Guardians of the Galaxy Interviews: James Gunn

As published in Issue #55 of F*** Magazine

At the time of this posting, GotG is a massive success and Gunn has written an open thank-you note to the fans and to Marvel which can be read here.

By Jedd Jong
The guy who will lead the Guardians on their cosmic journey from the director’s chair is James Gunn, whom some pundits are saying could be the next Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Like those two, Gunn comes from a background of deliberately schlocky horror films but is poised to hit the big time with the massive Marvel movie that is Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn cut his teeth on the low-budget kitschy gore-filled flicks of Troma Entertainment and wrote the screenplays for films like Scooby Doo and the Dawn of the Deadremake. He made his directorial debut with the sci-fi horror comedy Slither, which has become a cult favourite among horror aficionados and is known for its disgusting body horror effects. There’s also James Gunn’s PG Porn, a web series in which he pairs adult actors with mainstream ones, re-creating scenarios from pornographic movies – just without the sex.
Gunn sat down with F*** at the Guardians of the Galaxy Southeast Asia press conference in Singapore to discuss the process of finding his leading man in Chris Pratt, the impact of Star Warsaction figures on his filmmaking career, the decision to have two of the biggest stars in the film voice CGI characters and the design philosophy behind the film’s aesthetic.
Are you concerned about how the film will perform at the box office?
Am I worried about the box office now? Of course! I hope the film does well, it looks like it’s going to do okay, it’s a different thing, we’re trying to build a franchise so the first movie is about creating a group that people want to go and see. But yeah, I’m always concerned about that mostly because I want the opportunity to do another one and if the movie does well, I’ll get to do that. If we make $4 billion, I’ll be really happy (laughs).
What would happen if Beezel from Movie 43 met Rocket Raccoon?
(Groans, then laughs) It will be very strange because one’s CGI and one’s animated. I’ve never even seen the final movie, so I have no idea.
What is the biggest difference between Guardians of the Galaxy and the other Marvel movies?
The biggest difference is me and the cast of weirdoes we have involved with this film, and I don’t only mean the cast as (just) the actors, I mean the cinematographer, the production designer, everyone involved with this movie – we really wanted to create something completely new and completely different, a huge action-adventure set in space that hearkened back to older films but was also like something nobody had ever seen before. So that need to make it, it wasn’t like “oh, we’re doing this in relation to Marvel”, it was like “no, we’re making this movie in relation to all movies as a whole”. We didn’t feel very restrained by Marvel, we were trying to make a movie that was completely itself and that’s probably the biggest difference.
You compared the Avengers to the Beatles and the Guardians to the Rolling Stones…
Yes, that is true. We’re a little bit looser, a little bit more rock and roll and little bit screwier than the Avengers, they’re kind of the clean-cut good guys and we’re the scraggly that will come in and save the day but steal your wallet on the way out.
Is Chris Pratt Jagger?
Uh…I don’t think it breaks down like that! (Laughs)
You wrote a novel called The Toy Collector. How does it feel to have action figures of a movie you’ve directed, and what do you think of the Guardians toys that have been produced?

