Last week’s Tokyo International Film Festival marked the first visit to the Japanese capital for the Playlist, but also for the President of the 2014 competition jury, James Gunn. Gunn is still riding high on the runaway success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (biggest film of the year so far) which had prior to release been regarded as the diciest prospect in the universe-consuming Marvel master plan (which just revealed its “Phase 3” recently —isn’t it funny how Marvel’s future planning is starting to sound increasingly like the galactic domination programs put forth by their very own supervillains?) So for Gunn, the chance to spend a week or so watching obscure foreign movies in an Asian megacity had to have been a welcome chance to temporarily hang up his newly-earned spurs as a blockbuster director and get back to basics.
We got to spend a little while with a relaxed, garrulous Gunn immediately following the festival’s closing ceremony at which he had announced the Grand Prix winner, with the prize going to the only U.S. film in competition, Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What” (our review). During our interview, we talked a little about ‘Guardians 2’ and a lot about the challenges of big-budget versus low-budget filmmaking (he’s refreshing unabashed in liking big budgets), and even got to veer off onto some interesting tangents about TV show finales. But first off, we asked about what it was about the impressionistic drug addiction drama that had so impressed him and his jury, comprised of directors Robert Luketic, John H Lee, Eric Khoo, Hiroshi Shinagawa and U.K. Casting Director Debbie McWilliams.
Tell us why you awarded “Heaven Knows What” the Grand Prix?
I started watching it and I instantly was enraptured. It was a movie that was authentic, it was so alive. Listen, I’m a fan of street cinema and what’s called lowlife writing —the works of Charles Bukowski, William T. Vollman…
I thought of Hubert Selby Jr. while watching it…
Exactly, I love all that stuff and this movie was one of the best instances of that in cinema I’ve seen. It’s up there with “Trainspotting” and “Drugstore Cowboy” and movies like that. So I knew I loved it instantly, and then to find out that the Jury also loved it made me extremely happy, because I was not sure that was going to be the case. But I was definitely the biggest supporter of the film on the jury.
It was the only U.S. film in competition. Were you worried selecting it might seem like bias?
I questioned that. But then I was talking to some audience members who were going to present an award, and they asked me for advice, and I said: just trust yourself. If you like something, go with that. I think there’s a way when you’re a judge or even when you’re a film critic that you can sometimes try to see things from other people’s points of view, like, what’s the cool thing to say? What’s the “right” thing to say? But for me, that’s not what cinema is about, that’s actually a blight on cinema. What do I love? What really turns me on? What really gets me excited? And so I just had to represent that. That’s my only responsibility and that was the movie that got me the most. Though there were others: I really loved “The Lesson.”
Oh me too, [our review is here] I thought that actress was great.
She was amazing. And I thought there were some amazing things about “The Test.” So there were a few that I loved quite a bit, but for me “Heaven Knows What” stood out the most. But I didn’t want to bully other people; I wanted to make sure that whoever we gave the Grand Prize to was an expression of the whole jury, and ultimately it was.
So were there heated debates in the jury room?
I wouldn’t say heated, because I knew instantly on the first day that everyone on the jury was of a pretty mellow temperament. There wasn’t That Asshole. I’ve been on a lot of juries and I’ve never been on a jury without an asshole. This was the first time.
Doesn’t that suggest that possibly you were the asshole?
Oh man, that’s probably true. Shit. Shit! No really, we were all pretty mellow and if we disagreed, we just disagreed, so what. One person liked the movie better is all.
In your speech you mentioned the pleasure of being able to watch these films almost as a singular entity, which felt like a kind of manifesto for the value of film festivals. Is that something you still feel, despite now being a big bananas blockbuster director?
More so, I think. The truth is that I didn’t start out making commercial movies. My films were not film festival movies with the possible exception slightly of “Super,” but I was able to nurture my gifts through the works of artists making lower budget films that needed a place and an outlet.
At first, it was the b-movie outlet of video and DVD, and then [it was festivals]. And having that outlet for people to learn the craft of filmmaking, then to get lucky and win the lottery to be able to make a big movie that is still a personal expression of me and my life —that’s ‘Guardians’— I never would have gotten to that place without those types of festivals and festival crowds.
So I think it’s really necessary, not only for nurturing talent because that’s really only part of it, but also just for cinema fans themselves. To have an outlet for people who love movies that aren’t the big blockbuster films. Because studios only make a couple of movies a year now —they used to make 30 or 40 and now they make six or seven. And so all movies are huge movies now in a way. There are very few smaller films [in that system] and fewer still very small movies that get an outlet to be seen. So providing that outlet through film festivals is not just great, it’s necessary.
And hey, you get to come to Japan.
