“Guardians of the Galaxy” is by far the biggest budget film of writer/director James Gunn‘s career. And based on a “Guardians” set visit attended by CBR News last September, his enthusiasm for it was evident — even though he was nearing the end of a punishing six-month shoot, he spent more than twice as much time discussing the movie with reporters than the majority of cast members, and was eventually dragged away from the interview virtually mid-question because he was needed elsewhere.
Gunn, whose past credits include 2006’s “Slither” and 2010’s “Super,” answered questions in a roundtable with multiple reporters on a variety of topics, ranging from his thoughts on translating the “Guardians” comic books to how he actually got the job as director, and the importance of Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) Walkman.
How have you found the expectations that have been placed on you for this movie, both by fans and yourself?
James Gunn: I don’t think of it as expectations. I’m definitely trying to make a huge, fun, commercial movie that moves people, but I don’t know if that’s an expectation, it’s just what I’m trying to achieve. As for the fans, one of the great things about doing “Guardians “is that there aren’t as many expectations compared to, say, “The Avengers,” who have 500-plus issues and everyone thinks that a different story is the definitive one, or that Hawkeye’s personality in “Avengers” #59 through #70 is how he’s supposed to be when the truth is that his personality changes throughout the entire run — I’ve read them all, so I know! With “Guardians,” there are fewer titles to choose from and fewer fans in general, so those expectations are easier.
As for my expectations, I’m always hard on myself whatever I’m doing, so it’s same old same old.
The scope of “Guardians” is so much bigger than what you’ve dealt with before, so what kind of experience has that been like for you as a filmmaker?
It’s been radically different in terms of my personal experience. Just the length of it, coming off a film like “Super” where we shot for 24 days for $3 million, we did like 50 set-ups a day, which was a harrowing, tough experience. This is over such a long time that it’s easier. Not easy, but easier. We have more time for set-ups, more time for planning, more time between sets. The biggest difference is having a lot of people around me who I can trust. On most movies I have maybe one or two, but on this movie I’m surrounded by people who make me breathe easier. Everyone’s just really good at their job.
Were there any scenes you shot that made you really geek out when they were finished?
There’s a scene in the prison, where Quill’s asleep in the prison, on the floor — have you ever watched “Locked Up Abroad”? I based the Kyln on “Locked Up Abroad.” Instead of sleeping in single cells, only the protected inmates get to go in there, so he’s asleep with people’s feet next to him, surrounded by aliens of different types, I loved that shot. Oh, and my assistant was crying in the trailer earlier about a scene between Drax and Rocket where Drax goes on about his wife dying and Rocket yells at him. It’s a beautiful scene.
We’ve been hearing a lot from the cast and crew about all these long, single-take shots you’ve been putting in – what are the reasons you wanted to do that sort of thing with this movie?
For me, making this movie is a bit like making a Nirvana song — it’s slow and long, then big and fast, then slow, then fast. I really like going from really small to really big. So we have some long takes, and we have some other scenes with lots of fast cuts. Both are important. It’s a very cinematic film, and that’s exciting for me because on previous films I’ve been very restricted by the budget in the amount of shots I can do, and the kind of shots I’m able to do. On “Slither” I could afford a crane for like two days, but here I’ve got one with me the whole time. The way I work is that I plan everything ahead of time, so on this movie I’ve found more than any other that I can make the scenes look like I saw in my head, and better.
The tone of this movie looks a little different from the other Marvel films. Obviously it’s funny, but it’s also a bit darker — these characters are damaged. Where do you strike the balance? Especially coming to a PG-13 rating from a R-rated world.
I haven’t found any difficulty in the rating switch. Occasionally I get a little too violent but for the most part I haven’t, and the person censoring me is myself.
But first and foremost, we’re making an action-adventure film, but there are also a lot of comedic and dramatic elements, which I think people will be surprised to see. That was something that was important to me from the beginning, and which helps ground the movie. A big part of making this film is that it’s so outlandish and out there, so to keep it anchored in the drama and emotional reality of these characters’ actual lives is the most important thing to me. It’s been a balance, but a comfortable one.
That said, it’s still a very different movie, especially for a large tentpole film. To have this much drama and comedy together is unusual.
In “Avengers” everyone already had their own origin story, even the villain. With Guardians, you’re not just worldbuilding, you’re also introducing a set of heroes and a set of villains. How hard was that?