I love it you know, because when I was a kid, I loved Star Wars figures. I liked the ability to be able to love a movie and then have a little piece of it that I could play with and with those figures, I was able to create my own Star Wars adventures and my own Star Wars stories that were different from the ones that I had seen, and maybe in some ways, that was part of the birth of my filmmaking career, because I was learning how to be a storyteller. And so the idea that kids will be able to own a Drax and a Star-Lord and a Rocket and be able to tell their own stories with that and in that way become more a part of the film and have more of an intimacy with the film, I think that’s a really exciting thing.
Were you into 70s pop culture even before making this film?
I’m pretty much into pop culture in general. I love good pop culture and I’m sort of fascinated by bad pop culture, so being able to…usually when you have these outer space dramas, there’s nothing resembling pop culture whatsoever because they’re really “out there”. Even Star Wars, which is very human, is very “out there” and above it all. In Guardians, we aren’t above it all. This is a guy who is taken from Earth when he’s 8 years old so to him, this is not pop culture, those are holy relics. He thinks Alf, that’s a masterpiece! He thinks of these songs that his mother gave him, they’re the greatest, they’re Beethoven, they’re Mozart! Blue Swede is the greatest group of musicians of all time! It’s being able to see it through Peter Quill’s eyes, he still has the eyes of a child, which is pretty fun because I feel like maybe I do as well.
How important for you was it to find the right Peter Quill?
It was the most important thing and I tell you, my hardest day on this movie I think was…we searched so long and so hard for Peter Quill, and we read everyone you can imagine: A-list stars, people that no one has ever heard of, everybody, because I really wanted to bring to the movie what Robert Downey, Jr. brought to Iron Man. He came in and he was able to create this character that worked really well within the story but also had something more there and brought something to it that was his own thing and he made it better than what it was on the page, and I knew that that was our bar, we needed to find someone who was as good and we needed to find somebody that if ever he was in a movie with Robert Downey, Jr., we think that he could hold his own and probably kick his ass.
And so, we looked and we looked and we looked, and we narrowed it down to 5 actors, many of whom are very famous people. We did a screen test with all 5 of those actors and they were all very, very good – but I went home that night and I was like “none of them are quite right.” I’ve never talked about this before, but that was my lowest point – I really thought I was going in the next day and Marvel would be like “well, it’s too late, we need to choose somebody” and Kevin Feige would say “we’ve got to go with so and so” and I felt in my heart that none of them were quite right. I went in the next day, we watched the screen tests and Kevin turned to me and said “god, they’re all really good, but I don’t think any of them are quite right.” And I was so, so happy, and that’s when I knew I had a true partner in Kevin Feige who is the producer, somebody who had my back when I needed it, somebody I could trust, somebody who wasn’t going to settle for second best and that was a big relief. And so when we found Chris, which wasn’t too long after that, yeah it was a relief and I knew it within 20 seconds of him auditioning that he was the guy.
What was it about him that made him “the guy”?
Um, that’s a great question…
He doesn’t come across as your typical action hero…
No…I think that’s what it was! I mean, Chris is a personality and he has a certain way of speaking that fit the words I had written for Star-Lord so perfectly and added himself to it, so there was this extra thing. Here’s the thing: Chris Pratt is the biggest movie star in the world, it’s just that people don’t know it yet. There is nobody like him, nobody. He is a big masculine dude like so few movie stars are today, but he’s also very funny. He’s a fantastic dramatic actor and he also has a vulnerability that very few actors have. He has everything that you really want in a leading man and is not only one of the greatest movie stars today, I think he’s in the line of the classics, the Gary Coopers, the Clint Eastwoods…that’s the kind of talent he is and that’s the kind of rare talent he is, so I was extremely happy to find Chris.
Karen Gillan is not the name that immediately springs to mind when one thinks “blade-wielding femme fatale” because she’s best known as Amy Pond in Doctor Who, but she looks awesome in the trailers. What was it about her that made her the right fit for Nebula?
She’s a good actress. I wasn’t there the first time she auditioned, she auditioned for the casting director, and he would send me the tapes of the different actors and he would say the people he thought were good and I was going through it and I saw Karen Gillan. I went “oh, who is that?” and I remembered she was in Doctor Who. I just watched it out of curiousity, like I didn’t think she was going to be that good, and I started watching and I was like “holy s***, that girl’s a real actress!” I thought she was just this goofy, I thought she acted like Amy Pond – and she does kind of act like Amy Pond, she’s a fruit loop in real life. She’s a really nice girl and she’s this really grounded, terrific actress and in fact, I’ve got to say, we screen tested her and out of all the screen tests of everybody, her screen test was really my favourite because she added a lot of depth to the character and it just so happens that when you put that makeup on her and give her a couple of weapons in her hands, she really is a sort of Clint Eastwood character. She’s really terrific.
In the cast, you’ve kind of had the two biggest names, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, voice computer-generated characters. How did it work out that way?
We just try to cast the best person for every role and Bradley I came to because we auditioned a lot of people for Rocket and Rocket was another very, very difficult role because Rocket is very funny, he gets a lot of the laugh lines in the movie but he’s also somebody we’ve got to believe as a real character. The core of who Rocket is is that he’s this sad little mangled beast that’s been screwed over by the universe and you’ve got to feel for him. You’ve got to think he’s funny in the beginning, then when you go through the movie, you’ve got to think “oh man, I feel sorry for him, he’s had a real rough life” and you’ve got to see it through his eyes and see what he sees. Bradley as an actor, in his career, has done comedy really well and he’s done drama very well and he was able to bring that together in the character of Rocket.
I remember when some of the executives saw the first cut of the movie and were like “we love it, it’s great, but Bradley Cooper doesn’t sound like Bradley Cooper!” It’s like “we paid him all that money so what about that?”
And I’m like “of course he doesn’t sound like Bradley Cooper, he sounds like Rocket!” And that was the end of that and Bradley and I from the beginning were like “what does he sound like, who is this guy, what does he feel?” and so he was great.
And then, Vin is a delight! Did you guys see his video the other day when he was standing on stilts doing the character? He’s crazy (laughs) he wears stilts when he does the voice so he feels like Groot!
How many iterations of “I am Groot” did you make Vin say?
A lot, a lot! Anyway, man, I watch the movie now and I watch Groot speak and I swear, I don’t feel like that’s a human who’s talking! I feel like that’s a tree! And it’s so crazy, people think I’m crazy, they think I’m nuts when I say this but I say to my editor when I’m sitting next to him working on the movie, “I can’t believe how much emotion this guy brings to 3 words that he says 30 times in the movie!” And he really tells the whole story with those 3 words and he’s kind of a fan favourite when they watch the whole movie. Man, he’s great. I can’t imagine anybody…Vin Diesel was born to play Groot! Nobody in the world could have ever done it better!
What were the inspirations for the aesthetic of the film, and what were your directions to Charlie Wen, Ryan Meinerding and the other concept artists when they were designing this film?

