Comics writer Stan Lee, today nearly synonymous with Marvel, is a figure beloved by many. Known for pushing the envelope in the comics medium, he has inspired countless creatives to pursue their vision.
Documentary filmmaker David Gelb, who expanded the visual language of the medium with his debut film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and created the iconic "Chef's Table" series which spawned a new genre of food documentaries, has been a fan of Stan Lee and his work since childhood.
"Stan Lee has always been this kind of legendary writer for me, and he was one of the first writers that I ever really became aware of because of his presence in the comic books in the editorial section," said Gelb, who directed a new documentary, "Stan Lee," a memoir of the writer's life and career.
Animating Stan's LifeThe entire project, which took roughly a year and a half, was created after Lee's death and thus had to be built without his participation.
"I think the most challenging part is doing a documentary about someone who is no longer with us," Gelb said. In all his previous projects, the subjects were still alive and "can tell us the story," Gelb said.
"In this case, we really were limited with what we had. Unfortunately, this is also a challenge but you know, it's a benefit. Stan Lee is a terrific storyteller, and he has had so many interviews, so many media appearances. He's told so many stories that we had this wealth to draw on," Gelb said. In fact, one of the challenges was paring them down. "We have a terrific team of story producers and editors that we worked together to put this narrative, like a puzzle of putting the pieces together, in a sequence that really made sense and was true to the story as Stan told it."
Lee's voice—taken from media appearances when he was alive—narrates the highs and lows of his career, in this documentary that weaves together archival images and footage with completely new animation sequences the documentary team built.
Collaboration and LeadershipAs a director, Gelb was inspired by Lee's brand of leadership.
Lee originally wanted to be an author, and "back in the 20s and the 30s, when he was growing up, there was really no room for comic books that told a sophisticated story or that even attempted to take a crack at real human emotion or making it [about] relatable heroes," Gelb said.
Famously, "Spider-Man" wasn't about a larger-than-life figure, but a nerdy, high school student—someone the readers of comic books would greatly relate to. It sounds obvious to do today, but Lee was the first, and broke barriers, telling stories his publishers said wouldn't work, Gelb explained. "He had to go against the tide to follow his vision. And that ended up paying off, but it's very difficult to go and try to do something when everybody else is telling you that you're crazy."
"He never turned back and he never doubted himself, even when people were calling me crazy for trying to do it," Gelb said. "He took big risks in his stories and he fostered an incredible team oriented, collaborative environment."
Gelb said the takeaway is really Stan Lee's message: follow your gut.
"If you believe in something, go for it. And don't let people tell you not to try. And you know, sometimes you'll be successful and sometimes you won't, but nothing is gained by denying your own instincts. So if you have a vision, if you have a dream, just go for it and try your best, and through your journey, that goal or vision may change as you learn, but you have to go for it and don't be afraid,. Just try your best in whatever it is you do," Gelb said. "I think it's a universal theme that I hope audiences take away [from the film] and are inspired by."