The first time Marc Webb directed a film, just six years ago, there were rarely more than a couple dozen people on set. Outside of a group of Hollywood insiders, no one had any idea what the film, titled "(500) Days of Summer" and budgeted at $7 million, was about, nor did they much care. One highlight of filming came when Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed karaoke.
At a midtown Manhattan premiere last week for Webb's new movie, a different scene unfolded. Pop superstars like Pharrell and Alicia Keys performed. More than 1,000 guests circulated in a giant event space after seeing two hours of 3-D effects come at them with the force and velocity of a pickup truck.
The film was "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." It cost, depending on whom you believe, a bit more than $200 million or well over $250 million. It involved building a massive replica of Times Square. More than 11,000 extras were employed. The Williamsburg Bridge was nearly shut down.
Seeking fresh blood, superhero-minded studios have been looking outside the traditional action-director pool for several years now. But they've rarely looked so far outside it as Sony Pictures did with Webb, who made one feature — a tender character piece about one man's breakup that turned into an indie breakout — before being given, at the wizened age of 36, the keys to one of the biggest franchises in town.
"When I was a kid I watched 'Dead Poets Society.' It was my favorite movie. You know, 'Carpe Diem. Call the girl,'" he said, explaining why he made an unexpected career leap. "And I became addicted to not knowing how to get out of something, to biting off more than I can chew."
Last week Webb was at a hotel bar in New York, a city he lives in part-time and tries to capture on-screen in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," the Andrew Garfield-Emma Stone sequel that isn't so much set to open in theaters Thursday night as take up residence in them.
He looked surprisingly fresh given that he had spent the better part of the last month on a global publicity tour that would make the Rolling Stones jealous, the helmer as circus-troupe leader. In Germany there were the comparisons of the film to Sept. 11; in Italy, many-faceted questions about the love story. The Japanese couldn't get enough of the comic-book mythology.
The night before, Webb had showed the film to a U.S. audience for the first time, at the premiere, bringing Jamie Foxx, Garfield and Stone up to the front of the theater where they spontaneously began dancing. The road can do strange things.
Webb is one of the least likely of Hollywood's growing class of superhero directors (he will also direct the third "Amazing Spider-Man," and helmed the first as well) not only because of the speed with which he ascended to the group but because of his persona — a boyish, if occasionally wisecracking, Wisconsinite with a penchant for musical theater and a tendency to be visibly moved by things that usually only visibly move Sundance drama directors.
Employing a slick visual style that conceals a soft emo center, Webb makes the new movie bigger than the first in every way. There are longer and louder action scenes as the hero swings off buildings and over bridges and through massive electrical power stations (shot on multiple occasions, for the first time in five Spidey movies, on New York locations). There is a complex network of villains that includes Foxx as Electro, Paul Giamatti as Rhino and Dane DeHaan, in a potentially career-making turn, as Harry Osborn–turned-Green Goblin.
The movie also paradoxically aims for a deeper level of romantic resonance and emotional quiet than "Amazing Spider-Man," and indeed than most superhero movies. Spider-Man must foil the villains but also, as the self-deprecating Peter Parker, fight an uphill battle to win back Gwen Stacy (Stone), whom he's alienated for noble but tragic reasons, and navigate a conflicted relationship with his Aunt May (Sally Fields).
Webb says he actually felt he had the most control in the action sequences — they're planned-out and technical and so long-in-the-making that studio executives tend to get less involved. But his innovations lie in those scenes of love and its obstacles — in exploring, really, the subtle heartbreak of the everyday.
"Studios sometimes think a relationship in a movie like this is about two good-looking people ogling at each other, and it's not," he said. "It's about finding a deep, tectonic emotional component of what it is to fall in love, how deep and special it is," he said, "and how love can also sometimes walk away."
He added, "I want people to have the emotional experience of feeling what the characters are feeling, not just give them a shorthand."
An English major who grew up thinking he'd be an engineer (his father is a mathematician and his mother worked in a lab), Webb directed lots of music videos in his 20s. After turning down numerous feature opportunities, he tackled "(500) Days"--a movie whose complex scenes and structure he shot in just several weeks--because it seemed like a natural transition, a project that took him into the more supple aspects of performance and humanity he appreciated from stage drama but also used some of the stylization techniques he learned on videos.
If that combination isn't enough to distinguish Webb from his tent-pole peers, he also has a love of musicals dating back to his days in high school and at the University of Wisconsin. At one point not long after the success of "(500) Days" he attached himself to direct a film adaptation of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"Every so often he'll break into some famous musical, and you can tell, you can just tell," said Avi Arad, the longtime "Spider-Man" producer and gatekeeper, who also calls Webb "a hugger, and I like huggers, because they carry emotion on their sleeves."
Matt Tolmach, the former head of production at Sony who now also serves as "Spider-Man's" producer, remembers when Webb came in to meet with him and Sony chief Amy Pascal. They were interviewing directors for "Moneyball," the film they would eventually hand to Bennett Miller, and Webb was one of the finalists. The director quickly began talking about, of all things, the rotation and flight of the baseball.
"There was something so brilliant and nerdy and sweet about him," Tolmach said. "It was like we were listening to Peter Parker." Webb was hired for "Spider-Man" shortly after.
Webb can also allow his English major self to come out, offering in the interview an elaborate explanation of a clock-tower image in the new film by calling it "a visual reassertion of the theme."
That makes for a strange contrast with a scene in a large editing suite on the Sony lot in March. Surrounded by a dozen technical specialists, a Yankee cap-clad Webb sits in the middle of the room waving a laser pointer. A Times Square explosion, fast and flashy in the movie, is witnessed here in freeze-frame, like a Lite-Brite-themed piece of video art. Webb tells his staff he likes the visual "volume" in one shot, and asks for more "depth" in another.
The editing room has been a busy place, filled not just with effects experts but studio executives who are intensely focused on their most lucrative franchise, especially after some commercial duds last year. There have been many discussions about the tone of the film. Webb has won some and lost some, with perhaps the biggest triumph the retention of a nearly three-minute conversation toward the end of the film in which Aunt May talks about coping with death.
On this day there is a sense of quiet order but also signs of how long this can all take. "I've been to so many wrap parties for this movie I've lost track," Webb said.
Back in New York last week there was, at last, a party that marked the end. An implicit question, though, hung in the room: Can tender romance and big pyrotechnics really coexist?
In a moment of vulnerability rare in sound bite-happy Hollywood, Webb explained why he tried. "After the first one I felt like I had more to prove. I didn't feel like I mastered it. I didn't think the action scenes were as good as they could have been," he said.
He paused. "But I worked hard on all of this. I want to make the action scenes not just bigger but better. And I want to keep finding the romance and the soul, not just between the action scenes but within them."