Jon Watts is on the verge of becoming Hollywood’s hottest director. His work on Spider-Man: Homecoming is absolutely brilliant. He’s not only made the best Spider-Man movie to date, but a truly exceptional coming of age story. I liken it to a John Hughes inspired superhero. Imagine Sixteen Candles or Breakfast Club with ass-kicking Spider-Man action. It’s a fantastic take on the web slinger that captures the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man at the nascent stage.
Jon Watts is a Colorado native that studied film at New York University. He had success directing commercials and a series of clever shorts. His big break was the low budget, indie thriller Cop Car. The leap from that film to Spider-Man: Homecoming is extraordinary. Watts won the directing job by blowing away the Marvel executives and Kevin Feige with his Spider-Man presentation. He had a clear, concise vision for the story that was apparently very impressive. The suits made the right choice because Watts delivers on all fronts.
The Sony press event for Spider-Man: Homecoming was buzzing with excitement. Everyone, the Hollywood producers, Sony reps, journalists, and stars knew they had made a magnificent film. You would expect that Jon Watts, after his first major studio film, to be a little nervous facing the press. He wasn’t at all. Watts was the picture of calm in the Spider-Man maelstrom. He gives off a cool, level-headed vibe. The moment didn’t seem too big for him. You can see why Marvel and Sony entrusted him with resurrecting Spider-Man. Please see below our full interview with Jon Watts.
You’ve probably heard this a million times today, but congratulations on a great film. You’ve made a movie that diehard Spider-Man fans are going to love. How big of a Spider-Man fan were you before this?
Jon Watts: Thank you! You know, I would never claim to be like, a fan fan. (laughs) Guys like you are the true fans. I would never claim to be that deep in this world before I started. Now I am, for sure. The first thing I did when I got the job was go back to the very beginning and read everything. I was in high school for the MacFarlane run. That was my introduction, but also just being a kid and getting a Marvel book I would obsess about. What was cool, and very fun for me, was to start at the beginning. It really makes you appreciate so many things about Spider-Man that you may not have been aware of before. First, he was introduced by Lee and Ditko to just give a different perspective on the super hero universe. Spider-Man was just a regular guy’s perspective on this crazy universe. That’s what makes him so relatable. That’s how you really get a feel for this character. You just go through the stories. You see the conflicts that come up. Oh, that’s a classic Spider-Man/Peter Parker conflict. By just absorbing that, becoming the biggest fan I could, I tried to bring that into the movie. Does that make sense?
Jon Watts: Yeah, I had to build it up from scratch, like a lawyer preparing for a case. I want to know as much as possible. I really want to immerse myself.
I spoke to Kevin Feige yesterday about your hiring. Look, I thought Cop Car was good, but to make the leap from that film to this is pretty impressive.
Jon Watts: Wow, what did he say?
He said your presentation and vision for the character was great. So you obviously sold yourself to the bigwigs at Marvel. Did they let you run with that vision? Or were you micro-managed?
Jon Watts: You know what’s funny? I’ve never done this before, so I can only speak from my own experience. I know people who have made big studio movies and have varying levels of success, good and bad experiences. I think that you always feel that something like that can happen. You go into it, initially defensive. Thinking that at some point, you are going to hit a wall, or someone is going to tell you “no”. No you can’t do that…strangely enough, that never happened. I really feel like I got away with doing everything I wanted to do. (laughs) At the end of the day, the most beneficial thing for me was that I was really clear. I was clear as I could possibly be, at the very beginning, about how I saw the movie. I think that really helped during the process. No one was surprised because nothing was radically different from what I pitched. I tried to be as precise and articulate as early as possible. You’re not going to fool anyone down the line when they are watching.
Are you signed to do more Spider-Man films?
Jon Watts: I think so. (laughs) I don’t know exactly. I think when I signed my initial papers I signed for a few.
So Marvel is getting your first born child?
Jon Watts: (laughs) Maybe, I think I should look and see what I signed.
This film has a great coming-of-age, John Hughes vibe to it. You believe this kid is a fifteen year old with super powers…
Jon Watts: It’s funny you brought up the John Hughes thing. It’s not that it’s specifically John Hughes, but when you’re a certain age, to you, John Hughes means a coming of age movie. I’ve talked to other people who are younger. Their reference point is Can’t Hardly Wait. It’s just the idea of a high school, coming of age movie.
Do you like that comparison? Is that something you were going for and are comfortable with?
Jon Watts: I love John Hughes movies. They are my reference points. I think of a Chicago high school before I think of my own high school. It’s a cultural touchstone. For me, there’s a deeper genre appreciation for what a coming of age story can be about. To apply that to a superhero world, for me, that was very exciting. I felt that I was drawing from a lot.
Well, without being hyperbolic, you achieve it…
Jon Watts: Thanks, thank you!
Ok, I hate asking this question but I must. When you watch Friends, you don’t see New York City. That’s a fantasy land…
Jon Watts: (laughs) Like what is that apartment? That apartment is so big.
Exactly, you can believe that students here actually go to a high school in Queens. It’s a very integrated neighborhood. I spoke to Tony Revolori earlier about the death threats he received when his casting as Flash Thompson was announced.
Jon Watts: That’s such a drag. Imagine you’re Tony. You’ve got such exciting news. You get to be in a Spider-Man movie. How exciting is that? And then having to deal with that? It’s just so sad.
How do you respond to those people who criticized him? Or those that say this is diversity casting?
Jon Watts: I don’t.
Great answer. Moving On. Let’s talk about the humor. It’s difficult to make adults and kids laugh at the same thing. I think you hit that perfectly here. Was all that humor scripted?
Jon Watts: We started from a really great place in the script. What’s nice about having kids close to the age they’re playing is that you can actually capture awkwardness. I wanted everyone to be comfortable being awkward and weird. A lot of it is improvised. A lot of it is real. (laughs) A lot of it are moments in the script, but that was the fun new thing for me. Trying to capture genuine high school awkwardness.
Last question, it’s rare for a director on his first big budget film to have a mega star like Robert Downey Jr. But here, you also have Batman, you have Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, an Oscar winner, what’s it like to give notes to such an experienced cast? Where you ever reticent?
Jon Watts: Well, I think it helps if you have a clear vision of what you want. But you also have to be open to their ideas. They’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. Especially Robert, he’s been living this character for such a long time. It really is just about creating a safe environment for an actor, to go somewhere new, to make a mistake. I would never force my will in any way. You just want to be collaborative. Shape it; take it to a place that’s going to be exciting for everyone.