Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
After several years working as a writer under the Troma Studios banner, where he wrote and produced 1996's TROMEO AND JULIET (the film I consider Troma's finest effort), James Gunn made his name in Hollywood as a writer, tackling some of pop cultures sacred cows with scripts SCOOBY DOO (2002) and SCOOBY DOO: MONSTERS UNLEASHED (2004), as well as Zack Snyder's solid DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. In fact Gunn is the first writer in history to have written #1 movies in consecutive weekends--DAWN OF THE DEAD topped the box office the weekend of March 19, followed the next week by the SCOOBY DOO sequel.
After a string of shorts and TV series, Gunn made a name for himself (rightfully so) as a director with the magnificently decadent SLITHER, starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and the legendary Michael Rooker. If you haven't seen SLITHER, seriously, fuck you. It's one of the greatest creep-out monster movie in recent history.
But it's Gunn's latest work as a writer-director, SUPER, that has impressed me the most of all his work. On the surface, it's a film about a "regular guy" (Rainn Wilson) who decide to become a super hero, The Crimson Bolt, to save his girlfriend (Liv Tyler) from a local gangster (Kevin Bacon). Yes, it's primarily a comedy, but it is so unnervingly dark and violent, it's hard to explain exactly what you should expect from this deeply disturbing and wildly excessive work. Ellen Page as his sidekick, Boltie, does things in this movie I didn't know she was capable of, and it's kind of upsetting, in the best possible way. The film features a few Gunn regulars and favorites, such as Rooker, Fillion, Linda Cardellini, and, of course, Troma leader Lloyd Kaufman. But SUPER isn't about cameos and in jokes; it's about people with serious mental illness who are driven by delusions to fight crime with tools.
I spoke with Gunn recently, after the film's triumphant screening at the SXSW Film Festival. I ran into him the night after the premiere at a screening of the film HESHER, and we met for the first time and spoke briefly. It was strange too, because I've been following Gunn on Twitter for years, and am slightly addicted to and always amused by his . We spoke via phone last week, and much like our in person meeting, I found him highly engaging and a real easy guy to chat with. Please enjoy my far-too-brief conversation with James Gunn. And for those of you in Chicago, the film opens next week at the Music Box Theatre; keep an eye out here for details on Opening Night event(s), with at least one very special guest!
Capone: So where are you right now?
James Gunn: Oh, at a hotel in Los Angeles. We’ve got the premiere tonight.
JG: [Laughs] We’ve got our eighth premiere of the year. We keep calling them “premieres;” it’s really ridiculous.
Capone: And not including the screenings from last year, yeah. Well, it was good to finally meet you though at SXSW.
JG: Yeah, you too. Did you like HESHER? Be honest.
Capone: I loved HESHER. My God, yes. I has a chance to interview [writer-director] Spencer [Susser], and I asked if I could give them my answer after I saw the film, so they left a slot open for me, and after the screening, I’m like, “Fuck yeah. Give it to me.”
JG: Yeah, that ending was really touching I thought, and Joseph Gordon Levitt was great.
Capone: He’s the best.
JG: Yeah, he’s great.
Capone: So in watching SUPER feels like a superhero movie written by a comic book fan who maybe doesn’t think the comic book movies are going far enough in terms of both violence and really digging into the mental state of the “hero.” Is that a fair assessment of what I watched?
JG: I think it’s partially fair. I don’t think there’s any judgment implied on the part of other comic book movies, because I actually do love a lot of comic book movies. I think IRON MAN was great and I think that there are some really great movies out there. But I do think that really what SUPER is about to a large extent is about the morality and insanity of what it takes for a person to actually be a superhero. I mean we see Batman and we take for granted that this guy puts on a cape and cowl, and he gets to choose what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s okay, and who he can punch, and who really gets that right? I think it’s about that.
Capone: Were you a big comic book kid when you were younger?
JG: I was a big comic book kid and I still read most comics. Yeah, I mean I read comic books everyday, especially Marvel comics, but I read a lot of DC too and I read a lot of alternative stuff as well, and they’ve definitely inspired me. I wrote the original script back in 2002 and I think that, of course, Alan Moore was a huge influence to me just in trying to look at the superhero in different ways. There are so many different angles you can look at the superhero from, and then this was just my angle, you know?
