Director Jon Watts On How 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' Is Different [Interview]

When filmmaker Jon Watts premiered his independent film Cop Car at the Sundance Film Festival, there is no way he could have anticipated that it would lead to him directing Spider-Man's return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But after talking to the Spider-Man: Homecoming director on the set of Peter Parker's first MCU solo film, it is easy to see why he got the job.

During our on-set chat, Watts explained his vision for this new Spider-Man reboot, how it will be different than Marc Webb and Sam Raimi's films, how Captain America: Civil War changed this film, the importance to diversify Peter Parker's world, making the villain a real person, the rumors surrounding Zendaya and much more.

spider-man homecoming trailer 4

Getting the Job

Could you have ever imagined being in this chair when Cop Car premiered a year and a half ago?

Not at all, I wish it was some sort of brilliant stepping stone plan to direct Spider-Man. I didn't even think anyone would want to make Cop Car and then I didn't think anyone would want to distribute Cop Car, and then I didn't think anyone would want to see Cop Car. That movie is based on a recurring dream I had as a kid, and we shot it in my hometown, and my sister was the location scout, and my other sister was the medic, and my mom would cook us food. That movie I never thought would lead to anything. This is insane.

Who did you seek out advice from? 

I'm trying to remember... I don't know...I know Marc Webb from music video days and he gave me the best advice. He was like "Just make sure to get lunch with Stan Lee. Definitely enjoy yourself." I don't know, it's a pretty impressive collaboration between Marvel and Sony, so there wasn't a single person to seek out to get advice and it felt like it was going to be a very different experience. The Russos were really cool, they sort of coached me through it.

Being the first director to have an impact on this Disney-Marvel-Sony thing, have you felt any creative pressures from either side or is it smooth sailing?

Yeah, actually, what I was saying is from the get go it's been a very collaborative experience. I think as soon as everyone was aware of that and came into it with those expectations, which is how I entered into don't come in thinking "This has got to be ONE way," it really lends itself to just being open to ideas and trying stuff out and following things down a path that may not pan out. Then you just start over, and it's fun. It's what being creative is about.

spider-man homecoming trailer 13

Making it Different

When this movie was announced there were a lot of people online who were like "The THIRD version of Spider-Man?" Give us the pitch why this one is different and why people should see it and why it deserves to exist?

Well, I can talk about why I was excited about it. First of all, it being in the Marvel Universe just immediately opened up the doors to so many possibilities. First of all, Spider-Man interacting with the other people in that universe and also just to be able to explore a different side of the Marvel Universe. I was really excited about that because the other movies have shown what I described as the Penthouse level of the Marvel world, what it's like to be Thor, Iron Man, you know, a billionaire playboy and all of that stuff.

But what's great about Spider-Man is that he's a regular kid and so by showing his story you also get to show what the ground level is like in a world where the Avengers exist, which is already I think a great premise for a movie. So that was very exciting, but also just Tom. By having Peter Parker be a kid that also opens up, I think, a lot of possibilities that are only really explored at the beginning of the other two versions of the films. In the Raimi one, he's only in high school for like ten minutes, but I wanted to make a high school movie already, so the opportunity to do it with Spider-Man was pretty exciting.

At the beginning of the day, going through the art and learning the story one of the big messages that was being hammered to us was this is different than the previous five movies, avoiding things like rehashing Uncle Ben's story and focusing on high school and even choosing different villains. Are there major supporting characters or villains that you think in the future need to be in sequels or the MCU?

Yeah, we have some ideas of who could fit in in an interesting way, but we're just trying to build Spider-Man's side of the world in a rich way that could organically lead to some of that great rogue's gallery. Not Jackson Wheel, you guys know Jackson Wheel? He's like one of the silliest of all villains. His name is Jackson Wheel, and he becomes Big Wheel, and he rides around in a giant wheel. There's another guy named Gideon Mace. It's hard to get, except digital copies, some years, there's some real, real classic villains. Will-O'-The-Wisp. Gideon Mace, he has an arm that's a mace that also shoots mace. You just imagine the writers just cracking up. "We're late for our deadline, uh...Gideon Mace." It's so fun.

Spider-Man Homecoming Trailer Breakdown

The Vision For a New Spider-Man Reboot

In a world where superhero movies have stakes that tend to be really enormous, the stakes here seem much smaller, and some of the action scenes are comparatively smaller than they've been. How important was it for you to find that balance?

Another big part of my initial pitch was when you're in high school everything seems like the most important thing and everything bad seems like the end of the world. So if you have a zit or a girl doesn't like you or you, have to fight a super villain, those things when you're fifteen are all at 11. So with that in mind, it was easy to find that grounded story that could lead you through it and also come up with a spectacle that makes for a good trailer and is compelling. It's always starting with character, and we didn't want to have it be any empty spectacle so it was finding moments that you would care about and feel invested in Peter and Peter's journey and not having it just be an action sequence for action sequence's sake.

