When I sat down to talk with writer-director James Gunn a couple of weeks ago at the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY press day, there was still a faint sense of uncertainty surrounding the film. Though people were clearly digging the movie, no one was certain just how big and diverse the audience for this odd duck of a project would be. Had Marvel overestimated their brand appeal?
Now that the film has grossed $94 million over its opening weekend (including Thursday evening screenings), we can move past the false insecurity and admit that the Marvel Studios banner is, for the time being, a license to print greenbacks. And yet there's still a bit of surprise in that a franchise launch comprised of characters who've never carried a comic book series for more than a few years just opened to $1 million less than CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. This isn't just about Marvel; there's something inherently appealing about this motley group of misfit heroes.
From his pitch-black comedic novel THE TOY COLLECTOR to his hyper-violent vigilante yarn SUPER, Gunn has evinced an affinity for misfits. He's often confessed to feeling like one himself, and that strong identification comes through in a big-hearted way in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. It is one of the few Marvel movies in which one can feel a specific authorial voice (Joe Johnston's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and Shane Black's IRON MAN THREE being the others), but what makes this more emotionally satisfying than the rest is the discipline forced upon Gunn by the PG-13 rating. As he says in the below interview, he couldn't resort to a shockingly gory outburst to get his way out of a scene; this movie required a more level-headed approach, and the result is Gunn's best movie to date.
One of the reasons I held this interview for post-release is that we discuss spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie yet, you might want to skip this article until you remedy that (if you're so inclined).
Jeremy: One of the things you said when we spoke previously was that you really loved Brian Lynch's treatment, and that when you read the re-write they gave you - which was by another writer - you knew you were going to have to write it yourself. You also said Kevin Feige later confided that he was extremely worried when you went off to write by yourself.
James Gunn: Yes.
Jeremy: I guess it worked out. How much of that draft made it into the finished film?
Gunn: Everything. That is the movie. All day, people have been coming in and telling me things they liked about the movie, and it's interesting how many of the things people pinpoint were part of what my original idea for the film was. I was sitting in there today doing all of these interviews, looking at the picture of the Guardians and thinking, "My god, that is exactly how I envisioned this movie looking when I first drove home from Marvel and decided to put this movie together."
Jeremy: Have you ever had a bolt of inspiration stick like that? I'm talking from initial concept to finished film.
Gunn: Frankly, SUPER's pretty much what I thought it was going to be when I set out to make it in terms of how it looks. But the difference is that SUPER was speaking to such a small audience that it was so different; the people that would come up and say, "You set out to do this in SUPER, and it turned out just like this…" I'd say, "My god, that's right!" But that's one of a few hundred people. In this movie, it seems so obvious what my intention was. The fact that my intention is so closely aligned with the impact on how people take the movie has been a really interesting and awesome thing for me.
Jeremy: Casting is key to pulling off a movie like this, which has to have that lightning-in-a-bottle feel. You definitely nailed it with each of your casting choices, but there still has to be an alchemy.
Gunn: There is an alchemy, and some of it is chance and some of it isn't. When I first screen-tested Chris Pratt, I screen-tested Dave Bautista on that same day. Dave Bautista came in, and I really liked Dave, so I said, "Hang out for a second, there's someone I'd like you to read with." I pretty much knew that I was going to choose Chris Pratt by that point, but I didn't know I was going to choose Dave. So I had the two of them read together, and I still have that little bit of footage of the two of them reading together and it is truly pure magic. It's just Chris messing with Dave, Dave being an idiot like he is in the movie and they're both so good; they really are like a buff Abbott and Costello. But I got lucky with Zoe Saldana: she isn't someone we auditioned; she's someone we offered the role to. But the three of them are well-balanced with each other; it's what each of them brings to the movie, but it's also what they bring in pairs.
Jeremy: And then you added Bradley Cooper after shooting. Speaking of alchemy, it was your brother Sean who played Rocket on set. How integral was Sean's on-set performance to setting the table for Bradley in post?
Gunn: Sean created the role of Rocket in a lot of ways. He co-created that character with me. A lot of times we used Sean's facial expressions in the animation. There's a lot of Sean in that character. If we come back for GUARDIANS 2, Sean is definitely someone we're going to bring with us again.
Jeremy: This is spoilery, but how quickly can Groot grow?
Gunn: He can grow pretty quickly. Obviously, as you see in the movie, he can grow his branches pretty quickly. The problem is the quicker he grows them the less strong they are.
Jeremy: They've had a smaller Groot in the comics. How likely is it that we'll see a tiny Groot for at least some of GUARDIANS 2?
Gunn: We've talked about dealing with a smaller-sized Groot. I think a little Groot that's the same size as Rocket would be kind of funny. We'll have to figure out what we do from here on out. I'm not sure. I also like big Groot quite a bit.
Jeremy: One cool thing about your movie is that the focus isn't on "Who stole the film?" Everyone gets their moment, and no one stands out more than anyone else. How much of that was done on set, and how much in editing?
Gunn: Quite honestly, I think most of it was done at the script stage. It was making sure each character has their moment. Each character has their hero moment, and each character has moments of real weakness - and it balances out so that the story is about the five of them and how they all change. Peter Quill is the protagonist, but the rest of them all have their moments and they all have their roles. It seems to me that the person people are most surprised by is Bautista, because he really is very funny; people think of him as a big, stupid wrestler, but he's a very good actor. Even the wrestlers who've come out and turned in decent performances, I don't think they've turned in the type of nuanced, strange character that Dave plays in this movie. It's so different from who he is. [Drax] is the most humorless person you can ever imagine, and it's funny because he's so humorless. As a writer, I think Drax is one of the most fulfilling characters in the movie, simply because he is unique. I don't know anyone else like him in fiction.
Jeremy: It must've been tempting to play with that. That's a writer's character.
Gunn: He's a great character. He's a lot of fun. And Groot's a lot of fun, too.
Jeremy: Definitely opposite ends of the spectrum, at least verbally.
Gunn: They are.
Jeremy: You've written two SCOOBY-DOO movies, so you're obviously comfortable writing for families. But it seems like it'd be tempting with material like this to sprinkle in some of your more out-there impulses. Did you ever find yourself saying, "That might be a little too much"?
Gunn: No, I actually felt the opposite. I mean, yeah, occasionally there was a joke that couldn't be in the movie, or a bit that was too violent for a PG-13 movie, but for the most part I felt more myself writing this movie because I do think sometimes I can use that type of humor and violence to escape. It's a crutch at times. In this case, I didn't have that crutch. I really had to focus on the story and the characters, and I couldn't lean on exploding someone's head because it was a PG-13 movie. It was sort of freeing because of that.
Jeremy: It sounds like it forced a new discipline on you.
Gunn: I think it just made me focus on the emotion of the piece. That's really where it's all centered for me. Where are those characters emotionally? Where are they from and where are they going? I wasn't distracted by silly stuff.
Jeremy: Because that's always been the thing with your movies. You feel like you know where a scene is going, and then someone gets their head bashed in with a hammer.
Gunn: Yeah, and SUPER is the ultimate example of that. You really don't know that's going to happen, and then it happens. But it's really about taking twists and turns in other ways. In SUPER, you're going along and living in this world, and then it becomes so much more violent than you expect. In this movie, it's really about being in the middle of this spectacle film, and all of a sudden you've got a pop song playing where you don't expect it. Or you've got a five-page scene of dialogue where you don't expect it. To be able to add those twists and turns to a movie where people think they know what to expect is what's fun for me. It's the twists and turns; it's not what the twists and turns are.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is currently in theaters.