James Gunn gravitated from iconoclastic genre efforts (Slither, Super) to idiosyncratic blockbusters with his 2015 Marvel hit Guardians of the Galaxy, and he’ll be delivering more intergalactic superhero action with this May’s eagerly anticipated follow-up, Vol. 2. Yet before that comic book sequel arrives, he’s first bringing grindhouse nastiness back to multiplexes with The Belko Experiment, a gruesome thriller he wrote, produced and edited (it was directed by Wolf Creek’s Greg McLean) about a corporate office in Bogota, Colombia ,whose employees are ordered—by a mysterious overlord who’s trapped them inside the building—to slaughter their fellow coworkers.
Full of gunplay, dismemberment, and exploding heads, it’s the sort of lean, mean, down-and-dirty splatterfest that studios rarely put out—and one that Gunn has been clamoring to make for years.
On the eve of The Belko Experiment’s gnarly debut, we spoke with him about cutthroat indie moviemaking, the difficulties of producing R-rated horror in today’s studio environment, the pressures of making Marvel sequels, and whether his Vol. 2 star Kurt Russell is, in fact, the coolest man alive.
The Belko Experiment is the type of rugged B-movie that almost never gets a wide release anymore. Where did the idea for it come from?
I had a dream, believe it or not. I was asleep in my bed—where you usually go when you’re asleep [laughs]—and I dreamt the trailer for The Belko Experiment. And it’s almost exactly the trailer that’s out there on the internet. I woke up, and I was really happy to have dreamt a trailer. I thought that was really cool. Then I went and based a movie on that trailer, because I needed to know what happened. So hopefully, while I was writing it, I was coming from the same place as an audience member is when going to see it after first seeing the trailer.
At the time, were you feeling particularly angry about corporate America?
[Laughs] I don’t have anything against corporate America. I mean, I guess there’s something about living in a capitalist society that can get kind of terrifying at times. I think competition is a healthy thing, but I think sometimes the stress of competition for all of us, and for me in particular, can be kind of terrifying. I think that’s what a lot of The Belko Experiment is about.
You’ve moved into to big-budget studio filmmaking with the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Do you find yourself dealing with cutthroat ruthlessness at Marvel (and Disney)?
Let me tell you one thing: there is no more cutthroat place to be than an independent film. Disney is a cakewalk after that—that is no lie. So I don’t think I feel it. I am a competitive person, and I think being in the limelight as a filmmaker, and making bigger films, sure, the competitive side of me comes out. Perhaps even more than it used to.
How is independent film even more cutthroat?
I grew up making movies in New York City, firstly. When you’re on an independent film, you have a lot of great people there who are telling really true and authentic stories. But you also have a lot of con artists and people who think they can do something that they can’t. So first, there’s a lot of incompetence. Then, there’s just a lot of screaming, a lot of pushing around, a lot of back-dealing, a lot of lying. Those are all things that happen much more on an independent film than on almost any other project from the “corporate pool” that I’ve been in. There can be a lot of backbiting in the film industry in general, and in the entertainment industry. But there’s just a lot of unethical people [in indie film]. That version that you think of—the cigar-chomping casting couch producer—still exists, but he’s generally in lower-budget films.
How difficult is it to get a hard-R film like Belko made in the current industry environment? I assume having made Guardians of the Galaxy helps…
It helps a lot! I think it’s almost impossible to get a movie like Belko made in today’s environment, unless you just made one of the biggest movies of the year. It’s the reason this movie was made. John Glickman over at Orion had this script on his shelf for many years, and he just loved it, and I had some downtime, and he called me and said, “Hey, I’ll give you a couple million dollars to go make this movie, and you can go do what you want.” So I said, “Okay!”
Is it important for you—creatively speaking—to keep at least one foot in this more extreme, genre-y world?
