The first thing you think when you step into James Gunn’s tastefully decorated San Fernando Valley home is that it’s not what you would expect from this quirky, spikey-haired filmmaker.
He began his career in the punishingly low-budget world of subversive Z-movies at Troma Entertainment, writing the punky shakespeare parody Tromeo & Juliet, and later graduated to the almost as financially challenged superhero takedowns The Specials and Super, as well as the critically acclaimed, self-reflective, 1950s sci-fi deconstruction Slither. And much like Gunn himself, if you look deeper into his world, you’ll find a depth and charm that aren’t immediately apparent.
Aside from the action figures, collectibles and movie memorabilia you’ll find in many a geek filmmaker’s abode, Gunn’s world is dominated by strange and sometimes haunting artwork, including a hand-painted movie poster for Slither (direct from Ghana), a canvas that hangs in the hallway. His belongings include a myriad of wonderful and frightful things, among them weird-headed, fine-china- looking figurines by Click Mort and paintings by popular subculture artists he’s probably cool enough to call his friends, including Craig Larotonda (“Divinatio”) and Glenn Barr (“The Rec Room”).
Yes, this is the same guy who was handpicked to direct Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s most eagerly anticipated superhero film since The Avengers. And, like Benicio del Toro’s character in the film, The Collector, Gunn has a love and curiosity for oddities — perhaps making him the perfect fit for Guardians, which, despite being a superhero movie, is radically different from all the Marvel films that have preceded it. For many, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige’s handing Gunn the keys to the kingdom seemed surprising. After all, wasn’t this the guy who only a few years ago was paying the bills by writing such mainstream studio fare as Dawn of the Dead and Scooby-Doo? And his last film, Super, was a dark, R-rated, edgy indie made for less than the craft service budget of a Marvel blockbuster.
The answer to this conundrum may have a lot to do with Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon, who was a similarly surprising choice to direct that film given that his previous experience consisted of working in television. But, clearly, Whedon got it, and with a smart script and his sure-handed vision, The Avengers became one of the biggest box- office successes of all time. After that, Whedon helped draft Gunn for Guardians, lauding the filmmaker for his screenplays about misfit superheroes – including one produced by none other than Geek’s founding publisher, Mark A. Altman.
“This is the guy who wrote The Specials,” raved Whedon of Gunn’s beloved cult classic. “People don’t understand how influential that movie was about taking heroes and making them mundane.” So Gunn was charged with adapting the long-running Guardians comic (launched in 1969) to the big screen — to make warrior trees come alive and a deadly, talking raccoon credible as part of an offbeat band of space cowboys. and, given the enthusiastic reception to the film, it appears that Gunn’s cult status is in serious peril.
GEEK: You started off in low-budget films working for your mentor, Lloyd Kaufman, at Troma. What lessons did you learn from this world that you applied to big-budget studio filmmaking?
James Gunn: I learned a million lessons. Number one: Be prepared for everything to go wrong. And that’s true whether you are on a low-budget film or big-budget film, and it has served me pretty well, because usually things go wrong and, usually, I’m prepared. That’s number one, but I learned everything from Lloyd about filmmaking – from casting to location scouting to directing to editing, even making the poster and distributing in theaters. That was the great thing for me about working at Troma. Not too many people get that opportunity. We’re still close friends.
Your work has consistently displayed a self-reflective, meta-awareness, whether it’s a film like The Specials, Slither or Guardians. Could you ever see yourself doing a straight-up superhero film? How do you feel your sensibility has informed these films?
In a way, The Specials seems to anticipate Guardians in certain respects. Well, this sounds ridiculous, but in some ways I consider Super a straight superhero film because i am totally sincere about it. I don’t think of it as “meta.” That’s just the way my brain works. I think of it as human beings, not as fiction. The Guardians are edgy, cheeky and funny, but i take them completely seriously.
What comic books did you read when you were younger?
