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‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’: How a Sundance Breakout Landed the Superhero Gig of a Lifetime and Didn’t Sell Out

Plus, star Tom Holland and director Jon Watts reveal how they used coming-of-age films to guide their new vision of an old hero.

Director Jon Watts with cast and crew on the set of Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Chuck Zlotnick

Jon Watts is hardly the first up-and-coming filmmaker to be plucked from the indie film fold to helm a big-budget, high-stakes blockbuster. Nevertheless, the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director was still surprised when Marvel came calling after his second film, “Cop Car,” screened at Sundance in 2015. Over the past few years, hiring first- and second-time directors to direct massive tentpole features has become standard procedure, from Colin Trevorrow to Josh Trank, Marc Webb to Gareth Edwards. When Watts got the call, he geeked out.

“I was so excited to just go to Marvel,” Watts said. “I actually still the visitor’s pass that they gave me to just get on the lot and everything. I wasn’t expecting any of this. It’s like when Bart Simpson goes to New York and he goes to the Mad Magazine headquarters.”

READ MORE: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Review: Marvel Has Finally Started To Figure Out The Future Of Superhero Movies

The meetings were general at first, though Watts said that they soon started telling the director the broad strokes of the unprecedented deal that was being brokered between Marvel and Sony to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which hinged on creating a younger superhero who had a special bond with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.

Watts was already a fan of the superhero, but the vision that Marvel and Sony were imagining for their new Spider-Man – bound for his third contemporary iteration – synced with the kind of film he wanted to make post-“Cop Car.” Unlike some of the more unwieldy big studio efforts from young filmmakers — including Webb going from “(500) Days of Summer” to “The Amazing Spider-Man” — Watts found himself in a very natural place to take his next step.

The Sundance Crowdpleaser

Watts’ second film, following the horror effort “Clown,” was an economical crowdpleaser, made for less than $1 million. “Cop Car” arrived at the 2015 Sundance film Festival having already broken even with foreign sales alone. The movie focuses on a pair of bored tweens (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) who find a seemingly abandoned police car and make off with it along quiet country roads.

Initially tons of fun, the genre feature takes a swift turn into darker territory when a nefarious local sheriff (played by Kevin Bacon) sets out to find who made off with his vehicle.

“Cop Car”

While vastly different in scale than “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the movies share some common DNA. “Cop Car” doesn’t shy away from letting its young leads act like kids (Watts confessed that he hates films that just treat kids “like mini-adults”), complete with all the bad decision-making and energy-fueled high jinks that entails. It also offers up real stakes and genuine anxiety, delivered by a pair of young stars that proved to be compelling matches for a legend like Bacon. Those same themes materialize throughout “Spider-Man.”

After Sundance, Watts signed with CAA’s John Garvey and Jay Baker, whose client roster includes rising filmmaking talents such as Pablo Larrain and Barry Jenkins. The agency provided a platform for Watts’ sensibilities to enter the studio system.

“I had been wanting to make a coming-of-age movie anyway, and I had been writing something and doing a lot of research just watching all the movies, immersing myself in the genre,” Watts said. “I immediately started talking about how I felt about the genre and what I thought were the important things to explore in a coming-of-age movie, and how that could then apply to a superhero movie using it as a different lens.”

Watts’ excitement was contagious. In a recent interview with Collider, Feige explained that Marvel was initially drawn to Watts because of “Cop Car,” and he only continued to impress during their long run of meetings.

“We met with him four, five, or six times, and each time he had more and more interesting things to say,” Feige said. “And at Marvel, it always comes down to ultimately, ‘We can make a movie with this person for two years, we could spend almost every day with this person for two years. Let’s go.’”

Being Enthusiastic About Enthusiasm

Yet, Watts admits he never quite expected that a deal would pan out, and he’d leave meetings alternately feeling great about the process and being convinced they were never going to call him back. “I thought if anything, this will be good practice,” he said. “I’ll get really good being comfortable around executives.”

The filmmaker was aggressive about presenting his vision to Marvel and Sony. “The whole time, I just kept inundating them with more materials,” he said. “I made a look book. I made a mood reel. I story-boarded sequences. I tried to overwhelm them with my enthusiasm to match my take on the movie, which was about enthusiasm. I guess I wore them down.”

While Watts was busy stumping for the directing gig, British actor Tom Holland was making his own case for the role of Peter Parker, including a full-scale social media assault in which the young actor, previously best known for his work on auteur-driven indies like “The Impossible” and “The Lost City of Z,” took to his Twitter and Instagram pages to show off his affection for the character and his unique physical abilities.

“That was 100% a campaign for me to get this movie,” Holland said. “Everything I did was to try and convince the fans that we would get this movie. I remember going on a dog walk with my brother Harry, and he took a picture, and I was trying to flex my tricep so my arm looked really big.”

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Holland then turned to his brother Harry, sprawled out on a nearby couch and tapping away at his phone during his interview with IndieWire. “Do you remember that? I was scrolling through it trying to shade it up and darken it so you could see the tricep, so fans would be like, ‘Yeah, he’s in shape. He could be Spider-Man.'” Harry laughed and shook his head. Brothers.

“I can’t describe to you how stressed I was while auditioning for this movie,” Holland continued. “It wasn’t just me auditioning, the whole world was auditioning for this movie. Not in the sense that everyone was auditioning for the part, but everyone was reading about it, tweeting about it. Everyone had an opinion on what they wanted.”

Holland isn’t kidding about the casting process – a months-long undertaking that reportedly saw Feige, producer Amy Pascal, and the Russo brothers meeting over 1,500 potential actors, including such big names as Asa Butterfield, Charlie Rowe, Nat Wolff, Liam James, and Timothee Chalamet – and he was eventually signed for the role in June of 2015. That same day, Marvel and Sony also announced that Watts had snagged the directing gig, beating out other potential helmers like Drew Goddard, Jonathan Levine, Jared Hess, and Ted Melfi.