Well, I think that when I first got hired to do this movie the first thing that really struck me was the opportunity to create a space action adventure that had its own sort of aesthetic to it. I gave them, everybody involved sort of this booklet of what the rules were of our world. One of the things was, when Alien and Blade Runnerwere made in the late 70s and early 80s, they came in with this sort of dark look and they were amazing for their time, but they also sort of created what all future movies looked like and everything had to be dark and seedy and all of this.
With Guardians, I really wanted to bring back the colour of films from the 50s and 60s, pulp films, and have something that was brightly colourful yet still grounded and dirty and messy and lived-in and real, to sort of combine those things in a way that hasn’t been done before. So I think it really is taking the best from the history of films and also creating something new, and I could talk about that for an hour because there were a lot of things in that document that were…usually in a space movie when you go to a planet, it looks as if every building was designed by the same architect, you know? But go to downtown Singapore and there’s a bunch of different stuff; same thing with any city in the world, there’s a bunch of different looks there, there’s stuff that’s really old and stuff that’s really new, and if something’s been around for a long time, you can bet that there’s something made of stone next to whatever the floating building is next to it.
So it’s trying to create that post-modern world with a mix of different things in it, and to really create that contrast of having something really beautiful next to something that’s sort of ugly and for that, there’s a painting by Magritte called Visions of Light (actually The Empire of Lights), and  I don’t know if you guys know this painting but it looks like it’s daytime on the ground and it’s night-time in the sky and I used that as kind of a guiding force in creating these landscapes that were beautiful skies with these really cavernous, ugly landscapes contrasting each other and using that throughout the architecture, throughout the movie.

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