Watch: Director Sam Raimi and stunt coordinator Jeff Habberstad on the making of Spider-Man above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, director Sam Raimi and stunt coordinator reveal how a cold night in the fake rain on the backlot helped shift the course for the superhero movies forever.
It’s unthinkable today, but making a Spider-Man movie in 2002 was a risk. Hollywood had gone cold on the superhero movie following the diminishing returns of the Batman movies, turning its attention to fantasy epics and series instead. Making a superhero movie with a somewhat scrawny, emotionally vulnerable kid at its center? With large portions playing out like a high-school comedy? Directed by the guy who made The Evil Dead? That was almost unthinkable. But Sony’s risk would pay off, with director Sam Raimi’s take on the Peter Parker character and the comic-book movie changing the next two decades of cinema that would follow. Here Raimi recalls how he had to fight passionately to get the job and execute his vision, while stunt coordinator Jeff Habberstad reveals how he helped bring that vision to life.
Sam Raimi: “I had always been a giant fan of Stan Lee’s great comic books, Spider-Man chief among them, and I heard that Sony Pictures was going to make a movie of Spider-Man. So, I told my agent at the time I’d really like to get a meeting to be considered for the film, and he told me at the time that Sony Pictures wasn’t that interested in me as the director. I said, ‘Well, can they at least put me on the list somewhere down the line?’ And he called me back and said, “OK, you’re on the list. You’re number 17.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘It means there’s 16 directors they’d rather meet with before you.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ So, the months went on and I didn’t hear any response, and I called the agent. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ And he called me back and said, ‘Well, you’re number seven.’ I finally worked my way into an actual meeting with them, and they said, ‘Tell us about the movie you wanna make.’ All I did was I told them about my great love for Stan Lee’s comic book, Spider-Man, and what it was to me. And for me, it was a great love story with a real human being at center, Peter Parker. Somebody I could really identify with. Somebody who had to do homework. Someone who the girls weren’t crazy about. Somebody who was bullied. And, somebody who came from a broken home. And yet, he had to rise up in his off-hours and become this hero to protect the city, and I thought that was so moving. It seemed like they had never heard that version before, which is everything that Stan Lee did in his comics. And they called me up sometime later and said I had the job.”
Raimi: “Tobey was my first, and really, my only choice for the role. He’s very sensitive as a human being, and he’s a great actor, and so he understands the inner pain that Peter Parker feels, but knows to keep it hidden, and not to wear his heart on his sleeve. But at the time, Sony Pictures, headed up by Amy Pascal, didn’t see why he was the right choice for the role. I think the humanistic superhero hadn’t yet really hit the screens yet… It just came to everybody’s mind in Hollywood that a superhero should be strong, tall, leading man, have a lot of power or gravitas — he should be like how George Clooney played Batman or how the great Christopher Reeves played Superman. I was successful when I finally was able to communicate to Amy over the course of months of writing, working on the scripts with the writers, and doing pre-production, that we’re really making the story of a boy who learns responsibility. And I think when she finally understood the character that Stan Lee had created, she realized that Tobey was the right choice, and finally relented and allowed me to cast him. It’s very rare for me to have worked with a studio that actually listened [which Sony did], that actually understands that the director has a vision for a project and listens and knows to support that vision. It was a very new experience for me. Especially when it’s contrary to their vision.”
Raimi: “I had great graphic images all through my childhood years of how Spider-Man lands, what his pose looks like, how he swings from a web. I’d seen all these great artists’ artistic renderings. The job was not really difficult to come up with a vision, because it existed. It was to bring that vision to the big screen. How would we do that? How would we get actors to move in a way through space that only a comic book artist could depict? It really wasn’t realistic. It was fantasy. How could we bring that to life and make it real for the audience? It happens on a painstakingly slow frame-by-frame basis. So, that went on from the first day of drawing storyboard number one with my artists, to the last day of approving a CGI final. And it was all about, ‘He doesn’t look real here. We need to put more weight in the landing. We need to really show that the web is taking on the stretch. It doesn’t feel like it’s affected by his swinging.’ It was all about the details of trying to make it seem like it could really happen, and if we could do that, we didn’t even have to count on the spectacle being as high of a bar. Simply making it believable for the audience at the time would’ve wowed them. That was my thinking, and so that’s what we went for.”
Jeff Habberstad: We had several different stunt doubles for Spider-Man. We had two primary ones, Mark Wagner and Chris Daniels. Wagner came from Cirque du Soleil and Chris came from a dancing background, and they were both extremely good acrobats and also extremely flexible. And the flexibility, when you see how Spider-Man looks just when he lands in the bottom of the boxing ring or on the side of a building, he stretches and lands in a real comfortable-looking position for him, but for you and me, there’s no way we could get into that position. That’s kind of what I saw in the comic books – you see him all curled up like a spider in this beautiful pose that you can’t achieve. We definitely tried to achieve that as much as we possibly could.”
