While the summer box office continues to be dominated by blockbusters, one modestly budgeted movie has managed to penetrate the heart of America: Gifted. The story of an unorthodox American family struggling to keep itself together has touched thousands, making almost $25m (£20m) in the US.
Much of the film’s success comes down to director Marc Webb, who made the leap from indie comedy 500 Days of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man back in 2012. However, following the release of 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Webb seemingly disappeared from UK cinemas, concentrating on TV shows such as Limitless and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And although you may conclude the critical reaction and cancellation of the expanded Spider-Man universe may have been the reason, Webb optimistically says that wasn’t the case.
“I think I’ve been pretty busy,” he tells me, citing the delayed release of Gifted, the two TV shows, and work on upcoming The Only Living Boy in New York as filling his schedule.
Interestingly, Gifted was being filmed when a certain President wasn’t a realistic consideration for the post. How times have changed. Of course, people’s political opinions were still turbulent across the country, and despite the film’s intrinsic links to blue-collar American life – a highly politicised group in recent years – Webb avoided making any political statements.
“The climate when we were making it was quite different,” he says. “Our expectations for what was going to happen into the future were quite different. I’m from Wisconsin, I spent a lot of time in Montana growing up, which is also in the movie. I relate to that world. People look down on it because it’s not very sophisticated. It’s not that way at all. It’s a different world view.”
One of the script’s many draws is the family around which the film is based. Chris Evans – known for his role as Captain America – plays a single man who looks after his incredibly intelligent niece. Their neighbour, played by the ever-wonderful Octavia Spencer, acts as another parental figure.
“That’s what happens in central America,” Webb says, explaining why he wanted to develop a feature focussed on a non-traditional family. “You have an African-American woman and a white guy, and an adopted daughter and they form a unit. That’s a really beautiful thing that I thought was a valuable to put into the world.
“It’s a sweet movie. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece but it celebrates good things. It’s got a big heart, and it was fun to make. Audiences really appreciate that and it’s actually something quite rare to find in the cinema. It’s a different facet of American culture in a really positive way.”
One of the main reasons Gifted connects with audiences so well is because of Evans. As Webb says, the actor comes with “a certain baggage” thanks to Captain America, but that was perfect for the role. “We needed someone who had a little bit of darkness while also having some humour, plus a little sarcasm, all of which fit Chris perfectly.”
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Evans, Webb says, has something most other American actors lack at the moment: a certain masculinity. “It’s a weirdly tricky thing to find young, male, American actors like Chris. There’s Chris Prat and Chris Pine. Then there are lots of Brits and Australians who are masculine. There’s maybe a darker quality to their masculinity. As a director, it’s an interesting thing to go out and search for those actors. Maybe Americans come off as a little sensitive, I don’t know.”
He explains how American actors, at times, can take themselves a little too seriously, while the British system “puts a real value on training, the way America doesn’t always do”. There’s also the matter of social media and the internet that removed the mystique surrounding actors.
“Just think about Pink Floyd,” he says. “I didn’t know what they looked like. Now I know who every guy is dating. Not because people are advertising it necessarily, but because that’s available online. The Daily Mail throws it in your face and we’ve all become part of this culture. It breeds a certain familiarity. We’ve lost that mystique. Makes it hard to find another Jack Nicholson.”
Luckily, America remains ahead when it comes to comedy, Webb praising Judd Apatow and his masterful ability to find the “wise-cracking humorous type” of actor. US comedies, however, have become more the domain of Netflix and Amazon Prime, somewhere Gifted may inevitably end up.
“Thinking about 500 Days of Summer, it was easier to get people to go out and see movies back then,” Webb says. “Even then, to get people to see a movie you need to create a certain level of urgency that’s difficult to achieve.
“The world has evolved, it’s changed. And as hard as it is to get people to see movies, there’s so much amazing television. It’s OK. I’m not complaining about it. But I do think this movie, it’s edge comes from how warmly the audience has accepted it. And the critics have been OK with it. Well, they kinda shrugged. Audiences, at least here in America, have really embraced it. For a modestly budgeted movie, it’s had a life that’s exciting.”
Webb’s budget hasn’t always been small, though. Both The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel had budgets of more than $200m (compared to Gifted’s $7m). Following the second instalment, the studio was expected to launch a Spider-Verse – featuring a sequel and Sinister Six film – to compete with Marvel’s very own Avengers. However, both projects have since been shelved by the studio, who instead decided to team up with Marvel to produce Spider-Man: Homecoming starring Tom Holland.
Asked whether he was surprised by the cancellation, Webb replied: “I think that was a surprise. There was so much conflict inside the studio, so many things behind the scenes.” However, the director concludes: “I really think Spider-Man belongs in that Marvel universe. I wasn’t upset about it at all. It would have been hard to make another movie without Emma [Stone], frankly. It’s in really good hands now, and it’s hard to feel bad about that. It’s pretty cool, I can’t wait to see this movie.”
Despite the potential for conflict behind the scenes, Webb would return to large-scale pictures, but “under certain circumstances”. He continues: “I would know how to do it in a bigger way. I like big movies. I had a really good time doing those movies. It depends on the movie itself.”
Whether the director returns to big-budget pictures or not, no doubt his optimistic outlook will seep onto the screen. Gifted is currently showing in UK cinemas.
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