Writer Phil Lord, producer Chris Miller, director Bob Persichetti, director Peter Ramsey, and writer-director Rodney Rothman are the minds behind Miles Morales and bringing the animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to life.
I caught up with the Spider-team to relive Oscar nomination morning, and talk about how they found the voice of Miles and they lifted him from the comic book to screen. “In the comics, Miles is a sensitive kid. He’s really almost like an everyman. He’s almost like a blank slate or mirror that you’re able to project a lot on to him,” Ramsey says.
The end result is one of the most emotional, humorous, and most diverse animated comic book features to date.
What were you doing Oscar morning when the nominations were announced?
Bob: I was asleep so I slept through it. So boring. [laughs].
Peter: I was asleep too. I had set an alarm to wake me up at 5.30 and it didn’t go off so I woke up around that time and saw my text messages and thought, “Oh my God!”
Rodney: I woke up three hours beforehand and couldn’t go back to sleep. I kept going on the website and refreshed it every few seconds. My wife and I watched it together and it was really exciting, but then an hour later I was back complaining about normal life stuff.
Let’s go back to day one because this was a whole new concept to bring Miles to the big screen
Bob: It started with the comics that we were adapting with Brian Michael Bendis, but beyond that for the film, it started with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and their initial pitch to the studio when the studio approached them about wanting to do an animated Spiderman movie. Their thought was to do one about Miles. It started all the way back there and it made its way in.
It’s interesting because Miles was initially in our scripts one of the malleable characters because we were searching for his voice. We had a lot of voiceovers which was his inner-voice doing monologues. As a character, it took us a while to find him.
Rodney: As far as the style of the movie, visually it took years for the hundreds of people listed at the end of the movie to figure out what the look and feel of the movie was going to be and what was most interesting. From the very beginning, the goal was to make something that felt different and something that didn’t feel like anything else that was out there. That was the goal from the very beginning and really coming from a conviction that we all had: that audiences were getting sophisticated about how they’d accept things in animation or things in a superhero story. We wanted to test that theory.
The audience loves this story and Miles. How did you get Miles to that stage of being really relatable and modern?
Peter: It’s interesting with him because as Bob was saying, he was the most malleable. In the comics, Miles is a sensitive kid. He’s really almost like an Everyman. He’s almost like a blank slate or mirror that you’re able to project a lot on to him. He’s not an outsized personality so for the movie, it made it tough to lock in on him.
We knew for the movie, we wanted to experience it through his eyes and to make him contemporary. I think the act of trying to conceive everything as much as possible as his experience and him feeling it and going through it and digging into the family. He has divided loyalties and he’s in a position where he has to make some difficult choices and a lot of things grew out of that dynamic.
There’s the tension between him and his uncle and then him having to adapt and to change to what life was throwing at him. As it turns out a lot of the things were universal and having a character deal with that with some humor and a little wit goes a long way.
Bob: We also had to conceive his playlist and we had that. We had a visual that we were developing. We cast Shameik Moore and those things really helped develop mannerisms and idiosyncrasies and how quiet and observant he can be like Shameik. We added in all these layers to make it individual.
Talking about Shameik, how did you find the perfect Miles?
Bob: We were tuned into him pretty early on after seeing Dope and it just felt that he had this amazing quality of honesty and naivety, but still this underlying cool aspect. We went out to him early and a bunch of other people.
At the time, he was doing The Get Down so he’d recording things into his phone in the bathroom and he’d send it to us and we’d cut some of it into our story reels. It really defined who Miles could be. We heard it and thought it was really exciting. It just ended up being so wonderful.
We had to do our due diligence and we did a secretive open casting call. We listened to hundreds of people and it ended up back at Shameik and he ended up doing such a great job.
Peter: The vulnerability to him that he has. I don’t think anyone we heard could match it. I think we all thought and knew that if we put that together with a nice nuanced animated performance, you could get something magical.
Rodney: One of the final pieces of Shameik’s performance is that it becomes a collaboration between him and the animators where he’s delivering this vocal performance that has a lot of nuances, a lot of charm, and specificity to it. The animators are matching that and interpreting that. In the end, Miles’ performance is this strange collaboration between Shameik and some people he’ll never meet.
Peter: When you’re in the room with Shameik, there’s a lot of silence in his performance, but internally he’s super loud in those silent moments. When the animators are getting those sound files, they’re hearing just silence and they have to fill those spaces with meaningful acting. I think once they started to get into it, I think they felt they were given a gift because it allowed them to do really subtle performances.
Rodney: In some cases, they’re basing their animation off studying film references of Shamiek acting.
Peter: Because we combined 2D and 3D techniques, we’ve got people in effects who are hand drawing lines on Miles’ face to capture emotion and that’s part of the reason why people are falling in love with him because of that strange combination of his performance and also hand-drawn animation that captures his emotion.
What about the challenge of working with the multi-universe aspect and making the audience understand what’s happening?
Peter: It’s really funny because the studio had that as their biggest bone of contention. It was so confusing and no one is going to understand it. In reality, you say to any 8 or 9 years old, they know exactly what you’re talking about.
I think beyond that there were a lot of things inherent in the story that helped us explain it. There was also the device of the repeating intros of the characters. These are clearly different people from different places but they look different and they act differently. They’re all versions of the same thing. I think what we were able to dramatize through our characters and through Miles having to take all this in, helped make the multi-verse a bit more tangible for people.
Rodney: I think fundamentally we explained the multi-verse technically but we tried not to get too detailed or in the weeds about that stuff. Who hasn’t asked themselves if their lives wouldn’t be different if they had made other choices? I think we grounded in the most human aspect of what’s a pretty complicated concept. We tried to take that concept on the most basic level and that seemed to work best.
Bob: Less seemed to be more. We had other versions that had a lot more explanation but boy it was painful.
Do you have favorite Easter eggs to put in?
Bob: There’s always the Stan Lee and every single animator wanted to animate Stan Lee. If they had background places where they could drop Stan in, they would do it and have him walking by. He’s on trains. I don’t know how many you’ll find, but there’s a lot.
Rodney: I really liked in Miles’ universe, we planted like 50 Easter eggs, if you freeze on any shot when he’s walking down the street you’ll see an egg on the billboard, an ad, and a taxi.
Peter: That Times Square sequence has a lot. I’m an old comic book fan so there are a lot of nods to comic book artists that have nods to the Spider legend or nods to comic book legends that die-hard comic fans would know.
I’m sure when it comes out on digital someone will do a post on how many Stan Lee cameos are in there.
Peter: I hope so.
What has this ride been like for you to see all the love for the film?
Rodney: For me, we were all working so hard until the end and this movie came out. We got critical acclaim and it’s been an absolute blur. Embracing the joyfulness that people are finding in the movie is what I’m doing.
Peter: It’s happened so quickly. It’s been like watching it happen to someone else inside the blender. It’s a weird out-of-body sensation. When you’re submerged in one of these things for a number of years, you really are in a bubble from the outside world to a large extent. You’re inside the movie. I know for myself, I didn’t know what we were going to be hitting people with because I was worried about what we were going to get right. We were looking at it with such granular detail so when I see the emotional reaction that people have to it, it’s so overwhelming because you think it’s so wild.
Rodney: That’s definitely been the best part. I don’t think anyone expected people to connect to it the way they did so it’s just wild. I got into this because I wanted to be part of something that has a big impact on people and inspires people. I think that’s why on a basic level, that’s why we all got into it. It’s been great. It’s so cool. It’s addictive and you can feel it.