Yes. I’ve always admired a lot of filmmakers, going back to Howard Hawks, that could dabble in different genres and do all sorts of different things. I love making big-budget movies—they’re sort of the center of my life. But I also love making lower-budget films, and I love doing all sorts of things. I wish I had a lot more time in my life to do all of the things that excite me. Being able to go and do this movie, and watching heads explode and hanging out on the set, and in not-great trailers or anything, that was definitely a lot of fun for me. I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty again, so to speak.
You wrote the Belko script, and you’re also producing. How did you settle on Greg McLean? Was his horror background key?
Greg just seemed to see the movie the way I did more than anyone else: a little bit messier, a little bit more human. Even though this is a movie about people’s heads exploding, the thing that makes it work is that we have to like these characters and care for these characters, and get performances out of the actors. Also, we had to really be extreme with it—to not balk. So many horror movies work because they’re light, and when you see people getting killed or getting their heads torn off or whatever [in those movies], you laugh and you don’t care because they’re cartoons. This movie wasn’t that. It was actually about really being able to go the distance, while getting to know these characters. Even the characters who are “bad guys.”
Was there any corporate pushback to its extremeness?
Oh, absolutely. When they saw the first cut, people freaked out [laughs]. Look, we couldn’t believe we were making this movie in the first place—it’s an over-the-top film, and definitely one of the most extreme films to get a major release in recent years. So there was a lot of fighting against that. There was a time when I had to put my foot down and say, “Hey, listen: this is the movie that I want to make, and if you want to make some other movie, that’s fine. You can go ahead. But I’m not going to be involved with this. It isn’t what it’s supposed to be.”
As you said, one of the things that helps sell the movie are the performances, and the cast is filled out with a ton of great character actors. Did you have any of them in mind when you first started the project?
I don’t think I really had anyone in mind from the get-go, because I wrote the script in 2007, and everyone’s dead now [laughs]. But a huge number of those people are my closest friends in the world. Obviously, Michael Rooker and my brother Sean, but all of those smaller roles are populated with people from my friendship circle; people who I’ve worked with for years. Everyone from Joe Frio who I did PG Porn with, to Stevie Blackehart, who I produced in Lollilove, and Mikaela Hoover, who did all these web series things I’ve done. All these people who I knew were talented actors who had never had the chance to work with me on something as professional as this. And I use the term “professional” lightly.
But also, people like John Gallagher Jr., who’s a person I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. He auditioned for the role of Peter Quill in Guardians [which went to Chris Pratt], and he wasn’t right for that role, but it was one of the best auditions—if not the best audition—I’d ever seen in my entire life. The guy is a real actor. So when these roles started coming up, it gave me an opportunity to work with some of these people who I’ve wanted to work with.
Was it tough seguing from Guardians to Belko and then back to the Guardians sequel?
The only time it was hard was when things started to get really busy with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, both with pre-production and even during shooting, while I was still editing Belko. That got to be a little hard, because Guardians was taking up so much of my time. But in general, it was actually good for both projects, and it was especially good for Guardians. I started writing Guardians on August 1st, 2014, and I haven’t done anything else since, except for this little project, which let me go away and helped me clean my brain out a little bit, and become a little bit more focused when I came back. You don’t want to start to have double-vision from staring so hard.
Is it daunting to have to follow-up a gigantic hit like Guardians? Or did you always have a sequel plan?
I always had a plan. I always knew what the basic story was, and that helped. But also, the answer is that it wasn’t daunting; it was refreshing. The first movie was daunting. I didn’t know if anyone was going to go see the first movie. I would wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. wondering if I was making Pluto Nash 2. So I was definitely daunted by the first task. It was still a fun movie to make, and I was really confident. But there were those moments of panic, where it’s like, “Am I going to make the biggest Marvel bomb ever? The only Marvel bomb?” I’m a born entertainer, it’s in my bones, and so now knowing that I’m playing for an audience with Vol. 2, and that somebody’s waiting there when the curtains open, makes a big difference.
Did you feel any corporate pressure to duplicate in Vol. 2 what you’d already done in the first film?
