Interview | Marc Webb on ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’
Marc Webb spins a lot of stories, but only some of them have spiders. The director of Amazing Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man 2 got his start making music videos, and then turning heads with his critically-acclaimed millennial romance (500) Days of Summer, and after that brief detour into blockbuster superhero cinema, he’s back in indie land, making films about kids who don’t have a damned clue what they’re talking about, in The Only Living Boy in New York.
The Only Living Boy in New York stars Callum Turner (Green Room) as Thomas Webb, the son of a billionaire who’d rather be a New York City writer than a New York City businessman. His strained relationship with his father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), gets even worse after Thomas discovers that Ethan is having an affair with Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas decides to get to the bottom of his family’s secrets, leading to unexpected revelations, love affairs, and friendships with an enigmatic author, W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges).
It’s a romanticized story about people who, frankly, might turn you off with their circumstances and behavior. So I sat down with Marc Webb last week to discuss the creative decisions that went into The Only Living Boy in New York, including whether films about rich and privileged people can connect with audiences anymore, why the protagonist has the same last name as Marc Webb, and the difficulties inherent to telling a story about great writers, i.e. you have to be a great writer in order to convincingly pull it off. (And yes, we talked a little bit about Spider-Man.)
The Only Living Boy in New York is now playing. (Vague spoilers lie ahead.)
Crave: You have stuck with The Only Living Boy in New York for a long time. You were going to do this film years ago but you got sidetracked by some films with spiders.
Marc Webb: Well, I had read the script before (500) Days of Summer, but they rejected me. I tried to get hired and they were like, “Who are you? Go back to music videos.” Then I did (500) Days of Summer, then I did the first Amazing Spider-Man. And I asked my agent, I was like “I remember that script, I remember there was a scene with Johanna and that relationship with W.F. that really stayed with me.” I asked my agent to send me the script. He sent me this script, and he sent me this draft that was called, at that moment, Only Living Boy. “New York” had been taken out and it was set in Chicago, and I was like, what the fuck happened to this thing? It had been “developed” [air quotes] into something that did not resemble its original form.
So I looked back into my notes and found the original draft, and I was like, “Listen, if you guys want to start off with this then let’s give a whirl.”
What was it about the script that stuck with you long enough, that made you want to go back to it, and go back to redevelop it?
It was the relationship between Thomas and W.F., between Jeff Bridges’ character and Callum [Turner]. I really loved that friendship and that mentor relationship that developed between these two people, and it was intriguing, partly because who doesn’t want to have that kind of mentor when your that age? But I thought there was something compelling, a little bit creepy, but also really interesting about that first meeting where they’re completing each other’s sentences. It felt like two very lonely people finding each other. I for some reason was really attracted to that relationship.
For the first couple of scenes they had together, they’re all alone. There’s no one else there. Jeff Bridges’ apartment has no furniture in it. I’m like, “Is he going to be an imaginary friend? Is that the twist?”
Are you conscious of that sort of expectation the audience might have, when you have characters whose relationship is so insular?
You know what’s funny? I think in a very, very early draft that was the case. Before I became involved! But I think that there is another… what was the Zach Helm script? That was Stranger Than Fiction. It was that Charlie Kaufman-esque era. And they changed it. I also don’t think that it resolved very well. But I think that was kind of a thing, but I wasn’t really aiming away from that. I think it’s okay for people to toy with that. What I do think is true about that, and it occupies a little bit of the same space, is there’s a fable-like quality to the movie. You know what I mean? It is New York. It’s the New York I imagined before I ever moved to New York.
Right. It’s also a book within a movie.
Which is always tricky because when you’re telling a story about people who are supposed to be great writers, you have to be great.
I know! It’s so fucked up.
Is that a danger? What do you think about?
Yeah, I think it’s a really, really insidious set of expectations when you say somebody’s a great writer. I mean, I think the movie that it’s worked the best in is Shakespeare in Love because he’s…
That’s a cheat though. We already know he’s a great writer.
He’s Shakespeare, yeah.
But you look at something like Finding Forrester, when we finally get to read some of the dude’s writing, and they just cut away from it and there’s music and everyone’s just nodding like, “Hmmm… yes…”
It’s tricky. I mean, I here’s what was helpful in that way, was it’s Jeff Bridges’ voice, and he can get away with shit that other people can’t get away with. Like, somehow it sounds great. And then the other thing about the literary quality of it… I remember thinking about this, specifically, there is in the center of the movie a toast, and the toast by the guy, Uncle Buster, [played by] Bill Camp, who is from The Night Of. Al [Loeb, screenwriter] and I were working on a centerpiece, how to hold the movie together, and we just couldn’t crack it. And I was like, “Let me make a call.”
