Marvel Animation Age & Toon Zone Interview Greg Weisman on "Spectacular Spider-Man"
Greg Weisman is a veteran of the television animation business with nearly 2 decades of experience under his belt and a resume that includes work for the likes of Disney, DreamWorks, and Warner Brothers. He is best known as supervising producer and story editor for Gargoyles, a television show that still inspires incredible dedication in its fanbase. He has also contributed scripts and stories for shows like Men in Black, Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, The Batman, Ben 10, Kim Possible, and the Legion of Super Heroes.
Last year, Weisman took on the job of being supervising producer, story editor, and writer for The Spectacular Spider-Man, the smash hit animated series spotlighting Marvel Comics’ famous web-slinging, wall-crawling superhero. On the eve of the show’s debut on the Disney XD network, and its second season to debut this summer, the Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News were able to speak with Weisman about the experience of the first season of the show and try to weasel some more information about the second season out of him.
MARVEL ANIMATION AGE/TOON ZONE NEWS: I’m going to start with a slightly unorthodox question: what’s the one thing that you wish nobody would ever ask you again about The Spectacular Spider-Man?
GREG WEISMAN: (laughs) That’s a good question. I guess the obvious thing is, “Why did we make Montana into Shocker?” just because I’ve answered that one so many times that I suppose I’m a little tired of it, but the truth is that even that doesn’t bother me too much, because I feel like I’ve got a good answer (laughing). But there’s nothing that leaps out of me like an, “Oh, shut up!” kind of thing. That’s probably the closest I can come to.
MAA/TZN: Cool. Now I don’t have to cross out any of the questions I was going to ask you later.
MAA/TZN: Now, can you talk a little bit about how you planned…
WEISMAN: “Oh, shut up!” No, sorry, sorry…(laughter)
MAA/TZN: Can you talk a bit about how you planned each season of The Spectacular Spider-Man? How far in advance do you plan?
WEISMAN: We definitely planned season-by-season. Even then, we planned with a view towards what would be coming in the following season. So, because I had to plot season 2, I had to have at least a general idea of where season 3 would go, though it may or may not ever happen. When we started with season 1, we broke down the entire 13 episodes and we had a fairly good idea generally of what we had planned in season 2. Then I had a VERY large bulletin board — it was actually so big, it was 2 bulletin boards bolted to the wall next to each other to make one really big one — and I had a lot of index cards of various colors. Green index cards were for villains, blue ones represented things going on in Spider-Man’s life, pink ones represented things going on in Peter Parker’s life, yellow cards represented our big bad villain, and orange cards represented points in time, since we were on a calendar. Since we’re staring in September of his junior year, Halloween had to come in October, so orange cards worked for things that were fixed in time.
So we had all these different cards and we just kept moving them around on the board until the whole season started to click. We also made sure that we were building an arc at a time, so after we had gotten the whole season approved by Sony and Marvel, I brought in the writing team and we’d have a story meeting where we’d break an arc at a time. We had those I’d say about once a month, on average. I’d take them to lunch, and then we’d come back and sit in front of the bulletin board and take the 3 or 4 episodes that were in the arc we were currently working on and break those, and the individual writers would go away and work on their outline and their scripts.
MAA/TZN: Did you have much room to improvise or follow some interesting digression that you hadn’t really thought of at the beginning of the season?
WEISMAN: There’s discovery along the way at every point in the process, so we might think of something in the writer’s room, where it’s like, “Hey, what if we tried this?” “Oh, that’s really cool!” Likewise, the writer or I might come up with something in the process of writing the outline or the process of writing the script. But I’ll be honest, there wasn’t a ton of digression, because we only had nineteen-and-a-half minutes of content per episode, and so much story and so many characters. We’re a very dense, very packed show. We’re very content heavy, so there’s not a lot of room to go off on a nice little tangent about a character because we just don’t have the space for it. If you did that, you’d have to lose something else, and we rarely have time to do that. As it is, there was way more content that we wanted to include than we had screen time. But, you know, the writing process is full of surprises. You get great lines of dialogue that you would have never thought of at the beginning of the process. You get nice little moments between characters. The action itself, both in the writing process and the storyboard and the directing process, is always full of surprises for us, and serendipity and all that kind of stuff, so we try not to be rigid. We try to be very fluid through the whole process, but we also try to make sure we have all our ducks in a row because production is hard. Ultimately, it’s very time intensive, so you want to make sure you have all your ducks in a row before you get started or else you just find yourself flailing.
