LONDON — If we're being perfectly honest, I feel guilty interviewing any director on any set.
Directors may not be doing manual labor like breaking rocks or carrying pianos all day, but especially on giant mega-budget studio movies, they are pretty much on call 24 hours a day for three years, and I feel bad about taking any of the limited energy they have to spend during their day. I remember going to the editing room near the end of production on “Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End,” and Gore Verbinski looked at me like he had just gotten back from three tours in 'Nam. Disney wasn't even letting him drive anymore. He was that tired.
Maybe that's why James Gunn's intense level of energy on the set of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” felt sort of shocking. I've met Gunn several times over the years, and that's him. He's always got this really big energy about him, and he's wicked sharp, and I guess I expected the process to dull some of that just because that's how it works.
Gunn seemed to be perfectly at home on the set. Relaxed but incredibly focused on getting right. Comfortable with what he was doing but well aware of the difficulty of pulling it off. When we ended up posing for the group photo you see above, he was cracking jokes and having fun, and it was amazing to see him still have that much energy that far into the shoot.
Talking to him, he told us right away how this was both like and unlike his earlier work. “I”d say radically different, yes and no. For me, it”s just because of the length of it. It makes it a much different experience from doing things like 'Super,' which we shot in 24 days for 3 million dollars. We had to do like 50 sets ups a day, so it was just a harrowing tough experience. This is difficult, but it”s because it”s over such a long period of time. On a day-to-day basis, it”s actually a lot more…”
He stopped himself, considered his next word carefully. “Using the word 'easy' is not the greatest thing but, yeah, it”s easier. You do have more time for the set up. You have more time for planning. We had more time for planning, period. The biggest difference is having a lot of people around me I can trust. On most every movie, I have maybe one or two people who I really trust. On 'Super,' I trusted the DP Steve Gaynor an awful lot. I trusted Rainn Wilson an awful lot. But there”s a lot of people in independent films who… you're getting who you can get.”
Ouch. Gunn went on to talk about how important everyone on this film has been and how he's been able to trust everyone from the production designer Charlie Wood to his assistant Simon, departments both large and small. He also talked about how even if people don't know the characters, there are always expectations on a film this size. “I'm definitely trying to make a huge commercial fun awesome movie that moves people.” In terms of having to live up to one specific version of something, though, he's got a huge advantage over, say, whoever directs “Justice League.” I'm already wondering if Zack Snyder's a masochist taking on Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in one film. If it's possible to be picked to literal death by internet comments, Snyder may indeed be doomed. Any one of those characters alone is a huge deal, but all of them together?
“One of the great things about 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' is there aren”t as many expectations on what to expect as when you have 'The Avengers,'” Gunn understated like a boss. “They have 500-plus issues of comics and everybody thinks, 'Oh, well, this is the definitive story, or this is a definitive story, or you know Hawkeye”s personality and issues 59 through 70 [are] really where he was defined.' And the truth is Hawkeye changes throughout all those issues of 'Avengers.' I”ve read ’em all. So I know. With this, there are a lot fewer 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' titles to choose from.” He was very frank, continuing, “I”m always hard on myself, no matter what, so that”s always like a thing I have to deal with on a daily basis, and that”s whether I”m doing this movie or in a relationship with a girl or whatever. I just beat the shit out of myself constantly. Same ol', same ‘ol'.”
That's not totally true, though. Gunn's doing things here he's never had a chance to do in anything else he's made, and he knows it. “It”s a pretty cinematic film and for me it”s been really exciting. Every other movie I”ve been on, I”ve been very, very restricted by budget in terms of the amount of shots I was able to do and the kind of shots I was able to do. On 'Slither,' I think I was able to afford a crane for two days and had to make do. On this movie, I have ’em carry a crane with me every day and I was able to design all the shots exactly the way I want ’em throughout the whole film. The way I work is I plan every single thing out ahead of time. In this movie, more than any other, I”m able to not only make the scenes that I initially saw in my head, but sometimes be plussed quite a bit by the people around me. Whether it be the performers or the designers or whatever, which has been… it”s like the most amazing experience I ever shot with. I thought it was kind of cool in my head and then to come on set and start setting it up and see something really beautiful in it… that”s really been the coolest thing.”
Asked how he ended up getting the job, since it's not remotely insulting to observe that he was not the most obvious man to make a giant Marvel movie, he talked about how straight-forward the process was. “When I first went to them, I knew that they were going to talk to me about 'Guardians Of The Galaxy,' and um, when I heard about it, it didn't really interest me that much.” Talk about having an advantage walking into a room. “I had a meeting in Manhattan Beach and I thought I would get in and try to get them to make a 'Hit-Monkey' movie. I sat down with Jeremy Latcham and Jonathan Schwartz and they pitched me pretty hard on 'Guardians.' I thought they were meeting with a lot of people and that it wasn't as serious as it was. They showed me the art that had been done, and that really spoke to me. I really liked that art work. So I thought about it a little bit while I was sitting down with them, and then I went home and really thought about it and then it just… it just sort of came to me. Not the story, but the visuals. I saw how I could visually see this film, and how I could add my own voice to that and really create something different with it that still had some sort of familiarity. I went home and wrote this 15-page document on the visuals of 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' and what would it be like? What would it be like tonally? What the basics of the character would be like? And I sent it off to those guys and they really liked it. So then I flew to North Carolina a few days later and by then I had drawn up some storyboards and things and had a presentation on my iPad, which I have never done, frankly.”
