This week’s "Guardians of the Galaxy" pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe into strange and surprising places. And the person piloting that particular spaceship is co-writer/director James Gunn, who took a relatively obscure property about a group of intergalactic outlaws and turned it into one of the summer’s more outrageously entertaining confections. It’s both a break from your standard superhero fare and keeps totally within the pre-existing mythological framework—and it should both expand the brand and reinforce its power in the cinematic landscape. We talked to Gunn about how he snagged A-list stars, what the movie’s chief influences were, the situation with "Ant-Man," and where Gunn (and the ‘Guardians’) fit into the larger cinematic puzzle.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" takes place in the far off cosmos and follows a group of outlaws—goofy thief Star Lord (Chris Pratt), the lethal Gamora (Zoe Saldana), hulking brute (Dave Bautista) and two otherworldly companions—a talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a giant tree creature named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). The movie is inventive and fun—a playful exercise in what has become a somewhat predictable format. And while it’s not 100% perfect (the plot is a bit unnecessarily convoluted and the villain is iffy), it’s still a blast of fresh air in these dog days of summer.
Marvel took a chance on Gunn (and on "Guardians of the Galaxy"), so it was especially interesting to talk to the filmmaker about what drew him to the project and what it was like working with the studio.
Initially—what drew you to the project? It seemed like it was more Marvel pitching to you than you pitching to Marvel.
Marvel approached me with the project. They pitched it to me. And I was like, "I’m not sure." And then I thought about it and I sort of fell in love with it. And then I had to pitch it to Marvel a lot. But I think that, for me, it really was the opportunity to create a big space epic, which is something I always wanted. This really was that chance.
"Star Wars" seems to obviously be a key influence. But what else did you look to when creating this world?
I would say the biggest influence on ‘Guardians’ is actually "Raiders of the Lost Ark," simply because, as a kid, I loved that movie so much. And I loved the balance in that movie between the action, the adventure, the romance, the humor—all of those things were in that movie. And that was the movie I really loved as a kid. And I think that, like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," ‘Guardians’ has a very forward-looking, edgy feel to it while simultaneously loving things from the past, that kind of nostalgic aspect to it.
This is being perceived as the "riskiest" Marvel movie. How did it feel taking that on?
It wasn’t that I was trying to tune it out, but my brain automatically does it. I think one of my greatest talents as an artist is that I’m an idiot. And that means that I can work in a black box—when I’m creating something, I fall in love with the characters and become completely immersed in those characters, and I don’t think so much about how the movie is going to be perceived by others. I really don’t see that as my business. My business is really creating the movie. It’s somebody else’s business, the way they perceive it. I don’t involve myself in it too much.
What was your reaction when they brought you Chris Pratt? Was he your guy from the beginning?
Well, no. Sara Finn, who is our casting director, kept putting Chris Pratt in front of me because she thought he would be a good choice. And I kept saying, "The fat guy from ‘Parks and Rec?’ Are you kidding me?" and kept refusing to see him. She said, "He’ll come in and read but he only wants to come in and read with the director." And, I kept saying, "No way!" Then one day she tricked me into reading him. I was reading somebody else and Chris came in and he was chubby at the time. He came in and read, and even though he was chubby, within 20 seconds of him reading, I was like, "Oh my god, that’s the guy." We had already screen-tested over 20 people. A-list stars, no names, and everyone in between and had already auditioned 150 people and Chris came in and read it and within 20 seconds I knew he was the guy. Honestly, even if he had remained overweight, I thought that he would still have been a better Star Lord than anybody else we had seen.
There are a lot of A-list actors who you wouldn’t normally expect—like Benicio del Toro, Glenn Close, and John C. Reilly—how did you snag them?
I think they were fans of Marvel and I think they liked the script and I think, more importantly, we got along. I had to have meetings with all of them, or get on the phone with them, and I skyped with Del Toro. And we did that all very early on. Those are three of my favorite actors and three people I really admire and the opportunity to put them in a Marvel movie, in a large or a small way, was very exciting for me. I was choosing my favorite actors and going to them and telling them what the situation was. And I think, in some ways, I know Benicio went into it thinking the script was good and he and I definitely got along, but now that he’s seen the movie, he really gets the whole picture.
What was it like working with two of your main actors not being cast?
I’ve worked a lot with characters who weren’t there in the past, so it wasn’t too weird. In some ways, it’s easy, because every take that your non-existent characters are there, it’s perfect, because you don’t have to worry about performance there on the day. I think it was really about creating the right dynamic with the dialogue, between the actors. And that’s really where my brother, Sean Gunn, came in. He was the negative space that Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista bounced off of. And if you look at the Guardians when we were on set, Sean was a vital part of those guys—he came in every day, totally prepared, and he had to drive a lot of those scenes forward. Rocket really drives a lot of those scenes—you look at that 12% scene for example. He’s this ingredient and he hopefully gets the attention he deserves.
