With great power comes great responsibility for a certain New York City teen trying to juggle his time between being a web slinging menace and just a friendly neighborhood goofball. But for screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers who have been in the writing business for nearly two decades, there’s something a little more insidious afoot. “With great writing comes great neck and lower back problems,” Sommers jokes during our Zoom interview from his home in Los Angeles. “Chris and I have terrible neck problems from just spending so many years hunched over our laptops.”
But I mean who can blame them, when over the last five years the pair have carried the weight of the popcorn entertainment family blockbuster on their shoulders with hits like The Lego Batman Movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Spider-Man: Far From Home between them. They’re just trying to navigate their lives between finessing superhero screenplays and being regular dads who also have to attend parent-teacher conferences. (You know, relatable.)
“We often joke that what if one of us were just some young single guy who had all this free time and no care in the world.” Sommers said. “But we have parent teacher conferences. We work really well together, we have similar lives. I didn’t have a partner before I started working with Chris, but obviously, it’s worked out great.”
However, instead of entirely blaming the writing duos lack of proper lumbar support on poorly made or repurposed prop couches that plague writers rooms, I’d like to think that some of that Herculean pressure has to do with their latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: No Way Home, which swung its way to a record breaking $1.6 billion globally making it the sixth highest grossing film of all time. A film that was tasked to shoulder not only the weight of the previous MCU Tom Holland helmed Spider-Man films, but also manage a delicate balance of the entire multiverse of Peter Parkers with Tobey Maguire from the Sam Raimi-verse, and Andrew Garfield from the Marc Webb-verse joining in on the adventure to guide the youngest version through the most traumatic part of his life, losing Aunt May.
“The train left the building and we didn't know where we were headed,” McKenna said about the challenges of working on different iterations of the film during the pandemic. “We were writing this and then the whole world fell off a cliff. We had so many conversations, ideas, and drafts. But we were just trying to figure out [our] Peter's story. The only way this origin trilogy could work wasn't just for a curtain call from the other two [Peter] characters. They were integral too because [Holland’s Peter] was not going to understand this message fully until you have the other two Peter Parkers helping him get that message. And by the end, he’s had enough suffering and he's learned a lesson in a way that the other two haven't learned it, but required the other two showing up from the multiverse."
It was an ambitious task that the duo somehow managed to pay off, to say the least. McKenna and Sommers talk to Script Magazine about their journey as screenwriters, the weight of making choices during the writing process, and their partnership on Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Destiny Jackson: Walk me through your journey to becoming screenwriters, what led you here? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
Chris McKenna: I am one of 12 kids. So, we would have a spread of food and whoever was the most entertaining at the table, you’d get more Salisbury steak. It was really like, ‘How do you compete with 11 other people at the table?’ And that was my version of, ‘Oh, you have to perform, and make your way by being funnier than the person next to you.’ That was my beginning. My writing staff was six sisters and five brothers. You had to be funnier or at least more entertaining or at least know how to fall on your face. It was 12 kids doing drama. We were a comedy group.
Erik Sommers: I was a latchkey kid and just raised by our television. On weekends, my mom would drop me off at the movie theater while running errands. I just always loved it more than I loved anything. I think it was the end of college. I was thinking of being a lawyer or something. And then eventually, you know, sometimes you go to college and you just sort of start to figure out the things you thought you wanted to do, or just the things that maybe your parents were encouraging you to do. At some point it just hit me, ‘I don't wanna do that. I wanna try my hand at writing.’ Right around the time I graduated college— and I had not studied it at all—I had no knowledge, I didn’t even know how to type.
Destiny: What is your writing technique like? What writing tool helps you while drafting?
Chris: I remember reading William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. I would read it all the time because I wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t really writing. He has this whole chapter on structure, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. He would say things like ‘repack’, ‘snowball’ and all of this. And at a certain point of my life, maybe while I was writing on Community, where I was like ‘oh’ and it struck me like it was like a golden beam from the Heavens where I'm like ‘Oh, structure. Now I get it.’ Because I didn't for a long time. I felt like, ‘Writing is just like characters talking and then this happens and this happens.’ So, in the book, the part where he talks about structure being the most important thing to a story stuck out to me. I was just so dumb for so long. I didn't get it. And then I got it one day. I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s the problem, there’s no structure here.’ And If you don’t understand act breaks, then you don’t understand what you’re doing. I recommend reading it.
Destiny: Let’s get into your Spider-Man films. How did you two tap into writing dialogue for these teenage characters and these older villains? Was it more challenging to adapt to a younger voice?