Raimi was determined that his Spider-Man be as much a drama, and a romance, as a wham-bam action flick. So it was that so many of the movie’s most memorable moments – the death of Uncle Ben among them – happen on the ground, not while Parker is swinging between skyscrapers. The movie’s most memorable scene happens both on the ground, and in the air, in a way: after fighting off some attackers, Spider-Man kisses Mary Jane Watson while hanging upside down. The rain pours and the sparks fly. Here, Raimi and Habberstad break down the cold wet night they spent shooting in the backlot, how Tobey Maguire was half-drowning throughout, and why the scene landed so well.
Raimi: “I remember we were on a studio backlot and we had our mechanical effects [team] create rain towers for the rain effect, and just that alone is always a little difficult at night for the actors. You know, because you do take after take and they’re being doused in kinda cold water. And it can become shivering… I mean, it can become really chilling. They had to endure that the whole night, I remember. Kirsten Dunst never said anything, but she was always shivering when we were discussing the scene. And so was Tobey, but they never complained about it.”
Habberstad: “All this rain coming down is getting cooled by the air, and it’s just like one big air conditioner trying to cool you off. If you’re in the rain, you’re freezing your buns off. But we would have to get out there, get in position, get the rain going, and then we would have to lift Tobey up on the wire, upside down in the position you saw him in the movie. That would take a couple minutes, so it’s a few minutes of misery each time we do the take. Then, of course, after the take’s over, you stop and now you’re wet. My recollection is we only did that a couple of times. It was just such a cool little moment that once you got it, you couldn’t really improve upon it.”
Raimi: “Not only was there a lot of physicality needed for the fight scene from Tobey, but then he had to hang upside down for this whole scene. And it’s hard to hang upside down, unless you’re trained to do it – your blood rushes to your head very quickly, you get a headache. Also what was difficult for him was that he was in a harness that was cutting into his shoulders, because they’re not really made to hang upside down in, specifically. And, in the rain while he was doing the scene, I remember, he was slightly drowning because he couldn’t wipe his nose and the water was falling down into his upside-down nose, into his nostrils. So he was kinda drowning, and the only way he could breathe was through his mouth. It doesn’t look un-pleasurable, but I think it must’ve been.”
Raimi: “We knew that [the scene] was a threshold moment for the character. This is Peter Parker, who had just come into his own, his own sense of responsibility, and into his powers as Spider-Man, starting to learn to master them. And he had always been pining for the woman he loved, Mary Jane Watson, he could never really tell. [As Spider-Man] Peter could both be responsible, and achieve his dream of helping the woman he loved. But it’s also about him finally getting to kiss the woman he loves, and her being attracted to him, and the vulnerability that he exposes to her in the scene is finally dealt with. His sense of fragility. And I think that’s why her pulling down the mask makes the moment special, because his character longs to be loved by her. He wants to be accepted by her, and to remove the mask is the idea of exposing yourself, to becoming vulnerable to someone who loves you.”
Iron Man may have officially kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, but that box office behemoth might not have been possible without Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. The movie – which Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige worked on, uncredited, before officially joining Spider-Man 2 as an executive producer – showed there was a huge appetite for the character and these kinds of movies, and its mix of action, grounded human drama, romance, and comedy, would become a template not just for Raimi’s sequels but for the best Marvel movies to follow. Despite six more movies (direct sequels, the Andrew Garfield reboots, Homecoming, and the animated Into the Spider-Verse), it remains the biggest-earning Spider-Man movie of all time – though the just-released Far From Home may challenge that title. Raimi could not see all that coming back in the early 2000s, though; then his ambitions were somewhat modest – he just wanted to do Spider-Man’s creator justice.
Raimi: “I felt the pressure that the genre was in trouble. It was very hard for me to get people to work on the film. I know it doesn’t seem likely [today], but that was the case [then]. Hollywood was soured on the superhero film around year 2000, 1999, and it was looked down upon as something that people didn’t really wanna act in. I tried to get different people interested in playing some of the other parts. No one was really interested, no one was that interested in taking key positions on the crew, tell you the truth.”
Habberstad: “Sam had this vision. I can give you an example. We were doing one scene, the second unit was shooting, and the second unit director came to Sam with this idea. He said, ‘Look, we’ll shoot it from under the truck and it will be a real wide-angle lens, and it’ll look real cartoon-y.’ Sam stopped him right there. He goes, ‘This is not a cartoon. This is a dramatic movie. It cannot look cartoon-y.’ That one statement right there spoke to me in droves. All of a sudden, I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s not making what you would really naturally think a comic book movie is.’ It’s just like the kiss. It’s a very special dramatic moment, and he wanted the whole movie to be like that, about as far away from a cartoon as it could possibly be. All of a sudden, adults and people that grew up with these comic books, I think they just had a little discovery in their head that they didn’t know was there: ‘Wow, this is what I want to see.’”
Raimi: “I love Stan Lee’s work and I was trying to be true to it, and if people recognized from Spider-Man that his stories were really effective, then I’m proud. I think Stan Lee’s work in the Marvel comic books was so great in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. And I was one of the first kids that was able to shout to the neighborhood, ‘This is so great you guys, get down here and check this out!’”