In the midst of Spider-Man mania, Danny Fingeroth caught up with two of the most popular producers in showbiz Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad to talk about box office success, becoming a geek, creative changes and the new animated television show.
As you can imagine, Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad are two of the busiest people in Hollywood this week. Danny Fingeroth managed to snag each of them at key times in the progress of the Spider-Man movie phenomenon.
Laura Ziskin, Executive Producer of Spider-Man
(Ziskin's previous credits as executive producer include Pretty Woman, To Die For and As Good As it Gets.)
I spoke with Laura Ziskin by phone on Friday morning (Spider-Man's premiere day), after the phenomenal East Coast box office returns had started to roll in. Needless to say, she was in very good spirits.
Danny Fingeroth: How are you doing?
Laura Ziskin: We're havin' fun.
DF: Did you read a lot of
Spider-Man comics to prepare for this film?
LZ: I did. I hadn't read any comics until I came onto the project, but Avi Arad says I'm now a geek.
DF: Congratulations. (Laughs) Many comics fans wonder why the Green Goblin's costume is so different from the Goblin in the comics. What was the reason for the drastic change?
LZ: One of the toughest things we had to deal with was the Goblin. I didn't feel that the comic book character, visually, was something we could just translate directly to the screen. It was a struggle. We wanted to give the audience some understanding of why he put that green suit on, where it came from. We wanted it to be related to what he did. That's why we put him in armor that would be connected to his glider. The mask was trickier. Originally, we tried a latex mask, which we had high hopes for, but it was frightening in not the right way. We made it so that he was a warrior who made weapons of war and collected warrior masks, and when he flips out, he puts a warrior mask on his noggin.
DF: For much of the movie, you have two characters wearing masks that cover their entire face, yet having to convey emotion. That must have been difficult to deal with.
LZ: It was truly one of the huge challenges we dealt with, having two characters in masks. With the Goblin, we figured, "Let's see his eyes, that will help." But we couldn't do that with Spider-Man and be true to his costume. That was when Sam [Raimi] came up with the notion of having his mask ripped at the end of the movie, so you could have an ending where you see the actor react.
DF: You really kept things true to the flavor of the comics. I was very impressed by that.
LZ: Thanks. That was our goal, to honor the original's spirit. That's been the most gratifying thing -- the positive reaction of the fans. We felt we had to make a movie for them.
DF: Of course, there was great controversy over the organic web-shooters Spider-Man has in the movie, as opposed to the mechanical ones he uses in the comics.
LZ: Some people made a big deal of it, though we didn't think it was that big a thing. We thought it was a really good decision that, actually, Jim Cameron had made in his original "scriptment."[Something between a treatment and a script.] Everybody's kind of gone with it. We thought that would happen.
DF: What, if anything, does the success of
Spider-Man say about our times?
LZ: That we're always wrestling with questions of good and evil and how to deal with great power? That's a resonant idea, though not unique to this time. It's always a theme worth exploring.
DF: In many movies about adolescents, the high school graduation would come at the end. In
Spider-Man, he makes that transition in the middle of the movie. Any reason it was structured that way?
LZ: Peter had a lot more learning and living to do. Graduation is the moment he decides to take on the mantle of Spider-Man.
DF: How is
Spider-Man different from other super hero movies?
LZ: Really, it comes from Sam's point-of-view, and his love for the comic and his relationship with the characters. He wanted the film to have a sunny feeling and be buoyant and filled with bright colors. And that, again, is what he felt was in keeping with the books, not to try to make it falsely hip. I always say about Sam, "Sam is so unhip, he's hip." He's hip in his own way, but not in some sort of copycat, follow-a-trend way. He's authentic.
DF: Any thoughts on the wide appeal the movie seems to be having?
LZ: It has something more than just the action. The movie is about a character that you care about and that, to me, is its biggest triumph. And also that it's a movie that works for girls. When I came into it I thought that Spider-Man was just a boy thing. But when I read the script, I said, "That's not so. We can make a movie that works for everybody."
Avi Arad, Marvel Enterprises' Chief Creative Officer and Executive Producer of Spider-Man (Arad's credits have included serving as executive producer on Blade I & II, creating the Mutant X series, and just about every current Marvel movie and TV initiative.)