Erik: We spent a lot of time looking at source material, but much of the source material was written in just a completely different time. These classic comics are from the 60s or whatever, and there was just a totally different way of speaking, and frankly, a totally different mindset of a different time. But when it comes to, how am I going to write specifically like a young person or something, a lot of it comes down to just honoring them as a character first. Like, what is this person? What do they want, what is their perspective? What are they emotionally feeling? And knowing and having faith that the actor and director are going to maybe change a little bit of the language. So, it's more natural to what they would say. I feel like a lot of times when you read a script that's teenage [centric], but is written by some guy in his 50s, you can tell, they're using slightly wrong words and it just feels like they're using valley talk from the 80s. We just had to have faith and not be precious about the intent that if the actors were going to change some of the words to make it way more natural it was great, and it’s the substance that really counts.
Chris: It was emotional truth. Like, what is the emotional truth of each of these characters and how do we make that true on the page? Like the lingo and all that, but I don’t feel like we’re talking Klingon. If you go for truth, like with everything, that’s why Erik and I for months and months always had Spider-Man 2 on in the background. We were constantly trying to be true to Doc Ock and Green Goblin, and all those characters, because they are continuing their story [in our movie.] We were really just trying to write the truth of that and not what would be the coolest thing.
Destiny: Being comedy writers yourselves having to blend these different kinds of humors of the Spider-Mans, who was the easiest to write jokes for? Which character’s humor do you align with yourself? I’m surprised the web fluid body part joke made the cut.
Chris: These actors know their characters better than we do. And they’ve thought about these characters for years. Tobey suggested: ‘No, my character wouldn’t talk too much and he wouldn’t spill too many beans.’ I think we’re all on the same page with the idea that they’re different brothers who are in different parts of their lives. But I think the web fluid joke was in the air. [laughs] Erik, Jon [Watts, the director], and I were giving them our thoughts, but those three guys were just riffing with each other on the day.
Erik: A lot of that great stuff on the scaffolding was just them riffing and really having fun embodying the characters. And if I had a favorite, I loved writing sarcastic lines from MJ, through all the movies. Because we love sarcasm. But more than anything, I would just say what's fun is getting to write for all of them. It's always fun when you're on a TV show, too, getting to write jokes for different characters that sort of come from a slightly different place. You’re kind of flexing a slightly different muscle, you know? You want it to be funny, that's the common denominator, and to try to sound more like that character's attitude. And in this movie in particular, it was just fun to have three different Spider-Mans to write jokes for and all these different villains. It was a real pleasure to be able to have three movies that have so many different voices that you could write jokes for.
Destiny: Which of the three Peter’s do you relate to most and why?
Chris: I have five brothers, so being down there in Atlanta filming, I remember getting so many questions about their [dynamic]. But [to me] it was just like they’re just three brothers; [Tobey Maguire] older brother, [Andrew Garfield] middle brother, and [Tom Holland] younger brother. And this was something I could grasp on to, so for me to have brothers was a really good thing. In a lot of ways I’m a middle brother. I feel like the guy going, ‘Wait, why aren't you talking about me more?’ It was really great to feel like we were telling different Peter's stories. There was this meta quality as well because these three guys have different relationships to this franchise. This icon, Tobey’s Spider-Man, got to walk away. Andrew’s Spider-Man is like, ‘Wait, I have a third movie, why aren’t you letting me do my third movie?’ And then we’re in the midst of Tom’s Spider-Man needing guidance. Andrew's story I think is always fun to a writer because you're like ‘what about me?’ [laughs] And he’s insecure, because he didn’t get his third story, so he was definitely the angsty one. And we were like, ‘Oh yeah. That’s writer’s angst, we can write that.’ It’s funny, because the Tobey character was so angst free that we asked ourselves are we not writing up to him? He's gone on a journey. But Andrew’s character is the middle brother, and the fun part of any story is the middle part of a story. He has unrequited love, he has an unrequited story. And that’s always the most interesting part of any story.
Erik: I’m our MCU Peter, just because we see him just scrambling so much to just to keep it all together. And I guess I kind of feel like that's how life has been, especially the last few years with the pandemic and everything. Chris and I both have kids and it's just been such a scramble and making this movie. So many people worked so hard and dealt with so much extra adversity to make this movie. I'm grateful to all of them, so I could kind of relate to the poor kid. He's just always scrambling to keep things from falling apart. You know, it's just constant, desperate, and I think life can be like that for a lot of us.
Destiny: I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Spider-Man’s chances for being nominated for an Oscar, seeing as it’s, you know, anti-Scorsese. But how are you guys feeling about it? I’m sure you’re excited. Why do you think this movie resonates with people so much?
Erik: I guess it resonates with people for the same reason that Spider-Man always does. He’s just this classic underdog character, and he is always struggling to keep everything in balance, and to very much stay afloat. He’s just relatable, and now we’ve had three of them, and we’re all just thrilled by the reception the movie has gotten. It was a really hard one to make for everybody with just so much going on, and we’re thrilled.
