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Dakota Johnson and S.J. Clarkson and find the psychological thriller in ‘Madame Web’

LOS ANGELES — One of the first things that struck director S.J. Clarkson about “Madame Web” was that this was a superhero who did not have superhuman strength. And unlike Batman, she couldn’t just buy herself some. No, Cassandra Webb has a different kind of power: Clairvoyance. This, the veteran television director found interesting.

“I saw the challenge of clairvoyance and the fact that it didn’t necessarily scream action as its biggest virtue,” Clarkson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Because then we could explore the fact that you don’t need superhuman strength to be a superhero.”

How does one depict clairvoyance? Well, for that, she turned to the movies, re-watching Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” and “Inception” and the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix.”

“I just sort of went across the board looking at movies that had done that, you know, and some horror. I was trying to find that sort of thrilling, scary space,” she said.

“Madame Web” (currently in theaters) is the first of Sony’s Spider-Man spinoffs (including “Venom” and “Morbius”) that is centered on a woman. Clarkson had long admired Dakota Johnson as an actor and was thrilled to get the chance to direct her.

“She has such depth and breadth as an actor. She grounds everything. She finds the nuance and pathos in everything. But she’s also very funny,” Clarkson said. “It was important to me that we didn’t sort of, like, take ourselves too seriously. Yes, it’s a psychological thriller, but there needs to be moments of levity.”

Johnson was excited about the prospect too, even if she never thought she would be in a comic book movie.

“I just loved that it was about a young woman whose power is her mind,” Johnson said. “And I thought that that was really important and inspiring.”

And, perhaps most importantly, Johnson felt safe under Clarkson’s leadership.

“She just had everything under control,” Johnson said. “I didn’t worry for a second that it wasn’t going to be great. Ultimately, like in the edit or even on set, it’s just, she’s so detail oriented and she operates on such a high level … I just felt really held and I really, you know, trusted her.”

In Johnson, Clarkson said she found an “incredible collaborator throughout,” acknowledging the challenge of having to visually showcase the act of seeing into the future.

“Many of those scenes that she’s in, nothing’s happening. It’s just her reacting and me saying, this is what’s going to happen in the future when we film it, right? It really was a bit like clairvoyance for her in that she didn’t actually get to see it,” Clarkson said. “So to have that sort of partnership in that creative collaboration was imperative and invaluable, and we wouldn’t have what we have without it.”

Clarkson has television credits going back 20 years, to the BBC soap opera “Doctors.” A journeyman director, she’s helmed episodes of “Heroes,” where she first met a very young Sydney Sweeney, “Dexter,” “House,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Succession” and, most recently, all six episodes of Netflix’s “Anatomy of a Scandal,” which she also executive produced. And she’d had some superhero experience too with Marvel’s “Jessica Jones.” She’s found both times that the “richness of the comics” provided her with an extraordinary foundation from which to leap.

“This is an origin story,” Clarkson said. “So for me it was like, how can we get the spirit and the essence of this character, and how can we take the things that we know about her and then work backwards and find out what would make the most interesting, fulfilling story with as much depth and breadth of that character to bring her to where she is today and where we will know that she’s going to be in the future.”

The movie also has some easter eggs for Marvel superfans, including the name of a diner where a crucial showdown happens, and a hat tip to “Madame Web’s” original creators, writer Denny O’Neil and artist John Romita Jr.

But for Johnson and Clarkson, the ultimate goal to was to create something fresh.

“It feels really fun to be a part of something that’s also kind of removed and fresh and a new kind of take on a superhero movie,” Johnson said. “It’s so grounded and it’s more of like a psychological thriller than what I’ve seen superheroes do before.”

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