September 22, 2019

‘Spider-Verse’ Director Reveals Peter Parker Is Jewish

Scene from “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation

When he was 3 years old, Rodney Rothman made his parents drive by the local movie theater so he could find out what was playing. “I was always fascinated by movies and dreamed of making them,” he told the Journal. Now he’s nominated for his first Academy Award for his directorial debut, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” one of five films vying for best animated feature.

“I never thought that it would happen for me, so, on a personal level, it’s really gratifying and cool,” Rothman, 44, said of his nomination. He also gave credit to the “massive team” that worked with him on the movie. “It required an incredible amount of hard work and trial and error and hundreds of artists working together,” he said. “So, in a bigger way, I felt happy for our whole team because it encompasses everybody’s contributions.” 

Now Sony Pictures’ highest-grossing animated film, “Spider-Verse” introduces a young half-black, half-Puerto Rican hero who is bitten by a radioactive spider and takes up the Spidey mantle. The story takes place in part in a parallel universe where young and older Spideys of both genders — and a spider-pig — join the fight against the villains. 

“We wanted to tell a very intimate story about a teenage kid and his family and express the emotions that he’s feeling,” said Rothman, who wrote the script with Phil Lord. “Animation was a tool for us to make the movie feel even more real than a live superhero movie does. We could take gigantic risks in the way our movie looks and feels. No matter how stylized or abstract the world we’re depicting is, we find that once audiences adjust, they’re completely immersed and engaged.”

Rothman and co-directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey “all brought different areas of expertise to the movie, writing or animating or storyboarding. We had to divide and conquer and work together to make it happen,” Rothman said. “The movie was so complicated technically. It was like running five relay races at the same time. We’d meet in the editing room every day and talk and argue and figure out what we wanted to do next.”

Continuing the tradition of his movie cameo appearances, the late Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, who died last November at 95, appears in “Spider-Verse” as a shop owner. “We recorded Stan’s part over a year ago. His scene took on a whole other meaning after he passed away,” Rothman said. “We screened the movie before and after [his death], and we saw the audience’s reaction change. It was very important to us to have him in the movie and have his blessing. He invented an art form that has been interpreted in many different ways by thousands of different people.”

Rodney Rothman; Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

In the comics, Peter Parker is a nebbishy kid from the largely Jewish neighborhood of Forest Hills and was considered to be Lee’s alter ego. Rothman, who is himself from that same Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, took that notion a step further in “Spider-Verse.” There is a scene that shows Peter B. Parker — the older, alternate-universe Spidey — breaking the glass at his wedding. 

“Peter B. Parker is unique to our movie, but [his Jewishness] definitely came from a strong conviction I had and a joking argument we were having in the office,” Rothman said. “It’s our interpretation, knowing what we know about Stan Lee.”

Growing up in Forest Hills and then in Scarsdale, Rothman was raised in a Reform Jewish home where Judaism was “always part of our lives,” he said. “I was bar mitzvahed. We observed all the holidays and traditions, and I’ve maintained that. It’s an important part of who I am. I have children now and it’s definitely part of how I raise them. I belong to a temple in Los Angeles and I’m looking forward to becoming more involved as my kids get older.”

Rothman, who joined an improvisational comedy group while attending Middlebury College in Vermont, began thinking about how he might combine his flair for writing, comedy and love of movies as a career. At 21, he landed an apprenticeship at “The Late Show With David Letterman” that turned into a staff job. As the show’s head writer, he received five Emmy nominations during his tenure.

In 2001, Rothman came to Los Angeles to work with Judd Apatow on the short-lived series “Undeclared” as a writer and producer. “Even though it was only on for a little while, it was a launching pad for a lot of people who became prominent in film comedy, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel among them,” Rothman said. “I got lucky in that regard. We all liked working together, so they brought me along and I ended up writing and producing other things.” 

After working on projects including the films “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “22 Jump Street,” Rothman said he became “more interested in trying my hand at more visual storytelling and relying less on dialogue, [to] find ways to make it compelling and entertaining without words. That led me to ‘Spider-Verse.’”

Rothman’s next project is a new “Jump Street” movie, “24 Jump Street.” “It’s a continuation of the story,” he said. “But it skips over ‘23.’” 

As for the possibility of “Spider-Verse 2,” “that’s well above my pay grade, but there’s certainly talk of it, and hopefully it will happen,” Rothman said. “Everyone is excited, not only to keep telling the story but also to take the spirit of innovation behind this movie and see where it will lead us next time.”