The Spider-Verse just got a little bit bigger.
While “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is currently lighting up the box office (it’s already grossed as much as the original film did in its entire run and the sequel has only been out for two weeks), another, slipperier element of the “Spider-Verse” has just emerged at the Annecy International Film Festival and Market in France: “The Spider Within,” a new short film that is unlike anything we’ve experienced in the Spider-Verse yet.
The Sony-produced film focuses on what happens when Miles Morales (once again played by Shameik Moore) starts to feel the pressure of his life as Spider-Man, which results in a scary, trippy little jaunt through his subconscious. It’s a really fascinating and moving little story, made possible by Sony Pictures Imageworks’ LENS (Leading and Empowering New Storytellers) program, which aims to “provide high-potential candidates from underrepresented groups an opportunity to gain valuable leadership experience.”
TheWrap spoke to “The Spider Within” director Jarelle Dampier, who talked about where the idea of a horror-centered Miles Morales story came from, how his own sleep paralysis informed the short and being a part of the LENS program at Sony Pictures, which gives filmmakers from underrepresented groups the chance to tell new stories in the world of Sony Pictures Animation.
“It’s a dream. I’ve never been to Annecy and I didn’t think that my first trip would be to present something that I directed. So I’m very grateful, a little nervous. I’m excited,” Dampier told TheWrap in an interview conducted ahead of his film’s debut at Annecy. “Well, I just didn’t think I would be here in life, you know what I mean? I didn’t think I’d get this far.”
Also: learn where the story might fit in the greater context of the Spider-Verse.
Where did the idea of putting Miles in a more horror-centered story come from?
My favorite genre is horror. I think it’s the perfect envelope to give great messages out, especially to younger audiences, and I think it’s something that we’ve kind of shied away from for a long time. But I think if you take a character that kids really love and you put that character in a thrilling situation, I think they get a lot out of it. I say kids, but really I’m talking about all of us. I’m talking about the kid inside of us, you know what I mean? The ability to use something scary with something we love, I think that’s the combination to landing the points, sticking the landing in the film.
Do you suffer from sleep paralysis?
I do. I suffer from a lot of things. I didn’t realize it, but I think in this kind of post-pandemic world, I feel like I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I deal with anxiety. I learned that I deal with insomnia. I learned that sleep paralysis and things like that are all tied to this kind of overactive mental state and not being able to control that snowball that happens. When I was asked to direct at Sony, I accepted almost immediately, but that night I had the biggest panic attack I’ve ever had in my life and I spent the night in the hospital.
I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The funny thing is people think it’s not just bad things. It’s even great things that happen to you. They can be so emotionally charged and overwhelming that, yeah, it just put my whole body in shock and it was scary. But that kind of led to the birth of this idea. When we talked about what’s something that you feel like could be relevant to the story of Miles, and I think one of the things I didn’t want to do was inject a problem into a character without him really dealing with that. I think a lot of people who are fans of Miles, if I tell them my short’s about Miles being anxious, having a panic attack, most people who have been around a while, well, that seems like something that would happen to Miles.
He just seems like that kind of kid. But we’ve never been able to have that slice-of-life moment because the movies are so big and excellent and breathtaking. I think horror is just one of those great down-on-the-street-level genres that you can use to just get intimate and find out what really makes this character tick, what makes them scared, and what are they going to do to get through it. I love that.
Can you talk a little bit about the LENS program?
Yeah. LENS is incredible. I think we live in a world right now where everybody is afraid to be a diversity hire. Does that make sense? There’s this kind of dishonorable idea that I was hired for something other than my skill level, and I think that LENS as a program, it just didn’t make me feel that way at all and that’s what I valued the most. I think I was brought in as a filmmaker as somebody with taste and taste that they valued and wanted my opinion and POV, and I completely pitched the short among several other shorts. It wasn’t like it was given to me. That alone, the trust, the responsibility, I think it just puts you in a different stratosphere.
Then as far as mentorship goes, I was able to have lunch with some of the great directors at Sony, amazing creators that have been grinding and making great movies for years. So in a way, especially for someone like me who didn’t go to school, I was a construction worker before I got into animation, everything I’ve learned is School of YouTube and basically failing forward, which is kind of a scary way to grow, but it’s the way that I had. I think the LENS Program just kind of put me on a track where I can remain a professional, but get this education boost. I think it was priceless for me.
What was the biggest surprise in the entire process?
How hard it is to sell an idea like this. I think dealing with our trauma is a new fascination for some people. I think a lot of the world is still kind of, “I’d rather just watch superheroes.” I think that’s great too and I respect that. But I think the hardest thing is having a vision like this and seeing like, “No, no, Miles would be perfect for it, trust me.” I think it’s the hardest part. But I will say that there are so many taste makers at Sony that I didn’t have to fight long. I felt like I showed the short to a few people and they were on board, and then a few more people and they were on board, and then it just kind of happened like that.
Was there a moment when somebody saw it and said “We can’t make this?”
There was a screening for Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller, writers and producers of the franchise] and they loved it. Prior to that, I had not worked with Phil and Chris, but I just heard that they might not love a lot of things that they see right off the bat. So the fact that they loved the short, it was flattering. It was an honor for me. Even when they gave me notes, they were very like, “You don’t have to do these notes, but if you’d like to, here’s our thoughts.” They were amazing notes. Yeah, I don’t know. I was just so fortunate. But there was never a moment where anyone strongly disagreed with the short or thought that it should change at a fundamental level, and that’s what I loved. I feel like that vision remained the same.
Does the event of the short directly pre-date the events of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse?”
That’s an interesting theory. I will say that I would love to be able to answer that question, but I think I want to wait a little bit. I will say that there are several Easter eggs inside of the short.
Where will people get to see the short?
I don’t know yet, officially. I don’t know, really. I’m excited about the possibilities, and I know that there’s some things being talked about, but I know about as much as you know.