It was around 6 a.m. CT when Rodney Rothman and his wife learned his film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was a 2019 Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature. The pair sat in the dark and in bed quietly celebrating, hoping not to wake their 4-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter.
“It’s like the No. 1 thing on your bucket list is coming true,” Rothman said.
Rothman, a 1991 Scarsdale Alternative School graduate, is credited as co-writer (with Phil Lord) and co-director (with Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey) of the box office smash. The 45-year-old writer/director/producer signed onto the project six months into production back in 2015 and is now seeing the fruits of his labor — lots of them.
In less than two months since the film’s release, it has also claimed the Critics’ Choice Movie Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
“Spider-Verse” is Rothman’s first credit as director, though unofficially, it’s one of many hats he’s worn in the last 10 years.
Looking back, his career has pivoted more than once. As a teen at SHS, Rothman edited the school humor magazine “Skorch” and glommed onto media like “National Lampoon” and “Saturday Night Live.”
“I was still figuring out what I was good at, what my strengths were as a person,” he said, “and how one might even go about making a career out of writing or being creative. .. I didn’t really understand it.”
Rothman found some clarity at Middlebury College, where he joined an improv group called The Otter Nonsense Players with fellow Scarsdale alumnus Dan O’Brien and actors Jessica St. Clair and Jason Mantzoukas, among others. He studied film and wrote comedy both in and out of the classroom.
During his senior year, Rothman was introduced to Saturday Night Live writer Brian Kelley, who suggested Rothman send jokes and see if they made it on air.
Rothman tuned in every week and waited for funnyman Norm MacDonald to deliver one of his punch lines, to no avail.
“It’s ridiculous, but ... I remember having to take long walks at night and asking myself if I was cut out for this,” Rothman said.
At long last, one night MacDonald ended the segment “Weekend Update” with one of Rothman’s jokes. “[It] was literally the highest high of my life,” he said. “All of a sudden ... you see something you created travel through the television screen and come out the other side.”
Over that school year, Rothman continued faxing in jokes to SNL, many of which were used on air for $50 each.
As his college career wrapped, Rothman found an ad in the career center for junior writers on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Two months after graduation, he landed the job. He stayed at “Letterman” for five years, two of which he spent as head writer.
From there, Rothman made a lifelong friend in Judd Apatow, with whom he worked on the short-lived, career-launching series “Undeclared” on Fox (2001-2002). He also penned “Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement,” a tender, comedic romp about Rothman living in a Florida retirement community (2006).
Through Apatow, Rothman learned the value of writer-driven storytelling, an experience he translated to film projects like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “22 Jump Street.”
“Spider-Verse” was Rothman’s first deep dive into animation, which he relished.
“In some ways, I found it to be a purer form of filmmaking than I’d ever experienced before,” he said. “Everything you see in an animated movie — every prop, every hair on everyone’s head — has to be designed.”
The film follows Miles Morales, a character in the Marvel universe created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli in 2016. Miles, a creative, African-American/Latino teen from Brooklyn, is navigating overbearing parents, an all-white prep school and a new crush when he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Consequently, he develops all of the web-slinging, super strength powers we know and love — plus a few more of his own.
He meets the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker, along with several other versions of the superhero in a freak cosmic rip orchestrated by the comic book villain Kingpin.
The film is, in part, homage to the many iterations of the “Spider-Man” story, Rothman said. It’s also distinct — funny, refreshing and visually explosive.
The film’s mantra — “You’re powerful and we’re counting on you” — has developed into something of a cultural phenomenon, with audiences of every age and background suddenly seeing themselves in the mask.
“I’ve never worked on anything that seems to have touched so many people,” Rothman said. “I can feel already that it’s addictive, that I want to keep making things that connect with people like this.”