Gifted: Marc Webb On Directing Smaller Family Drama After Amazing Spider-Man

– by Edward Douglas

It’s been over two years since director Marc Webb finished his four-year run of revamping The Amazing Spider-Man for Sony Pictures, and some may not be surprised he decided to return to smaller character-driven films like his directorial debut (500) Days of Summer. 

Written by Tom Flynn, Gifted is a movie that’s bigger for its emotions than it is for the type of CG-driven action we saw in Webb’s Spider-Man movies, although it does star another superhero, Captain America’s Chris Evans, playing Frank, the uncle and guardian of a 7-year-old girl named Mary (Mckenna Grace). Frank has been home-schooling Mary in their Florida trailer park home, but when she’s finally sent to public school, her teacher (Jenny Slate) discovers the girl’s amazing math skills.

As word gets around about Mary’s ability to solve complex math equations, her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) wanting to claim custody for the girl, so that she can mentor her as she did the girl’s mother,who gave Mary to Frank to raise before killing herself.

As you can imagine, it’s a complicated story about family and relationships that’s like a cross between Hidden Figures and Kramer vs. Kramer. (As luck would have it, actress Octavia Spencer who got her 2nd Oscar nomination for the former, plays Frank and Mary’s neighbor at their trailer park.) 

LRM got on the phone with Webb a few weeks for the following interview:

LRM: I really liked the movie a lot, and I’m glad we could talk about it. I was surprised it didn’t go to any of the festivals, even SXSW. I feel it’s a real crowd-pleaser that it could do well with some added word-of-mouth.

Marc Webb: Yeah, Searchlight just wanted to roll it out. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t know how to market a movie.

LRM: I feel like “500 Days” did so well at Sundance and this movie has a similar appeal, and it’s a harder movie to sell, too, so I figure if the movie plays at a festival, at least you can get people talking about it, but I’m not in marketing either. 

Marc Webb: The timing of it was really weird ‘cause we finished it last summer...and I think it would have gotten eaten up in the Fall, because there's all those prestige movies, and ours is a little more heartwarming. I think they wanted to just find a place and time in the Spring where it could find its legs.

LRM: Fair enough. I’m sure you got a ton of scripts after “500 Days of Summer” so was this something that had been on the pile while you were doing the “Spider-Man” movies, or was this something that you got later?  

Marc Webb: Not at all. Right after I finished the press tour for the Spider-Man, it was actually a year afterwards. The time is so amorphous to me, I don't even remember, but it was after Spider-Man, I got this script, I had to make a movie for Fox, and this seemed like...It was so simple. I read it and it made me feel good, and the casting set it very quickly, and the people at Fox liked it, and it was such an easy movie to make. You know?

It was really easy to cast, with the exception of finding McKenna. That took a long-a$$ time, but it just came together very smoothly, and very quickly. I was shocked by it. 500 Days of Summer took forever to get made and this one was...I think probably because it's a really low-budget movie, and the script was good, and it's the kind of drama that actors really like to play. That ease of casting is such a crucial part of getting a movie made that it’s great when all the pieces fell together. 

LRM: I’m glad Chris Evans jumped on board, because I've seen him do dramatic stuff like before he got into the Marvel world, but those movies have made him harder to do movies like this, because he’s working on that for six to eight months every year. What made you think of him to play Frank? Was it something he found out on his own?

Marc Webb: Yeah. I met with the two actors and I sat down with him, and he was just enthusiastic; he got it. I loved him in the Captain America movies--I think those are awesome movies, but you forget how good of an actor he is. It's funny, because Frank, he's a straight man. He is the center of the movie, he's the emotional kind of rock at the core of the movie. You need somebody that can be funny, but also has an emotional dimension to him, but can also pair up really well with this kid. He’s got that really dry sense of humor that was incredibly helpful.

He also played the first part of the movie with a kind of sarcastic look, which was covering for emotional damage, which is a subtlety in his performance that was great. He's an all-American guy, but I think that he has an emotional capacity that is kind of rare actually and a sensitivity that’s kind of rare in a male lead. I really love that kinda stuff, and he is a really fantastic collaborator on the set.

LRM: I think people would really be surprised how good he is with kids, even though we've seen him do the charity stuff for Make-A-Wish. We know he can interact with kids but doing if for a while movie...not every actor can do that. Not every actor can play a role where someone like Mckenna comes along and pretty much steals ever scene.

Marc Webb: He also was just incredibly patient. Mckenna is great, she's a pro. She's such a good actor, but when you're working with a kid, you have a really limited schedule. You have to get them out in six hours, sometimes eight hours. We'll have to do all of her coverage first, and then flip around to Chris sometimes acting without her. You have very necessary obligations to protect the child actors, because they’re kids, and they need to have sleep and regular meals and recess and school and all these other things. He was so great with that. It's not something that I think people should think about when they're watching the movie, but it's an impressive technical trait how good Chris is and how reliable he is that he can work in that kind of environment without batting an eye. It made the whole movie really fun. There was just no tension, there were no arguments. Everybody felt really...He was a great leader on set.  We were all in Savannah, and on the weekend, we’ll all go play games at his place. He's just a man’s man, but really fun and incredibly smart. I think that's another thing he appreciated about the script is he’s an intellect, and he's impressive in that way, and he has something to say, and I think that he related to that part of Frank as well.

LRM:  I feel that you can tell from watching this movie that it was a relaxed set. For some reason, whenever I see a movie that just works really well, and I talk to people who worked on the movie, they talk about how they all got along and there wasn’t the type of tension you expect on a movie set.

