A visit to the otherworldly set of Marvel’s massive ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’

LONDON — At this point, I've come to think of the Shepperton lot in England as Marvel's home away from home.

Not long after the presentation that Marvel made at Comic-Con for “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” a group of journalists were invited to visit the sets for the film and to talk to the filmmakers and the cast. As part of that group, I found myself somewhat blown away by what we saw and by the conversations we had. That is not always the case, and while I've had plenty of set visits where I walked away feeling optimistic, I've had very few that knocked me out to this degree.

Why? What is it that convinced me that this is a departure for the studio and a very special version of what we know right now as the big action blockbuster?

One of the first things we did was visit the War Room, which is sort of like stepping into the entire movie at once. I've seen some very persuasive War Rooms over the years, and I remember being overwhelmed by the one for “Watchmen” in particular. Normally, they're covered in production art and photos and even models, and this one was no exception.

Jeremy Latcham, an executive producer on the film, was the one who showed us around the War Room, and who talked us through what we were seeing. He showed us Morag, one of the first planets we see in the film. He showed us the designs for The Milano, flown by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in the movie. He talked about how amazing the work by production designer Charles Wood is, and how amazing the practical builds on the film were overall. He told us that the set we were going to visit was for The Dark Aster, which is three miles wide, and that it is the ship of Ronan The Accuser, played by Lee Pace.

He also showed us production art of Nebula, the character played by Karen Gillan, and right away, it was a striking design. He laughed and said, “That make-up, I think they've gotten it down to three and a half, maybe four hours now.”

He explained that Nebula and Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana) share a relationship at the start of the film, but that Gamora becomes disenchanted with living in service to Thanos, and when she leaves, it sets some of the film's primary events. He showed us artwork of the Necrocraft, the fleet of ships that serve Ronan, all of which come flying out of the Dark Aster in swarms.

The next artwork we saw was of Planet Zandar, which is where we meet Rocket and Groot in the film, and where Quill first meets Gamora. One of the things I really enjoyed about those designs is how colorful and bright the world is. It's easy to make everything in science-fiction films look dark and gloomy, but it also creates this feeling that all science-fiction is the same. There's a lot of this movie that is going to challenge the idea of what we expect from these films, and I love that.

There were paparazzi photos during production of an exterior shoot that took place at the Millennium Bridge in London, and we were shown how those exteriors were going to be used for part of the Zandar sequence. “We're going to lock it with a couple of other pieces of real architecture, and then we go in and tie those to our CG environment a bit.” In addition to the Millennium Bridge, they used the Yangtze train station in Brussels, locations from Singapore, and several other real-world locations, all to help create something that feels like a real place.

After Zandar, Quill finds himself arrested by the Nova Corps along with Rocket, Groot, and Gamora, and they're taken to the Kyln, the giant prison that featured prominently in the 17 minutes of footage that was shown to the public at several IMAX venues last night. While the first trailer for the film, featuring John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz as Nova Corps members who are processing the characters into the Kyln, was not actual footage from the film, it captures the tone of things nicely.

The Kyln is where Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista) comes into the story, and we learn that he has a history with Gamora. When the main characters come together, they're not immediate friends. Far from it, actually, and it's not until they realize that they need to escape that they decide to work together as a group.

If you've seen the trailers for the film, you've most likely seen that strange-looking floating object that the Milano is flying towards, and it's one of my favorite things I saw during the entire visit. Knowhere is, as described by Latcham, “the severed head of a celestial being. It's… become this mining town that's popped up around little bits of what you can mine.” That includes brain matter and spinal tissue, and within the head, there is the equivalent of a Wild West frontier town. It's also the home of The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). “He's been absolutely amazing, an incredible intelligent actor who we're really lucky to have.”

