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[Interview] ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ Producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach Talk Shaping a New Story for a New Generation

Written by on July 3, 2012 

When you’re a kid taking more trips to the multiplex than any good doctor would recommend, certain names start to stick; over years and years of seeing Marvel movies, Avi Arad certainly became one of those. You can imagine, then, why sitting down with him and Matt Tolmach — no slouch himself, being the former head of Columbia Pictures — was, initially, a slightly weird experience. (Something about meeting a person you’ve seen on tons of DVD special features since a too-young age, I suppose.) Thankfully, it turns out they’re a loquacious, friendly pair who shared strong feelings on why Spider-Man needs to be reintroduced.

Both have been working on The Amazing Spider-Man since its inception some two-and-a-half years ago, but their experience with this character goes all the way back to the days of Sam Raimi. I have plenty of questions about that earlier period, and though Marc Webb has become the franchise’s newest face behind the camera, it felt appropriate to use the end of one series as a starting point in the conversation over another. Remember, again, that this was held with two guys who can really answer their questions.

What did you learn from your first time out with this character? Was there anything that you decided to retain when starting over, and what did you consciously change from your experiences with Sam Raimi?

AA: Well, we made three movies about Spider-Man — and, obviously, there was a great presence of Peter Parker in it. But we never approached what made Peter. We basically dedicated the first origin to the creation of Spider-Man and, for some of us, there was always a great interest in the life of adopted children; that’s what turned Marc [Webb] into it. Because this is where we are formed. You know, our formative years, unfortunately, start at around four, and by then we are screwed up and take it to our graves. We felt we had a really unique story to explain: How does one become Peter Parker? Is he a loner because he’s weird, or is he a loner because he grew up alone?

And why does he love science? Because the only thing he did know about his father is that he was a scientist. So the slightest closeness he has to a memory of his parents would invoke his plans for life. The grudge, “Why did they leave me?” Kids, especially when they’re young, they’d rather take the blame and get their family together — so we felt that this was emotionally-charged. When we cast Andrew, we had a guy who could play these emotions in a very special way.

MT: And one of the things that that means changing, and one of the things we did… you have to understand: We had no regrets about those movies; we love those movies. Those movies happened in a very certain time and place, and they also, you know… if I gave the two of you a script — the same script — and said, “I’m giving you the same amount of money, and go direct the movie. And I’m giving you the same locations. And the same actors. Go direct these movies.” They’d be completely different, because his movie would be reflective of his experience — and everything that that has done — because he, like every director, would be directing a movie, essentially, about himself. And the same is true of you.

So Marc Webb comes along, and wants to tell a Spider-Man story. One of the things that we’re very militant about is never venturing too far from the books; that’s our God. But the books themselves have been retold and reinterpreted over time, and when you move forward a decade, and you change hands — in terms of a director who’s from another generation — everything looks different, and the tone is different. You look at the “nerd,” the “geek,” whatever you want to call him, from twelve years ago. He’s got sand kicked in his face, and he’s sort of shying away. It’s not true anymore. I mean, of course it happens, but it’s not true anymore in the same way.

You know, we live in a post-Social Network world, where Mark Zuckerberg has sort of changed the rules and what you’re capable of doing — and so what does that do to this character, who’s iconically was called a nerd? He’s different, and high school’s different, so a big thing for Marc in this one was, “I want him to be somebody who has this intolerance for justice.” He has no physical power to do shit about it, but he’s going to put his face in the path of it if, it means getting beat down. And he does. That’s different; it’s very relevant and it’s very contemporary.

I have a 5 1/2 year old son, [Avi’s] got grown kids, and we’ve all grown up with bullying, but now it’s a bigger thing that it’s ever been before. It’s my greatest fear — literally, every day, that somebody’s going to go after my kid. It’s changed the conciousness among young people about what goes on, what’s okay, and what you say “no” to. All of that stuff — not that it’s a movie about bullying — defines this character in the very beginning. That was different, and we know we wanted to go and make a movie that felt like it was from today.

You say “in a post-Social Network environment,” and I thought to myself… I don’t think Social Network had come out when you cast Andrew Garfield.

MT: It had been shot.

AV: And he was actually promoting the movie in Sony Summer.

MT: We had seen it. I mean, I worked at the studio and we had showed to them.

Well, I had seen a few of his films at the time, and I remember, when you cast him, I thought it was a great choice. Was it that film that got him the role, or was it a combination of his other work?

MT: That’s what got him into the audition — Boy A, and that, and the great British series we had bought the rights to [Pause] Red Riding. We knew about Andrew, and that got him to the audition; what got him the job was what he did at the audition. It’s a level playing field there, because the most daunting thing in the world is trying to find Peter Parker.

AA: At that audition was Rhys Ifans. He came in — just got off the plane — we gave him it, he read it, he looked at it, and said “Yeah.” He went into his audition, and we were all like “Search over.” It was kind of this eureka moment, and you can do that with a villain. But if your next so many movies are going to be… if you knew Peter Parker, that’s a scary decision. That audition would make or break you. Because until you have him, you cannot pick the girl — you need him to pick her, versus her to pick him. And this movie, for us, the joy of it was the way it’s constructed, because it’s all from Peter’s point-of-view and it’s Peter’s quest. It’s wonderful to be able to see —

MT: It’s very active. Everything that happens, he creates.

AA: Nothing is an accident. You shouldn’t have gone into the thing that said “No Entry,” because he got beaten. He shouldn’t have gone there —

MT: You shouldn’t have given him the formula that your father clearly left behind! [Laughs]

AA: And why does he get the formula? Because he’s the only living connection to his father. So it’s a natural, emotional connection between him and Rhys, because he asks “Tell me more about my dad. What did you guys do together?” By thinking he’s helping him, by giving him this paper… only then he knew why it was a secret, and that makes the movie very different from a structural point-of-view. It’s like a real character searching for “Who am I? What am I? What’s the big secret, and what are people still hiding from me? And I need to find out more.”

Looking at this film, are you hoping to introduce Spider-Man to a new generation, or are you hoping to reignite interest in the character?

MT: Both. Emphatically, both. When you make movies of this size, you have to go after everybody; I mean, that’s the truth.

AA: Also, the genre is so wide now.

MT: That’s true. But, you know, my 5 1/2 year-old… for him, there will be a new Spider-Man coming out. It’s spectacular to watch that, the sort of ownership that he has over it, just as a kid in the world who’s going to experience this thing for the first time in a movie theater. And that’s an awesome thing to watch. But also, for fans that have seen… you know, they’ve been living with the books for years and years, and you want to give them a movie that lives up to that. You can’t make a Spider-Man movie for a certain demographic; you’ve got to go for everybody.

AA: And getting to know Gwen, and Captain Stacy. Captain Stacy’s story is not as known, but the geeks know the story, and now they’re going to see this irony of the girl who falls in love with her father, in a way. She’s going to have the same burden, and you’re going to hear the bagpipes every so often. These relationships are, as a Spider-Man fan, I can tell you that what I love the most — and we’ve seen the movie now ad nauseum for the last two years in pieces, and together, and we read together, and repiece. I just never felt like I’m seeing the same thing again. It was a personal issue for me; I didn’t think the public would have the same sensitivity I did, and I’m the toughest critic on myself. It’s fresh, it’s different, and it’s normal. You have a new actor, and you act with a new director, new producer, it’s like a…

Fresh start?

AA: Fresh start.

MT: Fresh start. What’s movie’s that from? Anybody? [pause] The Other Guys! We made the Will Ferrell movie.

The Amazing Spider-Man is now in wide release.

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