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.
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.