The dichotomy is always Peter will escape something horrible that's happening to him and then when the suit is too much for him he just wants to pack it away, which one do you think is closer in your movie? 

He's right at the beginning where it's still pretty new, and he's trying to figure out "Which part of me is Peter and which part of me is Spider-Man and which part of me is both." It's a coming=of=age story, so it's just trying to figure out who you are.

Given that there have been five previous films and you're working in an established universe, what was your visual approach to making this distinct not only to the MCU but to a general audience that has seen five Spider-Man movies?

I have my director-ey things that I was trying to do, but that's boring. I don't know [Laughs] There's an aesthetic that we're trying to bring to it and trying to keep it feeling grounded where we're not just having epic camera moves swooping over everyone. This is the camera coming down to the ground level and staying there for a while with Peter.

new spider-man costume

The Aftermath of a Civil War

Can you talk about being on the set of Civil War and what you took from that experience and brought to this film?

It felt like there was going to be a camera crew that jumped out and were filming me and was like "Just kidding." I was still sort of shell shocked. It was such secrecy, and it was a long, long process to get to this final position, and they said 'Okay, you got the job. Okay, you're flying down to watch them shoot the scene. Do you have any notes for what their apartment should look like?" And I was like "What?" So you're quickly just scrambling to wrap your head around what's actually happening and before you know it, you're on set watching Tom and Robert do a scene and it's just unbelievable because that's the first time that other than screen tests, seeing Peter Parker. I guess what I took from it was "Wow, he's really good, he's going to be a great Peter Parker. Don't screw it up," and then "Where are the cameras?"

When you were watching that scene being filmed, was Downy already a part of the script or were you like "Oh no, we need to have him appear in our story"?

No, the story was being developed as that was happening, but their relationship was so great in Civil War you kind of feel like you have to keep exploring.

Spider-Man Homecoming Trailer Breakdown

Peter Parker's Diversified World

This is the first Spider-Man movie I feel like actually looks like America, the other ones have been very, very bleached, but this is very diverse, and it looks like America, and this is a new take on Spider-man because he's younger and the high school scene looks amazing as well. How early in the process was that a conscious decision or did it just end up like that?

That was a big part of my pitch. The very first thing I made was a look book of what I wanted the world to look like, and what the kids should look like and the high school should look like. I lived in New York for thirteen years, and it should look like a school in New York, it shouldn't look like a school in the Midwest in the '50s. So I pulled a bunch of pictures of kids and documentary photos of kids in schools, and that was part of my pitch, and everyone was really into that and followed through with the casting, which is so, so cool, I love the kids.

Building on that, how did casting go? Was it colorblind casting or did you say "We know we want this kind of person for this?"

It was colorblind initially because it was everyone, like any kid ever. We just put them on tape, and sometimes it was...there were some situations were a kid was just great and there wasn't a specific role for them, but because it's a high school, we can have so many kids, and it was an opportunity to be like "Well this kid is great, we don't have a specific role for them, but maybe we should create a small role for them or think of a way to incorporate them in some other capacity." When you're developing the story and the script while you're casting, you can keep an open mind to look for the best kids. That's what they did; I think I remember reading that's how Judd Apatow did Freaks and Geeks, where they just sort of looked for kids that were interesting and then shaped the roles around them. A great thing about kids is they're just themselves and can't help it a lot of the time. So to be able to craft roles around these kids is better than trying to force someone into a preconceived role.

Spider-Man Homecoming Sequel Release Date

All About the Research

Tom mentioned some of the films that you recommend they watch to prepare...

I made him have a coming-of-age film festival.

He listed a lot of John Hughes movies that we've heard beforehand that had influenced this movie. Were there any sort of left-field films that don't fit that mold that you said 'try watching this one?' Because when we talked to the Russos on Civil War, they mentioned Se7en as an influence and at the time we were like what does this mean, and then when you see the movie you're like "Oh that makes sense."

Right, because a big twist happens at the end that changes everything....Not really. I just wanted them to get the spirit of those movies and know it was okay to be goofy and be a teen. The John Hughes movies...I love Say Anything, I made them watch that, but just being okay to be kind of a weirdo or to be sillier I think. I wanted them to be comfortable to do that and to be awkward. I made them watch Freaks and Geeks, too.

Tom talked about going undercover in the Bronx.

