From director Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man, 500 Days of Summer), the family drama Gifted tells the story of Frank Adler (Chris Evans), a single man raising his young niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), after the death of her mother. Mary is a sweet 7-year-old who also happens to be a brilliant math prodigy, and Frank is trying to give her a normal life, but his intimidating mother (Lindsay Duncan) has plans for Mary’s future that don’t include him.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Marc Webb talked about wanting to get back to the roots of what he loves about film, why he was drawn to the script for Gifted, making the decision to shoot on film, and his very special and talented young lead actress, McKenna Grace. He also talked about his experience making The Amazing Spider-Man movies, directing the CBS pilot for the upcoming Alan Cumming series Instinct, and why the script for The Only Living Boy in New York demanded that he tell that story.
Collider: You’ve talked about wanting to get back to the roots of what you love about cinema and film, so what was it that you wanted to get back to and focus on, and how did this film deliver on that, for you?
MARC WEBB: I wanted to do something that made me feel good and that was nourishing. It was also a human thing, as far as how the movie was being made, going off to an island, off the coast of Georgia, with my friends and without the huge commercial scrutiny that comes along with bigger movies. And when I read the script, it made me feel good. It was really that simple. It was fun to make, and we had a really great time making it. I don’t think it’s the kind of movie that’s a cinematic masterpiece, necessarily. It’s not particularly thematically ambitious, but the heart of it is good and warm, and it’s important to reinforce the idea that our family is not necessarily the one that we’re born into. When that’s reinforced in the stories we tell, it feels like a really powerful and important thing. It felt really good to get behind that. Having come off of big movies, I wanted to do something that was refreshing and uncomplicated, and that’s what this provided.
I love how you’ve also said that, when you were reading this, you kept waiting for the script to get bad, but it just kept getting better. What were you most worried about, and is there something that would have just been the killer for you?
WEBB: I don’t know if there’s anything specific. I remember reading it in my bed, in my apartment in New York, and I thought the dialogue was so fun. I was afraid of it becoming too sentimental. There is a warmth to it, no doubt about it. I make no apologies for that. But I tried to make the movie a little bit more naturalistic, with hand-held cameras and not building sets and real locations, in order to prevent that Hollywood gloss from coming in. It is a heart-warming and uplifting story, at the end of the day, and I wanted to reflect that, in terms of how we made it. As far as the script goes, we tried to find some balance in the character of Evelyn. That was the trickiest part, giving her humanity and working really hard to get under her skin a little bit to see the world how she saw it. I don’t necessarily endorse her point of view, but I thought it was important to understand it, and that there was a tenderness to her and a real relationship between her and her son. That was the most nuanced relationship in the movie, and I thought there was an investment in protecting the realism of that. The relationship at the center of this movie is obviously between Frank and Mary, but I think the subtlety of the relationship between Frank and Evelyn is really the crucial one.
Why did you decide to shoot this on film?
WEBB: I love shooting on film! I don’t know how to explain it other than that I wanted an analog experience. I wanted it to feel real and more gritty. I’m shooting a TV show on digital right now. It’s a wonderful format for TV. But there was something about the movie that felt like a little bit of a throwback, and I liked the idea of the texture of film. It’s getting to a place, I really believe, where it’s hard to tell the difference. A lot of times, I can’t tell the difference between digital and film. But there’s something about shooting on film where you have to pay attention because you can’t keep rolling, so you have to focus on the performances. It becomes a master of the experience, and I like the tension that it provides and the focus that it demands of me when I’m on set. I feel like I can get a little bit more contrast out of it and there is subtlety in the colors. There’s a quality difference between digital and film that’s really, really subtle, but that makes it feel a bit more textural and real. I’ve tested digital and film next to each other, many, many times. If I’m honest, a lot of times I can’t tell the different, or I’ll even prefer digital. But in this instance, and with (500) Days of Summer we did the same thing, there was a feeling that I got from film that I didn’t get from digital.
People always talk about not working with kids or animals, but what was it like to work with McKenna Grace, who’s 10 going on 30, and Fred, the one-eyed cat?
WEBB: Well, the cat had two eyes and we made him one-eyed with CG, so there was some visual effects in the movie, after all. To see the character of Mary on the page was one thing, but to find an actor who can be funny and emotional, in the way that McKenna is, was a shot in the dark. It was so hard to find her. It was a really long casting process. And then, she came out and we saw her, and it was very, very clear that she was the girl. Separating her from Mary was difficult because she’s incredibly smart, very articulate, really mature, and very professional. She knows she’s got a job to do, but she’s also got this kid quality to her. We just lucked out, what can I say? The movie relies so heavily on that performance. That was another challenge that was fun. I remember reading it, for the first time, and thinking, “This looks good on the page, but now we have to find someone that can do it.” Finding the balance where she wasn’t too cute was the real challenge in executing the movie.