“A key part of our orchestration of the story is that everything in Peter’s journey happens because of his yearning to find out about his father....”
—Director Marc Webb
This summer’s super blockbusters THE AVENGERS and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN were not only super hero action flicks, but also films superbly presented on all levels. The retelling of the Spider-Man legend, this time as an origin tale, was fresh, heartfelt and highly effective.
Director Marc Webb offers, “Exploring a new dimension of the Peter Parker story meant telling the story in a different way – a more naturalistic way…I wanted the fun, the spectacle, the action, the rage, and the humor to feel more realistic, like you walk out on the street and you can imagine this happening…” To create the ideal settings for all this, he called on Production Designer J. Michael Riva and Set Decorator Leslie Pope SDSA, veterans of the darker Spider-Man 3. They embraced the new direction and brought it to life.
In a conversation with SET DECOR, Pope talks about their rather incredible feats in doing so…
SET DECOR: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was the last film the amazing Production Designer J. Michael Riva completed. Your deep collaboration with him was long established. Please share with us about working with Riva, particularly on this film…
Set Decorator Leslie Pope SDSA:
Michael Riva was one-of-a-kind, a designer with a precise eye, an unquenchable delight in beauty, an intellectual curiosity that roved so widely and tirelessly that it often left lesser humans in the dust. He made the workday challenging yet always fun. He didn’t pay lip service to the word “collaboration” – he LIVED it. His door was always open, his cell phone always on, his smile at the ready. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more generous, warm loving man. I miss him every day.
The big attraction for both Michael and me about working on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was the opportunity to reinterpret the familiar world of Peter Parker while remaining true to the spirit of the original material. We had done SPIDER-MAN 3 together and had become accustomed to the dark world of the Sam Raimi films. Here was a chance to see the same milieu through another director’s prism.
SD: Speaking of the director, please tell us about collaborating with Marc Webb…
Pope: In my first meeting with Marc Webb, he cut quickly to the heart of the matter – Peter Parker grows into late adolescence while grappling with the loss of his parents and finding his first love.
Marc emphasized his desire to ground Peter’s world in the sights and sounds and textures of New York City. Also, because this is the Spider-Man origin story and Peter has yet to discover the full range of his powers, Marc wanted to keep many of the action scenes smaller and have them performed on real sets, rather than computer-generated. This put the onus on the Art and Set Decoration departments to create vivid, completely realistic environments that could sustain damage during the extreme action, e.g. all of the high school classrooms, bathrooms, library and the rooftop used in the climactic scene.
SD: Webb says, “Since we were reestablishing Peter Parker, we had to build the audience’s relationship with him from the ground up. In order to do that legitimately, we begin the story with Peter Parker as a seven-year-old boy. We see him before his parents left, before they handed him off to Aunt May and Uncle Ben. This allowed the audience to experience the significant emotional cues in his life.”
Please tell us about the set of Peter’s home with his parents…
Pope: Peter Parker’s childhood home is an Upper Manhattan brownstone. Copious research was done to determine the level of income, background, etc of professionals such as the Parkers. Marc and Michael wanted these scenes to have a warm, nostalgic quality, as if the audience is experiencing this world through Peter’s memory. The dark nicotined hues of the interior were chosen for that effect. Upholstered pieces and drapery were created in very specific color ranges and patterns, and all wood surfaces were dark walnut or mahogany stains. Both parents are sophisticated, erudite citizens of the world, so I filled the set with artwork and curios from around the globe, keeping in mind our restrained palette.
Peter’s father’s study was particularly detailed, with shelves filled with hand selected books and pertinent objets. An enormous blackboard filled one wall of the set, covered with formulae provided by our scientific consultants. In one scene, an interloper has ransacked the desk, the drawers and nearby tables, so all of the scattered paperwork had to be created in-house and be relevant to Dr. Parker’s field of study. Marc decided that Dr. Parker would be a jazz fan, and, in accordance, I found and secured legal rights to a Herman Leonard photograph of Duke Ellington at the piano illuminated by a strong spotlight. This hangs prominently in the study and is later seen in postcard form on the bulletin board in the teenaged Peter’s bedroom as a signal both that Peter Parker is a “chip off the old block” and that he deeply wishes he knew his missing dad.
SD: And please describe the home of Uncle Ben & Aunt May…
Pope: The home of Aunt May and Uncle Ben is in a solidly middle class neighborhood in Queens, where Ben is an ironworker on the bridges of New York City and May is a waitress. Sunny yellows, spring greens and cinnamons comprised the palette, to show the love and depth of affection surrounding Peter. The kitchen/dining room is the heart of this set, with family photos, union stickers, notes—all created by the Art and Set Dec Departments—plastered across the fridge…papers, phones, homework are scattered across the table to help show the active, full life swirling through the home.