I read almost every single Marvel comic growing up. I had every “Spider-Man” from #4 through #300. I had every “Avengers,” starting at #4, every “Fantastic Four,” starting at #9. I had all the “Howard the Ducks,” which I loved. I had every “Conan the Barbarian;” I loved conan. I loved “The Tomb of Dracula”… “The Defenders.” I wasn’t as much of a “Thor” guy, but I read a lot of Marvel comics. When I was 13, i thought i wanted to write comic books and maybe draw them. I was pretty aware that I was not a good enough artist at that time to be able to draw comics, but I thought I was a good enough writer. so that’s what I thought I was going to do.
Tell us how you got involved with Guardians. Obviously, Marvel Studio President of Production Kevin Feige was a fan of your work. How did this all come together for you?
It was a pretty long process getting the job. Whenever I put myself forward for a movie, I always think I do very well because i kind of don’t care. and I know that sounds weird, but making movies is hard. If you get the gig, it means a whole lot of hard work, and if you don’t get the gig, it means I get to go have fun. So there are benefits to getting a job or not getting a job. But I can honestly say that the first time I remember caring about a project at that early of a stage was Guardians. It was [Marvel’s] idea; they called me in to pitch me on GotG. I thought it was more of a general meeting and I didn’t know exactly what it was about. [Executive Producer] Jeremy Latcham and [Producer] Jonathan Schwartz pitched me Guardians of the Galaxy as a movie. I wasn’t sure if that was the movie I wanted to do, nor did I think I could get the job. I didn’t think they were seriously meeting with me; I thought I was probably just an interesting person to meet with as opposed to someone that they would actually hire.
I thought about it a little bit, and as I sat there, I started to see how it could work. I loved space epics as a kid but think they’ve gotten stale. So I went home, thought about it and that’s when it came to me. It was completely a visual thing. It wasn’t really a thing in terms of story, it was just how I would attack the movie visually. I wrote up this long document about how I thought I could re-create the space opera. They got into that, but it wasn’t over yet, because at frst there were a bunch of guys vying for the position, then five guys, then two guys, then just me. After that, I flew into Wilmington, North Carolina, where they were shooting Iron Man 3, and I pitched Kevin Feige and [Executive Producer] Lou D’Esposito. I’d also drawn up a storyboard from a sequence that ended up in the movie. And they hired me.
Joss Whedon said, and I’m paraphrasing, that you are “the reason why GotG will work.” How does it feel to have such a huge icon in geek culture who has that kind of faith in you?
Joss has always had my back. Joss put my novel “Toy Collector” in [the webisodic musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog]. He would show his writers on his TV shows The Specials because of the way the dialogue worked. He has always been a huge supporter; Joss gave me my first job when I came to town. I’m always touched when he says something about me publicly and I’m touched when he says something about me privately. After visiting the Guardians set, he wrote me a long note about how excited he was for the movie, and how jealous he was, because, in some ways, making Guardians was the coolest Marvel gig because I get to make up everything. Joss had to come in and deal with a bunch of things that were already pre-existing and could not have done a better job than he did. I didn’t have that baggage. I got to come in and just play.
Benicio del Toro is notoriously picky about his roles. Can you tell us a little bit about courting him for the film?
There are certain people I feel that are kindred spirits and I think of them as weirdos. Michael Rooker is one. Benicio del Toro is another. They are eccentric fellows and, somehow, I just “get” those people. we gave Benicio the script – he really liked it – and in the script, one of the ways it described The Collector was as an outer space Liberace, and that was something he really got into. Then we talked about the role and I just immediately hit it off with the guy. We hung out for the first time at his wardrobe fitting in London and he was talking about how The Collector loves these items he collects and that’s what he used as his motivation, and he said this sentence, which I’ll never forget, which was, “I was the first kid in my neighborhood to have a pet alligator.” I thought, “This guy and I are going to be friends for a long time.”
How do you think technology is changing flm?
