The indie director only had a two low-budget film credits to his name when he was tapped by Sony and Marvel to rejuvenate the fading superhero franchise. His previous film, “Cop Car,” a well-reviewed thriller, cost less than $1 million to produce, a fraction of what “Spider-Man: Homecoming” spends on any given day of shooting. But Watts impressed the studios with his vision for taking Spider-Man and his alter ego Peter Parker back to high school, focusing on what it would be like to balance homework assignments and finding prom dates with fending off a super powered bad guy like the Vulture (Michael Keaton).
Watts admits that he’s nervous about taking on such an iconic character and says he’s been working around the clock editing the film in advance of its July 6 release date. He becomes the third director to oversee a Spidey film, following in the footsteps of Sam Raimi, who directed the first trilogy, and Marc Webb, the filmmaker behind the two less successful “Amazing Spider-Man” movies.
Shortly before taking the stage at CinemaCon last week to present footage from “Spider-Man: Homecoming” to a crowd of theater owners, Watts spoke with Variety about his pitch to Marvel, John Hughes’ influence, and his working relationship with Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man.
How did you get the gig?
It was a very long process. Someone at Marvel had seen “Cop Car.” It started as a general meeting and in the meeting they started talking about Spider-Man and the idea of it being a younger-centered Spider-Man movie. I had been wanting to make a coming-of-age, high school movie. I had been watching a bunch of those movies, so I just happened to be really, really prepared to talk about high school coming-of-age movies. I just kept coming back to meeting after meeting, and every time I came back there’d be more people in the room and more people in the room.
Was that high school film going to be autobiographical?
A little bit, but this film met that need.
Were John Hughes films like “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” an influence on the film?
There’s a superficial influence, but there’s also the sincerity of John Hughes and his writing the shaped this film. He takes his characters really seriously and isn’t afraid to be honest about what that experience is like.
Were you a fan of Spider-Man before you got the job?
I wouldn’t say that I was a Spider-Man super fan. I’ve met those kinds of fans in doing this movie, and I don’t hold a candle. But I loved the idea of Spider-Man as a kid, and I loved the Todd MacFarlane run in the 1990’s, and the first Raimi movies were released when I was in film school. Those were big.
What did you like about the Raimi movies?
I loved Sam Raimi. To see him apply his aesthetic to a big movie was really exciting.
Did you reach out to him?
No, I was too nervous. I know Marc [Webb] though from his music video days. All he said was hang out with Stan Lee.
Was it hard to go from making indie movies to doing a huge studio blockbuster?
It’s just about scaling up your vision, so that everyone understands what you’re trying to do. You’re still just telling a story. Even if it’s a massive big screen extravaganza, it’s still a personal story you’re telling.
Peter Parker, especially in this movie, is a kid who has been picked by Tony Stark to be a part of this massive adventure in “Captain America: Civil War” and is really trying to prove himself. He’s never done anything this big before and really doesn’t want to screw up or let anybody down. That’s exactly how I feel about making this movie. I have no problem trying to relate to Peter Parker, because that’s what I feel like at every moment in this process.
Are you hoping to direct more Spider-Man movies?
All I’m doing is focusing on finishing this movie. We’re deep, deep, deep in [post-production], so you just want to make this one good. Focus on one at a time is my attitude.
Was Tom Holland cast as Spider-Man before you got the job?
Yeah, the announcement of us being hired was made on the exact same day.
Had you met him before you joined the project?
No, I met him on the set of “Civil War.” I met him on the set in Peter Parker’s bedroom. I had been talking to [“Captain America: Civil War” directors] the Russos about what they were doing, to make sure it wasn’t radically different than what I was imagining. So I had been in touch with them and then I went on set when they were shooting the Peter Parker and Tony Stark scene. I was sort of peaking out from behind the camera. Then we went out to dinner and started talking about all of our ideas.
Spider-Man is becoming the Hamlet of comic book characters. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield have all previously played it. Everyone, it seems, is going to get a crack at it. What does Tom bring to the role?
He is Peter Parker. It’s amazing. He’s so sincere, so sweet, and so earnest. That’s a big part of why Peter Parker is so relatable. You feel for him. He’s trying really hard to do the right thing and very often screwing up or getting in over his head.
I know that Tom feels like he’s Peter Parker too, just like I do. This is a huge role for him and he’s trying his best, and he can do a backflip. I absolutely killed him on set because in a lot of the other movies, a lot of the footage is of stuntmen in the Spider-Man suit, but Tom is so recognizable. His physicality after being in [the West End’s] “Billy Elliott” gives him such a commanding control of his body that you know that it’s him in there versus everyone else. I can pick Tom out of a lineup. I made him do so much more than I probably should have. It has to be him, because you can tell when it’s not.
How did Michael Keaton approach Vulture?
What’s great about Michael is he brings so much charisma and relatablity to this role. You want people to be rooting for him as much as they’re rooting for Peter.
Peter Parker is sort of our ground level view of this Marvel universe. You know what it’s like to be in the penthouse with Tony Stark or have this god-like view like Thor, and I want to show what it’s like for regular people in this world. The same thing applies for the villain. I wanted to have a character who doesn’t see himself as a villain. He’s just a regular guy in a world that is changing very dramatically. It’s interesting to see how he adapts to it.
Michael Keaton famously starred in the Tim Burton Batman movies. Did he ever talk about this being a Batman versus Spider-Man showdown?
A few takes were definitely ruined by Michael just reminding Tom that he was here first.