On set with the new Spi­der-man in At­lanta. (Robert Downey Jr may have been there too.)

THE BUD­GETS ARE BIG. THE STARS ARE BIG­GER. AND THE BOX-OF­FICE RE­TURNS ARE COUNTED IN THE BIL­LIONS. WE TRAVEL TO THE SET OF SPI­DER-MAN: HOME­COM­ING, FOR A PEEK INSIDE THE SE­CRE­TIVE WORLD OF HOL­LY­WOOD’S BIG­GEST HIT-MAKER.

GQ (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

IN Fayet­teville, just south of At­lanta, Septem­ber weather feels more like heavy, sticky July weather. We pass what feels like a half-dozen Chick-fil-a fran­chises and home de­vel­op­ments ad­ver­tised in the mid-$100,000s. We take a left, en­ter­ing a panoramic thicket of pine trees. Old Ge­or­gian homes are dot­ted about – the kind with front porches and love seats. And a few hun­dred me­ters down the drive, Mar­vel is craft­ing its next nine-fig­ure block­buster. Pinewood Stu­dios has swal­lowed up 700 acres of land in this part of Ge­or­gia. It’s soon to be the largest Amer­i­can pro­duc­tion stu­dio out­side of Cal­i­for­nia, and as­pires to be the largest in the world. Here, Mar­vel’s al­ready shot the likes of Ant Man and Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War. But to­day’s visit per­tains to rea­sons more arach­nid. We’re sat on a fu­tur­is­tic tour bus – re­plete with USB charg­ers and seats that look more suited to Pre­mium Econ­omy – and which is car­ry­ing a ca­bal of in­ter­na­tional press car­i­ca­tures. There’s the slovenly Amer­i­can film buff in his un­tucked gingham shirt. Perched, stead­fastly, at the front of the bus is the ‘Hol­ly­wood in­sider’ type, who, at any pos­si­ble turn, will in­sert a sur­rep­ti­tious ref­er­ence to one of many C-grade pro­duc­ers and ac­tors in his dig­i­tal Rolodex. Else­where, a gag­gle of sweet, silent beauty edi­tors from Asia, each clutch­ing a metic­u­lous – wholly un-creased – as­sem­blage of notes and ques­tions. As much as those in­volved loathe hear­ing this – and they truly do – the press­ing, per­sis­tent ques­tion when it comes

