The director and star of the new dark comedy “Super” shared behind-the-scenes stories, traded jokes and — to their surprise — encountered Seattle’s real-life superhero Phoenix Jones during the movie’s Saturday panel at Emerald City Comicon.
Evidently, the crowd felt the panel was aptly named, as the spacious convention hall was teeming with attendants. Dozens of camera flashes went off when Rainn Wilson entered the front of the room, sipping his a Starbucks venti decaf and clad in the indie-nerd uniform of grey cardigan and plaid, button-up shirt. While the crowd waited for the panel to begin (it ran about ten minutes behind schedule), the star of “Super,” the hit NBC comedy “The Office” and graduate of a local high school, killed time by chatting with old school friends. In a few minutes, Wilson would reminisce aloud about the adolescent years he spent playing Dungeons and Dragons with some of the panel’s front-row attendees, revealing to the audience, “We killed so many fucking orcs.”
The “Super”-centric panel belatedly got underway when moderator Marty Riemer of local radio station The Mountain stepped up to the podium. Riemer began by describing the general plot and tone of “Super,” calling it the story of “a DIY superhero with a sociopathic sidekick,” before introducing the film’s director, James Gunn. “Our next guest needs no introduction,” he said while Wilson idled to the side of the stage. “You know him as Dwight Schrute, or a 1984 graduate of Shorecrest High School. Ladies and gentlemen, Rainn Wilson!”
Wilson was greeted by raucous applause and wasted no time tossing off quippy comebacks.
“You call me Dwight again and I will punch you in the other eye,” Wilson said to Riemer, who had one severely bloodshot eye. Wilson worked the crowd, triumphantly asking, “Wadup my nerds?” before following up with “Where’s my mom?”
Wilson squinted through his horn-rimmed glasses and spotted his mother, a local resident, at the back of the room.
“I can’t believe the nerds made her sit in the back,” the actor stated. He then asked the entire room the stand at attention while his mother made the long walk down the aisle towards the front of the hall.
With their initial joking out of the way — and Wilson’s mother seated where she belonged — Riemer got to asking his guests about their new, no-budget, take-no-prisoners film.
“I wrote the original draft for ‘Super’ in one day, April 2, 2002. It was fifty-seven pages long. It was originally intended as a short film, and then I turned it into a feature over the next few weeks,” Gunn said. “It was nine years in the making.”
Referring to the film’s anemic budget, Gunn joked, “We made the movie for $350 and a bag of weed.”
One of the reasons Gunn was able to make his gruesome, long-gestating superhero deconstruction so inexpensively was due in large part to all of the film’s actors (Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, and Nathan Fillion) taking a pay cut.
Wilson cheekily denied this, saying, “I make billions,” before his tone changed to one of sincerity as he discussed how he got involved in the project.
“I was on ‘The Office’ set, waiting during a lighting set-up, and I went over to go talk to Jenna [Fischer], as I often do. Jenna used to be married to James, once upon a time. She said, ‘You know, I was talking to James the other day, and he’s got this script laying around that he wrote years ago called ‘Super,’ and I said to him, ‘You should do ‘Super.’ That’s my favorite film that you ever wrote and you should get Rainn to play the lead.'”
Wilson continued with his anecdote, sucking on the plastic cap of his water bottle as if it were a piece of hard candy.
“I said, ‘Oh, wow, thanks Jenna, that’s really cool.’ She said, ‘Would you read it?’ and I was like, ‘Of course!’ She called or texted James and then instantaneously on Dwight’s desk, the computer went ‘bling!’ and the ‘Super’ script came over. I literally remember hitting ‘forward’ and asking the production assistants in the front office, ‘Would you print this out for me?’ We shot our scene [for ‘The Office’], and then it was waiting for me — in my trailer, because that’s how I roll. I went, and I started reading it. I was twenty-two pages in, and I texted James and I said, ‘I’m in. I have to do this movie. My hand is trembling.'” Wilson added, “That’s not a masturbation joke.”
Wilson said of the film — which follows a middle-aged loser named Frank who becomes a real-life superhero after his wife (Tyler) leaves him for a drug kingpin (Bacon) — “It has laughter, it has tears, it has weird violence and strange, amazing characters. [Gunn’s script] was able to balance action and romance and absurd comedy, way out-there comedy and grotesque, Tarantino-esque violence.”
After Wilson’s effusive description, Riemer asked the crowd of they wanted to watch the “Super” trailer. Naturally, the crowd was excited to get a glimpse of the film, and laughed along the entire time with nerd favorite Nathan Fillion receiving a big round of applause when his name came up during the preview.
Once the trailer wrapped, Wilson snapped a photo of the crowd using the iPhone he’d been obsessively checking throughout the panel.
“Are you going to tweet this?” Riemer asked.
“You bet your sweet ass,” Wilson replied.
At this point, a garishly-dressed man entered the convention hall. Wilson, spotting him at the back of the room, said ,”Sir, this is not the masquerade.”