MAA/TZN: Given how dense the show is, was there anything in season 1 that sort of surprised you in the way it kind of took on a life of its own, or went off in a direction you weren’t expecting it to at the beginning?
WEISMAN: I’d love to answer “Yes” to that, but I don’t know that there were a lot of surprises. There were a lot of pleasant surprises in the sense that when we started working on the show, we didn’t have a voice cast yet, so once the voice actors come in and they start to breathe life into these characters, that influences you. You begin to hear strengths of your actors and you begin to write towards those strengths a little bit more, as opposed to writing in a vacuum. This great cast did a magnificent job at handling everything we threw at them, but once you get to know those voices, it becomes easier to write towards their strengths and do fun stuff with them. Jonah’s obsession with wasting time was something that sort of tossed into the pilot, and that became sort of a trope for him, because when Daran did the character and he’d put these ridiculous deadlines on things. “I want it done in 3.7 seconds!” It just was funny. On the humor side, that’s where a lot of discoveries got made. We just found things that were really funny, so they were things that we came back to over and over again for individual characters because it made us laugh and we could always use a good laugh. From a plotting standpoint, most of that was done in advance, and there weren’t a lot of surprises there, but from a character standpoint, a lot of that is by virtue that the voice cast is doing such a great job.
MAA/TZN: I know a lot of times I hear that someone will come in and read for a part, and that will really change or sharpen or define the character for the writers. You just mentioned something like that for J. Jonah Jameson, did that happen with anybody else on the show?
WEISMAN: Yeah, I think almost every character taught us those lessons, like what Crispin Freeman did with Electro, and with Flash Thompson. Certainly Josh LeBar did amazing stuff with Flash that really encouraged us, especially in season 2, to give more depth to his character. We think that Grey DeLisle is hilarious as Sally, the girl that everybody loves to hate on our show, but we think she’s really funny, so we gave her some more attention. Even Kevin Michael Richardson as Principal Davis. Principal Davis has, I don’t know, 8 lines total in season 1? But in season 2, he’s got a couple of great little ad libs there that we kept in because they were just both funny, but they also really helped define Davis as an individual and not just as a functionary character — “OK, we took the name from the comic books, but otherwise this guy just exists to serve a role.” Now, he’s more of a person to us.
So little touches throughout from all the actors, really, but also things that the writers have come up with. Little bits that the storyboard artists do that also sort of reveal character are really important as well. It’s a gift having this great cast of characters — heroes, villains, supporting cast — from the Spider-Man canon. Before actors come aboard, before any writing is done, we’re handed this phenomenal ensemble from the canon, and so we really want to try as much as possible to make all these characters come to life. And again, we don’t always have as much time in an episode as I’d like to spend on this character or that character, but over the long haul, we’re hopeful that everyone from Coach Smith to Mary Jane Watson is going to get a lot of character development. Some will get more than others for obvious reasons, but we’re really doing justice to this great ensemble.
MAA/TZN: One of the things that I like about the show is that it strikes a good balance between the lighter, fun aspects of superhero comics and Spider-Man in particular, with the darker elements that crowd into his life. Do you find it difficult to maintain that balance between those two poles?
WEISMAN: Um…..let’s see, what’s the right answer…I’m a magician! (laughs) The truth is that it’s not that difficult. I’m not saying that it’s not sometimes a challenge, but that is the way I love to write. To me, drama is more dramatic if it’s offset by comedy, comedy is funnier if the situation is serious. I think that these are tools that serve us well, and you only have to go to Stan’s original work on the book with Steve or with John Romita Sr. to see that that’s always what Spider-Man is about. Long before Joss Whedon made it an art in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is what Stan was doing. So, with great role models like those two guys I just mentioned, this is what we’re trying to do on the show: to always have this balance so that there are moments with just these great laughs intertwined with…well, maybe “horror” is too strong a word, but moments when certainly Peter is horrified.
Certainly it helps to have a great writing staff, great voice actors, a terrific voice director Jamie Thomason — he’s just done some amazing work. That’s taken forward by partners Vic Cook, supervising producer, who, when it comes to directing the show, makes sure we’ve got a lot of fun stuff happening there as well, and then right on through post-production. We have jokes in the music. Peter’s ring tone is “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” It’s a throwaway, but we think it ‘s funny. Maybe we think it’s funnier than it is, but we’re just trying to put as much up on the screen that makes the audience go, “Wow, they even thought of that.” We’re constantly trying to up the ante on that.