Chris: He’s a teenager that has magical powers, who constantly has to solve problems of his own making. Like, how do you not love that character? He’s a loveable dipshit teenager who is constantly trying to do right but always making his own mistakes. And I think that’s what is relatable.
Destiny: What do you wish is something you knew before coming into this business? Especially the switch between television and film?
Erik: I think one of the hardest things to learn is how to take notes. I mean some people probably already had that skill in life. They are able to take criticism and constructive criticism or less than constructive criticism and deal with it in a mature way and move forward. For people like Chris and I, we both came up in TV writer’s rooms and they're just this merciless environment full of really smart, funny people. And the first time you get assigned to a script, you go and you write it and you're so proud of it and then you bring it in and you have to sit there and watch all these people you really respect just tear it to shreds. You have to be, and quickly, have to get socialized to taking those notes and taking the criticism and, and moving forward. And if you can't, people don't want to work with you because no one wants to be working with that person who is really defensive and precious, because it's all just about making it good. It’s not personal. I learned to take it less personal over time and after years of it, you just get to a place where you're able to not take it so personally and not get devastated internally when people are criticizing something you've done. So, I wish that I had known that when I first started. And it’s OK, everyone has to learn.
Chris: I wish Eric was better at taking my notes. [laughs] But yes, still a lot of tears, so many tears, but we still work through it.
Destiny: Are you guys more linear writers or do you draft the scenes that you see clearly first and then build up to it later?
Erik: Definitely linear. We like to outline things out. We like to break our stories and outline things out and really talk about how it's going to progress and set things up that pay off later. We do have to write things out of order frequently as part of working on a production. But I think it’s reassuring to be able to write something in order if you can.
Chris: A game plan is nice. But we’re writing an original thing right now, and so much of that is I don’t want to think about act one, I want to think about the fun of act two. I want to think about what’s the crazy thing we’re [leading towards.] And again, a lot of that is the middle of the story. There is so much fun and creativity there. Like, who wants to do all the work of the setup? My brain is not thinking about act one. When you think of a story, you’re never thinking of the setup, you’re always like, ‘Oh yeah, no, they’re on the Death Star.’ There’s always a balance to get to act two, and you can be super excited about however you end up there, but act two is the juice, the pulp. That’s the fun. It’s eating the fruit, not pulling off the rind.
Erik: It’s funny you say that. Now that I think about it, sometimes having an act one where everything is set up and working is really nice and gratifying to go back and look at it and be like, ‘Alright, that works.’ But it’s not as fun to actually do. It’s like taking a really hard hike, where it feels great to be able to tell people you did it, and you show them pictures. But it wasn't actually that much fun in parts because it was really steep and rocky.
Destiny: How do you guys attack writer’s block?
Erik: One really nice thing about having a partner is if I’m having a block, I can just text Chris and be like ‘Hey, I was thinking about this’ and we can start talking about it. It’s just always amazing how you can think for an entire hour about something and not find a solution or move forward. And then you can talk with someone else for five minutes about it and just from that conversation ‘boom, there it is.’ Like, ‘Oh, well, why don’t we just not do that’ or the opposite. And so, I just find that having another person to write with is so helpful. I can remember times writing pilots and things on my own and just banging my head against the wall for days to try to figure out a certain knot in the story. Having a partner is just different.
Chris: Yeah, when Eric takes my notes, it’s great. [laughs] Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel are these legendary writers who wrote Parenthood and Happy Days. And I remember it was actually one of my first jobs as a PA on a movie called Greedy, that those guys wrote starring Michael J. Fox and Kirk Douglas. And it was one of those things, where I was watching them have a conversation and they said something like, ‘One of the great things about having a writer’s partnership is you have someone in the trenches to scream with.’ That’s the nice thing about having a writing partner. I mean this job is insane, but you can occasionally look at your partner and go, ‘This is nuts, right? Like, we’re not nuts.’ Even though we are nuts. It’s just being in a trench with someone where you can go, ‘Well, I think we’re right, but let’s pretend we’re super right.’
Destiny: Any motivating words for budding screenwriters to keep on this path?
Chris: I was in my 30s before I got my first job. Most of my friends were all on the road to being doctors and lawyers and they couldn’t understand what I was doing. And then suddenly when I sold a script or got hired on TV, it was suddenly, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing. You did this thing, and you’re only 28.’ But [this journey] is that thing where no one gets it until you’re in it. You can do this, if you think you’d be happy.
Erik: I would always encourage people don’t give up, and yeah it takes a long time, but the one counter thing I would say is that you do have to know when to give up on a certain project. I think early on a mistake I would make was working on the same thing over and over when I should have just moved on to the next script. I clearly had gotten everything I was going to out of this and no one was going to buy it. It was just time to stop revising it and obsessing over it, like move on to the next one and take whatever you can learn from this. And just start the next one. So, in that one instance, it’s OK to give up. Leave it in the drawer and start a new one.