Synopsis : “STAN LEE” is the official documentary film about Stan “The Man” Lee and his rise to influence in the world of comic books and pop culture. Tracing his life from his upbringing as Stanley Lieber to the rise of Marvel Comics, “STAN LEE” tells the story of Stan Lee’s life, career, and legacy in his own words through personal archive material.
- Genre: Documentary, Biography
- Original Language: English
- Director: David Gelb
- Producer: Jason Sterman, David Gelb, Brian Mcginn
- Release Date (Streaming):
- Distributor: Disney+
- Production Co: Marvel Studios, Supper Club
Photo by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Q&A with Director David Gelb at the Tribeca Screening
Q : David, how did you get involved with creating this amazing tribute to an icon?
DG: This is a project that came from an ongoing relationship with our company Supper Club and my partners Jason Sterman and Brian McGinn. We’ve done work with Marvel Studios, and a number of the brands at Marvel, so the idea was brought to us and we thought about how we could do it. We thought we could tell Stan’s story in his own words, and that was the beginning for us.
Q: You do a wonderful job balancing and showcasing, obviously, Stan’s amazing triumphs, as well as some of the challenges that he worked through as well — in his personal life or even down to the professional relationships that we saw some of those discussions and ideals towards the end of the film. Can you talk about working through that and finding a balance?
DG: One of the biggest challenges of the film is [that] with Stan unfortunately passed away years ago, it was the first film that I’ve ever worked on where the subject is not there to answer our questions as we can dig into certain areas. We wanted to portray Stan beyond just the person that he presented as. He was on TV as this bombastic personality, this alter ego of Stan Lee, as he described himself.
We wanted to get into the real Stan Lee, and it took a great deal of research and editorial [development]. Our post team did such an incredible job, both on the research side and then in cutting the story, trying to put it together — trying to balance, trying to find real human emotion, the kind of vulnerability that Stan wanted to portray in his characters. We wanted to find that in Stan’s life as best we could.
Q: I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the miniatures, because at least for me, they are one of my favorite parts of the project. It evokes playfulness and creativity that is very much in line with Stan as an artist and as a creator. Can you describe the decisions and process to land there, and also maybe a little bit of behind the scenes on the production realities of that?
DG: Miniature re-enactment was an idea that we had wanted to do for a while, and we toyed with it on our earlier series that we had done with Marvel Entertainment, called “The Six-One-Six.” We weren’t able to do it then. But here, Stan narrates his stories in this really vivid way; he says, he writes in the dialogue as he says, “Then Jack said this, and I said this.” We were trying to think about the way that we could do that. Action figures seemed like the perfect thing for a movie about a comic book creator because in comic book culture, action figures are so important.
We ended up working with this incredible company, and our production designer, T. Hunter McCann, putting together the scenes. We started out in the storyboard format with an amazing storyboard artist, and started plugging in the storyboards into the edit where we thought that they belonged, and a really amazing effort by Fong Go and our team working together, managed to put these comic book scenes, these moments in the bullpen of the various eras of Marvel. What was really amazing was the amount of detail that the artists put into it.
If you actually pause it — and this comes out on Disney+ next week — if you pause certain scenes, you can see that all the little comic books on the walls are period-accurate for the scenes that were in the story. I thought it was really amazing that everybody working on the film is a Marvel fan, a fan of Stan, and so everybody channeled all their love and passion into making these scenes with incredible detail. We really wanted to shoot it like a biopic; we wanted very beautiful cinematography, lighting, all of the cinematic elements to come together to portray these moments that Stan is narrating, in a way that would be entertaining and fun to watch.
Q: Did Stan receive a financial benefit from his characters in the films?
DG: As he describes briefly in the film, he made a settlement with Marvel, became chairman emeritus, and then was able to do these cameos. So his relationship with Marvel was quite good at the end.
Q: You seem to do documentaries about heroes. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a hero, the Mustang is a hero, now Stan Lee. Do you see a connection in things that set them apart from normal people?
DG: I like doing movies about people that believe in something and passionately pursue them. I find that to be inspiring for me, and I think that’s something that should be shared, these messages. In the case of Stan, I love this idea of, if you believe in something just go for it and don’t let people tell you not to do it. I remember when I started to work on “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, the idea of doing a feature-length film about a guy who is doing the same thing every day — making sushi in a tiny sushi bar — seemed crazy to a lot of the people that I was pitching it to. But doggedly I went for it, and I think that I was inspired by some of these characters that we are making films about.
Q: This was obviously a huge amount of work. How long did it take?
DG: It was maybe six months or so of planning or maybe a little bit less than that. We wanted to have this movie ready to be released within the vicinity of Stan’s 100th birthday, which was December 28th of last year. So it was an incredible sprint. But we refused to compromise the quality, and that was a big testament to the work of our incredible team, Supper Club and Fong Co. and the collaboration between us and Marvel Studios and Disney+. So all working together, it was a lot of work but we managed to make it.
Q: Any take on the business of comics according to Stan Lee.
DG: I will say that Stan was very much writing as we described, he was writing lots of stories, buying his own just to keep his family going. He was grateful just to have a job. I don’t think that it ever occurred to him to try to license his characters or to try to take any personal ownership that would later benefit him. So when the company was sold, he was locked out in the cold as was described in the film. He’s a writer and a creative person, and I think that’s borne out in his life story.
Q: How did Stan’s life and career impact you on your journey but also as a creative person, moving forward?
DG: As I said, I learned to read [by] reading comic books. I had to know what they were saying so it motivated me to read more. My parents were happy with that, and my dad would take me to read comic books and stuff. I think one of the coolest things about Stan Lee, in making the film, that really inspires me moving forward, is his collaboration. He created this environment where everybody could contribute. He would let the artists go off on their own and come up with their own stories and bring them back. Then he would find ways of integrating that and putting the dialogue, and fostering this really creative and inspiring environment. That’s something that I want to do as we continue.
Q: After Stan separated from Marvel, did he ever explore creating new superheroes with different publishers that he would fully own?
DG: Yeah, he had some other companies — Pow! was another company that he started — and there were some other companies and businesses. But we decided to really focus on his life story; it’s like a memoir of his time at Marvel Comics.
Q: You include some really fascinating bits that probably not a lot of people really know, like when he was in the military and he was a “playwright” and working on the training manuals for the payroll people. You can just tell from the footage that you guys did a thorough research for this. It’s not a super-long film, so were there any fun tidbits like that that you with that you could have included?
DG: Yes. Every character that he co-created has a great story behind it. So we really had to follow this thread and as we moved through history, [we considered] what are the important ones that really are like the bedrock — as most important stories. We wanted to make a film that could be watched by people of all ages, so I felt that keeping it tight and focused was the way to go. But there is so much more to Stan’s life and story.
Q: Stan always believed there was more to comics than just their escapist value.
DG: Well, the way I’ll answer that is to say that Stan Lee cared very much about the issues of his time. The intention is to show how he talked about the world outside his window and how that influences his comics. He was looking at what was going on in the present times that he was living in. The civil rights movement was a big part of it at the moment of the era that he was working in, so he wanted to integrate that into his work and make statements about what he believed in. He believed in equality, and he believed in equal rights, and so that’s why it’s in there.
Here’s the trailer of the film.