'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' Director Justin K Thompson Talks Last Minute Changes and Making Miguel O'Hara Hot - Exclusive Interview (2024)

Last summer, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse took the world by storm with an epic story centered around Miles Morales/Spider-Man (Shameik Moore) that spanned across the multiverse as he faced off against the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) and Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) in a race against his very own destiny. Creating a sequel to the Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a groundbreaking achievement in its own right, of this massive scale and grandeur requires many capable hands, none so more important than a skilled director. Luckily, the previous directors of the first film — Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman — were able to pass the baton to another trio of incredible filmmakers for Across the Spider-Verse, including first-time director Justin K Thompson.

Through Justin K Thompson, as well as co-directors Kemp Powers and Joaquim Dos Santos, Across the Spider-Verse has cemented itself as a worthy new addition to the Spider-Man saga. In a sprawling story jumping from world to world with hundreds of characters and many different animation styles, the emotional core of the sequel was the most important aspect to get right. The relationship between Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), and their parents is what won audiences over. Additionally, the film’s success is partially owed to its powerful cliffhanger, which saw Gwen recruit a ragtag group of Spider-people to save Miles, who is now trapped in an alternate universe where he becomes the Prowler. With the delay of the third movie, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, fans have been given even more time to marinate on the events of this monumental sequel.

The reach of Across the Spider-Verse has surpassed the hardcore Spider-Man fans. Its critical reception was equally as positive, and this has carried into the current awards season. The sequel found itself sweeping critics’ circles, and when it came time for major awards bodies, very little changed. Across the Spider-Verse received BAFTA and Golden Globes nominations, and acquired major wins at the Critics Choice Awards, the PGAs, and was named the Best Animated Film of 2023 by the National Board of Review. Now, the sequel is widely predicted to win Best Animated Feature at the 2024 Oscars, just like its predecessor did in 2019. With all this success coming to a superhero movie, which typically does not find itself as an award winner, it is clear that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has truly broken barriers, and that is owed in large part to its directors, including Justin K Thompson.

Although Justin K Thompson is a first-time director, he is no stranger to the world of animation, with years of experience as a production designer and visual development artist. In fact, he worked as the production designer on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as well as Sony Pictures Animation’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs franchise, which was also created by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. However, he stepped into the director’s chair for the first time with Across the Spider-Verse, and we got the chance to sit down with Thompson to discuss how he and the other directors worked to craft an epic, visually compelling story while setting the stage for what’s to come. On top of that, we discuss the wil fan reactions to Miguel O’Hara’s character and which surprising changes to the film were made at the last minute.

Exclusive FYC Interview with Director Justin K Thompson for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Into the Spider-Verse was a monumental success that told a heartfelt story centered around Miles Morales. With a sequel, how do you approach going even bigger with this multiversal storyline while still keeping that same heart the original film possessed?

Justin K Thompson: From the beginning, we knew that if we were going to build off the success of the first movie, we couldn’t repeat ourselves. So, we doubled down on doing something different, and that’s what distinguished the first film so much from other things that had been made around it. I had the honor of being the production designer on Into the Spider-Verse, and we took a lot of chances during that process. But when it came to making Across the Spider-Verse, I got to step into the role of a director. There was so much that I learned making that first movie and I knew that we could go so much further.

The most important thing is the fact that we had a very different story to tell. In this movie, Miles is 15 years old. Now more than ever, Miles wants to get out from under his parents and spread his wings. He wants to sort of test his manhood and find out what’s beyond the horizon, and he finds out that the world is more dangerous than he ever thought. He learns that the people that he trusts haven’t always been honest with him — the world is a much darker place than he imagined. So, I think this story naturally needed different qualities and needed to be told in a different way than Into the Spider-Verse.

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It was exciting to think about how we could tell the story about Miles Morales trying to get back home to his family, that was the foundation of this entire sequel. His relationship with his mother and Miles trying to protect his dad from the Spot, we made sure to make those two things the most important elements of the story. There’s that line his mother says to him when he’s leaving home, she says, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you don’t belong”, and we wanted to lean into that.

The idea that there are people out there telling Miles how everything is supposed to happen and trying to write these rules for him, but him deciding that he’s going to tell his own story was what truly drove us to make all of our creative choices. Again, from day one, we knew that we had to go bigger and better if we were going to show how dangerous the world is for Miles — if we were going to show how deep Miles’ journey had to be for him to learn these lessons.

I’m glad you mentioned your role as production designer because I wanted to ask, how did you work on that transition from being the production designer on the first film to now leading the sequel as a director?

Justin K Thompson: I brought all the lessons that I learned as a production designer, which I did for 15 years before I became a director. One thing that did inform me was that I had a very hands-on idea of exactly how to translate the ideas in my head. I knew how to speak to the crew in a very direct way, knowing which levers needed to be pulled and which artists I needed to talk to. Plus, I knew everybody really well because I’ve worked with a lot of them before, like our visual effects supervisor Mike Lasker. I worked with him on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when I was the production designer on that film. I’ve known most of the people on the Across the Spider-Verse crew for at least 15 years. So, we all had such a tight working relationship.

It was great for me because I found myself in the past asking directors, “Hey, what if we did this?”, and sort of wondering if they would go along with my idea. Sometimes, they would have different ideas and I tried to find a way to incorporate that into what I was trying to do with the film. In this case, it was Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] trusting me and saying, “Hey, we think you’ve got this now, you’re a great storyteller. Just go make the movie look the way you think it needs to look.” So, I would just go, “Okay, I think it should look like this.” Then, I would be able to talk directly to the crew and we could start building it right away.