“I get stressed now about things, and I look back on it, and I am like, ‘Dude, I was so much more stressed then. You can chill right now. You can relax,'” Holland said with a laugh.

But the actor did admit that after getting the part, he was met with a “different kind of stress” that he’s still working through, in predictably excited fashion. “You’re like, ‘Aw, shit, I got the part. This is amazing. I can relax now. Oh, now wait, now I have to make the movie!,'” he said. “I thrive off pressure. Pressure is kind of where I get a kick from.”

“Is This Really Happening?”

Holland and Watts soon met up to discuss their vision for the film and character, and to bond over their shared good fortune.

“When Tom and I first met, we were both like, ‘Is this really happening?’ It was as exciting for me as it is for him, so we just bonded over that and just talked about our favorite ideas,” Watts said. “I had dinner with him and his mom, and we were talking about all the things that could happen. It was very, very early on in the process, but it was really exciting.”

Holland echoed the sentiment. “Oh, yeah, I did bring my mum,” he said with a laugh. “I was super-stressed about it. I was in the car with my mum, and then I was like, ‘Why am I bringing my mum? What am I doing? I’m going to look like such a kid!’ But he was great, and he was very warm and welcoming. My mum had a lovely time.” (Over on the couch, Harry laughed again.)

Watts’ vision for the film – a classic coming-of-age tale that just happened to be about a superhero – quickly carried over to his young cast, and the filmmaker gave the group a list of films to watch, including “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Back to the Future,” and “The Breakfast Club.” While Watts has often been quoted as saying he wanted to make a John Hughes film, his aim was actually a bit more general.

Jacob Batalon (left) and Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Chuck Zlotnick

“I think saying ‘a John Hughes movie’ is just shorthand for a lot of people to say ‘a coming-of-age story,’ because I think when you’re of a certain age, that’s what John Hughes means to you,” Watt said. “When I think of high school, I think of a Chicago high school before I think of my own high school because of that.”

“If you’re younger than me, you don’t think about John Hughes movies,” he continued. “You think about ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ or ’10 Things I Hate About You’ or’ Clueless’ or something like that. It’s not even that it’s John Hughes specifically, it’s just the idea of a coming-of-age movie. There’s so many great coming-of-age movies to steal from and I feel like I just tried to steal from them all equally.”

Holland had one major takeaway from the viewing experience, and a lofty one at that. “For me, my main goal was to be this generation’s Marty McFly,” he said. “I think Michael J. Fox just brought such a positive energy and so much life and soul into his character, and I wanted that to be apparent in Spider-Man. Especially when you’ve got no face, it’s really important that that reads, and for me that was my biggest goal.”

Engineering A New Kind of Superhero Story

It didn’t hurt that he’d already played the character once before, in the Russo brothers’ “Captain America: Civil War,” which set the stage for the standalone movie.

“It was like a workshop for me,” Holland said. “I had the opportunity to try things, and see if the fans liked it, without it being my own movie.” It also freed the pair up to avoid the dreaded origin story of Peter getting his powers and then failing to save his Uncle Ben from a horrible death, a classic facet of the superhero that has served as the starting point of both previous modern Spidey series.

“It wastes time, you know,” Holland said of the origin story route. “You go a Spider-Man movie and you have to wait 25 minutes before you see Spider-Man. In our movie, you see Spider-Man two minutes into it. So you really get a full Spider-Man movie.”

READ MORE: How ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Will Save Sony’s Summer and Launch Several A-List Careers

Unlike other recent MCU movies, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is relatively low stakes – there’s never any chance that an alien race is coming to blow up the entire planet – which was part of the plan from the outset. “As soon as the world is in danger, you know what’s going to happen,” Watts said. “You know that’s not going to happen at the end of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ so let’s figure out a way to make the stakes be character-based and to be even bigger than world-ending.”

(l to r) Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Chuck Zlotnick

When IndieWire spoke to Holland and Watts, it was on the heels of Chris Lord and Phil Miller’s shocking firing from the upcoming Han Solo standalone film, and Watts was clear that his experience was very different than that of the the ill-fated “Star Wars” directors.

“When you’re getting to do what you want to do, you just assume you’re going to hit a point where someone is like, ‘No, you can’t do that,'” Watts said. “Strangely, that never happened. If at any point someone was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t really happening,’ I’d be like, ‘That makes a lot more sense.’ That makes a lot more sense than I am directing Michael Keaton right now.”

Staying the Course

Watts was adamant that his experience with Marvel and Sony was overwhelmingly positive. The answer to why Watts and the studio brass worked so well together may actually be relatively simple: he stuck to his vision.

“I was really clear. I tried to over-communicate as early as possible about everything and what I want to do, and what I want it to look like, and what I want it to feel like,” Watts said. “I think that was really helpful so that nothing was ever a huge surprise. As we started to make the movie, everyone was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what he’s been talking about this whole time.'”

He added, “For them to have come on board with that vision and not changed course or pulled the rug out from underneath me in the middle, I think, is just very cool.”

While Watts has yet to be officially signed to direct another Spider-Man feature — though the untitled sequel already has a set release date of July 5, 2019, and reviews for his first crack are already overwhelmingly positive — he already has some ideas for it.

“I feel like I’ve made a lot of problems for myself in this movie that, if we make another one, I’m going to have to figure out,” he said. “That’s the fun of it, paint yourself into the corner and then figure out a clever way to get out of it.”

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens in theaters on Friday, July 7.

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