‘Stan Lee’ Documentary Directed by David Gelb Premieres at Tribeca, Online

‘Stan Lee’ Documentary Directed by David Gelb Premieres at Tribeca, Online
Still from the documentary "Stan Lee." (Disney+)
Catherine Yang

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.

The documentary premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival and will show June 10, 11, and 18, before going online at Tribeca At Home from June 19 to July 2, and on Disney+ beginning June 16.

Animating Stan’s Life

The 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.

Still from "Stan Lee." (Disney+)
Still from "Stan Lee." (Disney+)

“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.

“It was an amazing collaborative effort,” Gelb said. One creative team worked on taking comic book panels that would mirror Lee’s narration of his life as a sort of metaphor, and bringing them to life through animation. A second team built miniature models of all the Marvel offices as the venture grew, as well as a miniature of New York City during Lee’s childhood. 
“[The crafts team members] were making sure that every comic book on the walls in the bullpen [open area of an office], on the bulletin boards—everything—was perfectly period accurate. They really took it upon themselves to make this a passion project, and I think that the detail in the work, from the comic books on the walls, to items on the desks like telephones, and all the little miniature things—just watching them work was really, really inspiring,” he said. “It’s a medium that I'd love to return to.”
“Such a big part of the culture of comic books is action figures,” Gelb said. “I love action figures, and so we thought this would be the perfect visual way to recreate moments in Stan’s life.”

Collaboration and Leadership

As a director, Gelb was inspired by Lee’s brand of leadership.
“Stan was really created an environment where so much creativity could thrive,” Gelb said. “He brought in incredibly talented people, specifically [comic book artists] Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and then many, many other comic book creators and just created this environment where everybody could ... tell stories that are new to comics in the sense that they’re just more realistic in terms of human emotion. They took risks in a way that other comics didn’t.”

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.”

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