Nobody knew what to expect from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the months leading up to its December 2018 release. An animated reimagining of the Spider-Man comic books, based on a spin-off series of comics that originated with the 2011 debut of its biracial protagonist Miles Morales, there was no guarantee that audiences or critics would connect with the new film. By the time the Academy Awards rolled around in late February 2019, Into the Spider-Verse walked away with the honors for Best Animated Feature—the first time a non-Pixar time won the award since 2011. The strength of that film was what convinced filmmaker and screenwriter Kemp Powers, hot off the success of co-directing Pixar’s Soul and adapting the screenplay for his play, One Night in Miami, into films—to jump aboard the sequel. Boxoffice Pro spoke with Powers about his connection to Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, and how his own upbringing as a New Yorker influenced his approach for this summer’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
This is the second animated feature film you’ve co-directed. You began your career in the entertainment industry by writing for theater, TV, and film. How did this opportunity come about?
You’re right, being a filmmaker and a playwright is a second career for me. I was a journalist for almost 20 years, and writing was always something that I did as a hobby. I’m from New York and I moved to Los Angeles back in 2003, and I think I must have been the only one moving from New York to LA that wasn’t moving there to be in the film industry. I was still a business journalist when I first moved to Los Angeles. It was kind of unusual for many of the first years that I was in LA, getting used to the oversized impact the movie business has on that city—but it wasn’t really my day-to-day. I was writing for fun on the weekends, and it was my writing that first brought me into the local theater scene in Los Angeles. Not many people know Los Angeles has a local theater scene, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. There is this whole underground equity waiver little black box theaters scattered all over Los Angeles. Although I grew up in New York and grew up going to plays, I never envisioned myself being able to be a writer for a living until I found myself in a community where, as a writer and a storyteller, there was an outlet for my work. I started off doing a lot of nonfiction storytelling and getting comfortable standing in front of an audience. That morphed into me writing short plays. That morphed into me writing full-length plays. I don’t want to pretend like I didn’t train in writing screenplays. Before I came to Los Angeles. I was doing a Knight fellowship at the University of Michigan, where I took formal screenwriting courses. I learned how to write screenplays, but upon arriving in Los Angeles, it just wasn’t as exciting a proposition as it had seemed from afar. Theater felt not just more natural, but more possible. I really wanted to write movies, but at the time I moved to Los Angeles, it was the heyday of reality television. The idea of writing original stories that were going to go up in a movie theater seemed like an impossibility. It’s funny that’s what ended up being the full-circle thing that brought me to Pixar. I was writing in my local theater community. I wrote my play, One Night in Miami, and that picked up a life of its own…I think it was that positive encouragement of finally getting my work out there and finding it had an audience that gave me the courage to finally take the leap into my writing career. So [while] my play was being produced, I was putting myself out there to write for film and television.
I got my first TV writing job on Star Trek Discovery, but my play ended up not going to Broadway despite having a pretty amazing run in London. That was when I first started considering adapting it into a film. I honestly never envisioned adapting that play into a film. I always wanted to write something original for film, it was something I had told my agent when I first got representation. Out of the blue, I got a call inviting me to Pixar…one of the only places in Hollywood that still does original ideas as films. I have always been a tremendous fan of Pixar films but it was very mysterious to me how their stuff got made. I knew they were in the Bay Area, I had no idea how one got involved at Pixar. I had this very cloak-and-dagger meeting where I was flown up to Oakland for a day, that’s when I first met Pete Docter. He laid out where he was in this project he was developing that would eventually become Soul. I initially got hired on Soul as a screenwriter—but that quickly evolved as I learned all the ins and outs of the directing job. That evolution resulted in me becoming co-director on Soul. While I was working on soul my screenplay of One Night in Miami finally started getting traction. Producers came on board and the first director they shared it with was Regina King. I was in this weird position where I was working in production on a Pixar movie, while at the same time, the adaptation of my play, which I had written in my spare time, was going into pre-production.
I don’t think anyone could have anticipated just how well Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would work as a film. What was your reaction to the film when you first saw it?
People will often bring their movies and screen them at Pixar, I guess because Pixar has a lot of Academy voters. On any given lunch break, there’s going to be a screening of some film in the Steve Jobs Theater. I had seen billboards for spider-verse, and to be honest, I thought it was a straight-to-video cartoon. I had no idea it was even a theatrical motion picture. The directors—Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Bob Persichetti—came down to Pixar to screen Into the Spider-Versemwhile we were still in production on Soul. Pixar is a tough crowd, especially whenever animation is screened there…but sitting there watching Into the Spider-Verse was one of those rare moments where I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. I called my son, who was back in Los Angeles, right after the screening and told him he needed to see it as soon as it came out. That movie really caught me off-guard.
The first Spider-Verse film gave me something that I didn’t even know I wanted. I was starting to get fatigued by some of the formulas in a lot of superhero films. Everything Into the Spider-Verse did was so original, fresh, and clever. I loved the Miles Morales character. I honestly wasn’t looking to do another animated film, but I was just so blown over by the world they created that I thought it would be a great experience to help do another one. Especially after I found out how much they were expanding the universe, as opposed to just repeating what they did in the first film. They were trying to go down a whole different direction, and that’s what really excited me about this project.