Al and I talked about it, and I went and called Alvin Sargent, who wrote Ordinary People and Paper Moon, Julia, he won a couple of Academy [Awards]. I love this guy and his writing, and I love his whimsical quality. He’s also 90 years old and he was like, “I can’t write that. I’m a hack! I don’t write professionally anymore,” and he just got grumpy and hung up the phone. And then at five o’clock in the morning he sent this speech, which I find very moving, and I think Bill Camp really killed. I thought that the writerly-ness in that was interesting, and I really love that little section of the movie, and I think that comes from a real place of wisdom from the person that wrote it. So these things, I mean it’s tricky. Yeah, you’re playing with fire, but you know, why not?
In the various versions of the draft that you worked with, jettisoned, developed… did the protagonist always have your last name?
Yes. You know where that came from?
You know who wrote The Graduate? The novel?
No, actually I forget.
There you go.
And Tom comes from… The Only Living Boy in New York was about Art Garfunkel going to make Catch-22. His character’s name was Tom, so Paul Simon is writing to Art Garfunkel, who is nervous about making Catch-22 with Mike Nichols. So “Thomas Webb,” that’s where that comes from.
Did it ever occur to you that maybe people might look at this and think, “This is some sort of analogue for me?”
Uh… yes. We actually tried to change the name.
They wouldn’t let you?
No, but we attempted it. We did a global change [to the script], like, “Clark.” But it just felt… I was like, you know what? Who gives a fuck? Maybe if people think that, I don’t care.
I looked up your Wikipedia page and was like, “Was he raised by millionaires?” I had to check to make sure this wasn’t your biography.
I [was] not. There is nothing… Listen, I won’t go into any more detail about this but I will say, there is an autobiographical component and that would probably surprise people. But I can’t go too much deeper than that.
Fair enough. While I’m watching the movie I’m asking myself, am I supposed to like Thomas? Because I’m not sure that I do. I think he does a lot of things that, frankly, piss me off.
Well, the first thing he does in the movie is complain that the girl he likes is putting him in the “Friend Zone,” and he’s too nice for this, and that’s a red flag right now. But also he’s kind of got everything going for him and he’s throwing it all away out of some bizarre fascination with a lifestyle that is completely alien to him and will probably always be alien to him because he’s in a privileged state.
And he’s naive…
Yeah, he’s naive. I think it’s okay. I am just interested. To me, likability is different than curiosity. You can be curious about something and that can compel you. That’s as valuable as likability in terms of how you invest in a story. I think, you know what? We talked about the privilege a lot, because it is a hot topic right now and we were very aware that that kind of thing [can] just feel gross.
And the truth is, I really love that relationship between Thomas and W.F., and that was what sustained my interest in the movie, and I was like… can you tell a story about, is it even POSSIBLE to tell a story about these kinds of people? And I guess that’s up to the audience. It leaves open a real legitimate form of criticism and if people of object to it I think that’s okay. I understand that. There are other stories that need to be told. But I was like, if you try to pull that string out of this, the whole foundation comes crumbling down.
Fair enough, but for me, one thing that you deal with is what is gained over the course of a narrative, and here’s a guy who kind of has everything… and at the end he has more, in a way. It’s almost like Harry Potter, where the first movie is basically people giving him things. Like the last scene is “Oh! We forgot to give you one last present! Here’s a picture of your mom and dad!” It’s not quite the same thing. I feel like there’s a nostalgia for stories like The Only Living Boy in New York within The Only Living Boy in New York.
I think, to me, what he does… how he earns something in the end, is he’s more honest than other people. You know? He goes through a process of deceit like everybody else, but eventually he confronts his father and he says I have to tell you the truth about what’s going on, and it’s something that nobody gave to him.
You know what I mean? I think at the beginning he smells something bad, he knows something’s not right, and his relationship with his father is kind of weird and alien, and the relationship with his mother, something’s off. And he’s trying to find something to hold onto and he projects all that stuff onto Mimi, she rejects him, and then weirdly the most honest person is Johanna. And I like that, I like the melodrama of it. It’s a soap opera, and I think it’s a house of lies, but it’s built on a foundation of love. These people are actually trying to care for each other.
Well, that’s sort of the irony for me, as I’m watching it. You would think, their family is built on some foundation of lies – maybe grand, maybe small – and I kept wondering if maybe it was going to get more sinister than that. The opening, where he’s following around his father’s mistress, it’s almost like… is this going to go into De Palma territory, and he’s going to kill her?
It could happen, based on what we know about his character and how obsessive he is about his father, and that’s another thing I wonder about. How far askew are you comfortable with the audience thinking is going to go, or how much of that needs to be dictated from the start?
Right. I wasn’t thinking about it as a De Palma movie, though that sequence does have a kind of Hitchcocky thing. Like in terms of the music, there’s a mysterious component to it. I thought more about – I mean again, this is a delusion of grandeur – but Almodovar, and how his characters often play, and that kind of naive obsession is, I think, kind of relatable for kids that age. I think somebody who’s been spun up in a web of lies for so long, his radar is a little bit askew.
Well, there’s something I think we sometimes forget when we make stories about young people, is that young people can be really stupid and make terrible mistakes.
