The Badass Interview: James Gunn On GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

The writer/director of Marvel's most unique movie talks DIRTY DOZEN, Celestials and why he loves Chris Pratt. 

With Guardians of the Galaxy James Gunn - long a favorite filmmaker of Badass Digest - makes the jump from smaller, weirder movies to a bigger, still weird movie. Sure, it’s a Marvel comics movie, but Guardians isn’t your standard superhero fare - it’s about five intergalactic criminals who team up to stop a great evil from destroying the universe. Chris Pratt stars as the human leader of the team, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, and his group includes Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista as berserker Drax the Destroyer, Bradley Cooper doing the voice of the weapon-toting Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel as Groot - a sentient tree who is Rocket’s buddy and helper. It’s weird, but what else do you expect from the guy behind the body horror of Slither and the twisted heroics of Super?

Note: this interview was conducted before I saw the movie. There's another, post-viewing interview coming!

Q: What were your points of reference when you were talking to Marvel about your ideas for the movie?

Gunn: The Dirty Dozen. I’m just very attracted to guys of an amoral character who find something inside themselves that is good, and that’s what’s interesting about The Dirty Dozen. I also find characters with shades of grey more interesting than characters who are just black and white, good and bad. I think we have that with the Guardians - at the end of the day some of the characters are better than others, and some are still a little insane and some are amoral in different ways. They learn to like each other at least.

There’s a visual thing with Fantastic Voyage and Forbidden Planet. I wanted to bring color back to space. That was the biggest thing - even before I went in to pitch myself to Marvel I wrote this long document about what the visual look of Guardians would be, and I went through exactly this mix of old pulp space operas mixed with the grittiness of Alien. The workaday aesthetic of that. I wanted to create a movie that was uniquely mine but at the same time pulled in a bunch of the other traditions of space epics and put them together in one film.

Q: When we talk about space epics you can go two ways. You can be more realistic and worried about how the space travel works or you can be like Star Wars, where they just show up with a hyperdrive and there’s sound in space. Which way do you go here?

Gunn: It’s one thousand percent space opera. I love hard science fiction and I think there’s something different at the center of those stories. This is much more a fantasy film, and it’s much more with the characters themselves. In a lot of ways we have more in common with Game of Thrones as we do with 2001.

Listen, we had a lot of things in there about how space flight works, about how they did that. We had that in there, we had it as part of the visuals, and then as time went on it didn’t end up being the most interesting part of the movie. There’s an uphill battle with Guardians to begin with because, unlike The Avengers where you come in knowing the characters, we had to introduce all of our characters. We had to introduce all of the Guardians plus our villains plus Yondu and everybody else involved in the movie.

Q: You’re dealing with not just a lesser-known segment of the Marvel universe, but a very lesser-known comic in general. Guardians of the Galaxy is forty years old, but for thirty-five of those years it was a very different team and concept. You’re adapting a much newer title.

Gunn: Yeah, basically we are about the 2008 comic book. That is where our heart and soul was born, in the Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett comics. That said, there are a lot of characters who are much older than that, including Ronan and Yondu and Thanos. And even the individual members of the team are older - Groot appeared in comics before Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. But his first iteration has very little to do with what he is today.

Q: Do you mention his origins as “The Monster From Planet X” in the film?

Gunn: If you look at his mugshot card you’ll see that he’s from “a planet known only as X,” but I didn’t want to do a flashback. That’s one of the things I didn’t want to do, was have flashbacks to character’s origins. We have to get people to understand the essence of the characters, to understand what in their backstory created their personalities and then move on. If we’re successful there’s plenty of time to tell new stories we didn’t get to tell in this movie. But for the time being it’s the story of how these characters came together, which is what’s important to me.

Q: One of the characters who is most interesting in this movie is maybe the single character I never expected to see in a movie in my life. He’s not just weird because he’s a little raccoon with a big gun, he’s even weirder when you realize he’s a riff on a Beatles song.

Gunn: I don’t think he has too much in common with his origin song - he’s the only Marvel character with an origin song. And listen, he’s not really a racoon, either! He is what he is, and in all my time of writing and directing I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to a character than I do to Rocket. I really do feel attached to him, and I think I’m beginning to understand some of Walt Disney’s madness around Mickey Mouse. He’s a great character and he has a lot going on, and people love him in screenings so far. And those people have seen him not even completed.

Q: Gamora is a character who seems to offer you flexibilty. She’s never been too well defined in the comics, almost always acting as a supporting player in someone else’s story.

Gunn: I think that’s true about all five of the Guardians. For Zoe I think it was about creating a character who was a strong female character - and I mean actually physically strong, and able to kill. She’s an interesting character, morally. Of all the Guardians she is the most evil in one respect, in that she was raised by Thanos, and she was raised from childhood and has been trained to murder people. That’s what she does. She kills people. At the same time she becomes the moral guidance of the group because she’s the first one who wants to get the fuck away from that.

The movie about family, and running to what it represents to you or, in some cases, running from what it means to you. For Gamora’s story it’s a lot about her relationship with her surrogate father, Thanos. For Quill it’s about the relationship to his mother, so those two stories intertwine in a way that creates a magnetism between those characters.

Q: We’ve seen her play an assassin before but this seems like a much more hardcore role than we’ve seen from Zoe Saldana.