SD: …Peter’s bedroom…what we learn from it…
Pope: Marc and I decided that his room appears messy when first seen, and then as Peter matures emotionally, this is reflected in a newly organized bedroom. At first, the bedroom is filled with all the detritus of teenage life: empty soda cans, magazines, skateboards, schoolbooks, backpacks. Later, we more clearly see his camera gear and mechanical/electronic tinkering equipment.
Peter’s burgeoning love of jazz is reflected here, with the Duke Ellington postcard previously seen in his father’s study hanging on his bulletin board. I also called Phil Schaap, creator of the “Bird Flight” radio program, which plays daily on the Columbia University radio station (WKCR-FM) and is devoted to the music of Charlie Parker. I am a huge fan of the show and decided that Peter might be also. Mr. Schaap was kind enough to grant us permission to create a poster for his show and this hangs above Peter’s desk.
Peter’s desk and bookcases are populated with electronic gear, circuit boards, hand tools…to display his innate dexterity and aptitude with all things mechanical and scientific…and are filled with math, engineering, biomechanics and physics volumes. There is even a collection of manufactured and homemade weather-monitoring equipment which Peter has mounted outside his window. Items such as these show Peter’s predilection for the scientific world – the link to his parent’s world.
Last, but not least, are the photographs hanging in the bedroom. His early training as a photographer begins here, so the room contains cameras, bags, tripods, an enlarger and photos, photos, photos. Many of these photos were taken by J. Michael Riva and Set Decoration Buyer Helen Kozora-Tell.
SD: Webb notes, “Peter Parker is very much a kid of today. He wouldn’t wait around for someone to invent web-shooters; he’d be on the internet, doing research and figuring out how to make them himself. He’s got a head for this stuff naturally – designing the web-shooters in his uncle’s basement is just the next logical step for him.”
Please tell us about dressing/decorating for this…
Pope: The web shooter was, of course, made by the Property Department. The Set Dec challenge was to create a believable basement set filled with the stored materials of an active small family. We stuffed it full of Christmas decorations, boxes of clothing, workbenches and shelving, gardening tools, bicycles, hoses and the scripted chest freezer. To accommodate the “throw” needed by the web shooter to reach the brick wall, we bought several old worktables and cannibalized them for parts to make one of the proper size.
Michael and Director of Photography Jon Schwartzman wanted the verisimilitude of ceiling joists, but this made lighting the scene from above more difficult, so I dressed in many practical lighting sources. One little noticed but important detail is the watchmaker’s table and tools dressed into the corner of the basement. This is Uncle Ben’s hobby, which helps to explain Peter’s mechanical aptitude.
The Stacy Home…
SD: Actress Emma Stone who plays Gwen Stacy says, “We’re operating in a superhero universe, but that relationship has to feel grounded and real….Gwen offers Peter a world of stability, of a family unit not marred with parental loss and, beyond physical allure, the two also forge an intellectual connection over their shared love of science."
Please tell us about how Gwen’s room reflects these…what we learn about Gwen from her room. And please tell us about her family’s flat…the police captain’s home…the social strata and family defined by set…
Pope: The Stacys are a professional couple…the mom a corporate lawyer, the dad an NYPD Captain. Art Department Researcher Jude Jansen provided us with a wealth of research on the job duties and income levels of Gwen’s parents, so we were able to design and furnish their Upper West Side apartment accordingly. The Stacys have two sons, both younger than Gwen. It is a very happy family unit with a strict but loving father, as evidenced by the fact that they eat dinner together every night and talk over the events of the day, with Dad presiding.
Michael conceived of this apartment as a glowing, golden retreat for Peter – a shimmering mirage almost – a vision of the family life that might have been. The palette ranged from bright beiges and creamy butter yellows through café au lait to burnished gold and copper. The entire family is crazy for sports, so trophies, sporting equipment and clothing are scattered about. Family photos abound, especially in the long central hallway of the apartment where we hung many large candid and posed shots of the active children and parents. Peter and Gwen walk through this hallway and here again Peter glimpses the kind of life he might have had.