to Mar­vel and films is: ‘How much is too much?’ They’ve taken scal­a­bil­ity to un­fore­seen heights, and pro­gram­matic film­mak­ing to metic­u­lous lev­els. (Mar­vel re­port­edly plans at least five years ahead.) It’s all a part of the Mar­vel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse (MCU), a dizzy­ing ar­ray of mul­ti­plat­form me­dia, re­leased in the form of episodic tele­vi­sion, short films, comic books, dig­i­tal se­ries, and fea­ture films. Which­ever way you slice it, the MCU is a god­damn big deal. Mur­murs of au­di­ence fa­tigue have swelled for years. Just how many he­roes, vil­lains, daz­zling green-screen se­quences and hack­neyed, tro­peladen so­lil­o­quys can film­go­ers bear? For their part, Mar­vel will sim­ply point your eye­balls to box of­fice re­turns, and there, they’ll pro­ceed to pop. Iron Man: $775m; Guardians of the Galaxy: $1bn; Iron Man 3: $1.6bn; The Avengers: $2bn. The fi­nal fig­ures make a fine case for the fac­to­ry­line pro­duc­tion of su­per­hero films: $14bn in plas­tic Aussie notes from 14 films in nine years. Pinewood Stu­dios neatly slots into this 11-fig­ure puzzle and is the can­vas on which mil­lions of child­hood mem­o­ries will be ren­dered. It’s the place of con­cep­tion of Happy Meal toys, of theme park rides and lunch­boxes and branded mac­a­roni. Thanks in large part to Mar­vel (and its par­ent com­pany, Dis­ney), the hum­ble state of Ge­or­gia is now tied as the third most prom­i­nent film­ing lo­ca­tion in the US – be­hind New York and Cal­i­for­nia. As a con­sumer, a ca­sual film­goer, the most pend­ing query is more mun­dane – who the hell wants to see the story of Spi­der-man grap­pling with be­ing Spi­der-man for the sixth time in 15 years, played by yet an­other self-ef­fac­ing, mousy-haired ac­tor? We en­ter an anony­mous park­ing lot at Pinewood, which be­gins to feel like the kind of yawn­ing, non-de­script ex­panse that even the likes of Bear Grylls might strug­gle to over­come. Cu­ri­ously, our phone sig­nal van­ished the mo­ment we crossed the stu­dio thresh­old – the of­fi­cial bor­der be­tween the reg­u­lar world and the Mar­vel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse. This doesn’t feel like a co­in­ci­dence. Hap­pily, the heat did fol­low us into the eerily quiet Pinewood lot. It’s sweat-through-you­run­tucked-gingham-shirt hot as we step off the bus. We re­ceive a vis­i­tors’ pass, which bears the co­de­name of the film, ‘Sum­mer of Ge­orge’. We make a men­tal note to un­mask the hid­den Se­in­feld fan in the pro­duc­tion team. Inside the build­ing, a smat­ter­ing of pro­pa­ganda-like comic posters fol­lows you through each cor­ri­dor, ac­cost­ing you at ev­ery turn with pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ments. “LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS!” “SEESOMETHING?SAYSOMETHING!” “KEEP OUR SE­CRETS SAFE.” “I WANT YOU!” points Cap­tain Amer­ica, “…TO PUT AWAY YOUR CELL PHONE!” It’s here that you learn Mar­vel takes the pro­duc­tion of the sec­ond Spi­der-man re­boot in five years very se­ri­ously. They’re not fuck­ing around, and, they warn, nei­ther should you. We’re guided into a small pro­duc­tion room, and cer­e­mo­ni­ously handed a se­ries of nondis­clo­sure agree­ments to be signed, ini­tialled and dated thought­fully. It be­comes clear why th­ese are nec­es­sary. Mood boards take up nearly ev­ery inch of ev­ery wall. Un­der­neath head­ers such as ‘School Bat­tle’ and ‘Crime Fight­ing’ are de­tailed CGI mock­ups of each scene, cos­tume, set­ting and mo­ment. From the cor­ner of an eye, you catch the film buff star­ing to breathe a lit­tle quicker. The unit pub­li­cist, our anointed par­ent/ guardian for the day – and who’s pre­sum­ably charged with en­sur­ing our safe, no-leak pas­sage through the MCU – as­sures us that Tom will be here shortly, and that we ought to be rather ex­cited. On cue, the Cho­sen One en­ters. Tom Hol­land is minia­ture