James Gunn’s smaller budget films Slither and Super blended comedy with other genres in a way that caught the attention of Marvel Studios’ bosses and helped land him the gig directing Guardians of the Galaxy, but as it turns out, there was a lot more to it than that. We visited the set of Guardians of the Galaxy last September and had the opportunity along with several other online journalists to sit down with Gunn for 40 minutes to take about the film.
The conversation covers what convinced Gunn of the film when he wasn’t initially too interested; his strict process for casting talent who can handle comedy and drama; managing the expectations for the Guardians of the Galaxy property; designing long one-shot cinematic moments; moving to PG-13 from being R-rated in previous projects; Marvel Comics Easter eggs and character cameos; introducing and balancing several sets of entirely new characters; having the budget to shoot anything he could visualize and blending CG with practical effects.
Our visit was in September of 2013 so at the time Bradley Cooper had already been officially cast but while Vin Diesel had been talking about playing Groot for several months, it wasn’t a done deal, contractually speaking.
James Gunn: Heyyy, what’s up?
How did you manage to convince Marvel to do an expensive PG porn?
James Gunn: They’re fucking crazy. It’s true, it’s true. It’s not PG porn.
Starting with the sizzle that we saw this morning–
James Gunn: Where did you see the sizzle, from Comic-Con?
We saw that and the behind the scenes stuff. When Chris [Pratt] came in, he was talking about how he got goosebumps from the prison scene. The scale of this is so different than anything else you’ve ever done. Has it really been a radically different experience for you as a filmmaker or is it still about voice and about character and defining this world?
James Gunn: Yeah. I mean, I’d say radically different yes and no. For me it all comes back to just my own experience, so in some ways I think it’s probably a little boring. For me, just because of the length of it, it makes it a much different experience from doing something like Super which we shot in 24 days for 3 million dollars. We had to do like 50 set-ups a day. So it was just a harrowing, tough experience. And this is difficult but it’s because it’s over such a long period of time. But on a day-to-day basis it’s actually a lot more—using the word “easy” is not the greatest thing but yeah, it’s easier. Because you do have more time for the set up, you have more time for planning. We had more time for planning, period.
We have more time between sets and I think the biggest difference is having a lot of people around me I can trust. I mean, on most every movie I have maybe one or two people who I really trust. Like on Super, I trusted the DP, Steve Gainer, an awful lot. I trusted Rainn Wilson an awful lot but there’s a lot of people who are in independent films and who you’re getting —who you can get. And on this movie it’s like I’m just surrounded by a lot of people who really make me breathe easier, which is everyone from Charlie Wood, who did the production design—he and I have been in a 100% full sync from the beginning—to you know, my assistant, Simon. I mean, just everybody’s just really good at their job so that’s been a huge relief.
Talk a little bit about the expectations of a film like this. Both the expectations coming on you from the existing fanbase from Marvel, and what kind of expectations did you set for yourself?
James Gunn: I guess I just don’t think of it so much as expectations. I’m definitely trying to make a huge commercial, fun, awesome movie that moves people. I don’t know that’s an expectation so much as just something I’m trying to achieve. I think in terms of the expectations from the fans listen, one of the great things about Guardians Of The Galaxy is there aren’t as many expectations on what to expect when you have The Avengers.
They have 500 plus issues of comics and everybody thinks, “Oh well this is the definitive story, or this is a definitive story, or Hawkeye’s personality in issues 59 through 70 is really where he was defined.” And the truth is Hawkeye changes throughout all those issues of Avengers. I’ve read them all, so I know. So, it’s like you know, there was a lot of different expectations on what the title should be. With this, there are a lot fewer Guardians Of The Galaxy titles to choose from. And there’s a lot fewer fans in general of Guardians Of The Galaxy. Those types of expectations I think are easier with a movie like this. For me, I’m always hard on myself no matter what, so that’s always a thing I have to deal with on a daily basis. And that’s whether I’m doing this movie or in a relationship with a girl or whatever. It’s like I just beat the shit out of myself constantly. So, same old, same old.
We’ve been hearing about more than one long one-shot, these long takes. Is that something that you built in? How many are there? Talk about why you wanted to put those specific long takes in there.
James Gunn: I think that for me, making this movie it’s a little bit like a Nirvana song. It’s slow and long, and then big and fast, and slow and long, and big and fast. And I really like those—sort of going from really small to really big. So, we have some longer takes in there and then we have a lot of really fast moving scenes with a lot of different shots. And I think both are important and it’s a way to make the movie work together as a whole. I think that it’s a pretty cinematic film, and for me it’s been really exciting. Because every other movie I’ve been on I’ve been very, restricted by budget, in terms of the amount of shots I was able to do and the kind of shots I was able to do.
On Slither I think I was able to afford a crane for like 2 days and had to make do. And so on this movie I carry a crane with me every day and I was able to design all the shots exactly the way I want them throughout the whole film. The way I work is, I plan every single thing out ahead of time. In this movie, I found more than any other I’m able to not only make the scenes that I initially saw in my head, but sometimes be plussed quite a bit by a lot of the people around me, whether it’d be the performers or the designers or whatever, which has been an amazing—that’s been like the most amazing experience – to have a shot I thought was kind of cool in my head and then come on set and start setting it up and see something really beautiful in it. That’s really been the coolest thing.
I was hoping you could talk about the tone of the film because it looks really funny but these are also damaged characters. It seems like a dark universe. Where do you strike that balance? And also coming from your R-rated past to PG-13, how has that transfer been?
