Filmmaker James Gunn, even after having written the Scooby Doo movies, is still mostly a cult figure in Hollywood. He started out working for Troma, the legendary B-movie film studio. He then went on to direct the much-beloved cult horror movie Slither, and his own twisted take on superheroes, Super. Now, Gunn has been tapped to write and direct what has been described as the riskiest film project for Marvel since Iron Man, the cosmic action adventure film, Guardians of the Galaxy.
On making a film about oddballs:
James Gunn: "I have my own restrictions as an artist and a human being. It’s going to be very hard for me not to make a movie about an oddball considering my own personality. I knew that I was making a movie about outcasts. There’s a movie called The Dirty Dozen, which is a World War 2 movie about a bunch of prisoners, murderers and thieves that was brought together as a team and was forced to fight the Nazis. That was something that I brought up when I first met with the Marvel producers. That’s what these characters are. These characters are outlaws. Quill is a thief and a pirate. Rocket and Groot are just a bunch of thugs and bounty hunters that do whatever they can for money. Drax is an absolute maniac and murderer. And Gamora’s an assassin. They’re all bad guys at the beginning of this movie, and through this movie they learn that they’re a little bit more than they think they are."
On his start in the industry:
My first job in the industry was working for Troma. For those of you that don’t know, Troma is the world’s oldest independent film studio, and they make B-movies with lots of sex and violence. Lloyd (Kaufman, head of Troma) took me under his wing and I learned everything I needed to know about filmmaking from that experience. Other kids go to film school, but I got a real practical experience. When we put together Tromeo and Juliet, I wrote the screenplay, then I got to cast the movie. The casting director didn’t know what he was doing so I had to come in and do the casting for a while. And the location scout couldn’t find all the locations we needed, so I had to go out on my own and find the locations and get people to sign the contracts. It continued like that throughout the filmmaking process. So I learned how to assistant direct, I learned how to direct actors. I learned how to do every single part of the filmmaking process. All the way through to designing the film poster and putting it out to the theaters and booking it. I just don’t know where else I could have learned even a little bit about every aspect of practical filmmaking.
On his comedic influences:
Preston Sturges is one of my favorite directors. His way of dealing with dialogue, that fast paced sort of talking…in the movie you’ll see there’s a seven-page scene where the characters are just getting into an argument, and people seem to think it’s their favorite scene in the movie. I’m particularly proud of it. That stuff comes from Preston Sturges. Monty Python was a group that I thought was extremely funny. Their movies were very influential to me as a kid, simply because they were so odd, and they were so out there. They’d do anything for a laugh.
On the Marvel cosmic universe:
There are so many characters I love from the Guardians of The Galaxy that I wasn’t able to fit. From the original Guardians of the Galaxy, I have a very different version of Yandu. But I don’t have Starhawk, I don’t have Martinex. I don’t have any of the other characters. I think Vance Astro and Adam Warlock and all those characters are very interesting. It just makes me excited for being able to tell future stories in this universe. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring in the rest of those characters bit by bit by bit. But I think for this movie, these were the characters that worked the best.
On writing the script:
When I got the first draft back, it had a note from Joss Whedon to make it “more James Gunn.” The first version was still pretty similar, but I allowed myself to go a little bit more out there for the next draft. The first draft was a good story that told the story of the characters coming together and fighting Ronan. But I think that I always kind of loosen up in the second draft. That’s where the fun comes in. Like that seven-page scene I was talking about earlier – that’s something I thought Marvel would think is too out there. It’s because of Joss that the scene is in the movie.
On his casting process:
I’m very picky with who I choose as actors. I also really hate working with people who are not nice. Life is too short to hire actors who are difficult. You often see an actor doing great in a movie, and you’ll hear afterwards how difficult they were. And you start thinking about how that impacted the movie. How many shots didn’t they get to do because an actor didn’t want to leave his trailer?
On casting his friends in his movies:
I want to say that I just try to write the movie with the best characters, and then see if those guys fit anywhere. But that’s not a hundred percent true, because those guys inspire me. When I wrote the first draft, for instance, there was no Yandu in it. And there was a real problem in the third act. One day I had a burst of inspiration to just throw out the third act and add this stupid idiot named Yandu and have him become a big part of the movie. And when I thought of that I thought “I’m going to write this role for Michael Rooker.” Michael Rooker’s a really good actor, but everybody keeps making him this hard, tough guy. Which he is, but he’s also a lunatic. He starts laughing maniacally all the time. I wanted to write a role for Rooker where we use the part of him that’s a hardass, but also the maniac that starts giggling and can’t stop. Although I don’t necessarily go “how can I try to fit these people in there?” I do get inspired by my friends’ performances and write them particular things.
On his favorite moments on set:
My favorite moments are the ones where I get to watch an actor be incredible. Or the ones where I have a shot that moves so smoothly that it’s like ballet. There’s a moment in the movie where Chris Pratt clips his headphones on Zoe’s ears, and she listens. And she doesn’t say anything, and she’s just listening to it. There’s a shot on her face that lingers there, and I just love that shot. And it’s all because Zoe is so present, so with Chris in that moment, so attuned to what’s going on in that scene. It’s a beautiful moment.
On his use of practical effects:
My area of expertise within visual effects is to be able to do a mix of visual effects and practical effects. It’s really about knowing what works best for any given situation. I knew that I wanted a practical set there. And we had actors coming in, many of whom hadn’t worked on a big movie before. Dave and Chris are actors haven’t had a lot of experience staring off into green stuff and not knowing what was there. You’re being told to talk to a tennis ball on a stick that’s a raccoon that you love. That’s hard enough, but to them out there with just green, green, green, it sucks. You want to them to be in a real environment where they feel their feet on the ground. If they’re in prison, they’re going to be in prison. Our prison set was made of 350,000 pounds of steel. It was a huge set that went all the way around 360 degrees. Their spaceship, the Milano, was two stories. It was on a big gimbal, so it moved. The interior of that thing – you feel like you’re on a ship. And the truth is, it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper than having to spend twenty thousand dollars on every single shot because you’re putting something in the background that’s not there.
On his relationship with Marvel:
This is a story I’ve always wanted to tell. My goal when I made this movie was to make a movie that was 100 percent Marvel, and 100 percent James Gunn. I think most Marvel directors in the past have felt that at the end of the day, they were making a Marvel movie. I have been fortunate in that I have never felt like that. I have a very great creative relationship with Kevin Feige. We see things that the same when we should, and differently when it’s to the betterment of the film. I just tell a story for the audience that I’m speaking to. I knew that this story was a story that I would love to see whether I was nine years old or forty years old. That’s what I wanted it to be. I have always wanted to make a space action adventure film. I honestly never thought I would ever get the opportunity to do that. I wanted people to feel when they came out of the theater the way I felt when I was a kid and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, or Back to the Future; these classic films that made me feel amazing.
Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” opens in cinemas on Thursday, July 31 in The Philippines.