Gunn: Listen, Zoe has a lot of street in her, and so does Gamora. That’s what she brings to that character. Zoe’s got a lot of street! She’s a feisty character. When I first talked to her on the phone I couldn’t believe how fast she talked and how feisty she was, and I knew I needed that energy for the role, but at the same time I was like “Oh my god she’s going to be such a pain in the ass!” And she IS a pain in the ass! Zoe is the only one where I would get into a full-on argument on set about stuff. But I can’t explain it, because Zoe and I are both able to do that in a way where we’re not angry. We’re both so incredibly passionate about what we do and because of that we get on the same page. I have a very, very close relationship with Zoe and see her socially more than I see any of the other actors from the film. That feistiness, that heat - she has a thing where she can turn on a dime and get pissed off, and that is completely part of Gamora’s character, who is completely uncomfortable with any emotions whatsoever. Any time she experiences any emotion other than anger she transforms it, through alchemy, into anger.

Q: In the trailers there have been hints of you touching on the bigger, more ancient side of the Marvel Universe. You have Knowhere in the trailer, the severed head of an ancient cosmic being known as a Celestial - is it a Celestial in your movie?

Gunn: Yeah. We have a couple of Celestials who we refer to in the film. They’re part of the overall structure of the cosmic universe. They’re part of the fun of what the movie is. Our characters, to some degree, have super powers, but at the same time they’re just ordinary citizens of the galaxy. They just happen to be renegades - they’re basically bikers. The gang that Quill comes from with Yondu, the Ravagers, they’re outer space bikers. That’s what they are. They’re just these ordinary citizens who get caught up in this thing - because they want money in the beginning - that has completely cosmic overtones. There are characters like Thanos involved, and then there are characters bigger than that. Suddenly these mortals are playing in the fields of gods. I always find that a very interesting thing.

Q: The modern take with these movies is to make them more grounded. It seems like just about none of this movie takes place on Earth. How much did Marvel push you  to keep it way out in deep space?

Gunn: Marvel didn’t push me to do anything, ever. There was a script there when I was onboard and it didn’t work for me so I rewrote the whole thing and this is where it ended up. Kevin Feige just admitted he was scared shitless the whole time I was rewriting, because who knew what I would bring back. But they were happy, and I guess relieved, when they saw we were all on the same basic page as to what this movie should be. There were tons of drafts and tons of work done on the script until the time we started filming, and I would bet we were the most finished script ever on a Marvel movie before we went into production. The five major characters, their story is basically the same from when I wrote that first draft of the script.

Q: You seem to have a growing team of people you like to work with. Your friend Michael Rooker is here as Yondu, and you have your brother Sean standing in for Rocket and he plays Kraglin, Rooker’s first mate. Did anyone join your team after making this movie?

Gunn: I will work with Chris Pratt as many times as he lets me. Chris Pratt and I have become complete brothers through this process. I’ve never directed a movie where I’ve been on set for five months before, so it makes sense, but I don’t think I’ve ever worked as intimately with a performer as I did with Chris. We have a great relationship and I think we complement each other very well. I can go through six or seven of the biggest laughs in the movie and I can explain to you how it was a combination of Chris and I coming up with those jokes. He’s the only guy I’ve really allowed to improv on set because he’s so good at it. And we have the same sense of humor, so I was able to complete his improvs in a way that I don’t think is normal.

Q: Speaking of laughs, talk about the tone of the film. The initial clips we saw leaned heavily on comedy, especially with the use of the AM radio one hit wonders, but the newer trailers have focused more on action. What is the tone of Guardians of the Galaxy?

Gunn: I think it’s just a space adventure, which has a lot of elements to it. There’s a hell of a lot of action in it - there’s a crazy amount of action. And there’s a hell of a lot of comedy - the characters are very, very comedic. And there’s way more drama in the movie than people are expecting. It’s a heartfelt movie on my part, and there’s a lot of warmth to it. It’s all those things.

One of the cool things with a big movie like this is that you get a bit more freedom to explore more aspects of what you like in cinema and create something entertaining. For me it was trying to do the inverse of what I did with Super, which was a movie that had a bunch of tonal differences that were purposefully juxtaposed against each other to give people - for lack of a better term! - a creepy feeling. To fuck with somebody, in an interesting way, in a way I get off on. But I knew it was for a very limited audience, and Guardians is that turned inside-out. It has different tones, and it plays with all those tones, but it moves smoothly from one to the next to create the most fun and moving movie possible. There’s none of the weird cinematic stuff that was in Super.

Q: Your previous films have that sensibility that can be niche and edgy. When you’re making a PG-13 blockbuster are you hyper-aware of where the boundaries are, or is it easy to fit your sensibility into it?

Gunn: You’ll tell me when you see the movie. Who the fuck knows? The movie is still edgy; there’s still dark comedy. But when I tell a story I think about who I’m telling that story to, and this is a story that’s being told to many more people than Super is. To my mind Super really worked in the way I wanted it to work. Slither worked pretty well, and though I love Slither as a movie, it was the first time I directed a film. I think I was kind of learning what that language was, and who I was speaking to. I think Guardians is a James Gunn film. People who know my work will see me in there. For people who don’t know who I am it’ll be fine. There was a real effort on my part to not push people away when making the movie. I love David Lynch films, but I didn’t want this to be a David Lynch film. And there were times when you could make a turn just a little too far to the left and it becomes weird. I said this exactly in my first thing I wrote to Marvel - I wanted to be as weird and wonderful and exciting as possible without knocking people off balance. I don’t want it to be something people feel freaked out by or weirded out by. I want them to get off on the novelty of it and get off on what’s cool about it without it being so odd or weird or out there that they can’t relate to the characters. A lot of that comes from the characters themselves. It comes from the likability of Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, and that character in general. Audiences who have seen it seem to like him as much as Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man.

And frankly the music is another big part of it. To have these pop songs in the movie is grounding, because we’re familiar with them but at the same time they’re strange because they’re not normally seen against the backdrop of a dead planet with an evil temple!