Given the understandable drumbeat for iconoclastic filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, it's easy to mistake a masterpiece like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as some kind of singular achievement for guys whose careers have been defined by defying expectations and spinning dubious ideas into critical and commercial gold.
But there's no greater proof of the film's fundamentally collaborative nature than the collective magnanimity and creative fearlessness of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. The trio worked alongside Lord and Miller — as well as hundreds of other talented artists and technicians — to turn the delightfully messy details of comic books' printed pages into the dynamic, award-winning film that has almost single-handedly changed the way that audiences look both at superheroes and animated storytelling.
Just days before they would accept the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, the trio sat down with SYFY WIRE at a press day for Into the Spider-Verse's digital (February 26) and home video (March 19) releases to discuss the film's earliest aims and its remarkable success.
In addition to talking about the influence and inspiration of Lord, who wrote the original script for the film before he and Miller departed to work on Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rothman, Ramsey, and Persichetti reflected on the collaboration and discovery that empowered them to make an animated film unlike any they or their eventual audiences had ever seen. Given its tremendous success, they also mused over the possibility of sequels that could take even more risks while building on that same unique Spider-Verse foundation.
When you guys embarked on this process, what had you not seen before in a Spider-Man movie that you wanted to bring to the screen?
Rothman: That's a good question no one's asked before.
Persichetti: Animation, first of all, meaning that something that wasn't live action with VFX animation in it, but an entire world that was created specifically to tell the story of a character that would become Spider-Man. That was a big creative boon to all of us because there was a sense in the beginning that because it's fully animated, we could do something that almost weirdly enough feels more real than the live action version of the franchise. That was one of our early aspirations, to make sure that we treat this in a way where Miles and his story feels as real as possible because that was the really important thing. And then we got to create neighborhoods and an entire city that really reflected Miles.
Ramsey: The approach to the Spidey action is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But then the other thing for me with our movie was hitting that comic book tone, that mix between melodramatic and –
Ramsey: Yeah, that real specific thing when you're reading that a good comic book and there's a headspace you go into I really was hoping that we could hit it. And I think we did.
Rothman: One of the coolest things about the way these stories have been told in comic books or graphically is that there's many different homes, many different visual fingerprints. There's a lot of rules that are broken. Every artist who works on these things interprets the story for themselves. And I was really excited to work on a Spider-Man story that was able to have its own visual thumbprint and its own tonal style. Push the comedy in a different direction, push the drama in a different direction, all that stuff. Superhero movies have been wildly successful and really good, but there's a tonal consistency sometimes between them, and I was super psyched to work on something that existed outside of that.
You guys have joked in acceptance speeches that you were glad for the sake of Spider-Verse that Chris Miller and Phil Lord got fired from Solo: A Star Wars Story. Given that they started on this in its earliest days and then came back later, when did you three feel like you had ownership of this? And how did Lord and Miller coming back to this in a more dedicated way enhance the moviemaking process?
Persichetti: This thing was based on a script that Phil wrote that was 160 pages long, and for about a year and some change we had worked at making it a running length that we could actually make. And in doing that, we learned a lot.
And those guys were busy. And so when they came back into the fold, there was some repetition, like we have to prove what we learned while [they] were gone. And so in a weird sort of circumstances, we had to go through this whole thing again and really prove the choices we made — the things we eliminated from the original draft were valid choices, and why they were valid. And if one of your producers writes your first draft, he's gonna be like, "Why isn't this here? Why isn't that there?"
So we had to kind of retread a bunch of stuff. But in doing that, it became a really good creative exercise. It may have been hard some days, but in the end it was revealing of the choices we made and then also helped show what we could slide back into the film in a different way, some of the ideas and thematic elements that were in the first draft that had been sort of put aside in an attempt to tell a clean story about Miles. Once we had that clean story about Miles, we can figure out how to lay those things back in. So we ended up being very happy for it, but it wasn't easy. This movie was just a hard movie to make. We were trying to do a lot of crazy things in a short period of time.
Rothman: And when I said that, I was speaking directly to them, and I was saying, not that they don't know this because we talk about this when we're not in front of microphones also, but I was saying, you guys came back and made the movie better and here we are on stage winning a really cool award for what we all made together. And also as their friend, I've known them for a long time, I was also kind of saying, everyone goes through stuff in their career and we were lucky to have them back. They're our partners. They added a tremendous amount to the finished product, and we're having this interview four days before we're going to go to the Academy Awards and we'll see what happens. But there was an aggregation of people on this movie that worked together and made something that I think was beyond what anyone could have done by themselves.
Ramsey: Just to jump on what both of these guys are saying, I think before they came back we were working to preserve what we loved of Phil's original version and make it work. And I think after they came back and we went through the exercise of everybody getting on the same page, then we were really collaborating. That's what it felt like to me. After that it felt much more like we're a real team of people all moving towards the same goal instead of some of us hoping we were preserving the right things. It just felt more cohesive after. And we were all fighting for survival.
Persichetti: We were on many different pages at the same book, and then we all sort of got on the same page, or at least the same chapter.
The overarching theme of many interviews with your collaborators is that everyone only really discovered what you had when the movie was done. How much of a foundation do you feel like you have for future Spider-Verses, and how much will you be starting over from scratch again since so many elements of this film were created in such a transgressive way?
Persichetti: I think what this movie created was an openness to any strong storytelling ideas for this franchise, but make sure that they are as authentic and real as possible. Because at the end of the day, all of the imagery and the visual things that we discovered and our crew was able to achieve would have all fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes had Miles' story not been in the thing that really landed. The Miles story was there from day one, and if there's a compelling story there, then it can go anywhere. And it's just that — what are the bones? And you can put all sorts of things on top of them.
Rothman: Everyone feels excited, and the hope is to just keep pushing and to keep surprising people. And you also have the gift of a really great young character where there's more to tell, there's a family around that character, there's a lot to do there. And in a great graphic novel or great comic book series, you have many different artists and many different characters getting expressed to tell one fluid narrative, and I think that's kind of a great model for what this is and where it could go and visually how it could push more boundaries.
Persichetti: I'll just say, trying to think about the future, another movie, whatever, the relationship that we all built over the course of this film felt like a very specific special moment, in the sense that we did all kind of come together to raise the whole movie up and there was such a real true collaboration. We had the material, then the team to do it, and then the crew that was so passionate and willing to give up everything to try to make something feel and look different. All of those things kind of came together in a wonderful moment for us. So the idea of trying to recreate that is such a daunting task that right now it's like, let's ride this out, for at least another four days (laughs).