TIFF Exclusive: Super Director James Gunn

Director James Gunn has earned himself quite a rep among cult horror fans with his directorial debut Slither, and he’s earned an even bigger rep for his sick sense of humor with his series of "PG Porn" shorts that have been doing the rounds over the last few years.

His second feature film as a director, Super, allows him to explore his other love–comic books–with Rainn Wilson from "The Office" playing Frank Darbo, a short order cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) one day leaves him for a sleazy drugdealer named Jacques, played by Kevin Bacon. Something snaps in Frank, and he thinks that becoming a superhero and fighting crime will help get his wife back, so he becomes the Crimson Bolt and starts righting wrongs in the most over-the-top, violent way possible. Soon, he’s joined by a young comic book fan, played by Ellen Page, who insists on donning her own costume to become his sexy sidekick Boltie, which involves all sorts of craziness (which you can see for yourself in this clip.)

SuperHeroHype caught the world premiere of Super during "Midnight Madness" at the Toronto International Film Festival and the next morning, we had a chance to sit down with Gunn to try to find out what was going on in his warped brain when he decided to make such a crazy movie. (Obviously, his fans ate it up, and the buzz generated by the premiere convinced IFC Films to pick up the movie for release.)

SuperHeroHype: First of all, welcome back, I’m glad you have another movie finished.

James Gunn: I am, I am, I do. It’s been a little while.

SHH: So, obviously you’ve been a fan of comic books for a long time, and you’ve done stuff with superheroes before.

Gunn: Yup.

SHH: Was this something you and Rainn had been talking about doing for a long time?

Gunn: No, this was a script I wrote in 2003. It was gonna be a short film and I just kept writing and it got long, that’s all. So I fell in love with the script. It was something I really wanted to tell. I had producers back in 2005, Chuck Roven, who produced "The Dark Knight," and I even had backing. I had a lot more money for the movie at that time too from this other company, but we couldn’t agree on a lead actor. There was a list of actors who they wanted to do it and a lot of actors did want to do it, but there didn’t seem to be anybody who for me, really worked, because for them it had to be somebody who was bankable pretty much, period. For me, it had to be somebody who was able to do the dramatic stuff as well as the comedic stuff, somebody who was a big enough doofus to believe that he could be picked on by the other guys in the diner, but that was also a big enough physical presence that you could believe he could beat the sh*t out of people. There just wasn’t anybody, and I shelved the script.

Actually, what happened was I wrote "Slither," which I was gonna sell as a screenplay so that I could have some money, because I knew "Super" was more of an independent film, but when I went out with "Slither," I got an offer the next morning to make the movie. It was instantly greenlit basically, and the guy wanted me to direct it. It was over at Gold Circle with Paul Brooks, so I made "Slither." Put "Super" on the shelf, put a bird in the hand and but I just never could totally forget about "Super." Every once in a while, I brought it up and wanted to make it, and to be completely honest, my managers and agents, it wasn’t something they necessarily wanted me to do, because it is an esoteric film and tonal shifts are pretty broad and it’s extremely violent. It just stayed with me and stayed with me. About a year and a half ago, my ex-wife Jenna Fisher called me and she’s like, "What are you doing with ‘Super’? That’s my favorite screenplay you’ve ever written. I really want to see that movie. I want you to make that movie." She said, "Have you ever thought about Rainn for the lead character?" I said, "That makes sense, it just, it clicks." There’s moments, I think, in every movie that I’ve ever made where it just clicks whether it was when the guy wanted to make "Slither" or when Eric Newman first called me about the possibility of doing a "Dawn of the Dead" remake and it just sorta clicked. I knew it was gonna happen when I was asked to write "Scooby-Doo" even. There’s a moment where it clicks and that was a moment where it clicked. It was like, "Yeah, Rainn is the guy. He’s the person." Rainn and I are very similar in our personalities. I think we have a strange mix of both extremely liberal, and not in the political sense conservative, but conservative in terms of believing in the goodness of humanity and love and that sort of thing. I think that we just are alike in a lot of ways. I was always looking for that sort of situation with an actor that say, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro had on "Taxi Driver," where that’s really a story of all three of those guys’ autobiography. I do feel like in a lotta ways, the story of Frank D’Arbo is a story of me and Rainn.