Marc Webb: It gives you permission to play, and when you feel safe and you feel like you're having fun, you can try out different things, and that yields a kind of general charisma for the movie. It's just fun to be around. Not all movies are that way. I don't think The Revenant was like a fun movie to make, and that had a different kind of power and a different kind of focus and engagement. I think you want to hang out with this guy and you want to hang out with Bonnie, played by Jennie Slate. You want to hang out with the cast. There’s a social component to a movie, and you want that relaxed swagger, particularly in Frank and Mary and I think you get that.

LRM: I want to go back to the script for a second. Was there anything in it that you were able to connect with in the script or was it just an overall feeling?

Marc Webb: Yeah, there’s many things. Part of it is just I like the way it made me feel. After making those Spider-man movies I wanted something simple, something nourishing and uncynical. I just needed that in my life. I really do think that's the first kind of gateway. I also felt what the move was addressing was important, and I think it's really easy if you're in New York or L.A., you take for granted how not all families look alike, but I do think that in movies that it's important to reinforce that idea. Not everybody recognizes that, and I think a family is this idea, which is a subtextual theme in the movie but it's a really important one that you’re not always born into the family, and you can make your own family is what I'm saying. That's what Frank did with Roberta (Octavia Spencer’s character) and with Mary. He created a loving unit that he couldn't find with his own mother. I think that's a valuable message to put out there so there's that part of it. Then my Dad's in math education, my grandfather is a math professor, my brother is an engineer--I come from a huge math background, so I've had a romantic attachment to mathematics since I was a kid. I was going to be an engineer when I was younger and playing in this sandbox felt natural to me. Then I have nieces, and I loved the idea of a young woman having mathematical ability. Hidden Figures was great in that way too, because you forget that that’s a thing; that not all geniuses are men

LRM: It’s amazing to have two movies about math now that are more audience and moviegoer friendly in that way.

Marc Webb: Yes. Crowd-pleasing movies that are supportive of really intelligent woman. It's great. We need more of it.

LRM: I want to talk about finding Mckenna. I know she’s acted for a number of years now, but how did you get her for Mary? Did youy have her do some chemistry reads with Chris? 

Marc Webb: Yeah, we auditioned her several times, and she had done a reading of the script for The Blacklist, which I didn't go to actually, so she knew the script really well when she was auditioning. She came in and we asked her to do some of the more emotional scenes, because you want a kid to be able to emote and to cry. A lot of adult actors can't even do that, and she is an emotional nuclear weapon. That girl is incredible. She would take time, she would prepare herself and she came in in that chemistry reading with Chris and not only did she do that great emotional stuff, but she could improvise. She was funny. She was really legitimately funny. She would play jokes, she has a very dry sense of humor. It was pretty incredible. I mean we saw, 1,000 or 1,200 young women,  and it was very clear after that reading that she was our girl. I remember Chris like looked at me after she left the room, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s it. There you go. End of the search.”

LRM: I feel like she’s going to be like Dakota or Elle Fanning, where she’s just going to get better as an actor. If she’s that good an actress at that age, she’ll only get better. 

Marc Webb: Yeah, yeah, and she's smart and she's grounded. She's a very caring person, which gives me a lot of faith. All kid actors, it's always tricky, you never know, but she's so warm and she loves animals, and she loves kids. She seems like a pretty healthy kid and I just really love her. She was so much fun to work with. 

LRM: I think you've finished another movie since making “Gifted” and also you're working on a new show as well? You're just keeping really busy?

Marc Webb: Yeah. I'm in the last thralls of finishing The Only Living Boy in New York with Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan and Kate Beckinsale, and then I'm doing a show with Alan Cumming, which is why I’m not at the junket, because it’s just been so crazy.

LRM: Was “The Only Living Boy” something else that you've been developing for a while too or is that also something that came after?

Marc Webb: Yeah, that I’d been attached to even before Spider-Man. It was a script that I've been working on for a really long time. I just wanted Jeff Bridges so bad and finally it worked out, and he’s so cool. I'm really excited about that movie so that's going to come out in August.

LRM: And you’re working with Amazon Studios on that? How's that been? 

Marc Webb: Yeah, they're so great. I've been very lucky with distributors in my life. They've been really warm and great collaborators. We shot that movie in the Fall, and we're just finished up the score and the mix. It's another great specialty studio.

LRM: I talked to Jim Jarmusch last year, and he was raving about them, and when someone like Jarmusch says a studio is good, I trust him. He's been making independent films for decades now.

Marc Webb: Yeah, Ted Hope, who is just old-school independent New York producer, and he's such a cool guy. He's very supportive of a filmmaker, and I've had a really great experience with these last two movies. It's so much fun making movies.

LRM: You've been doing television and doing these smaller movies, but do you have any interest is doing another big budget movie? Do you feel like there's anything you learned from “Spider-Man” that you’ll use going forward?

Marc Webb: Sure, I would love to do a big film. I mean, I'd sort of approach it more carefully, but yeah, I think someday I would love to do that. I don't really think about it in those terms. It's about trying to find the best story to tell. You just never know how that's going to come about, so I'm totally up for doing big movies. It just depends on what comes my way.

LRM: Are you developing other things on your own besides the TV stuff or is it sort of just finishing up that stuff. 

Marc Webb: Yeah. I'm working on...there’s a New Yorker article that we're in the early stages of developing about the Westboro Baptist Church, then I have some TV stuff, and then there's another movie called Three Bags Full, which is about a flock of sheep that solve a mystery, which I'm working on with Working Title, but that’s all in the early stages. There’s a lot of great stuff coming down the pike, I hope.

Gifted opens in select cities on Friday, April 7, and then expands nationwide later in April.


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