We were near completion on Soul when Covid hit, forcing us to finish the movie from our homes. I was driving back and forth from my house in LA to the Pixar offices in Emeryville. During one of those drives, I was having a conversation with my agent and he asked if I would ever consider working on another animated feature. Straight away, I told him I was so impressed by Into the Spider-Verse and that I’d love to meet the folks over at Sony and see what kind of stories they were open to exploring. That resulted in a meeting with executives at Sony who quickly introduced me to Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I didn’t even know they were making a sequel to Into the Spider-Verse. Shortly after that meeting, they laid out the story of the next spider-verse film and asked me to come aboard as a director. I got started on Across the Spider-Verse less than a week after wrapping up Soul.
The original Spider-Man is set in a version of New York City that reflects its source material: a Queens reminiscent of the 1960s. What I enjoyed so much about Into the Spider-Verse was that the New York in that movie seemed a lot closer to the New York City of today. It’s a lot more representative of the diversity and demographics the city boasts today. As a New Yorker yourself, what sort of city vibe were you looking to give the film?
Soul was also set in New York, what I brought to both these films is my experience as someone who grew up here. I’m 49 years old. My New York isn’t the same as Miles’ New York, it’s probably closer to his parents’ New York. We all brought so many aspects of New York to the movie. It’s representative of the look of Miles’ Brooklyn. It’s also reflected in the music, how we approach New York sonically because it has evolved musically. There are different generations of people in New York who have very different musical tastes. The look of the city, even though it’s an alternative dimension, we worked really hard to have it represent today’s New York, which is very different than the New York that I grew up in, and show that diversity on every street corner is one of the biggest labors in the production of a film like this. It’s also one of the most gratifying parts of the process. Early on, when we finally like, started releasing some of the first images of the film, one of the first images we released was a picture of miles standing in a Jamaican bodega, eating a beef patty. A detail like that was incredibly important to someone like me. If it was someone younger, maybe it would have been a shop where you got a chopped cheese sandwich. But for me, Jamaican beef patties were a seminal piece of my childhood, wandering through neighborhoods like Flatbush and Kensington where there’s a tremendous Jamaican population.
There were so many colorful and surprising villains in the first movie. What can we expect from the antagonists in the sequel?
The Spot is an overarching villain that is going to be our main “Big Bad” over this film and the next one. It’s a little tricky to answer that, because as evidenced in a lot of the teasers and stuff we’ve released, his relationship with Miguel O’Hara, Spider-Man 2099, turns quite antagonistic in this film. Miguel is not a villain, but he is an antagonist to Miles in this film.
One of the things that I think that Into the Spider-Verse did so well, was that it had fun with all of the tropes of comic books while at the same time subverting those things. I grew up being a comic book nerd, I actually published my own comics in my early 20s, but I kind of stopped following them. I wasn’t as caught up to speed on the canon surrounding Miles Morales, which I think was perfect for a situation like this because it’s less about what’s happened in a comic book and more about the story you’re trying to tell from the perspective of the characters.
Any of these superhero movies runs the risk of devolving into crashing and bashing. They only work if there’s a motivation behind the action, we have to care about the characters and feel like there are real stakes. We have to be concerned about whether people are going to be hurt, not just physically—but emotionally. Pete Docter would always tell me, a scene won’t be as effective if it doesn’t make you feel anything. That’s something that always stuck with me.
In the first film, all these characters from different dimensions came to Miles. In this one, Miles is the one going to five different dimensions. It sounds great, but what you don’t realize when you start that plan is that if he’s gonna go to five dimensions, from a production standpoint, it’s like you’re producing five films. You have to build all five of those worlds, and then figure out how the characters appear in each of them. It’s so cool to work on a character with a unique superpower like The Dot, who can hop between dimensions, and that allows him to fight multiple spider-people at the same time.
Both Soul and One Night in Miami came out during a time in the pandemic when a wide theatrical release wasn’t viable. What does it mean to you, as a filmmaker, to have the experience of a big global theatrical release with Across the Spider-Verse?
It means everything to me as a filmmaker because I love cinema. I love seeing films the way they were made to be seen, up on huge screens. I’m glad the other two films I’ve been involved in were released and that people saw them. That being said, Soul and One Night in Miami were both made for the big screen. One Night in Miami was independently produced and sold to Amazon, but at no point during the production of the film was there a plan to have it be a streaming title. For Soul, we were gearing up for a huge global release, planning to travel around to different theaters around the world to experience the work in those different spaces. Of course, it was disappointing to not get that opportunity. Not only did those films not get released theatrically, I also wasn’t able to go see them at film festivals due to travel restrictions. That being said, it was the best-case scenario for that time.
I don’t think the cinematic experience is ever going to go anywhere. You can enjoy a film in any number of different forms, but there is a communal element of enjoying a movie with a crowd that just can’t be replaced. It’s not just about the sound, image resolution, of production values. There is something so valuable about the communal aspect of taking in a film. It’s so energizing to sit in a theater and have a communal experience with something that’s moving an entire audience. I can’t wait to have that experience with Across the Spider-verse.