Capone: There have been a couple other films in the last ten years or so that have approached the subject in a similar way, KICK-ASS being the most recent. Since you wrote the script 10 years ago that asked, “What would happen if a normal person with no powers decided to become a hero?”, were you concerned about those films stealing a little bit of your thunder?
JG: Definitely. Listen, I read the script for SPECIAL way back in like 2003 and I was like, “Oh no, what the fuck is this? I’m fucked!” [Laughs] So that was the first one to bum me out, and then in 2004, I had the original financing for SUPER from a totally different company who wanted to make the movie; we just couldn’t agree on a lead actor, because I didn’t want to make the movie if I had to make it with actors that didn’t really fit the roles. I didn’t want to make it with Zac Efron or whoever at the time is the big thing.
But Mark Millar and I are email friends, and we were writing about something and he was like “What are you working on?” I said, “I’ve got this script called SUPER about the superhero without powers, and we're going out with it and we are trying to find an actor for the lead role,” and he was like, “Oh… Shit…I’m writing a comic book that’s kind of that same thing” and I’m like “Ah, that sucks…” You know. Then of course it got made into a movie, and the movie was good. It sucks on the one hand and then on the other hand, who gives a shit? There are 4,000 bank heist movies. We can have five superheroes-without-powers movies. What does bum me out from people who pretend like KICK ASS was the first superheroes without powers movies, when that’s obviously the classic John Ritter film HERO AT LARGE.
Capone: Oh, of course. And although in "The Greatest American Hero," the lead character did actually have powers, SUPER reminded me of that sort of home-spun, ordinary-guy appeal.
JG: Yeah, did you see the William Katt cameo?
Capone: I absolutely did see him. Yeah, that was great casting, but I was actually thinking of that show before he came in, probably because of the red costume.
JG: He’s got sort of a generic superhero red… I mean, you’ve got The Flash. There are a ton of red-costumed superheroes.
Capone: In the Q&A in Austin, you told a really great story that I’m sure you’re sick of telling. It's the one about how Jenna Fischer sort of got this movie rolling again for you. Can you talk a bit about that?
JG: Definitely. At the time when I was trying to cast the movie, I was trying to find a lead actor who could fit the role, and there were actually a lot of actors who wanted to play Frank and some really great actors even. But I just couldn’t see eye to eye with them or I didn’t think they totally fit the role. I needed somebody that had the dramatic chops, somebody who had the comedic chops, somebody who was a big enough goof that we could imagine him getting picked on by his fellow cook at the diner, but is also physically powerful enough to beat up people at the end of the movie.
I couldn’t find anybody that really fit that role, and the movie just got kind of thrown to the side. At the same time, some of the people on my representative team didn’t think it was a good movie to make, because it was so tonally complex and so dark and violent. They didn’t think it was really the best movie for me to make. And it's artistic. I mean really it’s arthouse/grindhouse film, so it’s just a weird mix of things.
Two years ago, Jenna Fischer, my ex-wife--we're still very close--called me up, and she said, “What are you doing with SUPER? That’s my favorite script you’ve ever written. I don’t know why you don’t do that movie.” I went through all of the reasons why I wasn’t making it, including the fact that I couldn’t find a lead actor, and she said, “Listen, have you ever thought of Rainn [Wilson] for the lead role? I was like “Wow,” and I realized instantly Rainn was perfect for the role. He could do all of those things. Physically, he was perfect.
I sent him the script that day. An hour and a half later, he texted me back and he said, “I’m 22 pages in, my hands are trembling. I want to do this movie no matter what. I’m in.” From there, the two of us just didn’t stop. We just kept going and going until we got the movie made. That was sort of the origin of the story. Honestly, I think both Rainn and I felt a calling to tell the movie. In the same way that Frank D’Arbo has this vision and wants to become the Crimson Bolt, we had a vision and wanted to make this movie, and everybody thought we were crazy just like Frank looks crazy, but we didn’t stop.
Capone: You said you couldn’t agree with the money people on your lead actor originally. Who were you pushing for initially?
JG: There was one person who I did want to be him at the time, which was John C. Reilly.
Capone: Oh, yeah?
JG: Yeah. But John C. Reilly was not considered a big enough star by the financing people to even be considered, but this was 2004. It was before TALLADEGA NIGHTS and all of that stuff. So, he was the only person who I thought was really right, but there were other people that really wanted to do it, and that's okay, but we just couldn’t see eye to eye. There was one actor in particular who was really good, but we just didn’t agree completely on how we saw Frank, and I almost made the movie with him and didn’t end up doing it.