Gwen’s bedroom is almost always seen in the evening, so Michael specified a lavender wall color which tested beautifully with Gwen’s haircolor, wardrobe and the golden lighting scheme of our DP, Jon Schwartzman. I brought the burnished gold from the rest of the apartment into this room as upholstery, accessories and artwork. Gwen’s scientific bent is evidenced by her desktop microscope and her shelves of scientific books. Emma Stone suggested several points of interest for the room – certain children’s and young adult books, sporting pennants and the collection of shot glasses seen on the shelf above Gwen’s desk.
Because Gwen is in the midst of looking at colleges and universities, her desk is also dressed with application materials from some of the best academic institutions. Great effort went into dressing the bulletin board next to her desk with photos, calendars detailing her many activities, and other items depicting the everyday life of a popular teenager. Gwen could not have attained her coveted position at Oscorp without being an exceptional student with a very organized mind. I tried to reflect this in her world by keeping some of the trappings of teendom in evidence – moderately messy bulletin board, stuffed animals, clothing and bags strewn about – but giving the room an overall uncluttered, thought-out look.
The worlds of Dr. Connors/The Lizard…
SD: Please tell us about the Dr. Connors-related sets and how they reflected his disintegration from a caring human to someone more and more detached from his humanity…
Pope: Dr. Connors home is meant to be an example of rigid organization. It was dressed to look almost like a showroom - everything in its exact place - a look into his orderly mind. The location had a multitude of windows and light stone flooring so I continued that and kept the furnishings lighter, airier, more open. This contrasts greatly with the chaos, darkness and claustrophobia we see expressed later in his office and lair as madness takes over his life. These three sets serve to show Dr. Connors’ retreat from sanity. They become increasing disorganized, reaching the apex of his madness in his sewer lair. Some of the same items from his office are later dressed into his lair – computers, printers, photos, papers, books. His desk here was a fantastically rusted and ruined overscale door that I found at LCW. Another found piece became the base of the desk. Large generators, turbines and other industrial equipment installed here helped to create the illusion that we were actually in some kind of abandoned work area beneath the streets of Manhattan where only someone in the throes of madness would choose to work.
SD: The OsCorp lab set’s massive footprint occupied over 14,000 square feet of stage floor at Sony Pictures Studios. Please tell us about this huge set!
Pope: There is a lot of visual bang for the buck contained in the expensive and enormous Oscorp lab set. We were lucky to be able to visit several working biological laboratories in Southern California to view their environs and to discuss protocols, equipment, etc with the scientists.
Based upon these visits, I came up with a list of scientific equipment companies and then the Branded Integration Department at Sony, led by Kathy Talutis and Kalle Gelman, reached out to all of them and secured loans and price breaks on multitudes of real biological and chemical equipment – everything from chemical fume hoods, aquaria, rodent cages, centrifuges, to pipettes and flasks.
We purchased lab tables from manufacturers and then extensively remodeled them to include hardware and lighting elements that served the film. Hundreds of items…chairs, waste cans, nitrogen tanks, fire control equipment, light fixtures, microscopes, carts appropriate for a lab environment…had to be sourced, purchased and installed.
The robotic arms seen in the main lab and the spiderweb nursery are real, manufactured by Fanuc Robotics, and on loan to us. They had to be extensively programmed to perform the actions we see in the film.
This was also great fun for me…I graduated college with a BS in Biology and worked in labs during and after college, until I fell headlong into the film industry and never left. It was fascinating to see how the world of biological research has changed in the intervening years.
The streets of NY…
SD: The film’s exteriors were largely shot on the New York street sets at Universal Studios [the first film to shoot there following the extensive rebuild after a devastating fire in 2008]. Executive Producer Michael Grillo points out, “They created this world of New York City for us, so we could do stunts and physical effects, maintaining a control over explosions and crashes that were obviously much more effectively achieved than [had we shot them] on locations.”
Could you give us some details re: the NYC exteriors?
Pope: Here are a few!
Discarded gum lent additional realism to the faux detritus placed throughout the several city blocks, and fake pigeons were installed on a lamppost above the street...
2,000+ posters, bills and stickers were placed on light poles, mailboxes and alleyways as well as on the eight construction sites added by the production…
1,454 bare windows to be dressed = 5,000+ yards of fabric, 300 venetian blinds, 300 air conditioning units…
18 set dressers worked for weeks in order to install the storefronts, art galleries, restaurants, mailboxes, newsstands and cafes on the streets…
More than a dozen leading retailers loaned materials for the NY street scenes, including: Starbucks, DKNY, Manolo Blahnik, Design Within Reach, Brioni, Hugo Boss, Sephora, Patagonia, Dean & Deluca, Banana Republic, Tory Burch, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, whose window was shattered and merchandise destroyed during a particularly intense action scene…
I had a separate crew at the Universal backlot for weeks, installing the loaned materials from the retailers listed above but many other items as well. Street light poles, traffic lights, walk signs, subway entrance stores, newsstands, street signs were all added by us. Fully dressed interiors were provided for a French brasserie, a pizzeria, a convenience store/deli and several partial interiors such as a hotel lobby, a municipal building, a bookstore were also dressed.