The scene at the end of “Thor: The Dark World” introduced the character and his insane environment, which Latcham called “this amazing lab and museum… which fans of the comics will really appreciate.” If you're a fan of “Guardians” as a comic, or Marvel in general, sharp eyes will be rewarded during the sequences involving the Collector. Gunn's packed in more insane Easter eggs during this one sequence than I think anyone will recognize the first time through, and there are some great characters who haven't even been teased yet in public.

When discussing the way the film's biggest action sequences are structured, Latcham specifically referenced the final set piece in “The Avengers” and the way there were character moments peppered in among the action beats, and how that mix pays off in something that means more to an audience. He said that there are some gigantic sequences in “Guardians,” as big as anything Marvel's done in any movie so far, and we saw some exceptional imagery and hints about what to expect.

We discussed the way Charles Wood and his team of designers take the comics as a starting point “and make it make sense in our cinematic universe.” That's important, since every artist who has worked on the comic has brought their own take to the material. “There's so much history on the comic side of the Marvel universe… there have been decades and decades of comics to draw from. We were really inspired by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning with regard to the 'Galaxy' series. Those plots are incredibly fun to draw from.” When we asked if Joss Whedon had any hand in the way things came together, we were told “Joss was involved a bit in the writing process. He and James go way back and have a great relationship, and everything we do is sort of crafting the same kind of texture and cinematic universe. So Joss and James got to work together in putting this together, certainly on the script… Joss was able to be involved in a really fruitful way.”

In talking about how this is different from anything that Marvel's done before, Latcham pointed out “it's simply a big space opera, a huge space adventure, and it's a genre we really haven't explored before. It still feels totally like a Marvel movie. It's still going to have the same pressure, the same temper and sense to it. It's definitely going to feel like half the movie involves the cinematic universe. But from a genre standpoint… it's something different.”

While much has been made so far of the film's wild sense of humor, something that the trailers emphasize in a big way, Latcham pointed out, “it's all grounded in real emotional stakes, and it's those emotions that allow you to latch onto these characters and make you feel… it's a real universe with real stakes for these real characters that you can identify with. Once you establish that, you sort of accept this crazy space opera universe as being something that you can explore.” He talked about how important it was to start the movie on Earth. “It opens with Peter Quill [getting] taken into space for the first time and the circumstance of how that happens.” He also explained how the choices were made about who would be in the movie and who wouldn't. “We all kind of had an idea of the story we wanted to tell, and the characters we wanted to base it around. Every movie that comes out of Marvel Studios is based on character. Once you know that your movie is going to have Peter Quill and Groot and Rocket and Drax and Gamora at its core, you can start picking and choosing elements from the comics that make sense in a story that involves those guys.”

Our last question for Latcham was about what connections there would be to the rest of the Marvel movie universe, and he was visibly uncomfortable at being asked. “Uh… you will see pieces of the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe pop up in this movie, and that's probably all I should say.”

I loved looking at the detail work in the War Room. There's a set that you've seen since the very first released footage, where Quill tracks down an object called The Orb. I have no idea how much of the detail you'll see, but there was a piece that showed the full breakdown of the mural behind the place where The Orb is kept. There are four sculpted figures surrounding the space where the Orb (also known as one of the Infinity stones) is mounted. On one side, Death and Oblivion, both forces that reduce life, and on the other side, Eternity and Infinity, both forces that expand life. The mural is meant to show the constant struggle between them.

I also cracked up at the sight of the tape player in the Milano's dash, unaware just how central a role that tape player would play in the entire marketing push for the film.

Here's the latest extended sneak that the studio's released for the film…

… which looks pretty great to me.

Still not convinced? Well, I've got more “Guardians Of The Galaxy” stuff for you all day long, including chats with the cast and with filmmaker James Gunn, so keep checking back. I was surprised just how strong a case the cast made for the film, and one interview in particular was about as emotional as a set visit gets. You'll see.

In the meantime, you can catch up with my Chris Pratt interview from the set.

“Guardians Of The Galaxy” opens in theaters everywhere August 1st.