Filmmaker James Gunn is one of those guys who just projects an aura of cool. He’s talented, as his work on SLITHER and PG PORN have shown, and he’s versatile, giving written material as diverse as SCOOBY DOO and DAWN OF THE DEAD. His twisted take on real-life superheroics, SUPER, just hit DVD, and if you haven’t seen it, you should- it’s everything that KICK ASS wasn’t, but should have been. I caught up with James at San Diego Comic-Con and we talked about Super and what he has on the horizon. (Hat tip to Brooke Unverferth for transcription assistance.)
MM: This is Marc Mason in the Comics Waiting Room and I am here with writer/director James Gunn this morning. James, thanks for joining us.
JG: Thank you, Marc.
MM: SUPER is hitting DVD…
JG: It is.
MM: …which is your kind of dark take on superheroes. Dark take on superheroes is something we haven’t seen a lot of. Why did you go that route?
JG: I, you know, listen, I don’t know why I do anything I do. I was inspired to tell a story about a real guy who wanted to become a superhero for perhaps the right reasons, perhaps the wrong reasons, and I just started writing it. It was originally going to be a short movie and it just, I fell in love with the characters. I fell in love with Frank D’Arbo, who is the Crimson Bolt, and I fell in love with Libby, who is Boltie, his kid sidekick, or not so kid sidekick, and I couldn’t stop writing. I fell in love with the script. It is a very strange script, a very dark tale, very brutal, very violent. It’s funny, but it’s also very dramatic, and you know, it’s just an extreme movie in a lot of ways, but I felt beholden to the script in some ways. I knew it wasn’t the most commercial movie I ever have written and will probably ever write, but it was something where I felt like I had a story that needed to be told.
MM: And I think that maybe that’s why your films work. As an independent filmmaker, you’re bullshit free…
MM: You’re bullshit free.
JG: Oh, I have plenty of bullshit, but I think Super doesn’t have so much bullshit, I mean, you’re right. I think that, I just told the story I wanted to tell and I was fortunate enough to get this huge cast who wanted to do the movie, which I didn’t expect. But it’s because of them that we were able to make the movie. Nobody would have ever made this movie if it was just the script and unknowns because it’s, it’s just too esoteric. But once we had that cast on board, it was like people couldn’t say no. Especially for the budget we made it for. A couple million bucks.
MM: Do you feel like maybe the actors respond to the honesty?
MM: In the scripts…?
JG: I think the actors get really excited at the prospect of making a movie that is different and I think that Rainn and I see the world in very similar way that I think is unique, and I think because of that he was attracted to it. You know, Liv Tyler and Ellen Page were attracted to it because it had female characters that weren’t just “the girl.” You know, I think that you see a lot of comedic films where there’s the guys who are all funny and interesting characters and then there’s the girl character, you know, Teri Polo in Meet the Parents, this great movie, but they aren’t exactly- I didn’t mean to put her down, I feel bad- but anyway, it’s like, you know, the females in Super have a lot of depth to their personalities and a lot of different facets and I think they were excited at the prospect at playing something different.
MM: As an indie filmmaker, with the freedom that you have, do you ever think to yourself, do you have moments when you write or do you have moments where you direct, when you’re like maybe, “oh, that’s too far” or do feel like you can just take the reins off and do what you want, like with the violence in Super?
JG: Yeah…wait, ask that question again.
MM: Do you feel like with the freedom that you have, do you ever feel like you’ve kinda gone too far in your writing or directing? Do you ever pull back?
MM: You do?
JG: Yes, I do. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there was a scene in Super that was, that I felt went a little bit too far in my first draft, when somebody said to me, Alex Gardner actually, who was one of the original producers, who’s a great guy. There’s a scene in which Libby, well, the scene still exists in the movie, where Libby bashes a guy in the face with a vase and he goes down, and then she goes to pick up this like, bronze rodeo statue and goes to hit him in the skull with that and Rainn stops her, the Crimson Bolt stops her. In the original script, she squashed that guy’s head open with that rodeo statue and then the Crimson Bolt was like, “You just killed him for keying a car!” Like, “what the hell was that?” And Alex said, “You know, listen, I think that maybe you’re going to lose people when she kills him, I think that’s going a little bit too far.” And I thought about it and that’s the one place where I pulled back. I didn’t pull back any place else in the movie. None of the humor. There were jokes that people said to me, “Oh that’s too much” you know. Libby’s character says a lot of politically incorrect things, that, they’re not statements by me, they’re statement by her character and they seemed real to me so I kept them in the movie, despite some people possibly being offended by that. But I thought that her killing a character at that point in the movie would have been too much. Especially for really not having done anything. So I changed it.
MM: Now we’re here at Comic-Con and Comic-Con is the home of a James Gunn fan. Is that a fair statement?