It seems like it’d be harder than it was. I naturally veer towards writing lots of characters anyway, but we don’t have to explain every detail of where everyone came from. We hear the emotional origin of Gamora, Drax and Rocket, but I don’t have to explain every little thing. If everything goes well, we’ll have other chances to tell those stories.
What do you think are the major points that will draw non-Marvel fans into this movie, given that the general public won’t have any idea who the Guardians are?
I think it’s a fantastic visual world. It’s like the movies that affected me most when I was a kid. I mean, sure, people don’t know the Guardians, but then “Iron Man” was selling 20,000 copies a month when that movie came out, and that’s enough of an audience to make a hit movie. So I don’t know if there’s really a difference — the “Guardians” comic is doing five times today what “Iron Man” was selling at that time!
How do you set a movie in such a variety of fantastic locations? Is there a certain amount of hand-holding you need to do with the audience?
It’s the same as what I said earlier, the most important part of the movie is the relationship between the characters and where they’re going in terms of their emotional lives. That’s more important than being funny and more important than their crazy surroundings. That’s more important than anything. And as long as I can keep it centered in those emotions and relationships then I think things like a Celestial’s head become much easier to deal with.
When you first met with Marvel, how much was them pitching you their idea, and how much was you pitching them?
They’ve been pretty open all along. When I first went to them around July 2011 I didn’t know they were going to talk about “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I thought I was going to get them to make a “Hit-Monkey” movie again which I’d been trying to do a few months beforehand. So I went in and they pitched me pretty hard on “Guardians.” I thought they were meeting with a lot of people and that it wasn’t that serious, but they showed me the art they’d got done for Comic-Con that year and I liked the look of that, and then I went home and really thought about it. The visuals just came to me, and how I could add my own voice to the property.
So I wrote up a 15-page document about what it’d look like, and how it’d feel tonally, and what the character basics were. I sent that off and they really liked it. I went back in with my storyboards, gave them a little presentation off my iPad — which I’ve never done! This was the first time in my life I’ve really cared whether I got a gig or not, but I put myself on the line — then I heard a few days later that I got the gig.
You were already friends with Joss Whedon, so was there a point where you phoned him up and asked whether it was a good idea?
I’d already talked a lot about his experiences doing the Avengers, so I didn’t really call… no, I did, that’s a lie. I wrote him an email and said, “Hey, I’m trying to get this job, can you help?” and he said, “You’re too late, I already talked to them about you.”
But after I got the job, then I called and talked about what it was like. But I already knew his experiences were better than some other directors’, because he and Marvel saw things the same way throughout production, and that’s how it’s been for me. Any small disagreements we’ve had have only been about what’s best for the movie. After I wrote the first draft everyone was very excited and positive — Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige — but then Joss came in and he wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. He thought the story had been cracked, but he wanted there to be more James Gunn in the script. There are things that are too conventional. So then Kevin and
Louis were like “yeah, good idea.” so I was like “All right, your funeral…” [Laughs]
So I went home and wrote a 7-page scene where the guys are in a space ship arguing and it’s all dialogue and we’re about to shoot it on Friday. And they were really happy! So it’s been a unique situation where Marvel’s ready for someone who sees things the way I do, so it feels good.
The supporting cast includes some huge names — Benicio Del Toro, Glenn Close — and that’s in addition to a great main cast. What was the process of [casting] the movie like? And specifically, why did you choose Bradley Cooper for Rocket?
You can find a real through-line with the actors I’ve worked with in the past and the ones I’m working with in this movie, and that’s that I really like people who can do both drama and comedy. Not middle-of-the-road dramedy, heavy drama, heavy comedy. That’s what attracted me to Elizabeth Banks in “Slither,” or Nathan Fillion. You can see that in Bradley Cooper as much as anyone in the world.
When we were looking for Rocket it was hard, because he’s the heart of the movie. He’s this tortured little beast, completely alone in the universe, who’s been torn apart and put back together. But he’s still really funny! We auditioned a lot of actors and voice actors, and we’d have happily gone with someone who wasn’t famous. The voice actors were a bit too cartoony, too Pixar, and the actors didn’t really have the right voice. Bradley’s the guy who is Rocket.