This seems like the reverse "Avengers," where you set up the universe and you spin them off from that.
That’s a great way to state it. I like that.
Who do you think is best suited for their own spin-off?
I think any of these characters are worthy of a spin-off movie. And not even just the main characters, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Yondu or Nebula or any of those other characters get spun off too. I think there are a lot of interesting characters in this world that I’d love to develop further.
Do you have any idea where the sequel will be headed?
Well, ever since the beginning I had an idea of where these characters are going. For me, this isn’t one story, it’s really about beginning the journey of these characters as a team and as individuals. I think it’s really about… I always had an idea about where these characters are going. I know a lot of things about Drax and Rocket that have yet to come. And it’s really not so much about what those stories are but how those will be partitioned in films—how much we tell in any one of these films. I know a lot about Peter Quill’s father and there’s only three people that do—me, Kevin Feige, and Michael Rooker. And I only told Rooker because he’s delivering him to his father, so I had to tell him the backstory of all that.
Rooker’s got a big mouth.
He’s also got a short memory, so I’m not too worried about it.
There’s some speculation that Joss Whedon will step down after "Avengers 2"—would you want to take over?
I love Joss but I love the ‘Guardians.’ So I hope we can continue this team. I don’t think it’s something that are like the minor leagues and ‘The Avengers’ are the major leagues. I’d rather bring the ‘Guardians’ on this movie or the potential next movie—I want to do that. I love these characters and I love outer space and there are so many stories you can tell out there. That’s really my interest right now.
Speaking of outer space, you said you’ve been offered other tent poles—would you ever want to do a "Star Wars" movie?
I never want to say never… The thing about ‘Guardians’ was that I was able to turn them into my own thing. It’s a Marvel movie but it’s also a James Gunn movie. For me to make any tent pole movie, or any movie period, I have to feel like nobody else would make the movie exactly like I can. That’s just a need that I have. I was attached to an A-list movie a few years ago and I didn’t feel like that was the case, and I walked. I felt like anybody could have made that movie. Any director could have stepped in and done the same thing. I’m not so certain that would interest me.
I think the James Gunn Salacious Crumb movie could be pretty great.
If it’s a Salacious Crumb movie, I’ll listen to anybody. I’ll listen to what they have to say. I’ll tell you that.
How much say did you have in this movie versus how much was dictated from Marvel?
Every single line in the movie is mine. We talked early on about having Thanos in the movie, which, believe me I was excited to have Thanos in the movie because a) I love Thanos and b) I want people who have seen "The Avengers" to go see this because we’re connected to it. There was no fight from me having Thanos in the movie. But for me, I wrote a group of characters with the plot points I wanted to write and the stuff that’s connected to the rest of the Marvel universe was very exciting for me to be a part of. To just sit down and create what the Infinity Gems are, I got to sit down and add to the overall Marvel universe and build up the Marvel universe, because I got to create that. And that was very exciting to me.
How closely did you work with Joss Whedon on the script?
Joss read the script a couple of times and gave me some notes. The biggest note was—he read the first draft and said, "There needs to be more James Gunn in this script." And I looked around at the other guys and they were like, "Yeah yeah yeah." Then I made it more me. And that’s what the movie is today. That’s Joss’ biggest contribution—making it more of a James Gunn movie.
When did you start thinking about Brolin for Thanos?
It was about three weeks ago… No, Josh was definitely the last person on board and we worked for a couple of days doing his motion capture. He is great for the movie. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. I think he’s overwhelmed by all the attention he’s getting for Thanos. And I know he was really unprepared for the movie. He was really excited when he saw the film. It really felt good.
What did you think of the whole ‘Ant-Man’ situation?
I thought it was sad. Because I love Marvel and I love the guys so much and I love Edgar—he’s a dear, dear friend and one of the most talented guys in the industry. That they couldn’t work out their differences was sad to me but based on my experience, it’s not the same one that Edgar had.
Are you aware of the upcoming Marvel movie plan that’s still mystery to fans?
I know most of what movies are coming out and I know most of what the plans are, but I’m not paid to oversee films in the same way Joss is. I’m really mostly in my branch, the cosmic branch, of the Marvel universe and where those things go.
If you had to pick one Marvel character to get their own movie, what character would it be?
"Guardians Of The Galaxy" opens Friday, August 1st.
Fore more from this James Gunn interview, see "James Gunn Says ‘Planet Hulk’/’Guardians of the Galaxy’ Rumors Are "A Bunch Of Complete Bullsh*t""