If you look at why it is now that superhero movies are so popular, people come up with a lot of heady reasons like, “people feel more powerless, so they want to see these powerful beings” or they feel this or that or whatever. It’s strictly technology. I was so excited for an Iron Man movie, but I also knew there was never a hit superhero movie that starred a B-list superhero. The technology [available] was able to make it feel more real than ever before – that’s what makes comic book movies so popular today. But people need to continue to make diferent kinds of superhero movies, and that’s what’s so great about what Marvel is doing with GotG.
What were the biggest challenges of adapting this particular Marvel property?
Strictly the scope of things. Creating a big-budget movie is, in many ways, easier than the other films I’ve done. i have the best people around me to help me and I have to do a lot less of their jobs than I’ve had to in the past. The two most difficult things are the time it takes to do it. I got hired in September of 2012 and started working on it before that, so it will have been a straight two years of 98% of my waking hours being devoted to GotG. That’s hard. And the marathon aspect of it means I can’t push myself the same way I would push myself on a film like Super, which we shot in 24 days. There are so many facets involved and keeping track of that and not losing yourself or the center of what’s important in the movie, which is the characters and how they interact. It’s easy to get lost in visual effects and stunts and that can start to chop away at what’s important. Staying centered on is one of the most difficult challenges.
In a typical day, I have tons of people asking me if I’m done yet and I’m like, “Done?! I have to make a movie, and since two of my main characters are animated, I then have to make another one – on top of my first movie!” So it’s a lot of different things and it’s easy to forget one or two of them and let them slide.
What were your thoughts when [director] Alan Taylor publicly dissed your teaser for Guardians at the end of his film, Thor: The Dark World?
It seemed in bad taste. First of all, Alan didn’t even know I directed that sequence. He’s a big fan of Super, he likes my movies, and he’s a big fan of what he has seen of Guardians. Alan wrote me immediately afterwards and was mortified by what he’d done. He wrote me a three-page apology about how awful he felt. Alan was so taken aback by the sudden deluge of questions and attention that it was overwhelming. I didn’t write that scene. It was during second-unit shooting and we got the scene from the guys, asking, “Hey, can you shoot this?” So Benicio and I shot it in about an hour and a half and turned the scene over for Thor. However, Alan Taylor directed a movie and had other stuff thrown into his movie and it wasn’t tonally in sync with the rest of what he created. So I get it. He probably didn’t need to say it publicly, but he was just not used to that sort of thing. He’s very talented and a really good guy, so it didn’t bother me like it did other people.
Tell us about your man crush on Michael Rooker and why Nathan Fillion doesn’t have a cameo in Guardians. [Editors Note: This interview happened before the Fillion cameo was revealed.]
Who said Nathan Fillion doesn’t have a cameo? And, secondly, do I have a man crush on Michael Rooker?
I don’t know if it’s only a “man crush,” because it definitely seems requited!
[Laughing] Oh, no… Rooker is in love with me and he follows me around like a puppy dog. I just saw him last night. he and some friends were over here and he told me that I was the only director who has hired him twice. I’ve actually worked with him on three movies. I love the guy! I mean, we love each other so much we went to Paris together! I don’t know why I do it to myself, but I do.
What do you think was the first successful comic book movie? What’s your most and least favorite?
Well, Superman: The Movie was the first successful comic movie, wasn’t it? I loved it as a kid, but I had issues with the science of it, like how he flew around the Earth to make it revolve backwards and it didn’t just explode but instead turned back time. But the feel and texture and score were so great. I’ve never liked Batman, though. not the character – Batman is one of my favorite comic book characters – but I’ve never liked the movies.
Final question, are you going to reboot The Toxic Avenger and who should play him?
No! Steve Pink, the guy who directed Hot Tub Time Machine, is rebooting it. But my brother, Sean Gunn, should play Melvin [who becomes the Toxic Avenger]. He had a great role in Guardians and he also stood in for Bradley Cooper as Rocket on set. He was just fantastic.
Interview originally published in the May 2014 issue of Geek Magazine.
Images: Marvel Studios