He laughed at the memory, shaking his head. “By the way, I am the most… I have often attributed my success to the fact that I really don't give a shit. Like, if I get a gig or I don't get a gig, I have never, ever, ever cared. And this is the first time in my career that I cared, which was terrifying to me. 'Cause I really did care. I put myself out on the line and went there and did this dog and pony show, and then, you know… I heard a few days later that I'd gotten the gig. At the time, there were five of us, I think that were up at one point, and then three of us. And by the time I went to North Carolina, there were two of us. And then… there was me.”
He talked about how lucky he's been in his relationship with Marvel, and how it's felt like they have been in sync the entire time they've been working. “After I wrote the first draft of my screenplay, everybody seemed to be very excited. They seemed to really love the screenplay and Louis D”Esposito and Kevin Feige and everybody were coming to me and telling how great it was. And then Joss came in and Joss was happy, but he wasn”t as happy as everybody else, and I was like, 'Whoa, man!' And he”s, like, “Well, I really loved this, and this is great, and the story”s been cracked, but you know, I just really want there to be more James Gunn in the script. There are things that are too conventional, and I want more James Gunn in it. And Kevin and Lou were like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,' and I was like, 'All right… your funeral.' Then I went home and I swear to God, I wrote a seven-page scene where the guys are in the spaceship arguing about something and it”s all dialogue, and we”re about to shoot it on Friday. I think it”s been a unique situation where this group of characters is ready for somebody who sees things in the way I see things, and I think frankly people are ready to see the movie like that. So it feels good.”
We discussed the casting process and the way he ended up with what can tactfully be described as an eclectic ensemble. In particular, we asked him about what made him decide that Bradley Cooper was the right guy to bring Rocket Raccoon to life. “When we were looking for Rocket, it was hard because Rocket to me is really the heart of the movie. He”s this tortured little beast who”s completely alone in the world and has been torn apart and put back together and turned into this little thing. Yet he”s still really funny. So you need somebody who can do both sides of that. We auditioned a lot of actors for the role and we auditioned a lot of voice actors for the role. And we were completely 100% willing to go with somebody that was a no-name. A no-name is a rude term, but somebody who was not a famous person. Bradley is really the guy. He is the guy.”
What I loved most about Gunn's attitude is that he knows that the most important thing he could bring to the project was to make a movie no one else would make, and he carried that into the casting. “Like I can”t tell you about how good Dave Bautista is. There is nobody in the world who could do what he”s doing in this movie ’cause Drax has this Shakespearean way in which he speaks and he”s this big broad character. Yet he”s also a very damaged and tender soul, and he gets a lot of the funniest lines in the movie. Dave”s able to do all of that and be a gigantic bald dude. I can”t even see how it”s possible that we found him. It”s been that way with everybody. With Chris, with Bradley, with Zoe, with… Karen Gillan is, like, you know…”
He struggled to figure out how to describe her, and we told him that we'd already seen her up close in the costume. I'll describe that more when I publish my interview with her, but suffice it to say it is one of the most impressive character make-ups I've ever seen in person. Gunn seemed positively giddy when he started talking about her. “She's Clint Eastwood onscreen and Hello Kitty off.”
He told us about how his brother, Sean Gunn, was doing the onset work as Rocket Raccoon so the other actors had something to react to, and they all seemed to really love what Sean was doing in the role. He talked about how he cast him in the film as Michael Rooker's sidekick and about how funny he is in the film. He also promised that there are tons of Easter eggs that could set up other stories in the Marvel movie universe. He nodded knowingly. “Cosmo solo films.” He started laughing at the idea. “It's hard to get Cosmo to walk around. Just walk five steps and lick somebody's face. I don't know if I want to do a Cosmo solo film.” Speaking seriously, he said that he had to clear anything that appeared in any part of the film with legal so they can't just drop an Easter egg in without telling anyone. Even so, he promised that the film will have the most Marvel characters in any movie so far. “Without a doubt. I would imagine four times more.”
We asked him about some of the other things he's including in the film, like the Kree. The Badoon were supposed to be in the film originally, but as he explained, “The Badoon got changed because we don't own the Badoon. Instead, we have Sakaarans in the movie.” We also asked him about some of his design choices, including the use of the old-fashioned Walkman. “It”s about a guy who came from Earth and the only thing he has to attach him to his home is this cassette of music, and that”s a really important part of the movie. I also think it”s something that grounds us a little bit in our own lives through the music in the movie.”
One of the things he said he loved the most about the entire process was writing for Groot and Rocket as a team. “Groot is really the only friend that Rocket has, but Rocket treats him like his slave. He”s not always that nice to him. I think that Groot has an innocence that none of the other characters really have. Their relationship is… they”re very codependent, I suppose. They”re a team. They come together.”
If you follow Gunn on social media, then you are no doubt familiar with his dog Von Spears, and Gunn promised that he had photos of Von Spears on every square inch of the set that he plans to release once the film is out. Photos like this…
… which leads me to believe Von Spears will be getting his very own Phase Three movie. Which will most likely co-star Cosmo.
“Guardians Of The Galaxy” is in theaters August 1, 2014.