and in­stantly af­fa­ble. The Bri­tish kid from The Im­pos­si­ble and Billy El­liott (the mu­si­cal) is less of a lit­tle kid. He’s also to­tally pro­fi­cient in charm­ing the press. Jour­nal­ists be­gin speak­ing over one an­other other. Hol­land, 20, re­verses his base­ball cap and nurses each query with that pa­tient me­thod­i­cal rhythm that only the English can pull off. He draws a laugh from the room in a lit­tle un­der 20 sec­onds. He’s done his read­ing on Spi­der-man’s well-nu­anced back­story. He’s, clearly, also done work on his own back­story – like how he ac­tu­ally strug­gles to touch his mid­dle fin­gers to his palm to ex­e­cute Spidey’s iconic move. “He’s per­fect,” whis­pers a mag­a­zine editor from Ja­pan. “He’s re­ally suited to the role.” That he seems so Mcu-ready and pol­ished shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. Hol­land made his de­but as Spi­der-man in last year’s Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War. Much like a com­mer­cial ra­dio sta­tion teas­ing a song that will play in 15 min­utes’ time, Mar­vel used Hol­land’s cameo as a sort of meta-teaser trailer. Con­sider it an ex­er­cise in prim­ing a highly dis­tractible, bil­lion-dol­lar au­di­ence for a sum­mer block­buster to come. Hol­land re­gales the group with tales of an ar­du­ous au­di­tion­ing process – which in­cluded pen­ning a late-night email to Chris Hemsworth, ask­ing him to put in a good word with the key MCU play­ers – and speaks of the “fun” re­la­tion­ship, “on-and-off-cam­era”, he shares with with Marisa Tomei (who plays Aunt May, which many neck­bearded movie fo­rum com­menters took um­brage to, ow­ing to the fact that she’s “only 50” and “too hot”). The Ja­panese editor was right – Hol­land was made for this role and its abun­dance of pub­lic­ity. Bid­ding him a tem­po­rary farewell – Hol­land’s pre­par­ing for a night shoot – we head back out­side. The unit pub­li­cist feeds us back aboard the fu­tur­is­tic bus, and we curl around too many cor­ners to count be­fore we’re led to a gi­ant out­door stage. Here, amidst the pine trees and dirt and lack of phone cov­er­age, is an ex­act replica of the Staten Is­land Ferry. “Holy shit, it’s sur­real! I ride that thing all the time in NYC,” chimes the film ‘in­sider’. Rather than shoot­ing in ex­pen­sive New York, Mar­vel’s built a fac­sim­ile of the city’s orange icon, here in the forests of Ge­or­gia. “It’s ex­actly to scale,” adds the pub­li­cist. “It’s all real. It’s all metal.” The ferry’s been con­structed in prepa­ra­tion for thou­sands of litres of wa­ter to be dumped on it. It will, we’re told, split in half for an ac­tion se­quence. In a few weeks’ time, the crew will also film on the real Staten Is­land Ferry. “Ob­vi­ously, we can’t split that in half,” grins the pub­li­cist. At this point, the pos­si­bil­ity seems less than far­fetched. We learn that this en­tire pro­duc­tion is be­ing filmed in 78 days, a minis­cule timeline that’s be­yond stag­ger­ing for a film of this scale. The pub­li­cist’s as­sured herd­ing of our bloated group of jour­nal­ists be­comes more un­der­stand­able. Back on the bus, we drive for the bet­ter part of an hour be­fore pulling into the Hindu Tem­ple of At­lanta. It’s near­ing golden hour. The dusty ground is so hot you can feel it be­neath your shoes. We turn an­other cor­ner, and see a small army of MCU soldiers at work. Mus­cle T’d crew mem­bers are rush­ing around look­ing busy, smug and in con­trol. There are di­rec­tor’s chairs, and Di­rec­tor of Pho­tog­ra­phy chairs, af­fixed with ‘The Sum­mer of Ge­orge’ word­ing. There are about a hun­dred ex­tras, all bare­foot and dolledup in saris and tra­di­tional Hindu garb. We’re hushed what feels like a half-dozen times. A Bri­tish woman talks into a loud­speaker. “Stand by to shoot, please. First po­si­tions. Lock it down!” The scene ap­pears to be the af­ter­math of a wed­ding. A bride is car­ried aboard an

