It’s been a long time since James Gunn made a film. Slither was a great horror comedy that just couldn’t find an audience - as is so often the case with horror comedies. In the years since Gunn directed some shorts for Xbox and for the web, but I kept hoping he would find his way into a feature again. As a fan of the guy and his writing it was sometimes frustrating to wait.
But the wait paid off. His new film, Super, is a remarkably personal and human movie that also happens to have a huge amount of violence and improper humor - ie, everything you’d want from a James Gunn movie. I talked to Gunn about the film, and during the course of our conversation we came to the question of his hiatus from features. His answer is really honest, something that you rarely get out of these sorts of promo interviews.
Be aware: there are some spoilers in this interview. I don’t think they’re major, but they do talk about elements of the relationship between Liv Tyler’s Sarah and Rainn Wilson’s Frank which aren’t revealed until the halfway point of the film.
(He says before you read the first question, which talks about the end of the movie)
Watching the ending of Super I couldn’t help but feel that the movie is an optimistic rebuttal of Taxi Driver.
It is a lot like Taxi Driver. When Rainn and I were trying to sell the movie, in the packet that we made trying to get investors, we said it was Taxi Driver meets Napoleon Dynamite. I think it’s really hard to describe Super, but in terms of describing it as a combination of two movies - which seems to be a law these days - it’s pretty close.
Listen, Taxi Driver is in my top ten favorite movies of all time. To say it’s a rebuttal isn’t really the case. I think there’s much more of a fairy tale element to Super than there is to Taxi Driver. If it seems optimistic at all, it’s that element of the movie.
You get some incredible performances from Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson. There’s a scene in particular where Rainn is breaking down and crying that is so raw and honest. Can you talk about how, on set, you create a space where he’s able to go there?
He’s amazing in that scene. I’m really glad that scene is being brought up a lot. I thought that scene was something that might get missed, but it doesn’t seem to be getting missed. I think that scene was what the movie is about, it’s the center of the movie in a lot of ways. And tonally - people talk about the risky tone of mixing the violence with the sentiment and the laughs - but to me, the most tonally risky scene in the movie is that scene because it’s devastatingly sad but it’s funny at the same time and those things are next to each other. It’s a very unique scene in that way.
I knew that Rainn was like Frank in a lot of ways. We actually recorded the voice over narration of the movie before we shot the film, so I had been able to work with Rainn a little bit on being Frank. But on that particular scene we shot that on the second day, and I knew it was a big test to see if Rainn could go there and be as vulnerable as he needed to be for that scene.
I’m very controlling about my budgets on my movies - what we spend time on and how we spend it. On a regular movie you’ll do between 12 and 20 set ups a day, on Super we did between 45 and 50 set ups every day. We were moving extremely fast. But I also knew we needed to take the time for the acting scenes, and especially that particular one. So even though we were moving very fast, that scene we took a lot of time with, just giving Rainn the space. We cleared the set; there are only three or four people in that bedroom - that’s a real bedroom - when we shot the scene. I’m right there at the end of the bed, talking Rainn through the whole thing, two feet away off screen. But it’s a testament to Rainn that he allowed himself to go all that way.
With Rainn and Ellen it was a matter of letting them go all the way. Especially with Ellen; Ellen came to me before we started shooting and she said, ‘I think I know who Libby is, and I’m afraid I’m going to go too far.’ I just wanted her to believe the whole time that I would take care of her, both on set and in the editing room. That if she went too far I would stop here, but for her to the goal was to go too far and let me decide if she was being out of bounds for that character.
She’s amazing. Have you ever met Ellen before?
I sure have.
She’s so quiet and shy and demure. That’s just her basic essence. And then to have her do this thing that is so wired and out of control, that was actually the more happy surprise for me. I had known Rainn for a while and knew his work outside of The Office. I was pretty sure that Rainn was going to be able to do what I needed him to do. But Ellen - she didn’t audition for the role. We didn’t have time to rehearse. I wasn’t exactly sure until that first day on set that she would be able to do it. And for her the first day on set was the scene where she jumps out of a car in her bra and is laughing at the guy after he gets his legs chopped off. And it was fourteen degrees outside. She really, really jumped in heads first.