JG: There are a lot of them here, yeah, I think probably twenty of my 40,000 Twitter followers are here.
MM: But the thing I’ve noticed about your films, unlike a lot of films that achieve cult status or something like that, is the critics really respond to you. The critics like your films…
MM: …does that surprise you, or…?
JG: It did on SLITHER. It definitely did on Slither. I mean, Slither was like, I think it was like, it’s still like in the top ten best reviewed horror movies of all time, or something, on Rotten Tomatoes. And Slither was a very, you know, unusual film. And I certainly did not expect the critics to have the good reaction that they did. In fact, Universal, at one point, didn’t want to screen it for critics because they thought, they said to me directly, they said, “Listen, we love the movie, but the thing is, it’s the kind of thing the critics aren’t going to get and they’re going to give it bad reviews, so we don’t want to send it out to critics to have them see it and give it bad reviews,” but instead, the movie got great reviews. It was surprising to me, you know, because it is so edgy, you know. I think Super is more of a mixed bag. I mean, Super is a thing where people either really respond positively to it and they love it. I can’t tell you, every single day I get Tweets and Facebook messages and Google+ messages and everything saying, “Super is my favorite movie ever!” And I didn’t quite get that with Slither. So that’s a new thing for me. I mean, occasionally. But Super, I get it all the time. But there are also people that say, “Fuck you for what you did in that movie!” I mean, especially if there’s one thing, there’s a spoiler that happens at the end that some people get very pissed off by. And so, Super is a different beast than Slither. Slither seemed to be something that people didn’t think they were going to enjoy and the ended up enjoying a lot. Super seems to be something that people sometimes go into it with certain expectations of it being a light comedy and it’s certainly, certainly not a light comedy. It’s a brutal film, and it’s a dramatic film in a lot of ways. And it’s edgy cinema. It’s not just because it’s about, you know, what it’s about, or being about a superhero, or being a cult movie, it’s just edgy cinema because of the way we deal with the tonal shifts and things like that. It’s not your usual thing. It’s an experimental film in some ways. So, the people that love it, love it, and the people that hate it, hate it. And that’s been pronounced in this film.
MM: So at this point, you’ve developed a relationship and you’ve developed a reputation with actors. Going forward and into your next project, does that make it easier for you? Are you going to have more people coming towards you or is it easier for you to approach people for your next project now?
JG: Yes. It is, it is. Because I am, in the end, I feel like I am an actor’s director. I started out as an actor. I’ve had a lot of acting training. And I’ve been on a lot of movie sets with other directors who, they’re great at certain aspects of filmmaking, but they really don’t know how to talk to actors, they don’t know the language of acting. And I think I do. I like dealing with that part. I love shooting action sequences, but I also love dealing with actors, and those are my two favorite things to do. The rest of it is what it is. But I love dealing with actors. I love getting in there and seeing where they’re coming from and helping them to get someplace where they haven’t been before, and especially, helping to show an aspect of an actor that an audience hasn’t seen before. That’s a great deal of fun for me. To be able to show, you know, the dramatic side of Rainn Wilson, to bring that out of him and to show it in long form. Actually, to not even bring it out of him, because he’s so natural, but to give him the opportunity to show that in a film was a great pleasure and then, with Ellen, she’s normally like this wise-cracking-under-her-breath kind of girl, to be able to show this sort of psychotic, you know, nymphomaniac who’s going at a thousand miles per hour every second of the day. To get that out of her and to help her express that was a lot of fun, you know, and I’m sharing with them that performance that we share with the audience. I enjoy that a great deal.
MM: Excellent. What does come next?
JG: Well next is…there’s a.. Movie 43, which is something I did with the Farrelly brothers, it’s a bunch of directors directing different comedy shorts, all connected by a common theme, it has everyone from Hugh Jackman to Kate Winslet to Halle Berry, and I did a short with Elizabeth Banks and Josh Duhamel, who are both very funny, and they interact with an animated creature, sort of like Pete’s Dragon. And that was a lot of fun to do. And so that’s my next thing- that comes out in April. And then, I’ve got a video game coming out too, which I don’t know when we’re announcing that, but I think soon, I think in August we’re announcing it. So, I’ve got that coming out. And then I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. So…
MM: You’re a very busy man.
JG: You know, sometimes I’m busy. I’ve actually been kinda taking it easy lately. I’ve been a little busy. I’ve been working, you know, I wake up and I work on ideas. I’ve got a script I finished that I’m trying to put together, and I’ve got another script that I’d like to do. But, listen, I’m not one of these, I mean I have times when I’m doing nothing but working, but I also like to live life and hang out with my girlfriend, and hopefully I’ll get to walk the floor later a little bit. Maybe buy some art or something. So, I take my time.
MM: Great. Well, I want to thank you for your time this morning, and thanks for joining us in the Comics Waiting Room.