In some ways, I didn’t have anybody to fall back on to make sure I didn’t go too far. If anything, I had to lean on my instincts as a production designer, because I’m an artist and I can get into some really weird and fun ideas. Moreover, I had to make sure that I leaned on my co-directors, Kent Powers and Joaquim Dos Santos, to make sure I wasn’t letting the story get too overwhelmed by the production design.

Across the Spider-Verse boasts large action sequences from across multiple realities each with unique animation styles and epic landscapes that are evolving from scene to scene. How did you work to keep the action and different animation styles from becoming too overwhelming or perhaps even messy for the audience?

Justin K Thompson: We had the benefit of screening the movie probably 10 or 11 times throughout the process. That’s one of the great benefits of animation: it takes four years! Every single time we gauged how the audience was reacting and where they were bored, where they were leaning in, when we could hear them gasp, and when we felt like we were losing them. Sometimes, you could even watch the audience physically leaning away from the screen because it was a little too much, and we would then say, “Okay, we went a little too far there.” The best answer I can give is that I trust my instincts, I trust my expertise as a filmmaker, and I also trust my audience a lot. I think Into the Spider-Verse proved that audiences are ready for more, and I knew they could handle more.

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But regardless of my instincts or intuition as a filmmaker, there’s always that point where you could overwhelm the audience, right? I can give you a specific example. There was a moment in Gwen’s world at the very beginning where some of the color changes were happening a little too rapidly for people because we did so many different texture changes and different paintbrush strokes. There were times when the audience was having trouble keeping up with the sheer amount of information that was on screen. So, we dialed it back a little bit, and then it was fine. It seems like there’s still a lot going on in that scene in the final film, but there was a moment when it was just a little too much.

In the aftermath of this film’s release, we saw the character of Miguel O’Hara become a bit of a phenomenon across the internet as fans were captivated by this interpretation of Spider-Man 2099. Did you expect Miguel to get this kind of reaction from the audience?

Justin K Thompson: I didn’t expect it to be as big as it was, but I knew he was going to be appreciated. We set out with the goal of making Miguel O’Hara a star. I like to say sometimes that I set out to make him the biggest thirst trap in animation that had ever existed. From the beginning, the whole idea of Miguel was that we knew we had this character who was going to come in and tell Miles how things are supposed to be, and he’s kind of different from every other spider-person that we have ever met. He needed to be the alpha. If Peter B. Parker was like the ultimate beta — the guy who can’t pay his rent, makes bad investments, and doesn’t dare ask Mary Jane to marry him — then we wanted Miguel to be the exact opposite.

We wanted Miguel to be super tall with the tightest abs, tightest buns, and this gorgeous face with eyes that pierce right into your soul.Miguel was never going to be presented as an alternative. We wanted him to be the guy who is going to come in and lead all these other Peter Parkers in the Spider Society who can’t pay their rent on time. We wanted him to embody the most Alpha position. I knew that he was going to be appreciated by certain fans. Although I had no idea it would be as big as it was, Miguel’s character design was always intentional. The internet blew up in our faces once the movie came out, and we saw how obsessed people were with Miguel. It was both validating and rewarding, but it was admittedly a little bit overwhelming and a bit of a surprise, even to us.

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Of course, Across the Spider-Verse is the first half of a two-part grand finale to this trilogy. How did you work to make sure this sequel could stand on its own two feet while making it clear that Beyond the Spider-Verse is still on the way?

Justin K Thompson: We realized that Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] had written so much that we actually had enough material for two movies, and it took us a long time honestly. We were around two years in and then we decided, “Oh, we have too much movie.” But it wasn’t like we just split it and now you had a complete film. We had to completely rewrite the movie so that it had a separate arc and you would understand the entire journey that Miles had gone on. So, we looked a lot at The Empire Strikes Back and how it’s this dark middle chapter of Luke’s journey. We likened it to that sequel a lot, and the idea that you would get to the end with a lot of people talking about a huge cliffhanger.

When you think about how the Empire Strikes Back ends, you’re not sure where Luke or Han is and what the state of the Empire or Rebel Alliance is either. We wanted audiences to feel that limbo. We also learned from watching Empire Strikes Back that we had to make sure the audience had hope. That scene at the end with Gwen getting the band back together with Peter B. Parker, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham, and Peni Parker with the new characters like Spider-Man India, Spider-Byte, and Spider-Punk didn’t originally exist. We added that scene six weeks before we were wrapping the movie. At the end of one of the screenings, the audience was just so bummed. But once we added that scene in, the audience was hooked.

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However, the real secret of how we turned Across the Spider-Verse into a standalone movie is we invested three times as much energy into the scenes with the parents. We knew that for this sequel, even though we travel across all of these different universes with all of this spectacle and amazing visual effects that our team pulled off, we had to ground it in Miles’ relationship with his mother Rio and father Jeff and Gwen’s relationship with her father George. We knew that we needed to spend way more time with their families so that all of the other stuff would matter. That became the heart of the story, Miles and Gwen’s relationship together and their relationship with their families. That is how we learned throughout the process of making Across the Spider-Verse a standalone film.

Release Date: June 2, 2023.
Directed by
Justin K Thompson, Joaquim Dos Santos, & Kemp Powers.
Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, & Dave Callaham.
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Amy Pascal, Avi Arad, & Christina Steinberg.
Main Cast: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Vélez, Oscar Isaac, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Shea Whigham, Greta Lee, Daniel Kaluuya, & Mahershala Ali.
Composer: Daniel Pemberton.
Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, Sony Pictures Animation, Pascal Pictures, Lord Miller Productions, & Arad Productions.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Runtime: 140 minutes.
Rated: PG.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now streaming on Netflix!

'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' Director Justin K Thompson Talks Last Minute Changes and Making Miguel O'Hara Hot - Exclusive Interview (2024)
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