(Movie Images Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.)
"This, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl," Peter Parker tells us at the beginning of Spider-Man-not what you'd expect to hear from a superhero. But, as delighted audiences soon discovered, Spider-Man doesn't play by the rules. In an age when most blockbuster films are more concerned with explosions and gadgets than people, it's hard to believe that a character-driven story of a shy teenager turned crimefighter, spurred along by the death of his beloved uncle and vying for the attentions of the girl next door, could become the year's biggest film. But Spider-Man, with the vulnerable and understated Tobey Maguire at its core as the eponymous hero, kept people coming to theaters long after the summer's other hits had faded. And the just released two-disc DVD promises to send your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man swinging into an equally phenomenal number of home theaters around the world. I recently had an opportunity to talk with many of the people who created Spider-Man, including Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, and director Sam Raimi, as well as some of the people who put together the DVD. The tales they spin are almost as fascinating as the film itself.
Just Your Average Guy
Set in present-day Queens, New York, Spider-Man stays faithful to the comic-book story of misunderstood everyman Peter Parker and his evolution from archetypal nerd to sinewy superhero. Throwing together a series of action-film set pieces featuring the web-slinging wall crawler would have been the easiest way to make a Spider-Man film. But Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy, A Simple Plan) wanted the story to be more about the real-world travails of Peter Parker than the superheroics of Spider-Man. "Not because it was my idea, but that's what I've always recognized in Stan Lee's and Steve Ditko's original creation," Raimi said. "That's what made Spider-Man different for me." Or as Maguire put it, Spider-Man isn't like other superheroes because he's "not a multimillionaire and he's not an alien."
While the movie has the fight scenes and cutting-edge computer-generated images (CGI) audiences have come to expect in a comic-book epic, it doesn't rely on these action-adventure staples to hook you. Spider-Man is instead much more like an old-fashioned Hollywood film, with a strong emphasis on human interest and romance. As Dunst, who plays girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, said, "I thought Spider-Man was the most human and grounded character of all the superheroes, and the one you could relate to the most." The movie also flies in the face of current Hollywood wisdom by giving the plot plenty of time to unfold. In fact, it's more than half an hour into the two-hour film before Peter dons his first attempt at a Spider-Man suit.
|"I didn't fight for this movie because I didn't expect to get it. The day before I met with Sony about Spider-Man, I read in Variety that they had the list down to five directors-and I wasn't one of them."
"It's easy to think that since people came to see Spider-Man, we should give him to audiences as quickly as we can," Raimi said. "But that didn't work for me. I needed a real story and characters I could connect with." The original screenplay, based on a treatment by Titanic helmer James Cameron, was much more of an action piece. "I got rid of the villains Sandman and Electro," said Raimi. "I wanted to stay focused on the Green Goblin-not just because he was a more formidable villain, but mostly because I wanted a villain who could have an impact on Peter Parker's life. When the Green Goblin learns that Spider-Man is, in fact, this surrogate son he's loved more than his own son, what a terrible sense of betrayal and anger he must feel toward him."
Willem Dafoe, an Academy Award nominee for his work in Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire, recalled a conversation he had with Raimi before he was cast as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin. "Sam started telling me the story of the movie, but he told it with so much passion and by going so deeply into the relationships and the psychology of the characters that I realized this was not going to be a typical hardware movie."
Raimi not only wanted a film with believable, well-developed characters, but also one that would appeal to a broad audience. "You certainly want to give them scares," he said, "make them a little weepy, and have a little romance. But I also wanted them to end up leaving charged. And since I knew that millions of kids would go to see this movie and would point up to whatever was on that screen and say, 'That is my hero,' I wanted the movie to be worthy of that admiration."
Working the Swing Shift
To maintain the reality of the Spider-Man character throughout the action sequences, the filmmakers had to find a way to combine Maguire's physical capabilities with CGI's digital capabilities. Visual effects designer John Dykstra, best known for his work on the original Star Wars movie (see page 88 of the December issue), created nearly 500 shots for Spider-Man in an attempt to achieve as realistic a look as possible. Dykstra's challenge was to keep everything believable even though Spider-Man does many things a human being can't.
|"My teeth were too funky so I was sent to the dentist. Someone like Norman Osborn, a self-made man, a captain of industry wouldn't have my teeth, so I ended up with these capped teeth that affected how I spoke, and even better, gave me a car salesman's smile."
When Peter Parker's "spider sense" first takes effect after he's bitten by a genetically altered spider, he suddenly finds that he can intuitively detect danger in his environment. To let the audience share in that experience, Raimi created an elaborate CGI sequence (Chapter 7 on the DVD) to show Peter's sense of distended time. Scanning a hallway in his high school, he sees a fly suspended in mid flight, a spitball as it leaves the end of a straw-and bully Flash Thompson's fist as it moves toward his head.
This sequence highlights one of the movie's greatest strengths-unlike the Superman or Batman films, you get to experience much of the action from Spider-Man's point of view. The audience spends a lot of time suspended between 7 and 40 stories above the Manhattan streets as Spider-Man swings through the city. (See, for instance, his first awkward attempts to navigate the buildings in Chapter 13 while chasing down the man who shot his uncle.) While it would have been possible to create these exhilarating sequences in the days before CGI, the digital technology allowed them to be done with much greater ease.
