For any filmmaker climbing the Hollywood ladder, the journey can be a rollercoaster ride as treacherous as it is exciting. One day you’re shooting music videos and making romantic comedies, and the next you’re directing summer tentpoles, doing your best to maintain your own artistic ideals and stay true to your ideals while working on a studio movie based on existing IP.
For director Marc Webb, who transitioned from hot music video director to filmmaker with 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, that jump to studio pictures came early on in his feature career, with 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Even though the movie did well enough to warrant a sequel, Sony recently rebooted the character with Marvel Studios, and so far, Spider-Man: Homecoming has lived up to expectations.
With Spidey in good hands with Jon Watts, Webb decided to go back to making smaller movies based on screenplays he loved, first with Gifted, a crowd-pleasing family drama starring Chris Evans and Jenny Slate that did pretty well earlier in the year. Webb’s newest project, The Only Living Boy in New York, is based on a 14-year-old screenplay by Allan Loeb that appeared on the Black List. It was a script Webb had read even before his first movie, and he decided to come back to it after the Amazing Spider-Man movies.
The movie stars Callum Turner as recent college grad Thomas Webb, the son of a wealthy New York publisher (Pierce Brosnan), who has been pining after his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons, Dope) for years. Just as he’s ready to give up, he meets a stranger in his building named W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), who gives him advice on how to win her over. Soon after, Thomas learns his father is having an affair with the beautiful Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), a secret that Thomas fears will destroy his mother (Cynthia Nixon), forcing him to take matters into his own hands.
The Tracking Board spoke to Webb over the phone last week. Here’s what he had to say.
Congratulations on Gifted and how well that did. Most of the people I know who saw it, enjoyed it.
Yeah, it ended up doing alright. Thanks. Both these movies were sort of fun to make. Compared to Spider-Man, they were very quick little dollops that came together very quickly, and they were both really fun movies to make.
So The Only Living Boy in New York was a script you had before doing The Amazing Spider-Man, although Gifted was something you found afterwards. Is that correct?
I read the script many, many years ago. It was a popular script. It was on the Black List. I tried to get hired even before (500) Days of Summer, and they didn’t want me, and after (500) and Spider-Man, I went around and looked for the script again or I read about it in an Email, and I called my agent up and was like, “What happened to that script?” and he sent me the latest draft of it – this is four or five years ago – and it was called The Only Living Boy – not “in New York”—and it was set in Chicago. It was a really strange… I mean, Thomas worked in a coffee shop, and I was like, “What the f*** happened to this script? It’s not what I remember.” I had been developed but it had kind of been besieged, so I went back in my own records and found the draft that I had read originally, and I was like, “Listen, I’d love to do this, but let’s start from the beginning.” I think that was after the first Spider-Man maybe, and then it took a while to get all the elements together, and to work with Allan, but it was a fun kind of side project, I guess you can say while I was doing other movies. When Jeff (Bridges) and Pierce (Brosnan) came on board, it was much quicker to get made.
One thing I like about Allan Loeb’s scripts is that he rarely writes the typical high concept movies. His material is always kind of challenging in some way, with one or two elements that are different from everything else out there, which makes his stuff unique. Because his screenplays aren’t cut and dry, it’s also not as easy to make or market the movies based on them, I’d imagine.
Yes, exactly. This script was his first Hollywood script. He had given up when he was in his 20s. He’d spent some unsuccessful years in Hollywood, and then he sold his car and moved to New York and said, “I’m going to give this one last shot,” and he wrote The Only Living Boy and that launched his career. He’d had a really varied career. He’d done a lot of script work and whatnot, but this has always kind of sat there. I think it’s a younger version of Allan, frankly, but it was kind of fun to play around with that.
It’s interesting you mention they moved the story to Chicago, because I’m a writer living in New York, actually in the same area on the Lower East Side, so it’s odd to think they might move the story elsewhere.
The New York in this movie is not necessarily a realistic depiction of New York. When I think about it, the New York that I imagined before I ever moved to New York. We shot that apartment building on Ludlow Street, and I don’t even know if there’s anybody living in that apartment. It was pretty shoddy, but we dressed it to try to make it look real, but it’s a fable, and I think you gotta look at the movie like that. It may rub some New Yorkers the wrong way, but there is a timelessness to it that I think was fun to play around with. The Lower East Side is such a strange place. It has such an interesting history, but now there’s hip bars, there’s a bridge and tunnel element there. It’s kind of creepy and weird. It’s a strange place, man.
It’s changing for sure, but that building Thomas lives in is almost exactly the same building on the Lower East Side I moved into 23 years ago. How did you find Callum Turner to play Thomas?
I mean, you need to find somebody who can be put on their heels by a young woman like Kiersey Clemons, but you’re also rooting (for him) to get together with someone like Kate (Beckinsale) and there’s the nascent masculinity that’s really important for that character who is on the precipice of manhood. It is becoming an archetype, isn’t it? Especially in American movies. He just sort of fits that, and there’s something kind of dopey about him, and something kind of intellectual about him. Halfway through the movie, he gets kind of cocky, and that’s a fun part of that character, too. He’s the guy that best encapsulated those qualities.
