Everything was unconventional about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” including the choice of three directors instead of two. But co-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller needed a special team to bring Miles Morales to the big screen as the animation disruptor. Their bold choices paid off; “Spider-Verse” has earned plenty of awards acclaim, including a Golden Globe nomination and prizes from both the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
First, they hired Bob Persichetti, an animation vet who served as head of story on “The Little Prince.” Then Persichetti recruited former DreamWorks colleague Peter Ramsey, an action specialist with directing chops (“Rise of the Guardians”). To complete the team, they promoted “Into the Spider-Verse” co-writer Rodney Rothman, Lord and Miller’s go-to guy from “22 Jump Street.”
“We each came with our specialty areas,” Ramsey said. “Bob [Persichetti] shepherded animation with the most experience, I ended up taking on a lot of story art responsibilities, and Rodney [Rothman] rewrote what Phil [Lord] had done and was valuable for trouble-shooting. And we all talked to the actors.”
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However, each director was required to step out of his comfort zone. “It’s almost like we were working two shifts,” added Persichetti. “Meaning, the daytime straight-up production stuff we’d all be doing and then we’d all come together for editorial and work through the evening. It was out of necessity that we stepped into each other’s shoes, but then find the things that we were most adept at and make those things run as smoothly as possible.”
Because everything was experimental, there were extraordinary demands. The film plays like a moving comic book told from Miles’ perspective as a teenage superhero of color, necessitating Imageworks to create a new animation aesthetic culled from halftones, offsets, and line work.
Sony Pictures Animation
Yet cracking Miles’ journey of self-discovery was the highest priority, along with showing the conflicting influences of his cop father (Brian Tyree Henry) and artist uncle (Mahershala Ali).
“We struggled really early on with just his voice. What Rodney brought attention to was how he talked, how he carried himself,” said Ramsey. “We didn’t want him to be mopey or self-pitying or entitled. We were trying to walk the line of why this kid is disenchanted with school. What’s his problem? He seems to have it pretty good. And somehow we ended up finding a way of him being expressive and empathetic.”
An early dialogue test of Shameik Moore (“The Get Down”) as Miles proved instrumental to Rothman. “I was blown away,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t about what Miles was saying, it was about how he was performing and how the animators were emphasizing parts of Shamiek’s voice and the things he wasn’t saying. That gave me an idea of how we might write Miles.”
“It was about understanding how he internalizes a lot. He might be confident at points, he might be talkative at points, but a lot of what he’s saying doesn’t matter. Part of what his uncle is conveying to him is to be improvisational as an artist, as a person. And that’s the opposite of what Miles’ dad is conveying to him, which is more rigid, high-stakes, preparing for a future,” Rothman added.
Understanding Moore’s idiosyncratic performance wasn’t easy, because the actor was discovering things himself. “As he’s recording, he goes to all these internal places and he’s searching things and he’s got this other voice inside him,” Persichetti said. “And if you’re not familiar with his face, you wonder about his long pauses and nervous chuckles.”
“But the animators leaned in on this and his performance was naturalistic. All of the performances were,” added Perischetti. “And we weren’t afraid to animate a long dialogue scene between Miles and his uncle with the camera behind them on a bench. In this medium, that’s a bold choice because we’re spending a lot of time animating a lot of things you’re not going to see. But it makes it seem more intimate and observed and you’re peeking into a relationship that’s very special.”
Yet the story could’ve easily gone off the rails with the inclusion of Spideys from alternate dimensions: Jake Johnson’s brooding Peter Parker, Hailee Steinfeld’s free-spirited Spider-Gwen, Nicholas Cage’s tough Spider-Noir, John Mulaney’s cartoony Spider-Ham, and Kimiko Glenn’s anime Peni Parker.
Sony Pictures Animation
“The movie was not very forgiving. When it wasn’t working, you could feel it and it was painful,” said Rothman. “About a year ago, we had a bunch of emotional tentpoles that were fundamentally working. But then there were a bunch of scenes where it felt like there was only one way to make it and we had to find that way.”
They kept coming back to why they needed the other Spideys. And then they reached an epiphany about Miles: “This was all about being selfless because we’re all heroes, but also the one guy who wouldn’t die as a result of staying behind [Miles] can’t do the job,” said Persichetti. “And it was great because now we were in a really cool predicament. And we could push forward.”
Miles’ rite of passage wasn’t complete without the presence of Marvel legend Stan Lee, who passed away on November 12th. Thus, the cameo, in which Lee plays a costume shop owner who provides Miles with his first Spidey suit, became even more bittersweet.
“The thing that was interesting for us is that it evolved,” Rothman said. “We recorded it a year ago and it was not that long after his wife [Joan] had passed away. We had versions that tried a little harder to be funnier and tried a little harder to be harder. What ended up in the movie were the lines that had the most meaning to him.”
In passing the mantle from Peter Parker to Miles, Lee’s crucial line got changed during the recording session: As originally scripted, Lee says the costume “never fits.” But, in the spur of the moment, they re-recorded the line: “It always fits…eventually.”
“In the moment, he has to deliver just enough to get that kid to put the suit on,” Rothman added.