SHH: Once you got Rainn, I mean, did you already have new producers in place?

Gunn: No, we didn’t have any producers, because those producers were gone. They had gone onto other things. They were still sort of tentatively attached to the project, but nothing was happening with it. I got Rainn and then Ted Hope came along. Ted Hope started really pursuing us because Rainn and I started going out with the script and saying, "We want to make this movie for a few million dollars," and trying to raise the money for that. He tweeted something about it which Ted read, and then Ted got a hold of the script and he loved the script.

SHH: I think I saw those tweets actually, since I follow all three of you.

Gunn: (laughs) Yeah, that’s what it was. So he really just wouldn’t give up. We, at the time, didn’t want a producer because we wanted somebody who was gonna bring money to the table basically, and Ted’s not a financial producer, he’s a producer, but he just wouldn’t give up. He just kept going and going and going. Finally we were like, "Well, this is the kinda guy we need on board." So he came on board and then Ellen Page came on board right after that. Rainn gave her the script and she read it and we had lunch and then she was in. Then my agency gave it to Liv and she read it and she was in. It just was very, very quick. I think the only role that was a little bit harder was the role of Jacques, which Kevin Bacon plays, because we had another actor attached to that up until about a week before we started shooting. I can tell you off tape who that is, but the guy started disappearing on us. He was like in Russia and he wasn’t around. I’m like, "This is not the type of movie where we can have anybody with any sort of flakey behavior whatsoever." I mean, honest to god, 20 minutes to us on that set was two shots. We could not get this movie finished unless we utilized every single bit of our time. I mean, we were blessed because we didn’t have major rain problems, anything. All of that stuff would’ve screwed us completely. We were very fortunate, but the guy was kind of AWOL. I just couldn’t risk that personality type on this movie.

SHH: Kevin’s excellent, and he nailed it.

Gunn: Kevin’s amazing. We went to him at the last minute. We’re like, "Hey, well, maybe we can try to get Kevin Bacon." (Laughs)

SHH: You’d been doing the "PG Porn" stuff for the last couple of years, so did that make it easier to do something on a smaller budget than you had originally intended?

Gunn: Well, I started with "Troma," so I started working on these very low budgets, and you don’t get lower than "Troma." Well, "PG Porn" is a lot more than "Troma." (Laughs) But I think it reminded me how much I loved being creative without boundaries. To do it without boundaries means cheap because you can’t make a $50 million movie and be able to do whatever the f*ck you want.

SHH: You couldn’t do half the stuff you did in this movie either.

Gunn: No, no, so to be able to make a movie however the f*ck I wanted, which is how this came about, we went into the producers when Miranda Bailey came on board to finance the film and we got a foreign sales agent attached and we went in with the notion that we weren’t making a movie for everybody. This was a movie for odd balls and outcasts and rebels and it wasn’t for everyone. That needed to be recognized from the beginning because what happens so often on films is they try to take a cool idea and make it something that’s every type of filmgoer out there. You don’t want to offend people, so you do a test screening and people come back and they think you’re bad in some way and you want to chop that off the film and you chop this off the film and you end up with something milky.

SHH: Then the critics get it and they don’t like what’s left…

Gunn: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We just needed to know from the beginning that we were doing something that was balls to the wall, it was gonna be violent, it was gonna have extreme tonal shifts in it. It was going to be a mix of cinema verité and pop art. That’s the way the movie was gonna be. If they wanted to do it with me and Rainn and Liv and Ellen, that was the way they were gonna have to do it.

