Filmmaker Marc Webb has had a fascinatingly rapid journey in Hollywood. After a busy run as a music video director, his feature film debut, (500) Days of Summer, became an indie darling and a pop culture success, turning the young filmmaker into a sought after talent. This of course led to the short-lived Spider-Man reboot series with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, but with that period of his career done, he feels content and at ease when we sit down with him at The Only Living Boy in New York press day in LA. By his own admission, the release of this film, a nostalgic and rose tinted view of New York (or at least the New York we all like to imagine existed in the 1960s), is the closing of the page on his career’s first chapter. One that included Summer, Spider-Man, this year’s surprise early indie hit, Gifted, and now, a boy.
It’s a film about New Yorkers in publishing and knotty romances, including those played by Pierce Brosnan, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, and Callum Turner. Here’s a tangled web indeed that the director can finally spin. And one that has been, for him, a long time coming.
Den of Geek: One thing that’s pretty clear from this, and even going back to the Spider-Man films, is that you love shooting in New York City.
Marc Webb: Yeah. This movie, it’s different than Spider-Man movies. When I thought about how to build this world, it’s a fantasy of New York. It’s not contemporary. It’s not a gritty, realistic depiction of New York. It is the New York I fantasized about before I ever went to New York. You know what I mean? So it’s like a hermetically sealed version of the city and a romantic, kind of gimlet-eyed view of it where Jeff Bridges is your neighbor and the Lower East Side is a certain way, and the literary community operates in a… it’s not really realistic.
That is really liberating and super fun, and may annoy people from New York because there’s little idiosyncrasies that are maybe not as truthful as people would like. But that’s fine. I am from Wisconsin, and I think it’s my right to kind of play around with those tropes.
But New York is eminently cinematic. There’s a history there. The streets are beautiful. There’s a style to it. It’s kind of a monochromatic sophistication that’s very different than, say, Los Angeles or Georgia where I shot my last movie, where there’s just a bombastic bouquet of colors. New York has that sort of — it’s just dialed in, in a way. But it’s also kind of a fantasy, and you can project a lot on the city. That makes it fun.
But at the same time, New York is changing. So going there and trying to shoot that idealized New York as it’s changing, is that a kind of challenge?
There’s a perpetual nostalgia, I think, in New York. Everybody always thinks its greatest days are over. I was just discussing with somebody how much they deplored Bloomberg, but then again, do you really miss getting mugged at three in the morning? I don’t know. But the city was totally decayed, but there was a culture and a frisson and an inspiration back then that was pretty exciting. I think the one constant, though, is that it’s always changing. That’s impossible to deny. But I think that its capacity for reinvention is thematically resonant for the movie. I mean, that’s what everybody is doing. Everybody’s got a façade and then it changes and evolves. That seemed to fit well with what we were trying to do.
Was there a place that you found to shoot this time that surprised you, that you kind of just stumbled across?
The backyard behind the tenement building where W.F. [Bridges] and Thomas [Turner] live. We were looking for a place to do that sequence. It was originally set on the fire escape or, no, in his apartment. That backyard was just one of those kind of hidden little off the beaten path things that are everywhere in New York. Behind those buildings there’s yards and shared spaces that are very private and with great graffiti back there. It was just this kind of great little grotto that we rewrote the scene to fit in. That was kind of a great little cove to find.
Allan Loeb wrote this about 10 years ago, how did it end up crossing your path?
I think he wrote it more than 10 years ago, but I had read it before I did (500) Days of Summer and wanted to do it and was promptly rejected, or denuded of that notion. So I did (500) Days of Summer and then I went to do Spider-Man. Then halfway through Spider-Man, I was like, it would be nice to do a little movie. Maybe I could sneak in a little movie between [the first film] and [the second]? It didn’t work out that way, but they sent me the script and when I read it again, it had changed. It was called The Only Living Boy and it was set in Chicago, and it was about someone else. I was like, what the fuck happened to this script?
Then I went back into my notes and I looked at my draft and I looked at the draft that I had just seen. I was like, what’s going on? I called the producers and was like, listen, I’ll do this movie, but I want to go back to the original version of it. The 30-year-old Allan just struggling in a studio apartment in Tribeca. That’s what started his career, I think, and it was really fun to go back to that version of it.
This also goes back, in a way, to where you started with (500) Days. They’re not the same kind of film, really, but they’re intimate stories about men and women and relationships.
Well, I mean, it’s a different genre. I mean, it is a coming of age story, I guess you could say, but I think (500) Days of Summer is much more whimsical, and the people in this movie are kind of despicable and they do kind of really fucked up things. I was sort of fascinated by that behavior.
You start off with these kind of naively romantic male characters, and their problems really aren’t that big of a deal. But I still was sort of interested in the stories and I liked that he was surrounded by a house of lies, but that was built on a foundation of love. I mean, these people were trying to care for each other, that’s what you understand at the end of the movie, but they were just incapable of it, or it was too difficult for them to do it in a simple way. I think that was relatable. I found that interesting.
It’s fun to just make a movie and sit around with Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan, and Kate Beckinsale and be like, let’s try this and then let’s try this, and just go and make something without the enormous scrutiny and expectations that come along with doing bigger movies.
How do you think the way you talk to actors has changed over the course of the movies you’ve made?
I think I’m more aware of the language of actors, like speaking actor, as it were, and understanding how you read lines in a script. You’re like, I need that person to say this because this other story point depends on it. But if you’re an actor and you’re feeling something, it’s hard to say a line that doesn’t coincide with that.
So I think I relate more to actors and I’m able to anticipate where they might have difficulties. I work very hard to try to identify their motivation, to give you a weird, sort of a clichéd actor comment. But to understand their emotional impulse in a scene is really important, and I think I’m better at that now than I was and more willing to engage in that than I was back 10 years ago.
You’ve done two smaller films in a row now. Did that sort of cleanse the palate after getting into the blockbuster machine for a couple years?
Yeah. I was going to make them back to back, and then because of schedules and whatnot, I made them sort of a year apart, but they came out very close together. I was going to just do them in one fell swoop, but yeah, I feel kind of let loose now. Those movies were born out of a certain point in my life, and I was like, I want to make these. They’re set up, let’s do it. Now, I feel like this is the first chapter of my career is kind of done. Now, I can go and make other movies based on other impulses that I’ve experienced in my life, if that makes sense.
What’s on your plate now?
Nothing imminent. Working with Nick Hornby who’s adapting a New Yorker article about Megan Phelps-Roper, who was in the Westboro Baptist Church, but that’s just in the very early stages. Then nothing is certain at this point. I’m just going to take a little bit of time, maybe do some TV stuff. I’ve really enjoyed that. There’s so much interesting stuff that’s happening on TV, Netflix and whatnot. But I’m just going to finish this and then start reading.
The Only Living Boy in New York is out in limited release this Friday (Aug. 11).