A huge amount of outdoor lighting – spot lights, wall washers, sign lights were installed. Beverly Hadley, Manager of the Universal Property Department and I partnered in a deal whereby she purchased many giant Beaux Arts and Gothic sconces and I rented them from Universal – a happy deal for us both in that I got to use the fixtures in proper scale and time period and now the same fixtures will be available to many other generations of set decorators through the Universal Property Department.
SD: Construction built a full-scale 300 ft section of the NY Williamsburg Bridge…please tell us about the set decoration aspect of this…
Pope: After consultation with the appropriate department in New York City, I purchased lighting to match that of the actual fixtures on the bridge. Hundreds of feet of cable, electrical junction boxes, mounting hardware and brackets and many other pieces of what the set dressers refer to as “gack” were purchased and installed by my team. The set was actually quite expensive for my department in terms of both labor and materials and for set dressing that most viewers would not even notice – unless it were absent, of course!
Midtown Science High School…
SD: For the Midtown Science High School interior sequences – which would require extensive stunt and effects work – sets were constructed onstage as well. Could you give us some details about these?
Pope: We were lucky to have plenty of prep time so that I could order multiples of desks, chairs, lab equipment from actual school equipment manufacturers. I also bought some older cabinetry from EC Props which gave me the look I was seeking and that gave them some funds to buy newer equipment.
The largest soundstage on the lot became home to four classrooms, five hallways, a bathroom, principal’s office and secretary’s office.
The high school library, the site of a fierce and destructive battle, required a separate stage and was comprised of almost 3,000 feet of faux books, constructed of real book covers with recyclable styrofoam inserts.
The chemistry class was constructed of breakaway materials, to accommodate several fight sequences. Over 400 pieces of breakaway glass flasks, cylinders and beakers were acquired for this classroom alone.
I wanted to rent the lockers to keep the cost low but after the storyboards and pre-viz were completed, I realized the damage would be too great and we ended up purchasing miles of them and hundreds of fluorescent lighting fixtures also.
Pre-viz was invaluable in determining how many multiples of decoration items I would need in the myriad action scenes. It helps you see the shots through the eyes of the Director and DP and thus where to concentrate your efforts.
SD: Producer Avi Arad states, “3D isn’t right for every movie, but 3D was made for Spider-Man. It is another way we have of keeping the audience immersed in the storytelling. You see the world through his eyes and you feel like Spider-Man – the exciting moments are even more exciting. But what might be surprising is that 3D makes the intimate moments more intimate as well…”
Please tell us about decorating for 3D…
Pope: My first week on the film, I was issued a pair of 3D glasses and I used them everyday. Colors change dramatically - greens look brown, blues look green, yellows become muddy. Patterns that look innocuous to the naked eye can knock your socks off under 3D!
SD: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN employed over 1,000 people. The film’s sets occupied seven stages at Sony Studios. Please tell us about working on a film of this scale…
Pope: Prep time, prep time, prep time – one can never have enough on a film of this scale. Luckily, I’m a list maker…inherited from my mother…and I try to stay organized. Communication with other departments is essential because circumstances can change so rapidly that information can be lost. Michael Riva was great about making sure his entire team was well informed and acting on the latest information.
SD: What other unique set decoration details of this film can you share insider info about?
Pope: So many details! Here are a few others…
The ceiling of the OsCorp Lab hallway is actually egg crate soundproofing foam. A three-man team spent three weeks custom cutting, gluing and fireproofing the 3,000 square foot ceiling.
The reptile skeletons and other macabre accessories seen in Connors’ OsCorp Lab offices come from two aptly named Los Angeles shops: Necromance and Dapper Cadaver.
The “mice” seen in the OsCorp Lab are actually cat toys. There are approximately 200 of them, and crew members had to remove the ears of each mouse, which were a very un-lifelike fluorescent pink!
In Captain Stacy’s [Dennis Leary] office at the Police Precinct, a certificate of commendation from The Leary Firefighters Foundation hangs on the wall. This real-life organization was established in 2000 by actor Denis Leary in response to a tragic fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters, including Leary’s cousin and a childhood friend.