SHH’s Exclusive Interview with James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy

guardiansfeature1Marvel Studios has gotten to the point where they almost have a license to print money with the huge success of their first film, Iron Man in 2008, leading to a string of record-breaking blockbusters that has brought the world of Marvel Comics to a brand new audience.

Maybe that made it the right time for Marvel not just to go out on a limb… but to follow that limb all the way into outer space, as they explored the cosmic realms of the Marvel Universe with one of comics’ odder superteams, Guardians of the Galaxy!

You’d have to have been sleeping under the rock monster from Thor: The Dark World (a.k.a the Stone Man from Saturn) to not know anything about the Guardians at this point. The current team–created the same year Marvel Studios released their first movie–consists of Peter Quill a.k.a the thieving Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the psychopathic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot the living tree (his limited vocabulary voiced by Vin Diesel). Together, they have to keep an Orb that gives the bearer unstoppable power out of the hands of the likes of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the biggest baddie of all, Thanos.

Bringing the Guardians onto the screen just wasn’t enough of a way to shake things up for Marvel, so they hired writer/director James Gunn, whose filmography ran the gamut from writing the “Scooby-Doo” movies to his early horror flick Slither and an edgy take on superheroics with 2010’s Super. There’s also that web series he did called “PG Porn,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Not exactly the type of filmmaker you’d expect to be helming a big budget space opera that could introduce new (and younger) audiences to the Guardians, which Marvel would hope to do as well as their movies starring better-known characters.

The fact is that Gunn has always been incredibly unique and creative with whatever he’s working on, and like Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro and James Wan, he really knows how to keep his fanbase excited through social media, something that brings so much more to the table than the usual studio movie marketing. (Like those other three, Gunn is also a true “mensch” in every respect of the word.)

And that’s why SuperHeroHype was thrilled to have another chance to talk with Gunn a few weeks back, specifically about Guardians, although we didn’t ask about the potential for a sequel, knowing how these things usually work and not realizing that Marvel Studios was ready to announce it even before the first movie was released.

guardiansfeature2SuperHeroHype: James, how are you doing? I think you know how much I’ve been looking forward to this, but it really exceeded my expectations, it was great! There have been so many movies this summer where you feel you’ve seen the whole movie in advance, but I didn’t feel that way about this one at all.

James Gunn:
Thanks man. I appreciate what you said on Twitter and everything. That’s great. Thank you, man.

SHH: I can’t imagine anyone else making a movie like this after seeing it, because it’s funny, fun, entertaining and a little bit crazy in some ways.

Yeah, and I’m not saying this in an egocentric way, but there did come a point when I’m like, “Who else would’ve made this?” I mean, it does fit my personality perfectly. There was a point early on with Jeremy Latcham, one of the producers, he came in and he said, “I feel like you were genetically created in a laboratory to make this movie.” I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. It really is everything that I love—aliens, space opera, it’s Marvel super heroes, it’s raccoons.” I collected raccoon figurines since I was a kid. Pop music. It’s all the things that I really love put into one big movie, so I feel extraordinarily blessed to be able to do it.

SHH: Since you mentioned the pop music, I’m going to jump ahead to that, because it’s one thing that really sets it apart, not just from other Marvel movies but modern movies in general. Back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, pop music would be used a lot more in action movies, but it would be used for a montage, but it’s unusual to hear some of those songs playing in the scenes, so did you decide very early on that was going to be the case?

Listen, it’s sort of my natural thing. I mean, if you look at my other two movies, music had an equally important part in those films. I think other filmmakers obviously share that same sort of love of making music a part of a film. It’s not different than what’s in a Tarantino movie or a Paul Thomas Anderson film. It really is taking those elements and just applying them to the spectacle space opera, which is what makes it so different, because that type of movie usually isn’t done with that certain specific flare. But it is just sort of naturally what I want to do. It’s really that the music as a whole is so important to me, because (composer)Tyler Bates wrote the whole score before we started shooting, and that was an important aspect of the film.

SHH: When Tyler worked with Zack Snyder on “Watchmen,” they did the same thing, having music written before they started filming. It’s an interesting way to work but not a lot of composers work that way because you’d think they’d want to work off what was already filmed.

No. I think that what we did was, for instance, when you see the scene at the end that takes place, what we call “The Black Piercing” and the reason it’s called “The Black Piercing” is that’s the name of the piece of music. When we shot the scene at the end with the whole group coming together, we blasted the music the whole time. When Ronan first appears on screen during all that initial montage, we blasted Ronan’s theme. Then at the end of the movie, we played that theme, so that music was actually a big part of filming.

guardiansfeature4SHH: Over the past couple of years as the cast for this was announced, every name really struck a chord because you don’t expect to see John C. Reilly or Benicio Del Toro or Glenn Close in a Marvel movie. Obviously, you’re working with a lot of characters, but can you talk about some of the more unconventional casting of this?

