No filmmakers in Hollywood have made more great movies out of concepts that sound like awful ideas than Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was a beloved, fiercely protected children’s book. 21 Jump Street, a dubiously popular high-concept 1980s teen drama. And The LEGO Movie, an adaptation of toy bricks. All three quickly became franchises boasting one or more sequels, catapulting them into the ranks not only of the most commercially successful filmmakers but also the most creatively interesting, breaking down genre formulas and dismantling storytelling conventions with wildly inventive, massively entertaining films. With Into the Spider-Verse, Lord and Miller apply that idiosyncratic filter to the big screen’s biggest web-head, and superhero stories in general. Introducing one of comicdom’s most popular iterations of the character, Miles Morales, the duo both further complicates and mercilessly deconstructs Spider-Man’s origins in a kaleidoscopic animated film for all ages.Lord and Miller recently sat down with us for an in-depth conversation about their inspirations for and approaches to all of their projects, including this one that reinvents the iconic wall-crawler, lovingly lampoons his cinematic legacy, and eventually investigates the very notion of heroism itself.
Nerdist: What aspect of Spider-Man most badly needed to be shaken up, deconstructed, or even thrown out?
Phil Lord: Originally it was like, where can we create surprises? I’m tired of watching him fly around buildings. Is there a way that we could get him into the forest? There was a sequence that didn’t last long enough to make the picture, but it was like, could I get him in the desert somewhere where there’s nothing to swing from and he’d be just screwed? So there was a big desire to try to do moves that we hadn’t seen before and I think that’s why we were starting with Miles: he has parents, they’re alive, they’re not absent, and they’re trying to make it work. This is a functioning family that’s dealing with a pretty everyday challenge of having a talented kid and not knowing the best way to help him.
Chris Miller: And we all know specifically Peter Parker’s origin story. We’ve seen it many, many times. So at the beginning of the movie is like, let’s just dispense with what we all know. Let’s tell a variation on this theme and the idea of these continual flashbacks that each of the characters gets to do, where they tell their story [and explore] the twist on the things that you know, and the beats of the story that you aren’t expecting. And by telling the story six different ways, really seven, how can we get to what’s universal about a hero and what does it really mean instead of all the trappings of the things that you think you know.Lord: The ubiquity of superheroes is an asset to this picture. We wanted to make a movie where there was already a Spider-Man in the movie and the fact that he was famous was something that Miles was aware of and that he was a tough act to follow. That could allow us to do a little bit of commentary on the celebrity of the superhero and how it’s just pervasive in our culture – and why? Really that’s the question: why?
Miller: And one of the things is that in this world is there is a Spider-Man comic, True Life Tales, but it’s not Peter Parker and there were a lot of discussions that we had about how it would work in a world where there’s comics about you. You’d have to have his name changed to protect his identity. But all of that stuff just felt like it was adding to a world where superheroes are ubiquitous, and they’re all around us. And what do we do now?
Your movies deconstruct a lot of tropes that are used very straightforwardly in other movies. Do you think of your movies as straightforward or actively dismantling the storytelling structure?
Miller: Well, I think we always approach things where if we’re taking something that you’re familiar with, we’re always trying to give you a new experience and turn things on their head and give you something unexpected. So sometimes that involves flipping the trope on its head and asking why is this a trope in the first place? But sometimes it’s more than that: I’ve seen this 100 times – what’s new about this?
Lord: I think we have to satisfy our intellectual curiosity with every project in some way. And, so for that reason I think we do begin with some kind of a thematic idea. The thematic idea kind of came out of me going to a Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney because that guy takes like weird things in popular culture or historical culture and refracts them in really grotesque ways and makes them into something new. Like, we can take this bust of Louis XVI and remake it and it’ll turn into something else. And I thought, oh, that’s what our culture is like. We’re taking these superhero myths and ingesting them and creating them anew, and this movie can basically own that and be like a postmodern superhero movie where we gobble it up and refract it. And it’s just a big house of mirrors filled with Spider-people.Miller: [For our mission statement] we wrote, we want to inspire young people, and anyone to become heroes. To inspire grownups to help young people become heroes. And to remind us all you don’t need to be bit by a radioactive spider to be a hero. We want everyone leaving the theater to know this fact: You are powerful and we are counting on you.
Lord: Yeah. You’re powerful and we’re counting on you. We thought the reason these stories are resonant is because they’re stories of empowerment to young people and folks that maybe don’t come from Krypton or something. They are there for all of us and to remind us that we sometimes are able to face tremendous challenges, and meet them. For The LEGO Movie, I want you to leave the theater feeling more creative than you went in. And this one is like, I want you to leave the theater feeling powerful.
Talk about creating a visual language for this that has the four-color fidelity of the source material, and something that suits a story that uses multiple universes. And how were you able to figure out a through line through that made the insanity of the third act feel manageable.
Lord: That third act was, could the movie basically start to break apart right into colors and lines and dots the same way that the fabric of reality is sort of peeling apart? And I think we accomplished that, and the movie starts out telling you it’s made of lines and dots, and you see on the edges of the frame the color separation and stuff that’s telling you that this is a representation of reality. The reality it’s representing is as grounded as possible. The lighting is as naturalistic as possible, but the way we’re representing it is through an illustration, a painting, a drawing. We wanted to establish that really clearly at the start. So when it starts to come apart, you can kind of recognize it.
Miller: And the tricks like the chromatic aberration, which in the beginning are just used to indicate depth of field, were things that are taking printed techniques, comic book techniques and comic book errors, and finding their cinematic equivalent. But then as the movie goes on, it gets wilder and wilder and you have to get more and more intimate and grounded with Miles and his emotions as the world around him gets crazier. And the one thing that remains untouched is his goal of The Button.
Lord: The emotionality between him and Peter when they say goodbye, right? There’s a giant beam of incredibly powerful energy right below Peter that you can’t hear because we sat in the mix and we just like turned down everything except for their conversation, because we kept saying to the guys, what’s the most sensitive, sweet way to play the scene? How do I just make it as intimate as possible? Let’s turn the sound down.One of the things I’m really proud of is that [the movie] did a pretty good job of connecting what’s awesome about sequential art and what’s awesome about animation and what’s awesome about cinema, drawing a straight line between those things. They’re all different ways of dramatizing really intimate, complicated things by using an image and using a series of still images, and the seam between two images. That’s essentially the thing that’s happening in the movie is that the seam between two dimensions and we wanted for the movie to live right in between.
How tough is it to combine that intellectual curiosity you mentioned before with a property that exists or has existed for a long time?
Lord: For us it’s just kind of random. The thing that strikes your fancy. I’ll know it when I see it.
Miller: What we do in the future doesn’t necessarily have to be based on anything, but it really has to be based on something that gets us excited. And one thing that’s cool about this movie is that it just feels like it’s opening a door to a lot of possibilities. And the idea of the multiverse as a sci-fi concept allows for some really interesting philosophical and emotional questions that are still interesting for us to explore.
Lord: Right: who do you want to be? How many different ways could my life turn out? Each choice leads to a different version of myself.
Miller: So hopefully people will like this movie enough that they’ll want to see more, and we’ll be able to explore some of the things that we didn’t get a chance to in this movie and that still make us excited. But there’s a whole crazy world out there.