I know! I’ve never been to Japan, so that was a big part of it. Last year at Christmastime my parents brought me a bag of stuff I had when I was a kid. And in there was a list of things I must have written when I was like 18 years old, a list of things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime… my bucket list. And I found it very moving because I’d done almost everything on the list! If anybody had read that list in Manchester, Missouri while I was living in my parents’ basement, they would have thought I was a delusional little kid, because it was like: “direct a movie,” “act in a movie,” “write a novel” —it was all these things that I’ve ended up doing. And one of the things on that list —the only place— was “go to Japan.” And then this opportunity presented itself.
So what are your days going to look like once you get home?
Basically just continuing writing ‘Guardians 2.’
Cool. Do you mind exclusively revealing the entire plot to me right now?
Yeah, sure. We open up on a “Mission: Impossible” scenario where all the characters die…No, to be honest, I had the basic story for number two while I was working on number one, and perhaps even beyond that. So it’s gonna answer a lot of questions that are proposed in the first one, and we’ll be able to get to know some of the characters we didn’t get to know in the first one a little bit more, and we might meet a few new characters too.
But has being here and watching these films inspired in you a desire to return to lower-budget filmmaking?
I will admit that generally I don’t feel the desire to do that. Generally I like making big movies! It suits me, especially when I can make them like ‘Guardians’ where I’m actually loving what I’m telling. I wouldn’t want to go off and do something I wasn’t excited about, but luckily I’m excited by big pop things, I’m just like that. And I like being able to mix it with something that’s a little edgier. I’m pretty lucky.
But there were times I was watching something, and I was thinking you know, maybe it would be kinda cool to make a little low-budget movie again. But not that low budget.
I made "Super" for $3 million, and that was filmed in 24 days. And that $3 million dollars went to a lot of things other than what shows up on screen. Once you get done with the unions and everything else, that’s just like the basic cost of what you can make a movie for. And it was not easy, it was a pretty harrowing experience, especially when you work the way that I do —I’m not a guy who goes in and finds the moment, I’m a guy who plans everything. I’m happy that I did it, in part because it got me ‘Guardians,’ but it was pretty difficult.
But those budgetary limitations do release a degree of creativity, right?
They do. And there’s always limitations. For me, it’s about learning how those limitations can make me figure out a way around them in a way that somebody else wouldn’t. And where does it make me think in a way that I wouldn’t normally think, so then I appear more creative than I actually am.
So it’s a series of cheats.
It’s a series of cheats. And ‘Guardians’ was very much like that. I very much knew that there were certain things about ‘Guardians’ that needed to stay the Marvel way, but then figuring out a way around them to do my own thing was I think part of what made me have so much fun with the movie. So there’s always those things, whether they’re budgetary or otherwise. And even on ‘Guardians,’ there was a lot of budgetary constraints.
Well does anyone ever think they have too much money?
Heh. I will say that on my first day shooting ‘Guardians,’ I was like, “really? THIS is what you do?” You wait, and you set up the shot and then I get to come back and… sit down. And have a cup of coffee and talk to my friend. And then I go back and do a bit more work. It’s not like “arrrrggghhhh” the whole time.
The difference is it went on for 85 days. So the marathon aspect of it is very important. But there are some things about it that are definitely more pleasant than making low budget films.
So probably nothing indie or low-budget till you’re sick of the ‘Guardians’ universe?
That’s probably true. I think if I were to do something in a lower budget, I’d probably do it in another medium. I would be more interested in doing something like that on television —something I haven’t done.
But here’s the thing: I’m driven by ideas and if I had an idea tomorrow that really excited me that was a low budget movie, like there’s this little script that I did I’m producing and someone else is directing [we’re assuming that’s the developing “Purge”-esque high-concept horror/thriller “The Belcoo Experiment” but don’t quote us on that]. So if I’m excited about an idea and it’s a five million dollar movie, I’ll go do it. I’ve always kind of done what I wanted to do.
But TV, or long-form narrative, is a possibility?
It’s possible. I’ve talked to everybody. But I have commitment issues in everything, so I don’t think I could really be a showrunner, but the idea of kicking something off is appealing, or doing a 6-12 episode self-contained series.
Any particular inspirations in that regard?
Definitely “True Detective” was a great example of one director, one story. It worked fantastically well. Well, I thought it worked fantastically well, I know a lot people didn’t. A lot of people didn’t like the last episode, I loved it. But I do have a lot of hardcore atheist friends who react badly whenever there’s even a hint of mysticism.
Huh, that’s funny because some of the people I knew who disliked the last episode found it too prosaic.
I’ll just tell you it moved me. For me, it worked.
Whereas something like the last episode of “Lost” was like a nightmare for me, a real living nightmare. No word of a lie —I fell into a deep depression after that last episode, because I believed in that show with a religious fervor. I feel so betrayed by that ending, so betrayed to this day, so hurt. I believed in that show probably more than I believed in any artwork of my adult life and God, the betrayal.
Has that finale influenced your own approach?
Oh yeah, it made me realize that for sure I did not ever, ever want to do that to my audience.
For more coverage from Tokyo, go here.