SHH: I’m gonna ask a question you’re probably gonna be asked about a million times in the next hour and a half and it’s probably the question you hate the most. It’s the question about "Kick-Ass," because obviously you wrote this script years ago, and all of a sudden Mark Millar starts doing this comic which is essentially some kid who decides to be a superhero.

Gunn: I knew about it. Mark and I are email buddies. I was gonna do a project with Marvel for a while and Mark was very helpful in facilitating that. He was the one, I think, who introduced me to Marvel and I just didn’t have the time to do the project. I kept getting sucked up in things, but I still would like to do it. But, Mark was like, "I read your treatment for this thing. It’s awesome." He’s like, "What else are you working on?" I said, "Well, I’m working on this movie called ‘Super,’" because I had the other producers attached at the time. "It’s a story of a guy without powers and blah, blah, blah, blah." Mark wrote back and he’s like, "Oh, f*ck. I’m writing a comic book. It’s about a kid who blah, blah, blah." I’m like, "Uh oh."

SHH: Of course, Matthew Vaughn got to make that one into a movie for $50 million, but he used his own $50 milllion.

Gunn: Well, here’s the thing. There’s 3,000 bank heist movies. I think the movie could live with four superhero movies of guys without super powers. I don’t think that they’re exclusive of one another. I think they’re very different. So ours is a little darker and he’s an adult. I think Mark’s a great guy and a completely talented guy, and it’s something that comes up in conversations like this, but at the end of the day, it makes absolutely no difference to anything.

SHH: It’s like comparing Batman and Spider-Man in some ways because they’re both superhero movies.

Gunn: Yeah, I mean, I think the only way that it possibly affected us a little bit is that it was disappointing at the box office because of the overall expense of the movie. But if our movie did a quarter of the money that "Kick-Ass" made, we’re a huge success. (Laughs) I actually think that’s one of the big things is "Watchmen" comes out and it’s an R-rated superhero movie and it’s like, "Oh, the movie cost $200 million. Ugh." And it didn’t make enough, then "Kick-Ass" comes out and it ends up costing however many millions of dollars, and our movie comes out and it’s an R-rated superhero movie, but we can handle making less money. That’s profitable to us because we’re making it for a certain audience. Again, I’m not making a movie for everybody.

SHH: It’s funny you mentioned "Watchmen" because the studio’s reaction was fairly knee-jerk to it not making back its money. It goes back and forth. If an R-rated movie does well, everything’s R-rated. If one movie does poorly, nothing can be R-rated now. I dug the fact you were able to go super-gory. Edgar Wright may be one of the few other filmmakers–oh, and Peter Jackson–that really gets how gore can be funny, since you can really make it cartoonish. Can you talk about how you wanted to bring that and the level of violence into the humor and not have people walking out because they’re so disgusted by it?

Gunn: Some people might walk out.

SHH: No one walked out last night. That was the perfect audience.

Gunn: (Laughs) No one, because I mean, some people might walk out. I don’t care. I don’t know, I think that one of the things with "Super," one of the questions is, is Frank D’Arbo doing something that’s completely f*cked up, or is he really on a mission from god? That’s sorta the central question of the movie. So, I wanted to show the violence. I didn’t want to like, pretend that it didn’t exist. I mean, this is a guy hitting people with – you see people in a movie hitting people with lead pipes and pipe wrenches and knocking people unconscious all the time and it doesn’t make you go, "Ugh." I wanted this to make people go, "Oh, wow, that’s f*cked up." It’s like, you think it’s gonna be great and then he hits the guy and then I wanted people–when he’s hitting the guy in line–I wanted people to be, on the one hand, you really want him to do it. Then you see him doing it and you’re like, "I think I still kinda like it, but I’m not sure." You know what I mean? It’s something that I think the audience needs to interact with in a way that it’s not telling you exactly how to feel. It’s not like, "This is a triumphant moment. This is a dark moment." I mean, for me, it was like, I think the inspiration for that strangely was a movie like "Unforgiven" where you’re watching this character who’s a hero through the whole movie and at the end you’re watching Edward Munny blow people away and you’re kinda like, "I’m really loving this, but I’m not sure I should be." (Laughs) To be able to have that type of feeling, to not make everything so black and white and violence is good or violence is bad, it is what it is and sometimes you like it and maybe you feel bad about liking it.