MAA/TZN: I know you did your homework on the source material, but are there any red herrings that you planted during the seasons? Things that you put in there deliberately with the intent that you were trying to throw off the comic book fans?
MAA/TZN: Can you go into what some of those things were, exactly?
WEISMAN: No, I’m not going to (laughs)! I mean, we’re premiering in March, and I don’t really want to scoop the shows themselves. There’s stuff we did in there to make the show dramatic and exciting and hopefully surprising, but always, always trying to be true to the spirit and the core of the original comics. It’s for someone else to decide whether we succeed or not, that’s, but that’s absolutely the goal. But for me to sort of say, “Oh, and here they are,” (laughs) I’m not going to do that.
MAA/TZN: Not even for season 1?
MAA/TZN: That’s cool. Riffing off that same idea, one thing that everybody knows about Gwen Stacy is “The Death of Gwen Stacy.” How did you manage the weight of those expectations while you were writing season 1?
WEISMAN: Well, I think the thing to keep in mind, from my point of view personally, has to do with how old I am. I’m not quite old enough that I was reading Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but when I started reading Spider-Man, I was reading Lee/Romita, and so to me, if someone said, “Spider-Man,” that’s what I thought of. So Gwen’s a very important character to me. I know exactly what you mean when people — particularly to a more modern, younger audience – say that the thing that people remember about Gwen is her death, but for me, that’s not true. I remember being shattered by her death, but I remember GWEN. I remember falling in love with Gwen reading those issues when I was a kid, so what I wanted was for the audience to fall in love with Gwen. In terms of what’s on the horizon for her, we’re not going to make that what she’s about. We’re going to make her into the type of character that people fall in love with. And we’re going to try and make it real. One of the challenges with characters like Gwen, or Mary Jane or Harry, specifically those three, is that we didn’t meet them until Pete went to college, and we didn’t want to take their college personas and slap them down into high school. We were cheating by putting them into high school at all. We didn’t want to wait four years to introduce these characters who are so important, so we decided to extrapolate backwards. We know what they were like in college, so what might they have been like in high school? We weren’t slapping the college Gwen Stacy or the college Harry Osborn into the high school era. We were figuring out, “Hey, what was Harry or Gwen like in high school? What might they have been like?” and trying to create something that was both surprising for the audience, but also would feel true as we moved forwards through the seasons.
MAA/TZN: I have to admit that you he had me going at the end of season 1 about that, though. I was actually a little surprised at how upset I was at the idea that it might actually happen.
WEISMAN: Well, we love the character, and I’m glad you feel that way. Really, that’s what I was trying to do. It bothers me that all anyone thinks of when they think of Gwen Stacy is her death, because, again, that wasn’t my experience. We have no intention of killing her in the short term. She didn’t die until college, we’re still in their junior year of high school. And not that her death wasn’t significant, but that’s not what I think of, and for all the strengths of the movies, one of the things that always struck me was that the Mary Jane Watson they created in the first movie was really a lot more Gwen Stacy than she ever was Mary Jane. I wanted you to care about Gwen, not just go, “(Oh, she’s a) target” but actually care about her as a character, so if we succeeded, I’m really glad.
MAA/TZN: Can you pick out any one particular element from season 1 that you really wanted to try and work it in and you just couldn’t, because of time or because of some other reason?
WEISMAN: There was stuff that was cut for time in almost every episode. For example, there was a really, REALLY funny sequence in episode 6, where Rhino is looking for Peter Parker, because Peter Parker is the guy who always takes pictures of Spider-Man, so he thinks that, in Rhino’s sort of deliberate but slow-thinking way, “If I find this Parker guy, he could lead me to Spider-Man.” There was a scene we wrote where he’s basically going through the phone book looking for all the Peter Parkers, and he breaks down the door of one guy who’s this old, blind, African-American bassoon player, and accuses him of being Peter Parker the photographer. The guy’s blind, and he says, “Do I look like I’m a photographer?” (laughs) and Rhino’s just really frustrated because there are a lot of Peter Parkers in the tri-state area. I’m not doing it justice, but it was Clancy Brown as Rhino playing off of Kevin Michael Richardson as Peter James Parker the classical bassoonist, and it was just hilarious. It was written, it was recorded, and it was storyboarded, but at the end of the day, the show was long and we could cut that scene out without anyone noticing or knowing, and that’s too bad because it was really funny. We had a sub-plot with Ned and Betty and their growing affection for each other, but that kind of got lost by the wayside towards the latter half of the season. Andrew Kishino was Ned Leeds and Grey DeLisle was Betty Brant, and it was good stuff, but again, they’re both sort of secondary characters in the show, and so stuff that involved their little romance kind of got shelved. Their growing romance kept getting shelved, so I’m actually hoping we have a season 3 where Ned would be more important and we could start to put some of that material back in because it wouldn’t feel so tertiary. He would feel a little bit more directly involved with the story.