I spoke with Avi Arad by phone (in between his many meetings) on the Monday morning after the weekend in which Spider-Man had broken all previous records for gross receipts for any movie ever, and had also garnered nearly unanimous rave reviews.
Danny Fingeroth: What do you do Monday morning after a weekend like this?
Avi Arad: You go on and carefully make the other movies and hope they all turn out winners.
Spider-Man took a long time to do.
AA: I know. You know. You were there when it began, years ago.
DF: Was it worth the wait?
AA: Absolutely. Every bit of it. It came out great. Sometimes waiting is good.
DF: Was there much in the script from James Cameron's original version?
AA: The movie has a different villain. But the Peter and MJ story, yes, there was a lot from Cameron. And he and we used the source comics material. There are shots in the movie that are based on panels in the comics. It was like a mix-and-match, a little from this source, a little from that. I think the tone that [screenwriter] David Koepp established worked well for all of us.
DF: You were amazingly faithful to the comics, but there were some changes. Any you want to talk about? The organic web-shooters, for example?
AA: On the Internet, the web-shooters were controversial. Now they love it, they understand it, they get it. The changes we made were good changes. Mary Jane was a better heroine in the long term than Gwen Stacey [another Spider-Man romantic interest in the comics] would have been. I thought, all in all, the choices were very good, and people seem to be quite satisfied with them.
DF: As executive producer, what was your role in making the movie?
AA: Everything, from picking a director, to casting -- which, of course, is very important -- to working on the story with Koepp, including deciding what pieces of Cameron's treatment we would keep. The MJ story versus a Gwen story. Initially we tried both. I never felt Gwen would work. I did what producers do: get involved in the creative mix. The costumes, the sets, interviewing potential directors, and so on.
DF: How does Stan Lee feel about the movie?
AA: Stan created a wonderful legacy and a great story, and we had to make sure that we didn't veer from what he did, because it's worked so well, and there's no reason to make any changes. We showed him the movie, and he was very happy.
DF: In the scenes where Peter is sketching ideas for his Spider-Man costume, who actually did the drawings?
AA: It was an artist named Phil Jimenez [an artist on Wonder Woman comics].
DF: Marvel seems to be on a roll in terms of its movies these days.
The X-Men, the Blade movies, now Spider-Man. Any thoughts about why things are taking off so hugely now?
AA: Now, you've got me doing it full time. (Laughs.) The major thing is that our previous owners were not focused on entertainment, but on publishing and licensing. I don't think they understood how valuable these characters are. Or maybe they did understand, but were afraid to find out that maybe they weren't. Once we took over the company -- and since we love this material and we know what we have -- we could act on our commitment to it. And so far, so good. Four for four. Pretty good numbers. There are also other factors. One is the fact that yesterday's kids are today's movie executives, directors, cinematographers, video game designers, things like that. And obviously, the great escalation in technology makes our movies more doable and makes them better.
DF: Can you tell us about the upcoming
Spider-Man animated series that will be on MTV?
AA: It's an interesting combination of traditional and CG animation. Sony is producing the show. It has a more contemporary look, and it deals with Peter's college days, not his high school days, though it's not necessarily picking up where the movie ends. The movie gets Peter to college and that's probably the main similarity. College is the starting point. [Ultimate Spider-Man writer] Brian Bendis is heavily involved. He's a story editor and is writing many of the scripts.
DF: How would you compare it to the mid-1990's
Spider-Man animated series?
AA: The '90s show was based more on the classic Spider-Man. We picked up great stories from the comics and we adapted them. Hence, we had a great show. This one is a little more mature...
With that, Avi was called into yet another meeting, leaving us to ponder what a "more mature" Spider-Man animated series will be like. I'm betting it'll be excellent.
Danny Fingeroth was group editor of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man editorial line when Jim Cameron's "scriptment" for a Spider-Man movie arrived on his desk. He's been waiting ten years for the movie to get made. After Marvel, Danny was a creative executive at Virtual Comics and Visionary Media (home of WhirlGirl). Currently, he's writing for Platinum Studios (producers of the Men in Black movies) and Rosen Book Works, among other companies. Be on the lookout for Write Now!, the new magazine about writing for comics, animation and science-fiction that Danny created and is editing for TwoMorrows Publishing. The first issue, due out this summer, features interviews with Stan Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada, Tom DeFalco, J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Bagley.