Capone: Is this an R-rated film or unrated?
JG: It’s unrated.
Capone: I didn’t think there was anyway you could do some of the things you were doing in an R-rated environment. So let’s talk about the excessive amounts of violence. What did you want to do differently that you hadn’t seen before in these kinds of films?
JG: I think with superhero movies, you're always seeing people punch each other with no ramifications. There’s no blood. People just fall down, and that’s not what it’s like in real life. If you see a real life bar fight, it’s bloody, it’s ugly, it’s awkward, it’s mean, and that’s what the violence is like in this movie, whether it be with fists or guns or a pipe wrench, we show the ugly side of the ramifications of violence and that’s what superheroes are really, they're purveyors of violence. I wanted to see a little bit more of a realistic gritty take on what that violence was like and, listen, some of the supposedly real-life superhero movies that have come out, they're not real violence; it’s fake violence.
Capone: It's bloodless.
JG: It's bloodless, and the action sequences are over the top, and they’re not supposed to have super powers, but they kind of do. So, it was really just about looking at that, and then having that “Pow” “Bap” “Wham” stuff, having that contrast with what our pop-culture idea of that superhero violence are like and putting those things back to back.
Capone: I can’t imagine anything more painful in my head than getting hit with a pipe wrench, because that’s just all kinds of wrong. Was that just a random choice, or was that like something you feared since you were a kid?
JG: It’s not something I feared since I was a kid, but I thought, “What would I really hate to get hit in the head with? A pipe wrench.” I think I was walking around the house, because I was like “Listen, he goes to the store. He’s looking for some idea of a weapon that he can use, but you don’t need to have any talent to use that weapon, so you’re not going to use a crossbow or a bow and arrow or something like that.” I imagined him going to his house, walking around his house, looking at all of the different items, and seeing what there was that caused the most damage, and I think a pipe wrench is something that D’Arbo would have at his house. I think that was really all that it was.
Capone: It such a great, working-class weapon.
JG: [Laughs] It is. It’s a symbol of the common man, the pipe wrench.
Capone: I don’t want to give away too much here, but you've given us one of the seven or eighth funniest rape scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. You’re calling it a rape scene, yes?
JG: It is a rape. Well, actually we are a three raper; we’ve got three rapes in the movie. I don’t know if you noticed that, but I don’t know of any other comedy that has three rapes in it.
Capone: You know the one I’m talking about.
JG: Yeah, you’re talking about the Libby one, but also Rainn gets raped by his prison cellmate in his brain, and there’s the non-funny Liv rape at the end. But, yeah, the rape scene you're talking about is sort of beautiful. I actually got raped like that one time and I’m not kidding. That’s really true. I got raped by a woman and I wrote a blog about it and people got very, very upset, because some people… [Laughs] I shouldn’t even be talking about this; my publicist is making faces at me. But I wrote a blog about how I got raped, because when I was first divorced and I was going crazy and hooking up with strippers. And I went back to my house with this woman and…my girlfriend is in the room with me, by the way, this is great, she loves this story. We went back to my house, and I like just didn’t want to have sex. I shouldn’t tell this story…
Capone: I think you just did.
JG: [Laughs] I just did. I didn’t want to and I kept telling her “No.” But she kind of forced…not kind of, she DID force herself, and I ended up having sex with her. It was very different though. It was very much like Frank’s rape, because he kind of doesn’t want to, but he kind of does. If he was really trying his hardest not to be rape, that would not be a rape scene.
Capone: That urge that you have to sort of take things further than they have gone in terms of just the extremes that you go to in your films, is that something that you learned from your time at Troma, or did you have that before?
JG: I had that for sure. Yeah, I did. I went to grad school for writing at Columbia, and that’s sort of the thing I was known for, the extreme whatever it was, I liked the extremes. So yeah, that was before Troma. That’s probably the reason I hooked up with Troma, but I can’t even tell you. When I wrote my first draft for TROMEO AND JULIET, Lloyd [Kaufman] paid me 150 bucks to write TROMEO AND JULIET, and I went off and I wrote it for two weeks, and Lloyd was like “There’s too much kissing in this script,” like he was offended by… I was very weirded out that Lloyd Kaufman was accusing me of bad taste. So yeah, it’s sort of been there from the beginning.