Yeah, I mean, again, that’s my taste. Benicio Del Toro has honestly been one of my favorite actors for a long time, and when we got the opportunity to cast this role, he was one of the first people that I thought of trying to go out to. The difference with this movie is that we got almost every single person we went to because they’re excited to work with Marvel. They seem to be excited to work with me, once I met with them. Benicio and I instantly got along, same thing with Glenn – she was a pure delight. John C. Reilly is one of my favorite actors, Bradley Cooper is one of my favorite actors. These are all people who I was just very excited to work with. When I’m making a movie, it excites me to be able to use that movie as an opportunity to work with somebody whose work I admire.

SHH: Lee Pace is playing completely against character, against type. He normally plays charming and likeable guys, so I would never expect him in a role like Ronan.

Yeah, Lee auditioned for Star-Lord, and he did a really great job. I liked him a lot. Honestly, I just liked him as a guy a lot. We instantly got along. It’s an incredibly important aspect to filmmaking for me is that I like the people I’m working with. I’m making this movie for two years, then I have to travel and do press junkets and all of that stuff with these people. I want to be around people who I really enjoy, whether it’s the production heads or the actors. Lee was the guy who I just instantly hit it off with, so when we started casting Ronan, which we needed to cast really quickly, I called him up and I said, “Dude, will you put yourself on tape real quick and send it to me because I think that you’re a physically imposing guy.” That was the other thing. Lee is 6’5″. One of the problems with casting the rest of these roles is that Chris Pratt was the first person we cast, and Chris Pratt is enormous, you know? An actor like Jason Momoa would come, and he’s smaller than Chris, basically. So it’s like we had to have some people around Chris who would make him look somewhat small. Actors like Dave Bautista and Lee Pace are hard to come by, anybody that’s bigger than Chris.

SHH: I imagine a lot of people will be blown away by the CG characters, because as far as I know, you didn’t have Vin or Bradley Cooper involved to provide voices while you were actually shooting the film.

No, my brother Sean played Rocket on the set, and he was an extremely instrumental part of creating the character of Rocket. We used a lot of his facial expressions in the film, and he’s a whole part of the team of the Guardians on set. So that was a big part of creating the film.

guardiansfeature5SHH: There’s so much interaction with the CG characters, and it’s not like someone’s just walking around in the background. There’s a lot of banter between them so it seems like that would be really hard to do and have it work as well as it does.

Yeah, and that’s what it was. Sean, he was the one who sort of spearheaded [it]. That’s the thing, too. If you watch a lot of those scenes where those characters are all interacting like the 12-percent scene, where they’re all arguing after Rocket supposedly tries to save the gang, that’s Rocket who’s driving that whole scene. He’s the one who’s laughing at Quill. He’s the one who’s pushing Quill. He’s the one who’s asking the questions. When you have to have other actors reacting to that, that becomes a part of their performance and it’s very difficult to do that without another actor there who’s really driving things forward because there really is that negative space around Rocket that was created by my brother Sean. The creation of him, more than anyone else, it’s Bradley Cooper, but of course, the visual effects guys had to be enormously talented actors themselves to create the character, especially the company of Framestore, who really developed the Rocket character.

SHH: While Rocket really stands out as a scene-stealer, I feel like all the individual characters are allowed moments. It’s very unusual to have such a large ensemble cast where every character gets this amazing moment in a movie. Was that something you wanted to insure while you were writing it?

I think it was important that all the characters had an arc. They all had some place they started and all had some place they went. I knew at the heart of this movie was a movie of characters, and what would make this movie successful was if people fell in love with the characters. It would make the stakes of the action mean something if people cared about the characters. What would make the humor work is if people cared about the characters. So really, it was very important to me that all those characters worked well.

SHH: As someone who writes for the internet, I’ve seen every possible comment and reaction to the movie in the years since it was announced. Many people have been dying to see the movie and yet, many of the same people doubt that anyone else might want to see it. Does that make you feel at all like the underdog of the summer or do you feel you’ve already moved past that point?

Well, I think we are the underdog. I think the story of the “Guardians,” we feel it’s the story of us: me, Chris, Zoe, Dave Bautista, we all basically feel like outcasts and we banded together to do this thing that we really put our hearts into and we did the best we could with. So yeah, I think we feel like outcasts for sure. I mean, Chris, he was a big chubby guy just two years ago. Dave is a wrestler who nobody takes seriously. Zoe is a person of color who’s had to fight insurmountable odds her entire career as not only a person of color but a female. Then, there’s me, who was making a $3 million superhero movie about people getting their heads blown off just a couple years ago.

SHH: That may be why I liked this more than “Avengers,” because I watch “Avengers” and I never feel like I can be any of them, whereas you watch something like “Guardians” and you go, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of like me.” More people can relate to the characters.

Yeah. I hope that’s the case. I hope that people relate to the characters.

SHH: One last question. I was curious about how you turned Josh Brolin into Thanos, because the voice was clearly his, and the face also really looked like Josh, which is quite uncanny. Was that fully CG?

It was motion capture and the character, Thanos, was modeled on Josh’s face, so he was modeled on Josh Brolin.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens across the country in various formats–we recommend IMAX 3D, which looks fantastic–on Thursday night, July 31.