Raimi was leery of CGI going into the film, but he now allows that Spider-Man has "a lot of technical breakthroughs." He recalled his early meetings with Dykstra: "I told him that CGI looks bogus to me. I didn't think the artistry was there to pull off a human form in full motion to the extent that the audience would absolutely believe that it was a human being. John said, 'It hasn't been done yet, but that doesn't mean that we can't do it.' "
The first face-off between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin at a World Unity Festival in Times Square (Chapter 18) presented a tremendous challenge for Dykstra's special effects wizardry. Involving a mix of actual and digitally created buildings, location shots, and backlot sets, and lots of CGI mayhem, it's probably the most elaborate sequence in the film-and likely to be a home theater reference clip for years to come. At the end of the scene, Spider-Man saves Mary Jane from a stone balcony just as it's about to collapse into the street. Suspended from a web, he sweeps her up and sets her down on a garden rooftop in Rockefeller Center. While this all looks like it was shot in midtown Manhattan, it was actually done in three locations. Some of the buildings are from the real Times Square, but the balcony set was constructed on Sony's Soundstage 27, and the first two floors of the mythical building were erected on a parking lot in Downey, California. A combination of deft editing and digital razzle dazzle brings it all seamlessly together.
I asked Raimi why the Manhattan we see in the film looks strangely familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. "We knew we couldn't just shoot New York the way it actually is and have this outrageously costumed character appear convincing in front of it. Yet we wanted to make it believable because we wanted Peter's story to resonate with the audience-we didn't want it to take place in some fantasy world. Our production designer, Neil Spisak, came to me with the idea that if we just slightly tweaked reality, if we took the one building that's cool on every block of Manhattan and digitally combined them, we could make a whole block of the coolest buildings in the city."
Raimi was careful not to let the virtuoso digital set pieces overwhelm the very human conflict between Peter and his surrogate-father-turned-nemesis Norman Osborn. In fact, one of the most effective sequences in the film (Chapter 19) is also one of the simplest. Osborn, alone in his lavish
apartment, begins to hear voices (which move from speaker to speaker all around the room when you watch the DVD on a home theater system), and he soon realizes that they're coming from his alter ego, the Green Goblin. To make the scene both creepy and convincing, Raimi has Dafoe play it against his own image in a mirror, with no elaborate costumes, special effects, or editing-just an actor and his reflection.
Raimi also keeps the film rooted in the characters through Danny Elfman's brilliantly worked-out score (see page 92 of the December issue). Elfman is hardly new to the superhero terrain, having scored both Batman and Batman Returns, as well as Raimi's Darkman, but here his music has the grandeur and nuance of the great scores of Hollywood's Golden Age.
"I've always been a big fan of Danny's work," Raimi said. "In Batman and Darkman, he created sweeping scores that were very powerful and thrilling. When I made A Simple Plan and Danny scored it, he gave the music an intimate and chilling sound. I chose him to work on Spider-Man because I thought he could handle the two diverse aspects of the picture-intimate and grand."
DVD Action Is His Reward
It's no exaggeration to say that Spider-Man will be the most eagerly anticipated DVD of the year-which put a tremendous amount of pressure on the creators of both the original film and the DVD to come up with something that met the fans' considerable expectations. The two-disc set-which is available in separate widescreen and full-screen versions-comes through with copious extras, one of the discs being devoted to bonus material.
Disc 1 includes the feature film, accompanied by two sets of commentaries. The first commentary track features Raimi, Dunst, producer Laura Ziskin, and co-producer Grant Curtis. Among other things, you'll hear Raimi's wry comment that he got Maguire to cry for one scene by telling him that his name wasn't going to be above the title. The second commentary, which features Dykstra with visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk and character animation supervisor Anthony LaMolinara, includes Dykstra's surprising admission that the complicated Times Square scene was actually the first live-action/effects sequence that they worked on for the movie.
The disc also includes a "Weaving the Web" pop-up mode you can turn on that causes behind-the-scenes info to appear throughout the film. The pop-ups offer not only insights into aspects of the production-for instance, going into great detail about Maguire's training regimen for the role-but also relevant factoids concerning the original comics. Another feature provides "Spider Sense" Web-i-sodes-click on the Spider-Man icon whenever it appears during the movie, and you'll be led to relevant mini-documentaries. One early Web-i-sode, for instance, features the animal wrangler describing the many spiders that were used.
The Web of Spider-Man includes the documentary Spider-Man: The Mythology of the 21st Century, an archive of Spider-Man comics, an Artist's Gallery, a Rogues Gallery of various nemeses, and the self-explanatory "Loves of Peter Parker." According to Alan Hellard, vice president of development for Canned Interactive, which created the DVD's structure, this part of the disc is meant to be intricate with multiple layers. "As you access things, it's like you're moving through a web. You get a great feeling of depth. If you go to the 1960s in the archives, for instance, you can pick a year and then go to, say, four covers from that year that were points in time in Spider-Man's life."
The Artist's Gallery features illustrations from the comic books and the film storyboards, and the documentary features Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee. The members of the Rogues Gallery-referred to as The Sinister Six-include some of the villains Spider-Man will be battling in the movie sequels.
The disc also has a PC-compatible DVD-ROM section that includes an Activision game, a Spider-Man Visualizer that produces images from the film while you're using RealAudio or another Internet-audio player to listen to downloads, Web links, and exclusive Spider-Man onscreen comic books.
Raimi, Maguire, and Dunst have all signed on for two more Spider-Man films, with the next one due May 2004. For the moment, though, the DVD set gives long-time fans and Spidey neophytes of all ages the chance to savor the first film's many treasures-whether it's reference-quality set pieces like the climactic battle on the 59th Street Bridge, the intricately and lovingly assembled trove of extras, or the actors' compelling performances. Seeing Spider-Man in the movie theater did leave audiences feeling charged, just as Raimi hoped it would. But watching it over and over in a home theater gives everyone a chance to appreciate what a fine web the director, cast, and crew have spun.