James Gunn: Yeah I found that strangely it’s—I haven’t found any difficulty in myself going from R-rated to PG-13. Occasionally, I get a little too violent but for the most part I haven’t been, and the person who censored me has been myself. I think that it is a real delicate balance. I think first and foremost, we’re making an action adventure film—that’s what this is. At its core it’s an action adventure film. But there’s also a lot of comedic elements and there’s a lot of dramatic elements, which I think people are gonna be surprised to see frankly, because it really is dramatic. I think that was something that was important to me from the beginning and I think it’s something that helps to ground the movie in a way.
I think a big part of making this film is, we’re making something that’s so outlandish and out there with so many crazy situations, and characters and settings, that to sort of keep it anchored in the drama and the reality of these characters’ emotional lives is the most important thing in the film. It’s been a balance but it feels pretty comfortable. That said, it’s still a pretty different movie. And think it’s a really different movie for a tent pole, big, huge film to have as much comedy and drama as it has. I think it’s very unusual.
I’m curious about the relationship with Marvel. Could you talk about when you met with them, how much were they saying to you, “Hey, this is our idea and what can you do with it?” versus you saying to them, “Hey, this is my idea what do you think?”
James Gunn: Umm, well, let’s see, They’ve been pretty open all long. I have told this story before but when I first went to them, I guess I knew that they were gonna talk to me about Guardians Of The Galaxy. When I just heard about it, it didn’t really interest me that much.
When did you first meet with them?
James Gunn: I met with them, I think in July of 2011, something like that. I went down there and I had a meeting in Manhattan Beach. I probably just thought I would try to get in and get them to make a Hit Monkey movie again, which I tried to get them to do a few months beforehand (laughs).
James Gunn: I went down and they’re gonna be meeting with me about Guardians Of The Galaxy—okay, whatever. And I went and I sat down with Jeremy Latcham and Jonathan Schwartz, and they really pitched me pretty hard on Guardians. I really thought they were meeting with a lot of people and that it wasn’t as serious as it was at the time. But they pitched me pretty hard and they showed me the art that had been done for Comic-Con that year, and that really spoke to me. I really liked that art work that Charlie Wen did.
I kind of thought about it a little bit while I was sitting down with them, then I went home and then I really thought about it. And it just sort of came to me—not the story at all but the visuals of it. I really saw how I visually could see this film and how I could add my own voice to that and really create something different with it that still had some familiarity. So, I went home and I wrote this 15-page document on the visuals of Guardians Of The Galaxy and what would it be like, and what would it be like tonally. And what were the basics of what the characters would be like, and I sent it off to those guys and they really liked it.
Then I flew into North Carolina a couple days later. I had drawn up some storyboards and things like that and had a little presentation I did on my iPad, which I have never done, frankly. I have often attributed my success to the fact that I really—I’m trying to say it in the right way—I really don’t give a shit. If I get a gig or I don’t get a gig, I really have never, ever, ever cared. And this is the first time in my career, I know that I cared, which was terrifying to me because I really did care. I put myself out on the line and went there and did this little dog and pony show. Then I heard a few days later that I’d gotten the gig. But it was like, I knew at the time there there was five of us, I think, that were up at one point and then there was three of us. And then by the time I went to North Carolina there was two of us, and then there was me.
At what point did you call Mr. Whedon and ask, “How was your relationship with Marvel? Is this a good idea?”
James Gunn: Well, first of all, I’d already talked to Joss a lot about what it was like going through The Avengers—what his experience was like. So, I had already known a lot of that stuff. I don’t think I ever really called to talk to Joss—no I did but that’s not—that’s a lie. I did, I wrote him an e-mail and said, “Hey, I’m trying to get this job. Can you help me?” (laughs). And he said, “You’re fucking late. I already talked to all of those guys all about you. So, yeah I did do that. And I don’t do that stuff normally. That’s like the most embarrassing thing. (laughs)
I figured it’d be great to have someone who’s super honest to at least tell you what it’s like.
James Gunn: Yeah, but I did. After I got the gig, then I called and I talked to him a little bit more about what it was like. But I also knew what Joss’ experience was and I knew this from Kevin, was that Joss was the easiest experience Marvel ever had. Because they pretty much agreed and saw things from the same way every step of the way. And they aren’t always like that with the directors they work with, and that’s been my situation so far as well. I have not had a single—any small disagreement I’ve ever had with Marvel has been completely for the benefit of the movie. And there’s never been like—really, we’ve seen everything. I mean, I think, again, this is a story I started to tell before. It was after I wrote the first draft of my screenplay, everybody seemed to be very excited. They seemed to really love the screenplay, Louis D’Esposito and Kevin [Feige], and everybody was coming to me telling me how great it was.
Then Kevin came in and—or not—then Joss came in and Joss was happy, but he wasn’t as happy as everybody else and I was like, “Whoa, man!” And he’s like, “Well, I really loved this and this is great, and the story’s been cracked. But you know, I just really want there to be more James Gunn in the script. There’s things that are too conventional and I want more James Gunn in it. And I was kinda sitting there and then Kevin and Lou were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” And I was like, “Alright, your funeral.”
James Gunn: Then I went home and I swear to God (laughs), I went home and I wrote a 7-page scene where the guys are in the spaceship arguing about something and it’s all dialogue, and we’re about to shoot it on Friday. And they were really happy. That was a cool thing and I think it’s been a unique situation where Marvel—this group of characters is ready for somebody who sees things in the way I see things. And frankly, I think people are ready to see the movie like that. So, it feels good.