At first, he reminded me of a young James Franco, and then he transforms into a young Richard Gere.
I’ve heard the Richard Gere comparison. I think he comes off a little more neurotic than young Richard Gere. I think Days of Heaven or something like that where there’s a stoic quality to Richard Gere. I think Callum has some of that, which maybe he arrived at by the end of the movie. But I get it, physically, yeah. It’s kind of a funny comparison.
When did you move to New York?
Probably about four years ago. I’m a neophyte. Again, I use the term “fable” a lot, and I think I have a romantic idea of what New York is, or at least the movie does. It’s elevated, it’s heightened, and it’s a little bit timeless, and that’s what was the key for me that’s fun about making a movie like this.
Probably between your experiences in New York and Allan’s, that helped create that nostalgia in the movie, which I think works.
There is a nostalgia. Also, the script was written 14 years ago, but we worked hard to take out cues that would indicate a specific time period, and it’s not to say it’s a contemporary movie or a period movie, but we avoided cell phones and social media and all that kind of stuff. It just didn’t feel like it was part of the world that we were trying to produce.
Timing-wise, you also end up with two movies with the titles of Simon and Garfunkel songs…
With Baby Driver? Yeah, Edgar and I had a Twitter exchange about that, which went kind of nuts, but it was funny. I know Edgar really well, and we were chatting about it. His movie originally wanted to come out the same week as mine, and we were like, “Well, that’s going to be odd.” You can’t think of two more different movies than Baby Driver and The Only Living Boy in New York, but I gotta say. Those guys know how to name songs.
Do you generally make time each week or month to read scripts? Or do you always have something lied up where you don’t really need to do that?
Lately, I think I committed to making those certain movies, and when that’s happening, I just go go go and make these movies. I think I’m probably going to take a little more time off to do some reading, but often, I’m working so much that I don’t have as much time to read. I do the crossword puzzle every day, and then I’m usually working, and then I’ll try to take off longer periods of time to just meditate and think about stuff and try to read some. I read a lot of non-fiction, which I find pleasurable because there’s not the pressure to adapt whatever it is that’s sent to you. I don’t have a strict policy in terms of reading scripts, though that would probably be a wise thing to do. I’m going to take your advice and set aside every Sunday for reading.
I imagine you must have an agent who is sending you things, but you must not feel you need to read things if you’re busy.
I’d rather be working then not working, and so I’m a little bit obliged to elements that come together, like these movies, Gifted and Only Living Boy, came together in a nice away, and I felt like would I rather take the fall off or can I make a little movie? I was like, “I’m going to make a little movie. It’ll be fun. I’ll work with Jeff Bridges and Kiersey and Callum and Kate. It’ll be amazing and we’ll have a good time and see what happens.” I’m much more inclined to say, “Yes,” and get something done then just go on vacation. Of course, my agent doesn’t feel that way
Are you still developing a TV show for CBS, or are you waiting for them to give it the greenlight?
Yeah, I made a TV show with Alan Cumming called Instinct with Michael Rausch, the showrunner, and we shot that and it’s going to be a mid-season show, and I still have Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW, which is in its third season. TV stuff is really fun, and it’s quicker for me since I don’t have to run the shows, but I’ve had a really good time. I’ve been very lucky, working with great collaborators in that medium.
After doing these two smaller movies, are you feeling like you want to return to making bigger studio movies again? Was there any time during making these last two where you wished you had the money you had with Amazing Spider-Man?
No, it just depends on the script. Gifted kind of came in late, but I had known Only Living Boy and had become friends with Allan. I just felt like I wanted to get this done. In terms of big studio movies, I would be happy to, and I think I probably will in the very near future, if the stars alignm make another big movie, but having been through that process, I think I probably will approach it slightly differently. I think being a little bit more careful about how those movies are made. I think big studio movies can be made really beautifully, and they can be incredible, but it requires, for me, time and caretaking, which I’m much more willing to engage in then I was when I started Spider-Man.
Have you watched Spider-Man: Homecoming yet, and are you at all curious to see what they did?
I haven’t. I’ve been so crazy busy finishing to deal with this stuff, so I have not seen it, but I’m desperate to. I will probably go see it next week when I get done with this press, but I know Jon (Watts), and he’s such a good filmmaker, and I’m really curious, and Tom Holland seems amazing. I love that it’s back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that’s really fantastic – so I’m eager to see it. I have not yet seen it, but I’m very happy for its success.
Is there anything you’re looking to get back into after finishing this movie?
I have a few TV things that I’m working on, but nothing specific. I think maybe I’ll just take some time and do some reading, like you suggested. That’s such a great idea.
Webb’s new film, The Only Living Boy in New York, will be released this Friday, Aug. 11, via Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor