Next Big Thing
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Filmmaker James Gunn on His Glorious Space Opera and Rise to the A-List
The former sex- and gore-happy director opens up about his gleefully idiosyncratic superhero blockbuster, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ and how a weirdo from St. Louis conquered Hollywood.
To say that James Gunn is ecstatic is a vast understatement. For years, the filmmaker toiled within the Hollywood studio system as a writing gun for hire, penning screenplays that mutated into lackluster films, e.g. those Scooby-Doo flicks featuring the casts of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream. Following the release of his critically acclaimed directorial debut Slither, a hilarious fusion of creature feature and wacky comedy, Gunn was hired to write and direct the sci-fi comedy Pets, featuring Ben Stiller as a mild-mannered suburbanite who’s abducted by aliens that wish to transform him into their pet, for 20th Century Fox. Due to heavy friction with the producers, the project fell through.
Now, the onetime Lloyd Kaufman/Troma apprentice is the toast of Tinseltown. His Marvel superhero space opera, Guardians of the Galaxy, is poised to conquer the box office, and received such critical raves and good buzz prior to its release that Marvel went ahead and greenlit a sequel, which Gunn will once again write and direct.
“It’s kind of like a slingshot,” exclaims Gunn. “We’ve been pulling it back and pulling it back, and we’re finally ready to let it go.”
Guardians centers on Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), an intergalactic smuggler who swipes an orb. Unbeknownst to him, the orb contains an Infinity Stone, which holds within it the power to destroy entire planets. After it’s stolen by Ronan (Lee Pace) on behalf of Thanos, Quill bands together with a gang of alien misfits—Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an ex-Thanos assassin; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically-engineered raccoon/bounty hunter; his pal Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree; and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a vengeful warrior—to retrieve the orb and save the universe.
When did you come across Guardians of the Galaxy? I grew up in comic book stores and I gotta admit I’d never really heard of it.
James Gunn: I actually came across the Guardians as a very young kid. I had a lot of comic books as a kid, and they would show up in The Avengers, and they were very powerful, and very cool. I liked them so much that I’d draw and create my own superheroes that were ripped off from actual ones, and some of the ones I ripped off were from Guardians of the Galaxy.
What were some of those superheroes that you created as a kid?
I created a character called White Lightning who was very fast, a bunch of characters called Super Robots and they were named Stretch-O and Strong-O and things like that, and their enemy was Weasel Sam. I had a whole bunch of superheroes. There was a Marvel Universe, a DC Universe, and then the James Gunn Universe, which was slightly more… pathetic. [Laughs]
What set Guardians apart from other superheroes? They’re spiritual cousins, in a sense, to the superhero gang in your early film The Specials—the less-heralded heroes.
There’s a line in The Specials: “We’re not here for the regular people of the world, we’re here for all the outcasts—the rebel, the geek.” That’s me speaking. That is who my people are—the oddballs, the rebels, and the geeks. That’s what I am, so it’s what I naturally feel connected to. And it’s particularly true of The Guardians because this particular iteration in the 2008 comics were a group of Z-grade superheroes that had been on the fringes of the Marvel Universe for many years. Groot has been around since 1963, Rocket came along since the 1980s, Star-Lord was a rip-off of Star Wars, so all these characters were minor ones that they put in one group and made the Guardians.
Who were your favorite superheroes as a kid? I was mostly into Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Superman. And got very into the Frank Miller Batman stuff a bit later on.
Well, I was as huge Spider-Man fan as a kid, but I really liked The Defenders a lot. I was also a big Moon Knight fan, for some reason.
This is a huge moment in your career, and a big step up in terms of scale and budget than anything you’ve done before. How did you land the Guardians gig?
They called me in there and wanted to bring up Guardians of the Galaxy, and it didn’t necessarily speak to me when I first heard about it. But they told me about it, I listened, and it seemed sort of interesting—not that interesting—but I didn’t think it was something that they were going to let me do. I was driving home from the meeting and the whole thing came to me, how I could do it. I saw it as a really marvelous opportunity for me to connect everything I’d loved in cinema and my career into one movie. I’ve always loved Marvel superheroes, I’d always wanted to do a space opera—which is what Guardians is—and I love raccoons. I’ve always been a fan of anthropomorphic beasts that are hardasses, and funny, and curse. So then I was hooked.
So your interest is piqued, but then how did you convince Marvel to hand you the keys?
For the first meeting, they were pitching me on Guardians. Then, I went home and wrote a 16-page document on the visuals of Guardians of the Galaxy. It was there that I set down what the world would look like and be like, and I think that’s still the foundation for where we are in the movie. It was really about all the things we then fulfilled in the movie. Back in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, Alien and Blade Runner came around, and sci-fi films since then have been pretty dark, because if they’re dark, people can pretend it’s real, and movies that aren’t dark are like white buildings that look like they’ve been designed by the same architect. So for me, it was really about bringing this bright, bold, colorful, and brazen world that had grit and specific details to it, and would reclaim the colors of the ‘50s and ‘60s science fiction movies—movies like Forbidden Planet—but would also be edgy and postmodern. There’s a series of paintings by Magritte called “Visions of Light,” where it’s nighttime on the ground and daytime in the sky, so I wanted to have those contrasts be a part of the film.
So, I sent the 16-page guide off to Marvel, they got that, and after that I flew down to Wilmington, North Carolina, to meet with Kevin Feige and Lou D’Esposito, and at that point I did a bunch of storyboards so that they could be convinced that I could handle the action of it all, because I haven’t had the opportunity to employ all the camera angles working with such low budgets. I storyboarded a huge action sequence that was created by me, as well as Chris Foss’s artwork, which was a huge influence on the movie and we ended up hiring, as well as casting choices for who I thought would be good for the roles, and one of them was Zoe Saldana for Gamora.
What was the action sequence you storyboarded, and whom did you have in mind casting-wise for the other parts?
There was a script that existed before mine and not too much of it has stayed in the movie, but one of the sections that stayed—although it’s still a bit different—was when the ship gets hit by the fountain when Star-Lord is running away from Korath, so I storyboarded that action sequence, and the sequence that exists in the movie comes directly from the storyboards from that early meeting. And there were certain characters that weren’t even in the initial pitch, like Yondu, the Collector, and John C. Reilly’s Corpsman Rhomann Dey, which I added in later. But I definitely wouldn’t have guessed Chris Pratt, and I didn’t even know who Dave Bautista was.
How did you land on Chris Pratt for Star-Lord?
How I landed on Pratt was the role was pretty important to me. I thought it was a really well-written character, and that it would be easier to cast than it was. But we looked at well over 100 actors, and we looked at everyone from A-list actors to no-names, and we screen tested over 20 actors—one of whom was Lee Pace, who we then cast as Ronan. None of them were quite right because I was really looking for that guy who was going to take this character, inhabit him, and be who I had written, but also add that little something special. Truly, I wanted to be blown away and feel like this guy would be like Robert Downey Jr. was in Iron Man.
Sarah Finn, who was our casting director, kept saying, “What about this guy, Chris Pratt?” And I said, “The fat guy from Parks and Rec? That’s insane! What are you talking about?!” I was actually getting kind of upset with her because she kept bringing it up. I thought I said no to seeing him, but one day I read another actor and then she said, “Okay, now Chris Pratt’s here.” I’m pretty sure she tricked me into seeing him because I don’t ever remember agreeing to seeing him. Chris came in, and he was still chubby at that point, and within twenty seconds of him auditioning I knew that he was the guy. I just knew it immediately. I turned around and looked to Sarah and I almost had tears in my eyes, because we’d gone through so many people. He was so good that I thought, “Even if he stays chubby, he’ll still be better than anyone else.” I would have put him in the film even if he stayed overweight.
In addition to the casting rumors for Star-Lord, which included names like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, and John Krasinski, there were rumors that a lot of people were in the mix for the voice of Rocket Raccoon, including Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey.
Those Rocket Raccoon rumors are one hundred percent bullshit! Those reps may have called our people about Rocket, but neither one of those people were ever considered for a second for the character. I think Adam Sandler is fuckin’ hilarious, but he’s just not Rocket.
So how did you land on Bradley Cooper for the voice of Rocket?
We really needed someone who could handle the dramatic and comedic aspects of that character, and to also create a real character that wasn’t just that person’s voice. We auditioned a lot of voice actors for the role, but they all sounded cartoony, and then we auditioned some actors who weren’t quite funny enough, and some comics who couldn’t ground the character. So when Bradley said yes, I was really stoked.
You did a comedy short called Sparky and Mikaela, about a raccoon crime-fighting team, so you’ve always loved raccoons, eh?
Yeah, Sparky and Mikaela! That’s true. I love raccoons. I had a raccoon figurine collection as a kid, and I now have two movies with Ranger Rick jokes in them. I love ‘em. They come in my backyard all the time and we just stare at each other like a couple of idiots.
And I heard Bradley Cooper modeled his Rocket accent off Joe Pesci in Goodfellas?
Yeah. We talked a little bit about that. That was the closest character I could consider Rocket to being, and he’s kind of like Joe Pesci period. Now, Pesci sounds a bit older than Rocket does, but had it been twenty years ago, we definitely would’ve gone after Joe Pesci himself to play the role.
The casting of the voices is so great because of the element of self-parody—you have one of the best-looking Hollywood stars in Bradley Cooper playing a feisty mutated raccoon, and Vin Diesel voicing a wooden tree that just says “I am Groot.”
[Laughs] It’s an interesting predicament, but it’s also a testament to those two guys. Rocket probably talks more than any other character in the movie, so it’s a huge role. With Vin, I actually think he’s a really underrated actor, and have liked him in movies like Boiler Room. But he’s also got a great, deep voice. So it was, initially, stunt casting. But after Vin came in and starting doing the role, he blew us away. The amount he added to the role was crazy. His voice just sounds like a tree when he does it—I don’t even see Vin Diesel at all when I see Groot talking. And Vin is the biggest perfectionist I’ve ever met. For every “I am Groot” he says in the movie, he said it at least another 500 times. It took a few days in the studio for him to lay it down. He said a lot of “I am Groot’s.” The truth is, with all the leftover “I am Groot’s,” we could probably make another twenty Guardians of the Galaxy movies. There’s also a script that only Vin and I have which is Groot’s dialogue but written out in terms of what he’s actually saying. Sometimes it’s a word, and sometimes it’s a whole paragraph.
Did Joss Whedon, who’s been a big champion of yours, also have a hand in landing you the Guardians directing gig?
Joss showed my movie The Specials to every new writer that would come to work with him on his TV shows because he liked the way the dialogue was in that movie, and one of Joss’s favorite novels is my novel [The Toy Collector]. But Joss gave me my first job in Hollywood, which was writing a TV show for him. After I did Tromeo and Juliet, I moved out to L.A., and he’d read my screenplay for The Specials—which hadn’t been made yet—and liked the dialogue so much that he hired me to create this sitcom for Fox. It never went, but it was about a B-movie company. I thought that he had something to do with it, but he didn’t know about it initially. I came in, and then later [producer] Jeremy Latcham went to dinner with Joss and said, “We’re thinking about hiring James for Guardians,” and Joss said, “Whoa, I didn’t see it before but now I see it.” So it certainly wasn’t harmful to my prospects for getting the gig.
I heard he helped you create Thanos, and weave him into the story.
Yeah. The biggest thing was we had a talk together about whom we were casting as Thanos because we both had to work with that actor. Josh Brolin did all the mo cap work.
And your brother, Sean, did the mo cap work for Rocket Raccoon, right?
Well, there is no mo cap for Rocket and Groot, because their faces aren’t human faces. But he did reference work for Rocket, so a lot of times when you see Rocket’s expressions, we’d use what Sean did on set. When you watch the end of the 12 percent scene and he’s doing a lot of eye-rolling and standing up with the group, that’s all Sean’s acting. But other times, if you see Rocket’s prison scene, we video-recorded Bradley saying the lines and just used Bradley there. And other times, if there wasn’t anything I thought could reference the scene, I’d just film myself on my iPhone doing it and send it to the animators.
Did Marvel give you any guidelines about things—like Thanos—that you had to include in Guardians?
They never told me anything was required, but I assumed certain things were part of the story—like Thanos. The one thing we had to sit down and hammer out in a big way was the Collector’s explanation of the Infinity Stones, so that the audience can properly enjoy other films in the Marvel Universe that are connected to us. We talked about that an awful lot.
The music is so great in the movie as well, and is so different from any other superhero film. Why did you feel the need to spice it up with retro tuneage?
If you look at my other two movies, they do the same thing. This movie does it with ‘70s pop songs, Super did it with a lot of Swedish and alternative rock, and Slither did it with alternative country. It’s just the way I think filmically, in the same way that Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson do in their films. Those are three people whose work I really admire. And when I started writing the screenplay, the first thing that came to me was this Sony Walkman being the emotional spine of the film, and having those different songs be a part of the contrast between the crazy, outer space environment and this thing we’re extremely familiar with. I thought it helped Peter Quill connect emotionally to his mother—like she’s singing to him throughout the movie through these pop songs—and to earth.
There was a great deal of press recently about Marvel introducing a female Thor and a black Captain America in the comics, but there still doesn’t seem to be much diversity when it comes to Marvel’s superhero films. Your film, however, is quite diverse.
Listen: we have Zoe Saldana, Djimon Hounsou, Dave Bautista who’s Filipino, and Benicio del Toro, who’s Mexican. It was very important to me to have a diverse cast of different people. If it was up to me, and I was the first one who’d written the screenplay, I would’ve put two women in the Guardians, and hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to do that in the future.
There is still a lack of female or minority superheroes in the lead roles, though.
And in Hollywood. Let’s face it: there’s still a certain amount of racism in human beings, so that shows up in Hollywood.
Do you have any idea where the Guardians may crossover with other characters and films in the Marvel Universe?
We have rough ideas, but my chief concern is the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, and I’m much more interested in the way we can grow the interplanetary system we’ve created in this movie, rather than how this will lead up to another Avengers film. For me, it’s about the Guardians first and foremost, and making them the center of their own universe. There are other characters that I really love in the movie. I love Yondu, and he’s one of the original Guardians in the comics. I’m also interested in those other original Guardians that we haven’t met. I’m very interested in the character of Nebula, and I loved working with Karen Gillan so much I’m interested to see where she goes. I also like the Collector a lot. There are many different ways to expand this universe.
You’re also behind the fun web series PG Porn. Was part of the motivation to do that to poke fun at prudes for condemning porn?I wish it was that lofty! It was just because I thought it was funny. And I’d had a few miserable experiences with big movies and dealing with the business side of film that didn’t feel that great, so PG Porn was a true return to my Troma roots because I made those things for $1,500 apiece, financed them myself, and then ended up getting 50 million hits on them—and making money, actually.
Was Pets, the Ben Stiller comedy about a guy abducted by aliens who want to transform him into a house pet, one of those “miserable experiences with big movies?”
Yes. That was a pretty shitty experience. It was an idea I felt very passionately about, but I was working with a studio that had certain ideas, and a pair of producers who also had certain ideas who were a huge pain in the ass. And not only that, but each producer had ideas about what the screenplay should be, so I would be rewriting and rewriting screenplays and was stuck between two different places, and really didn’t like their ideas. I thought it was a great idea and still think it’s a great idea. I wish I could do it now—but not with those producers.
You mentioned Tromeo and Juliet earlier, and you got your start working under Lloyd Kaufman at Troma. A lot of big-time directors have been influenced by B-movie guys like Kaufman and Roger Corman, in particular.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence. People go to film school where they learn a theoretical approach to film and then make films for film school where they’re working in a bubble and showing their films to other students, who then critique them. It’s not a real experience. When I worked for Troma, I had to make my first movie Tromeo and Juliet for $300,000, and had to learn how to do every aspect of filmmaking—I cast the film, I location scouted, wrote the script, choreographed the sex scenes, and even helped put the movie into theaters and design the poster, so I had a very practical learning experience along every aspect of filmmaking. I will never, ever learn as much about filmmaking as I did during the first test screening of Tromeo and Juliet. I saw the crowd’s reaction and it made me flashback to where I was when I was dealing with different parts of that movie, and that taught me more about filmmaking than any other experience I will probably ever have in my entire life.