ROBERT DOWNEY JR'S CA­DENCE IS LIKE TONY STARK'S... EV­ERY­ONE IS STARRY EYED

em­broi­dered plat­form – a doli. For a mo­ment, you imag­ine that some­time soon, some­one on Twit­ter will wail about cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. But at least the Sum­mer of Ge­orge pays def­er­ence to de­tail. The look­ers-on look authen­ti­cally joy­ous and fes­tive, each with metic­u­lous henna art on their hands. And then, through the crowd, there’s Robert Downey Jr. Dressed all in white, and draped by the late af­ter­noon sun, he’s wear­ing a flower gar­land and sip­ping a drink in typ­i­cally non­cha­lant bro fash­ion. We peer through as the scene de­vel­ops. RDJ looks a mil­lion bucks. Though we can’t ac­tu­ally hear, he ap­pears to be do­ing his puffy-chested, Cap­tain Jack-lite schtick well. “Cut!” The whole thing lasts about 90 sec­onds. As the crew sets-up for the next take, ex­tras lunge for bot­tles of wa­ter. A young woman in a sari, a few me­tres in front of us, slips on some Con­verse All-stars, removing her feet from the scorch­ing dirt. “We’re go­ing to lose the light! First po­si­tions!” bel­lows the Bri­tish woman. A few takes later and the sun dips. It’s a wrap. We file into the belly of the Hindu tem­ple – now wholly a part of the MCU – tak­ing in the car­pets and idio­syn­crat­i­cally Hindu in­stal­la­tions. And there, RDJ emerges in a mu­ta­tion of his cos­tume from the pre­vi­ous scene. Busi­ness on top – (Hindu kurta shirt); party on the bot­tom (Adi­das tear-away track­suit pants, re­plete with three stripes). His hair is im­pec­ca­ble. He’s wear­ing sun­glasses. Inside. As im­pres­sive as Hol­land was, RDJ flexes his in­ter­view mus­cles like the wily veteran he is. His an­swers are prac­tised and in­of­fen­sive – with any and ev­ery re­sponse es­sen­tially cir­cling back to, “This is a won­der­ful project, and I’m glad to be a part of it.” He fil­i­busters mas­ter­fully. His ca­dence is no dif­fer­ent to Tony Stark’s. Min­utes bleed into each other. Ev­ery­one in the room is starry-eyed. We’d print his thoughts here, but, hon­estly, they boiled down to flaw­lessly stylish vari­a­tions of noth­ing at all. Though to be fair, many of the jour­nal­ists’ ques­tions were hardly front-page stuff. “Do you en­joy the level that you’re at as Iron Man?” some­one asks. What? Eight min­utes in, Downey Jr is so re­laxed that he lit­er­ally ap­plies mois­turiser while an­swer­ing a ques­tion. We take our mo­ment to strike. Do you em­pathise with au­di­ence mem­bers who might be fa­tigued by the num­ber of comic book fran­chises, films and spinoffs? RDJ takes a mo­ment to re­move his sun­glasses. “I em­pathise with every­body,” he purrs. “It’s ob­vi­ously hav­ing this huge, y’know, ex­tended mo­ment. If Toby [Maguire] hadn’t nailed it, all those years back… You know, it’s this cycli­cal thing.” And how do you han­dle play­ing Iron Man over and over? “I have to start over ev­ery time. But I’m start­ing over with a pretty solid base. I just never want to blow it, for the last six or seven [Iron Man films] I’ve done, by drop­ping the ball. There’s been how many Bat­mans now? Four? I’m lucky, so far, in that there’s only one Tony. I just want to hang up my jersey be­fore it’s em­bar­rass­ing.” For RDJ, hang­ing up the jersey is a tricky propo­si­tion. He made $66m for his role in the first Avengers film and is ru­moured to be pock­et­ing some $265m for the next two. “This project, it has an el­e­ment of in­no­va­tion to it,” he adds. “It doesn’t feel quite as pre­fab­ri­cated. It’s funny – walls come down for op­por­tu­nity. There’s a lot of good­will be­tween Sony and Mar­vel.” RDJ has touched on per­haps the most in­trigu­ing as­pect of Spi­der-man: Home­com­ing’s pro­duc­tion – it’s a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Sony (who made the pre­vi­ous Maguire and An­drew Garfield films) and Mar­vel (who des­per­ately wanted to add the web-sling­ing jewel to its MCU crown). In­deed, Home­com­ing is be­ing co­pro­duced by Mar­vel Pres­i­dent Kevin Feige, and Amy Pas­cal, ex-chair­woman at Sony. Sony is es­sen­tially lend­ing Spidey to the MCU. “Kevin was, like, de­liv­er­ing cof­fee, on the first Spi­der-man movie,” ex­plains Pas­cal. “He kept his mouth to­tally shut the whole time. Who even knew he was the ge­nius he turned out to be?” But things weren’t al­ways so rosy. Twenty years ago, Mar­vel sold the rights to some of its most beloved, iconic char­ac­ters – Spi­der-man, X-men, Fan­tas­tic Four, and on and on. Even then, their char­ac­ters, all too of­ten, flopped. As love­able as Jen­nifer Gar­ner may be, 2005’s Elec­tra was a hot mess. Feige was brought on as an as­so­ciate pro­ducer for X-men in 2000, purely for his en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of the Mar­vel uni­verse. By 2007 he was Pres­i­dent of Mar­vel. The fol­low­ing year, Iron Man was re­leased and the com­pany’s for­tunes changed. Then, in 2009, Dis­ney CEO Bob Iger ac­quired Mar­vel for $5.3bn – a fig­ure that now seems like a steal. “This is a Mar­vel Stu­dios pro­duc­tion,” says Feige. “We’re treat­ing it like that in all re­gards. In the 16 years since [Maguire’s Spi­der-man], we’ve built this MCU. There are so many other char­ac­ters and movies. “And now we have the op­por­tu­nity,” Feige con­tin­ues, ea­gerly, “to in­tro­duce Peter Parker into that uni­verse.” Can you talk about the dif­fi­culty of re-in­vent­ing Spi­der-man for the third time in, like, 10 years? “It never felt like a chal­lenge of re-in­vent­ing him – we’re free­ing him to be the char­ac­ter he was in the comics,” re­sponds Feige, eas­ily. We try again. Don’t you worry about su­per­hero fa­tigue?

“Peo­ple have been ask­ing me that since 2003,” he grins.

EVERSINCE ROBERT DOWNEY JR BE­CAME TONY STARK, MAR­VEL’ S CIN­E­MATIC UNI­VERSE HAS SPI­RAL LED FROM ONE HULK-BUST­ING SMASH TO AN­OTHER. AHEAD OF THENEXT IN­STAL­MENT– SPI­DER-MAN HOME­COM­ING–LET GUIDE YOU THROUGH EV­ERY THROW­DOWN, TEAM-UP AND EASTER EGG IN EARTH’ S MIGHT­I­EST FRAN­CHISE.

BE­LOW: DI­REC­TOR JON WATTS; ROBERT DOWNEY JR AND JON FAVREAU. RIGHT: MICHAEL KEATON ON SET; TOM HOL­LAND.

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