Interestingly enough Frank isn’t a superhero fan - he has to go and do the research to figure out how to be a superhero. Why did you start him there, as opposed to having him begin as a comic book reader?
I think it’s important that what Frank is doing is because of what he believes, and not because it’s fantasy wish fulfillment. It was something he truly felt he was supposed to do.
People seeing the trailer for the film might find themselves wondering how Liv Tyler ends up with Rainn Wilson.
That’s the first thing I hear people say sometimes - why in the world would Liv Tyler marry Rainn? And in true life Liv would not marry Rainn. But I think it makes a lot of sense in the movie. If you’ve ever known anybody who’s gotten sober off heavy use, they’ve been drowning their emotions so long and they’ve been through so many fucked up relationships, one after the other, that they almost always falls in love with the first person who’s been good to them, and it usually happens a few months into sobriety. And that’s the basis of their relationship in the movie.
I like the way you reveal that information in the movie. In the beginning you wonder how they got together, and when it is revealed it not only adds to the depth of their relationship but it also adds to the general sadness of Frank.
That was a big question in the movie when we were cutting it. It is in the movie the way it was in the script. Unlike a lot of movies where you cut a lot of stuff and you throw away a lot of what you shot, we didn’t have that luxury on this movie. We threw away maybe one scene. But the placement of the flashbacks - and I think that’s a question in the audience’s mind when they see this beautiful woman married to this schlub - we answer it in the time that we do and I think it works.
It’s been a while for you between features. You’ve done shorts and Xbox stuff in the meantime. Was the lag between features because you were so set on getting Super going?
Not at all. I couldn’t let go of Super; I wrote the script in 2002 and it just kept coming back to me. It’s a story that I felt I wanted to tell. Other things would happen or you’d hear about similar projects and it would bum me out and I would resign myself to not telling the story, but it just kept coming back. About two years ago my ex-wife, Jenna Fischer, called me up and said “What are you doing with Super? That’s my favorite script of yours and I want you to tell that story.” I said, “My manager doesn’t want me to do it, I don’t have the financing anymore, I can’t think of anybody would could play Frank, it’s an esoteric film, a really weird film, and I don’t know how to do it.” She said, “Have you thought of Rainn for the role?” I’d known Rainn for five years and right away I was like wow, that fits, and I could see him playing that character.
That’s where it began, in that moment. I sent the screenplay to Rainn and he read it and loved it and we were in from that day. From that time we didn’t stop. Once Rainn was on board the two of us wouldn’t stop trying get this movie made. We made it for almost nothing and we were willing, frankly, to make it for even less. We definitely didn’t expect to get those other actors involved.
But the reason I took so long between the two things is really a number of things. I got caught up in a big studio project I was supposed to write and direct, a big hundred million dollar movie. I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I backed out. That took up a lot of my time. In addition to that after Slither I just didn’t know if I wanted to make another movie. It’s an awful lot of work. There’s no time to live. I like living my life, I like hanging out with my friends and doing stuff, and I didn’t have that. I just didn’t know if I wanted to do another movie. I think doing all the PG Porns and the Xbox shorts and all of that stuff was cleansing my palate a bit and getting back to what I loved about filmmaking. Getting back to having the complete freedom to do whatever I wanted on no budgets. It also taught me a little bit about how to make something for no budgets - I made those PG Porns for 1500 bucks, 2000 dollars a piece. It taught me that I could do Super for no money, just as long as I was planned out completely and do it with the right small crew.
Where do you stand now? Are you willing to get back into filmmaking?
I want to make another movie as quick as possible. I have another script I just finished and I’m happy with that. Something about it opened me up. I think before I was making movies for the wrong reasons, to be completely frank with you. I think had too much stuff in me… I don’t know how to put it exactly. I think I’m more centered now. I’ve learned that I like the process of making films, hellish as it can be sometimes. I like the creativity of it, and I like telling stories. So yeah, I’m going to make another movie.