And I can’t tell you how good Dave Bautista is in this movie. There’s no one else in the world who could do what he’s doing, because Drax has this Shakespearean way in which he speaks, and he’s a big broad character but 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 that and be a gigantic bald dude! I can’t even see how it’s possible that we found him. You know, he went up against Academy Award-nominated actors and he still got the role because he was the best. And it’s been that way with everybody. With Chris [Pratt], Bradley, Zoe [Saldana]… Karen Gillan is great, I call her Clint Eastwood on-screen, Hello Kitty off. I’m constantly laughing.
You’ve got The Collector in there which obviously gives enormous potential for Easter eggs and tie-ins, and could set up other things in the Marvel Universe. So how much of that is you pitching Marvel and how much is you just saying “OK, let’s put this in”?
Well, we have to clear everything with legal. We put in little things like graffiti, but there are a ton of characters from the comics in little tiny roles and we have to clear all those. I’m certain we’ve got the most comic characters in than any other Marvel movie. Like, times four. Almost everyone is named after someone from the comics.
So who’s your favorite character?
Rocket! I love Rocket.
You’re introducing the Kree, which is a huge deal, but we heard some of the villains were Badoon and that got changed? Can you tell us about that?
The Badoon got changed because we don’t own them. So now they’re Sakaaran in the movie. We have plenty of Kree but we don’t go too deeply into who they are, only Ronan’s backstory. They’re just a part of the overall landscape.
Looking at the reference material and the footage we’ve seen, it looks like there’s a kind of retro-space theme in the movie, with Quill’s Walkman and Drax’s space helmet and the music from the sizzle reel. Was that important to you and why?
I think you’re talking about two different things. The look of the movie is — when “Blade Runner” and “Alien” came out, it changed how all sci-fi movies were designed. At that was a good thing, but now we’re watching movies that are Xeroxes of Xeroxes of Xeroxes of “Blade Runner.” So the way you can be a “serious” science fiction movie is by being dark, and kind of Japanese. So there’s been too much like that, and then there’s the white-look Utopian thing that’s gotten equally boring. I wanted to keep the grittiness but bring back some of the color of the ’50s and ’60s pulp science-fiction movies. So that’s where that comes from.
The other stuff is really our tie to this world. It’s not a film that takes place in space completely disconnected from Earth. It’s about this guy whose only connection to Earth is a Walkman and cassette of music, and that’s a really important part of the movie.
Was it challenging to think of a CGI creation like Rocket as an actual character and write for him that way, rather than as a sidekick?
No, not at all. Rocket was the easiest one to write for me. It flowed pretty naturally, same with Groot. If anything I have a deeper love for those characters because there’s more of me in them.
Are we going to see different versions of Groot?
Not exactly. He’s able to grow and use his limbs. He’s pretty threatening and powerful, but also a bit like a puppy.
The footage at Comic-Con last year was very raw, but the response was overwhelming. Was it gratifying when you heard that the approach had landed how it did?
Yeah! Do you have to ask that question? I’ll admit, I saw what Disney cut together from what we’d shot, after just 12 days of shooting, so I thought people were going to like it a lot but you never know. And I feel that way about the movie.
So the Rocket/Groot stuff in the Comic-Con trailer, was that from a test?
The bit with Rocket standing on Groot was from a test, but it’s a test that there’s a version of in the movie. The stuff with him in prison was the first step towards the actual footage, that’s also in the movie.
Groot and Rocket Racoon aside, are you doing a lot of CG or are there more practical effects?
There are other CG characters, but it’s a balance, I have characters in the background that I use to balance it out. If you’ve seen my other movies, which are much lower budget, even then the integration between CG and practical is something I’ve been very into it, mixing them so it looks as real as possible.
Does the dynamic between Rocket and Groot reflect the one in the comics?
It’s similar in some ways to the [Dan] Abnett/[Andy] Lanning relationship, and different in others. In the movie, Groot is the only friend Rocket has, but he treats him like his slave. He’s not always nice to him, but Groot has an innocence none of the others have. They’re very co-dependent. They’re a team.
Finally, how did you get Disney to okay that scene in the sizzle reel where Quill basically flips off the whole audience?
Disney’s been very supportive of me, so this isn’t a negative thing about them, but the deal with Disney and Marvel is that they’re creatively in control of this whole movie, it’s a Marvel thing. But the trailer cutters, they’re Disney and they’re the ones who put it in, I didn’t put it in! That wasn’t part of the movie originally. Chris did one part of it and he was goofing around and I was like, “OK, now be surprised that you did it!” and it was funny, so we kept it.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is scheduled for release on Aug. 1.