“I think what fascinated me the most about this was the fact that the superpower was her mind. One of the lines in the movie is, ‘the power of your mind has infinite potential.’ And I thought that was so strong and so powerful – what an amazing thing to be able to explore in a film, ”says Clarkson, who directs the film from a screenplay he co-wrote with Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker, with a story by Kerem Sanga and Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless, based on the Marvel Comics.
Clarkson has earned a reputation as one of the go-to directors for strong female characters, having helmed the miniseries “Anatomy of a Scandal,” “Collateral,” and “Love, Nina,” as well as episodes of “Succession” and “Orange Is the New Black.” She also set up the Marvel series “Jessica Jones” and directed episodes of “The Defenders.”
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura explains that in Marvel lore, the character is a Weaver. “Being a Weaver means that she can weave together the strands of time,” he says. “She can see different timelines of the future, how they will interweave or not, depending on how events occur. It’s a very powerful ability to see into the future, and potentially affect it.”
“It’s an utterly original idea within the comic book genre – a completely different character than any that has been put forward before,” says di Bonaventura. “We see her discover her powers, and then utilize those powers to save three young women, all of whom are in a grave danger, all of whom will embrace their futures as Spider-Women.”
In the comic books, Madame Web is depicted as a blind old woman, a wheelchair user, who is nevertheless one of the most powerful Marvel characters due to her ability to see and change the future. In the film, Johnson’s Cassie Webb is young, active, agile, and strong as she first discovers her powers. Bringing the character’s origin to the screen in a story not tied to any other universe was both “freeing and demanding,” says di Bonaventura. Freeing, he explains, because the filmmakers were not bound by any particular published storyline. At the same time, they were very aware of where the character had to go. (In other words, Madame Web can change the future, but filmmakers, not so much.)
The suspense-driven thriller stars Dakota Johnson as Cassandra Webb, a paramedic in Manhattan who develops the power to see the future… and realizes she can use that insight to change it. Forced to confront revelations about her past, she forges a relationship with three young women bound for powerful destinies…if they can all survive a deadly present.
With Madame Web, the director says she sought to bring a unique, cinematic presentation to Cassie’s visions.
“Maybe seeing into the future is like remembering something – and memory sometimes isn’t clear, it’s often fragmented. It wasn’t necessarily linear. You never saw it from A to B to C. Visions and sounds don’t always meet up together,” Clarkson explains. “So, I thought about how we might find a visual way into this, and it’s almost like a camera shutter, the blink of an eye.”
Under Clarkson’s direction, the film brings a female-forward point of view to its storytelling. “There’s a theme of empowerment throughout the movie that comes from the fact that each of these characters go on their own journey,” says Clarkson. “Cassie has to resolve the wounds of her past in order to fully embrace the future, and each of the girls come to learn that they had strengths within them that they didn’t know.”
As her powers develop, Cassie has to determine whether her visions depict things that will happen – or only things that may happen, and can be averted, avoided, or changed. “She experiences the future as if it’s the present,” says Dakota Johnson, who plays the role. “It’s similar to Spidey sense, but turned to the max – it’s actually seeing and hearing what is about to happen.”
For Johnson, the chance to create a character in the mold of a Marvel superhero, but completely unlike any other, was irresistible. It offered the chance to make a film as action-packed as any other Marvel film, but built around a psychological suspense thriller. “I was very intrigued by the prospect of a female superhero’s superpower being her mind,” she says. “I was also really intrigued by the relationship that she has with three younger women – how she becomes a maternal figure to them while empowering them to discover their true natures as Spider-Women.”
As director S.J. Clarkson’s goal was to keep the story as grounded as possible within the superhero frame, her mandate to her crew – director of photography Mauro Fiore, production designer Ethan Tobman, costume designer Ngila Dickson, and visual effects supervisor Michael Brazelton – was the same: to shoot practically whenever possible, capturing as much of the action and effects in-camera as they could, and relying on visual effects only to enhance or when physical effects were not possible.
SJ CLARKSON (Director / Screenplay / Executive Producer) is an accomplished director working in both the UK and the US. For television, she recently directed and executive produced Netflix’s “Anatomy of a Scandal” and HBO Max’s “Made for Love.” Previously, she directed an episode of HBO’s Emmy-winning series “Succession”; BBC Two’s “Collateral,” starring Carey Mulligan; episode 4 of Martin Scorsese & Mick Jagger’s HBO series “Vinyl,” starring Bobby Cannavale; and the pilot episodes for Marvel’s “The Defenders,” USA’s action-adventure event series “Dig” for Keshet, and Frank Spotnitz’s “Hunted” for BBC/HBO Cinemax. Clarkson also directed and executive produced Nick Hornby’s five-part adaptation of “Love Ninja” starring Helena Bonham Carter for See-Saw Films and BBC. The show premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. In 2012, Clarkson was named by The Guardian as one of the top 50 most powerful women in film and television.
Matt Sazama (Story / Screenplay) grew up making live action and animated Super-8 movies in Milwaukee, WI, trying to replicate the magic of 80s science fiction and fantasy films. Together with his writing partner Burk Sharpless, they wrote the original script Dracula Untold, which was on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays before it was made by Universal Pictures. Since then, they have written the screenplays for Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Sony Pictures’ Morbius, and co-wrote The Last Witch Hunter and Power Rangers. Sazama served as co-creator, executive producer, and writer of the Netflix original series “Lost In Space.”
Claire Parker (Screenplay / Executive Producer) has worked in film and TV for over 25 years, producing popular and critically-acclaimed shows for BBC, Netflix, and Channel 4. She was co-executive producer of the Netflix series “Anatomy of a Scandal” (2022), starring Sienna Miller. Previously she developed, produced, and executive-produced the Emmy and BAFTA-winning “Life on Mars” for the BBC. She worked at Kudos Film and TV in London for ten years, first as head of development on such award-winning BBC series as “Hustle,” and then went on to executive-produce single films for television including We’ll Take Manhattan and Wide Sargasso Sea (both BBC) and Comfortably Numb and Pleasureland (Channel 4).
As a writer-director, Kerem Sanga’s (Story) feature film First Girl I Loved starred Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Pamela Adlon, and Tim Heidecker. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award (Best of NEXT). His latest film, The Violent Heart, stars Jovan Adepo, Grace Van Patten, Lukas Haas and Mary J. Blige; it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released in theaters in 2021. His first feature, The Young Kieslowski, starred Haley Lu Richardson and won audience awards at film festivals across the country. He was an Annenberg Fellow at USC Film School and holds a degree in mathematics.