Yeah, it’s true.
It’s easy to judge them for it and harder to watch them do it.
Well, he’s naive! He doesn’t realize where he comes from. He doesn’t realize…
He’s naive but there’s a weird cynicism about him, too.
I think he’s naive about the things he’s cynical about, but he doesn’t actually know. “My father built everything on a web of lies” and he finds out there’s more to it than that, and his father wasn’t a monster after all.
Yeah, exactly, and he was trying to do something decent, but I think that’s the irony, I think, that’s at the heart of the movie, is these people become… there’s a deeply corrosive nature to a lot of these relationships, but it comes from the sort of original sin of the movie, that happens before the movie starts. It’s an act of love and friendship.
People are trying to do something kind, and because they can’t be fully honest with each other, there’s an impossible conflict there. If you think back to what happened in those years that preceded Thomas, that’s the tragic nature of love. There’s a real downside to it sometimes, and I think that was an interesting part of the background of the story.
You made two giant movies. I can only imagine how complicated it must have been, with all the moving parts of the Spider-Man films, and now you’ve made two smaller dramas. Both came out in the same in the same year.
Is this more comfortable to you right now? Or is this sort of a breather? From a career perspective, how does it feel?
They’re really fun movies to make, and because they were small, you’re not contending with the expectations and the pressure, which is incredibly liberating and nourishing as a filmmaker. I feel like these are the movies I should have made before Spider-Man, in a way. Because what happens, and I don’t think these are cinematic masterpieces necessarily, but they were really fun to make and I got to sit in a room with Jeff Bridges and you’re rehearsing with him and Kate [Beckinsale], and you’re changing the script around. You don’t have to get legal approval from Marvel to do these things. It was an intuitive process and it was really fun. It was nourishing, I think is the right word. I came out of both these movies having a really good time. I didn’t think of them in terms of professional context.
You know what I mean? I wasn’t like, “I’m trying to do this!” I was like, “I think this kind of intrigues me. I’m not sure why. Let’s see what happens.”
I think when we ask questions about that sort of career path, I think we’re thinking more in terms of your through-line as a storyteller. You said it yourself. You said how interesting it would have been if you had made these films before Spider-Man. You went from big in scope, broad, family-friendly entertainments… [to] more character-driven narratives. Do you feel your Spider-Man movies would have been different if you had made these?
I don’t know. It’s impossible. It’s so hard to think about. I think… I don’t know. I don’t know.
Do you look back on those as positive experiences right now?
Totally. Yeah, they were really fun. They were complicated in ways that people don’t really understand, but they’re rewarding. They’re terrifying. They’re really fun. They’re really hard. They are exhausting and exhilarating. It’s a compendium of extreme emotions.
When you say “complicated in ways people don’t understand”, do you mean the narratives you were telling, or the process of making them?
I mean both, you know what I mean? Having to anticipate what an audience wants and how that will impact their experience of the movie, how the movie is marketed, all that stuff interacts with the telling of the story. I mean like, are they going to like this villain? Are you violating canon if you move this thing around? What is the ripple effect of this decision you’re making and how do you parse it out to the audience in a way that they’ll find intriguing, and not react against? So handling that is difficult. Then you have just marshaling the forces, the army of the scope of that movie, and that’s complicated, and the relationships within that are very complicated. And then it’s just exhausting.
But it’s also so fun, you now what I mean? Think about it. The twelve-year-old version of yourself getting to do that. It is such a blast. And also getting to work with Sally Field and Andrew [Garfield] and Emma [Stone], and these incredible talents. It was so dreamy.
You seem wistful.
Yeah. But it’s, listen, I think those… “Wistful,” do you mean like mournful? Like longing nostalgia?
I said “wistful,” meaning “wistful,” specifically.
I feel very lucky and I feel incredibly grateful, but I think it’s in good hands now. I don’t feel resentful at all. I’m happy to be done.
What’s the next thing?
I don’t know. There’s a few things on the horizon but nothing is set in stone yet.
Is it on an Only Living Boy level, or bigger…?
I don’t know. There’s a couple different movies. I’m working on something with Nick Hornby about Megan Phelps-Roper, which is at the very early stages. Westboro Baptist Church. It’s the woman who left Westboro Baptist Church. It’s a really compelling story. And then there’s a few other things but nothing is set in stone yet, so I don’t know. But I’m excited to make big movies again. I just want to be very careful about how to build those.
Like, from the ground up?
Well, it’s not about expectation necessarily. You’re always playing that game. But having time to make scripts perfect. I really want to take time with things.
Do you have a dream project, somewhere down the road?
[Thinks.] Not really.
Nothing you fantasize about when you’re just lying awake at night?
I used to want to make Jesus Christ Superstar.
That would be awesome.
I know. I think there’s a way to make that in a really incredible way. But I just want to make… I want to make good movies. That’s all there is. It sounds like such a trite answer, but it’s really true.
Top Photo: Jimi Celeste/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.