This did not deter the costumed individual, who strode right up to the podium alongside a masked-and-cloaked accomplice. As he got closer to the stage, fans in the audience began to recognize him and shouted out his name. “Phoenix Jones!” they yelled enthusiastically, hailing the enigmatic local who considers himself a real-life crime-fighter. Jones introducing himself and “Pitch Black” to the celebrity guests was a surreal moment of life imitating art.
Wilson asked Jones about his real-life adventures fighting crime, and the armored hero straight-facedly responded, “Yesterday, I got stabbed by someone with a key.”
He then pulled out a large electric prod from his utility belt and handed it to Wilson, asking the actor to shock him with it. Wilson declined, but Gunn happily zapped Jones in the chest. The masked avenger didn’t even flinch.
Before thanking Jones and asking him to leave, Wilson wanted to know if he’d ever experienced interference from the police.
“Mostly, they just tell me to stop,” Jones said. “They’re not thrilled with other people doing their job and not shooting woodcarvers.” The room applauded this statement, a reference to the 2010 shooting of John T. Williams by SPD officer Ian Birk who was controversially exonerated of any wrongdoing.
Following this bizarre encounter, the floor was opened up to questions from the crowd. One individual wanted to know if Gunn would be making any more “PG Porn” shorts for the FX network.
“We have four more scripts and are looking for financing,” Gunn replied.
Another fan asked Gunn how apprenticing at B-movie picture house Troma Studios helped shape his filmmaking perspective. Gunn said that it taught him how to work quickly and with very little money (“Super” was shot in only twenty-four days).
The next two questions were for Wilson, the first asking if the actor was going to have an “egomaniacal, psychotic break” in the vein of Charlie Sheen.
“I’m waiting for my hiatus to have some kind of drug-fueled manic phase,” Wilson said.
After this, a young attendee asked Wilson if he could “borrow twenty dollars,” a request the actor happily obliged.
Another audience member identified themselves as an aspiring filmmaker and wanted to know if Gunn and Wilson had any advice for people in his position. This gave Gunn — who was sporting short, punky hair and a leather jacket — the chance to reveal that he “didn’t want to be a filmmaker” when he was younger. “I wanted to be a rock star,” he said.
“He was a terrible singer,” Wilson added, before offering up some genuine advice. “You have to do it a lot.” He quickly followed this with the joke made famous by his ‘Office’ cast-mate Steve Carell: “That’s what she said.”
Wilson next engaged in a very strange exchange with a fan dressed in a sleeveless Thor t-shirt, who looked and acted like one of the hair-metal burnouts from Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.”
“Alright, my name’s Patrick,” The fan said. “I have one question and one question only. Answer truthfully: are you a wizard, Rainn?”
“He’s a Vatican Assassin Warlock,” Gunn interjected, channeling a “Charlie Sheen-ism.”
Wilson thought for a moment, and then said, “I’m a sorcerer. I am a sorcerer.”
“You’re above a wizard,” Patrick replied.
“I am a Master Wizard. I am a level seventeen Wizard. Rock and roll, buddy” Wilson said.
The next question was less odd, asking if there were any particular superheroes Wilson emulated for his performance in the film.
Wilson said no, but noted, “You put on a superhero costume, and it changes the way you walk. [Frank] is just a big lummox willing to lay it on the line with a pipe wrench.” Wilson finished, stating he wasn’t overly concerned with aping specific heroes or getting into tip-top shape.
Gunn informed the crowd that because of the film’s shoestring budget, they only had two superhero costumes for Wilson, and apparently they got very uncomfortable and sweaty. Wilson said (perhaps seriously) that he had one of the costumes with him in Seattle, and that he was going to do something special with it later in the day.
“I’m going to put on the costume and ride the Mukilteo Ferry,” he said.
Next, a fan asked Gunn how he responds to comparisons between “Super” and “Kick Ass,” another real-world superhero satire.
“I think a lot of people think [‘Super’ is] going to be like ‘Kick Ass’ before they go into the theater. I think if you think it’s like ‘Kick Ass’ after you leave the theater’ — I don’t see how you could think that. The only thing they have in common is a regular guy putting on a superhero suit,” Gunn said.
An adorable little kid then approached the mic and asked Wilson what his favorite rock bands were.
Wilson pointed to a shaggy group of locals seated near the front.
“Blitzen Trapper,” he shouted, praising the rootsy Portland indie band.
As the panel neared its conclusion, the questions and answers got faster and more concise.
Someone lauded the subversive nature of Gunn’s films, but wanted to know more about why he viewed filmmaking as “a service.” Gunn responded by talking about his isolated Midwestern upbringing and how the music of Alice Cooper and the grotesque, intellectual films of David Cronenberg helped make him feel less alienated and alone. Gunn indicated that he makes his movies for the people out there that are as “weird and fucked up” as he is.
When asked if there were plans for a “Super” comic book, Gunn said Marvel Comics had approached him for a project in recently, but his schedule was too busy to allow it.
“I would love to work for Marvel for real this time,” Gunn said.
The panelists closed out the evening by encouraging people to go see “Super” when it opens nationwide on April 1, April 15 in Seattle. Given the film’s independent status, Gunn, Wilson and Page are tackling much of the promotion themselves.
“This was a passion project, a project of love,” Wilson said before standing and declaring to the packed house, “We love you, Seattle!”