SHH: Ellen Page is just amazing in this, she’s totally psychotic. You mentioned before that Frank is kind of like a counterpart of yourself, but I think in some ways both of them are. They’re both the parts of people who read comics and want to be superheroes. There’s the practical part and then there’s Ellen Page who is just out of it and doesn’t have any control over what she does.

Gunn: Yeah, well I think you’re questioning Frank’s motives and exactly what’s going on, but he obviously has some vague sense of right and wrong.

SHH: He actually has a motive though.

Gunn: I don’t think he’s beating up people for the sake of violence. Ellen Page, however, it gets to the fact where she’s in it for one thing and that’s for beating people up and putting on a costume somehow instantly makes that right. She’s a fun character. That was the character that really leaps off the screen. It was the character that leapt off the page. I was very excited because we honestly had almost any young actress in Hollywood that we could’ve had for that role. That was the role that everybody wanted to play. It was just everybody, but Ellen was our top choice, so we took her.

SHH: I think it’ll be funny when her fans from "Juno" go see this movie and they’re gonna flip out by seeing Ellen in this way.

Gunn: Yeah, I hope. (laughs)

SHH: I could see Rainn and Ellen understanding the humor, but Kevin, when he read the script did he get it right away, or was it a little bit tougher for him?

Gunn: Kevin was a big fan of "Slither" so Kevin supposedly watched it. (Laughs)

SHH: But "Slither’s" kind of tame compared to this.

Gunn: It is. "Slither" is tame, right? Yeah, I mean, I told people that. I said, "You know, with ‘Slither’ I made a movie that you went to the movie thinking you were seeing a horror movie and you were seeing a comedy. With ‘Super,’ you go to the movie thinking you’re seeing a comedy and you’re seeing a horror movie." It’s not exactly true, but yeah, the violence in this movie is much more harsh. (SPOILER WARNING AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!!) Michael Rooker’s death, in particular, I think is the harshest thing in the movie probably, but yeah the violence in this movie’s much harsher. It’s more realistic than – in "Slither," everything’s completely over the top.

SHH: It reminded me of "Irreversible" in that part because you’re saying, "Okay, I think he’s dead. You can stop now."

Gunn: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah.

SHH: But they keep going.

Yeah, yeah.

SHH: Now that this is done, do you have anything else lined up to do next?

Gunn: I do. I’m finishing editing this Farrelly brothers movie thing. Do you know about that? It’s a series of shorts by comedy directors. I did one of those with Elizabeth Banks and Josh Duhamel and an animated creature (using) 2-D animation. It’s actually the same company that did the opening titles.

SHH: I wanted to ask you about those titles, because they were absolutely amazing and a lot of fun.

Yeah, those titles were a part of the movie from the very beginning, like I always wanted to have those. We actually hired another company to do those titles. I gave them a very specific outline of what happens in each scene. They sent in their first draft and I literally almost cried because I’m like, "This is gonna need to be something to slam you in the face. It’s so stilted." So, we got rid of those guys. We hired Puny Entertainment who does the animation for "Yo Gabba Gabba."

SHH: Yeah, it had that children’s animation feel to it which makes it funnier.

Gunn: Yeah, and they sent me their first animatic in a few days and I just started crying from completely, in a different way because that was the kinda punch in the face you need at the beginning. I think we also need that because it’s like, a very independent film, quirky for those first few minutes, and then we need to see this is something that’s gonna go into different places. It’s got an almost 60’s, Doris Day, Rock Hudson feel and that contrasts with the cinema verite stuff.

Super has just been picked up by IFC Films and hopefully they’ll release it sometime later this year.