When you’re making a sequel, there’s a balance between giving people the things they need—which are some of the things they expect from the characters in the first movie, and the tone from the first movie—and giving them what they don’t expect. I think this movie is incredibly different from the first film. There’s still that lightness and fun and love between characters that spoke to people in the first movie. But it’s a deeper film; it’s a richer, more emotional film. And it’s also funnier. It’s maintaining this balance.
But in terms of getting pressure from Marvel? No—it definitely was the opposite. We of course worked very closely together. But when it came down to it, this is my movie, and they trusted me after I made the first one. We were able to do things that still sometimes make me think, “I cannot believe they’re letting me make this movie.” [laughs] But I couldn’t believe it about the first one either, frankly. It was pretty shocking that they were letting me do what I was doing, which is so different from so many of the other movies.
Scott Derrickson told me that, on Dr. Strange, he didn’t feel compelled by Marvel to connect his film to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Has that been true for you on the Guardians films as well—especialy since we’re getting closer to the characters’ crossover with the rest of the studio’s superheroes in Avengers: Infinity War?
There is not a single thing in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 which was ever dictated by the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are things that I did in the movie that they’re going to have to deal with, now, in Infinity War. But it was pretty much understood that the Guardians are my guys, so they’d have to deal with whatever came from that. So there was nothing. It’s a 100 percent self-enclosed story about the Guardians of the Galaxy, very much like Dr. Strange was.
But I assume you have to at least be aware of the larger interconnected story being set up by MCU mastermind Kevin Feige, right?
Never has [Feige] told me that anything has to be in my film. I mean, I know what their plans are. But there’s just nothing I do to service that within Vol. 2’s story; all that’s important is Vol. 2. Everything about Vol. 2 is what’s important. He’s never told me anything hasn’t fit in on the second movie. On the first movie, there were some more technical weird things that we had to deal with, and I was a bit more bashful about getting my way. But now, it’s not part of the conversation.
That’s a nice situation to be in, obviously.
It’s great. Because I’m not that guy. I would never want to take on a sequel of someone else’s stuff unless I was totally reinventing it. I just couldn’t do that thing. I’m lucky to have found the Guardians, because they were their own little bit of the cosmic Marvel universe, so far away from everything else that happens.
They occupy their own niche in the MCU.
We call it that all the time: there’s Marvel Cosmic, and there’s Marvel General. They’re going to have a brief overlay, but besides that, it’s really Marvel Cosmic and Marvel General. And so far, Marvel Cosmic has been purely me.
You have Kurt Russell on board for Vol. 2, so you can definitively answer this: Is Kurt Russell the coolest guy ever, or the coolest guy ever?
[Laughs] He’s not the coolest guy ever, because the coolest guy ever would be Al Pacino. But besides Al Pacino, I’d say the second-coolest guy ever is Kurt.
That sounds fair.
On a personal level, I’ve gotten to know both of them now, and they’re two of my favorite guys in Hollywood. To be able to be famous for that amount of years, and put up with all this bullshit, and still be as down to Earth as they are is pretty incredible. Kurt’s become a good friend, and he’s just a fun guy. The best thing about him is that he laughs his ass off constantly, which is something that, with him and me and Chris Pratt, would delay filming quite a bit.
With Guardians Vol. 2 just about in the can, has Belko reinvigorated your desire to dive back into smaller, more out-there projects going forward? Certainly, the film leaves open the possibility for future experiments…
We know where Belko goes—both the audience and the filmmakers. So if they want more Belko, they can get it. If they don’t want more Belko, then they won’t get it. We’re very fortunate that we made the movie for a very low budget, and as a result, we don’t have to make that much money to make the sequel. So hopefully, people will go out and see the movie on March 17 and we’ll make a few bucks, or at least enough to put into a next Belko Experiment.
There have got to be some moviegoers ready to witness corporate carnage.
Yeah, we’ll have to see about that!