conquer as needed, and then overlapping on broader creative questions — whether it was design or broader story points.
We spent a lot of time together in editorial, which became the creative hub for the entire team. We’d hash things out, debate, and talk about things and sort of move on from there. Really whatever fires had to be put out were put out by the person most available and equipped.
Rodney Rothman: It was like running three relay races at once. So you]re constantly running back and forth between different tracks.
The imagery in the movie is really fantastic. I love the way you guys adapted the visual language of comics into the movie. And I’m curious how that idea came about, and who gets credit for that. Is there any specific person or people who were the brains behind that concept?
Peter Ramsey: As far as the early developers of that, I would say Bob [Persichetti], [artist] Alberto Mielgo, [production designer] Justin Thompson, and [writer/producer] Phil Lord.
Rodney Rothman: Yeah, that’s about right. We were just looking to tell this story about Miles being Spider-Man, which is its own really unique thing to get to introduce to the world in a theatrical film. So we should make the animation — one of the most expressive mediums you can find — we should make it as unique as the original.
Look at what we’re adapting. We’re adapting comic books, and as a broad philosophy, how can you make a cinematic expression of a comic book? You start to just deconstruct a comic book and look at the elements, and see what could represent different photographic techniques or storytelling techniques, and how best to fold them into a narrative in a subjective way to Miles, so they don't just become like artifice and visual candy. That way they really have impact and power, like a revelatory quality, when you start to use them. And then it was about trying to figure out how to actually do it.
Bob Persichetti: The cool thing is you’re taking comics books and street art and all kinds of things, and then getting a bunch of people together to try to figure it out how to make it all very cinematic, which was the fundamental challenge.
You assembled an excellent cast of Spider-Men here, with Spider-Gwen and Spider-Ham and Peni Parker and Spider-Man: Noir. But there are also so many more you could have chosen from. How did you pick that group and were there any other candidates that you seriously considered that at some point got dropped?
Bob Persichetti: Those characters that we have in the movie were, on some level, in the earliest versions of the treatment for the movie, and didn’t change. Most of them were picked through the lens of “Who would be an interesting compliment or foil to Miles and his story?” It’s about bringing together a bunch of different examples of characters that have dealt with the same challenges he has, and solved them in different ways.
As far as other characters, of course there’s tons of other characters we would have wanted to put in. At a certain point, you just have to put the pedal down. We had some great characters that were all different, and look kind of crazy in the same shot together, which we liked. And you just kind of hope that this movie is embraced to the point where you can tell more stories next time.
Peter Ramsey: The cool thing about including the characters that we did include was with the visual interpretation we chose for Noir and Peni and Ham, it really allowed us to dramatize the multiverse story visually a little more, because they’re so different from miles. Even the way they’re rendered and animated is different from Miles and the people who live in his universe. So it was kind of a nice way to be able to suggest that the breadth of the Spider-Verse in a way that putting a few other more regular-looking characters who happened to be wearing Spider-Man suits might not have done.
I really enjoyed the version of Peter Parker in the movie. Even having read as many comics as I have, I felt like I hadn’t seen that version of the character before. At the same time, he seemed like a very believe extension of, like, the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man. I could see that guy winding up like this Peter Parker. Which made me wonder: Was there every a consideration of having Tobey Maguire voice that character?
Rodney Rothman: There was. There were many thoughts about where we could put Tobey Maguire and others. I think after this film, those thoughts might have a little more traction. But before this movie, and introducing the idea of the “Spider-Verse” to the audience, I think everybody was afraid that it would just really confuse people. But wow, it would have been fun.
[Editor’s Note: If you don’t want to know how Spider-Verse paid tribute to Stan Lee, wait until after you see the film to read this last question.]
You guys had sort of the unfortunate honor of being the first Marvel movie to come out after the death of Stan Lee. And he has a cameo, of course, but you also have that lovely tribute at the end of the film with a quote of his. [“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.” I was wondering if you could tell me how that came together. I'm sure you didn't have a lot of time to do that.
Peter Ramsey: We picked that quote because it was meaningful to us. It seemed to express the reasons why we thought it was important that Miles’ story existed, and the movie existed. Stan Lee was the font of everything we were doing. His worldview and his humanity helped create Miles Morales. So that was it.
Rodney Rothman: The thing that was interesting about what we finally ended up with onscreen was that we bounced around the different possible quotes we could use. Because this movie was so crazy, we have this text message chain on all our phones between a big group of our supervising producers, directors, production designer, art director. We were bouncing quotes around, and that one ended up being the one that everyone felt represented his words and their meaning in the most powerful way to all of us. It was kind of democratic.
Bob Persichetti: Yeah, and [producer] Avi Arad who knew him best among us, also particularly liked that quote. And that was meaningful to us.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is in theaters now.
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