Capone: In terms of filmmaking and even writing, what lessons did you learn from Lloyd in terms of speed or pushing boundaries that you kind of still carry with you?
JG: Totally. 100 percent Lloyd shoots…one half of him is a director trying to get the movie he wants to make, and one half of him is a producer, and when you are shooting a movie like SUPER, I really have to have both sides of my head at play. I would go over the budget every day, every little facet of that budget, and it wasn’t because I’m cheap or I like dealing with it, it was because I want the money on my movie spent on the places that are important. I don’t want to spend money on things that are not important, and so I had to really, because on a regular movie you do about 20 camera setups a day, and we were doing between 45 and 54 camera setups every single day. We had to be extremely planned out, which is not like Lloyd at all, by the way, but I am extremely planned out. I did have to look at everything from a budgetary perspective for artistic reasons, because I just wanted to spend money in the right places.
People may give the same amount of time for Rainn’s big speech that they would give for some other scene, but I knew that we needed twice as long for Rainn’s speech, because I needed to create a space for Rainn to get as vulnerable as his did. I’m talking about the first prayer where he’s crying. That scene really needed to work. That was a very difficult scene, and I needed to create the kind of space where he could do that, and we could do it a lot of times and get to the place where he needed to be emotionally. So I’m very, very involved with the production of a movie. Like every producer I work with is always freaked out by how much I care about that, and they think it’s because I care a shit about the movie or spending people’s money, but it’s not, it’s because I care about the movie itself and I just want to spend the money in the right places.
That’s totally Lloyd, but listen, I worked at Troma and learned everything about making a movie. I will never learn as much about filmmaking as I will the first time I sat through a first screening of TROMEO AND JULIET, because the first time you sit through a movie that you wrote or made with an audience, you learn everything about what works and what doesn’t and what creates a weird experience and what creates a pleasant experience. It’s not even like it was the greatest moment of my life, but it was the biggest learning experience of my life.
[The publicist indicates “One more question.”]
Capone: Tell me about the role of religion in this movie, because people could look at it as you being very critical of the things that religion drives people to do, or more specifically, the violence done in the name of religion.
JG: Listen, they could. I am very critical of fundamentalist religion. I think it’s crazy. I’m also a man of faith, like I believe in God basically, or my own version of God, which I think is different than how most people believe in God and not even most people, but some people. I’ve had visions into my life. That part of Frank is very true to me, so I think that all of the stuff about God in the movie is just another fun topic to play with.
I think that people think of these things as being taboo in a film, they think of incest and rape and sex and violence, those are the taboo issues, but the real taboo issue today is God and religion. Those things just aren’t discussed in movies. You go see a two-hour movie about somebody dying of cancer, and they never bring up God; it’s ridiculous. It’s a big subject in people’s everyday lives, and in Hollywood people pretend like it doesn’t exist, because any point of view you have on God--whether it’s pro religion, pro Christianity, pro atheism, whatever you have--it’s too controversial to put into a movie, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think it actually empowers a film to have that subject there and I think that’s what SUPER is about. It isn’t about saying, “Hey, believe this.” It’s about having the discussion about it and having a conversation about it.
Capone: I’ve got to ask really quick about MOVIE 43, because I’ve actually talked to Elizabeth Banks and Peter Farrelly brothers about it. Tell me about your episode. Tell me about your short.
JG: Well, I can’t say too much, I don’t think. What did Elizabeth tell you about it, anything?
Capone: She told me about the one she directed, not about the one that she stars in that you directed.
JG: Yeah, my short has Elizabeth Banks and Josh Duhamel. It’s not tonally dark in the same way as SUPER. There’s no element of drama to it, obviously; it’s really light, but it’s also a very dark comedy and totally extreme, and the Farrelly brothers, especially their producer Charlie Wessler is the first guy I know that kept egging me on to go further and further, so it was a lot of fun. That thing was a blast, and I shot it a little bit after SUPER, but man it was so much fun.
Capone: Do you have any idea of when that’s coming out?
JG: No, and they're dealing with some stuff now, but I haven’t even seen the whole thing. I’ve seen my short and I’ve seen Peter Farrelly’s shorts, which are both really funny, but I haven’t seen anybody else’s.
Capone: All right, cool. James, thank you so much.
JG: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate everything.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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