Oh yeah, I made him go to school because he'd never been to a normal school, not even in England. So I sent him to a math and science high school because that's the kind of school that Peter Parker would go to like a public, magnet school you have to test into. So I made him go, and he was so blown away by how hard the kids worked and how smart everyone was. The thing he remarked on which I thought was such a great takeaway was that everyone was exhausted and that's what I remember from high school. I remember being so tired. You're waking up so early and working so hard and then doing so much homework and any extracurricular activities, and you're just exhausted all the time. SO we made sure to keep some of that spirit alive just writing about being so tired. Like you've just woken up...

spider-man homecoming trailer 16

Making the Villain a Real Person

Michael Keaton said you took a riskier approached with his character. I noticed he has kid's drawings on his refrigerator and I feel like he's the first Marvel villain that has kids and is a father, I'm curious to know where he was going with that risk and why is this character riskier?

Well, it's not that so much as that I like the idea you could have someone who becomes a villain and they're also a regular person, or starting as a regular person. It's just a grounded take on where someone like that could come from and where the other people that are a part of it come from, and just trying to root it in something that is believable, so it's not just this arch-villain plot that comes out of nowhere. I think what he's referring to are the things that lead him to come to the movie, which yeah, no one wakes up thinking they're going to be a villain, so I like to take that approach with his character which is "Why is he really doing it? What motivates him?" and to really just understand it. You don't have to agree with it but you can understand what's driving him.

spider-man homecoming

Directing Iron Man

How do you direct Downey as Iron Man? Can you give him notes?

I haven't done it yet, but I'll let you know. We've talked on the phone already, and just he knows the character so well. It's just great for someone like that to come in and bring everything that they've put into this character and all the thought that has gone into creating it into these situations. It's great because no one has thought about Tony Stark more than Robert Downey Jr., so being able to have his perspective on the story and how he would interact with Peter and what might be interesting is just great. It makes for such a great collaboration.

Do you have the flexibility, if he wants to not drastically change something but play it a different way? 

Yeah, with everyone, though, every character. That's what's great about working with such skilled actors is they can bring so much to every moment, and that their job is to think about these characters more than anyone else. When you do that, it's just "Best idea wins." That's been the philosophy on the movie, and it doesn't matter whose idea it is, it's always worth trying. Whatever is great, you kind of know it. Being free to explore that and finding stuff has been really fun, and it's been really collaborative on every level.

spider-man homecoming trailer 37

The Supporting Cast

In this movie you bring in Liz Allen, who we've never seen in five previous Spider-Man films. I understand that Ned began life as Ned Leeds and maybe has changed or not, we were told this morning. But Michelle seems to be a new character; you cast Zendaya in that role, she's a tremendous star. Can you talk about that character?

There's a couple of Michelle's in the comics...

This is probably not the twenty-something roommate he had, though, right?

I don't want to say anything about any of that stuff because it's all these weird rumors flying around right now and I'd rather just not say anything until people see the movie.

Can you talk about her relationship with Peter in the movie and casting Zendaya in the role? Amy and Kevin Feige said they'd never heard of her before.

Yeah, it was really funny. I knew of her, but I knew [her from] K.C. Undercover. It was funny because then you Google her and you see she's a cover girl and is so glamorous. She just came in and read on tape for just whoever because we were doing open readings, and she was so different than what I think anyone expected and was just really down to Earth and really relatable. It was the open minded thing I was talking about earlier; it was like "She's gotta be in the movie in some capacity."

When there's a rumor like that or a story that gets out, how do you handle it and how do you feel?

I mean, they're usually wrong so it's really fun to watch people respond to all these incorrect rumors and reveal a lot of other things that they think might be going on. It's just fun. It's like being a magician because you're like "Nah, nah, nope. Oh? Close! Nope, wrong again." Then every once in a while, someone will have a crazy theory, because I read everything on Twitter, and someone will have a crazy theory or a weird idea, and then you're like "Oh, that's pretty cool. Can we do that? Is it too late? Can we figure out a way to write that in?" I love it, aside from the people that are being terrible, it's just excitement, and it's just people who are freaking out like "Oh my god what does this mean? Does that mean this?" Because there's such a long history in the comics, it means any rumor could mean a million things because so many different things have happened in the comics.

You said Zendaya's very glamorous, but in this, she has an underdone look and looks like a girl we don't often get to see in high school movies or superhero movies. Can you talk a little about that choice?

I always thought of her as being a version of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, what Linda Cardellini is like in Freaks and Geeks. It's just a cool character, and it's cool for her to be that character, I thought. She has a really cool wardrobe, really funny, lots of literary nods. I like the idea that she's a real reader and bookish. She always has a big pile of books she's carrying around, which I picked and obsessed over.

This morning, we were told that Logan Marshall-Green is playing a member of the Vulture's crew. Can you say who he's playing?

No, I don't want to, cause there's a lot of surprises and I don't want to spoil them.


Please note: This interview has been edited down from a longer transcript and the questions have been rearranged for clarity.