MAA/TZN: Speaking of which, since I figure it’s probably been about 15 minutes since someone last asked you, is there any new news about season 3?
WEISMAN: No, there isn’t. I wish there was. Basically, we’ve been told that we have to wait for the show to premiere, and I’m sure they have to see how the ratings are and everything like that before they’ll pick up season 3. So, we’re premiering on Disney XD on March 23rd, and we’re hopeful that not too long after that, they’ll call us up and say, “OK, let’s get going.” We’re really in a kind of limbo state right now until the show gets on the air.
MAA/TZN: You knew at the end of season 1 that you were greenlit for a season 2, is that right?
WEISMAN: Actually, we learned that we got the pickup for season 2 about 2/3rds of the way through season 1, so there was a large span of time when Vic and I were working on season 1 and 2 simultaneously. That was kind of brutal schedule-wise, but we definitely found out about the pickup during the first season.
MAA/TZN: Did that give you kind of a little bit more freedom to wander off and leave some things hanging at the end of season 1 because you knew you’d be able to pick up on them in the second season?
WEISMAN: It did, although again, you have to keep in mind that season 1 was all plotted by that time. There were certain things that we planned to leave hanging, crossing our fingers that there would be a season 2, but if we didn’t they would just be things left hanging, I guess. We’re totally done with all the work for season 2. My last day at Sony was at the end of January, and we left some things hanging for the end of season 2, and we aren’t sure that there’s a season 3. To some extent, we try to give a little bit of…for lack of a better term, I’m going to say, “open-ended closure” to each season. We can’t tie up every single loose end because then if we did get the next season, we’d be kind of screwed up, so we kind of have to hope that we’ll be back to finish up what we started, but there was an element to plotting both seasons when it came to taking it on faith that we’d be back, and crossing our fingers that we weren’t kidding ourselves.
MAA/TZN: Given that I guess you’re not working on season 3 of the show yet, can you talk about what other stuff you’re doing at the moment? There were some new comic projects that just got announced recently, right?
WEISMAN: I’m not really working on any comics right now. We finished all the work on Gargoyles and Gargoyles: Bad Guys, and those will be coming out as trade paperbacks this summer, and from a comic book standpoint, that’s pretty much all I’m doing right now. There’s a couple of things that got announced that aren’t going to happen, and there’s one thing that isn’t announced and that may happen, but just we’re a few days away from closing the deal, so I don’t really want to talk about it. But what I can say is that I wrote an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and hopefully will write one or two more, filling the gap here, and I’ve got a few other projects in the works that Warner Brothers and I’m hopeful that one or more of those will go. And I’m hopeful that Spider-Man will be back.
MAA/TZN: Yeah, I thought I remembered reading that you were going to be doing a series, but I guess that’s not happening?
WEISMAN: There were a couple of series announced by SLG, and then economic meltdown took place and with tremendous regret, they just informed me that they can’t afford to do those projects right now. One of them, we’re trying to place somewhere else, and I think we will, but it’s just a little too soon to say for sure, and the other one’s just kind of in limbo. And then I was also doing something for DC Comics that also got cut back, so. Wouldn’t mind doing something for Marvel Comics! But nobody’s asked me. (laughs)
The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News would like to thank Greg Weisman for taking the time to speak with us, and to Caroline Mendoza at Sony for setting up the interview. The first season of The Spectacular Spider-Man will debut on the Disney XD network on Monday, March 23, 2009. For more details, visit the Marvel Animation Age news article about the Disney XD launch episodes or visit the official Spectacular Spider-Man web site. Don’t forget to check out our interview with Josh Keaton, the voice of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.