Cosmic Mash-Up: James Gunn Talks Making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 With Bobcat Goldthwait
Sheer, unbridled glee — it’s not an emotion one would associate with today’s increasingly portentous blockbusters, their apocalyptic grimness ineffectively untempered by their series of rote one-liners. Indeed, while there is certainly a place for the adult-themed superhero movies following in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and a certain fascination to the interlocking narratives of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too often in superhero movies one hopes for more of the out-there, the bizarre and, even, the childlike.
All those qualities were what fueled the unexpected success of Marvel’s 2014 picture Guardians of the Galaxy, in which a misfit crew — including Rocket, a raccoon bounty hunter; Groot, a talking tree; and Quill, abducted by aliens from the Midwest as a small child and who has grown up, in actor Chris Pratt’s words, into a cross between Han Solo and Marty McFly — engaged in an anarchic, interplanetary adventure that provided the stage of looping surreal, near-psychedelic visual and comedic hijinks.
The genre-busting inventiveness of Guardians of the Galaxy can be traced back to its writer/director, James Gunn, whose early-career DNA — a veteran of the B-movie studio Troma as well as the director of the cult sci-fi comedy Slither and superhero deconstruction Super — was more than evident in the Marvel mega-budget production. The unexpected success of Guardians has, of course, led to a sequel, and from an early look at scenes and the trailer, it promises an even higher level of invention and anarchy.
We were happy when Gunn agreed to step out of his edit room during postproduction and talk to filmmaker colleague and friend Bobcat Goldthwait for Filmmaker. Goldthwait you know, of course, from his decades of work as a comedian, director and actor. His recent work includes the documentary Call Me Lucky, about the comedian Barry Crimmins, and his entirely original father-son comedy/drama, World’s Greatest Dad. In this free-ranging conversation, the two talked about Gunn’s approach to directing actors Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in the upcoming Guardians, why directors should understand how films are budgeted and, with Gunn’s independent horror film The Belko Experiment in theaters, the state of horror today.
For me, the idea of a movie, pursuing it, a big part of it is, can I pull this off? That’s really it. And it doesn’t matter what the genre is. I see so few horror movies these days because most of them are really boring to me. And I don’t get scared at movies. For me, I’m attracted to certain types of darkness and extreme behavior, and I’m also attracted to monsters. I love monsters. I loved the old Universal horror monster movies as a kid. So that’s what’s attractive to me about horror, in terms of making it. Train to Busan, have you seen that? The South Korean zombie train movie. It was fucking rad.
Oh good. I find more international horror lately, in the past whatever, 20 years, more interesting than American horror.
I don’t think when I’m coming up with an idea or when I’m drawn to something — you know, the Bigfoot movie [Willow Creek] is a total suspense movie. There’s very little gore. I’m not a fan of found footage, because it’s always like, well, who found this footage, and said, “I’m sorry, your family got raped and killed, but if we recut it, there’s a tremendous picture in it. It’d be a tribute to them. They would want it that way.” I made that movie really because Tarantino has those scenes in his movies where there’s nothing going on. There’s usually three characters and one maybe is not fully even in the room. And you’re sitting at the edge of your seat. I didn’t think I had put any suspense in God Bless America, so I didn’t know if I could do suspense, so that’s why I made that movie. But I’ve gone off and written — there was a minister in Wisconsin, he was stealing fetuses and then giving them burials. This is a news story. And I go ,”Well, this writes itself — zombie fetus, ankle biters.” I once had a zombie fetus movie also that I had come up with.
See? [Laughs] It’s really weird. Yeah, but mine was about — I can’t. It’s too dark.
You say too dark, but you produced Belko, which is not —I wrote Belko actually not too long after Slither. It was my attempt to do something that was a little bit more of a horror movie than what Slither was. I think I wrote it at a time when I was interested in writing something that I thought of as more commercial in certain ways.
Really? Yeah. Slither was a horror comedy. And shortly before Slither came out, somebody [showed me] a list of all the movies that I thought of as the great horror comedies and how much money they had made at the box office. And they were all bombs, from American Werewolf in London to Evil Dead 2. None of them made any money at the box office. And I’m like, “Holy shit. I’m making a genre film that just is not that commercial.”
Yeah, I once talked to Carl Reiner because Where’s Poppa?, that movie, that’s why I wrote Shakes the Clown. He goes, “It didn’t make any money.” I go, “Well, neither did Shakes.” He’s like, “Why did you do that?” Yeah, I remember going and talking to the guys who produced Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, and I’m like, “Evil Dead 2’s the most classic movie of all time.” And they’re like, “It doesn’t make any money. Evil Dead makes all the money.” And I’m like, “What? Evil Dead is nowhere near as good as Evil Dead 2.”
I think that’d be something else we have in common is the mash-up of genres. I don’t know why I’m drawn to that. I still think that that’s what Guardians is, but it’s like, there’s the mash-ups that make things half as appealing as either genre. It’s exponentially less appealing because the people that like romantic comedies don’t necessarily like —
It’s going to be two base chemicals that cancel each other out. Dog blowjob movies. Yeah, exactly. You’re kind of cutting out both groups.
You’re making nobody happy. But then there’s those rare cases. The weirdest thing was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — back whenever they started in the ’80s — they were a parody of five different things that were popular at the time of the teenage comics and funny animal comics and X-Men comics, and they put them all together in one comic book and those things became more popular than all those things put together. People took them seriously, even though it was kind of a joke. And I think that’s probably closer to what Guardians is like.
In Guardians, what would you say you’re mashing up? Space opera superhero comedy. I think it’s all of those things. But as stupid as it sounds, people think of it as a comedy. I don’t think of it as a comedy. I just think people think of it that way because it’s funny, if that makes any sense. I think of it as a modern space opera.
I’m trying to think of movies that influenced me. Young Frankenstein was a biggie for me. That was the first time I went and bought a ticket, turned around, bought another ticket and went and sat in the theater again. I loved that movie as a kid, and I also loved Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which used to always show. That’s the ultimate mash-up movie. That’s comedy and horror, and that’s exactly what I love.
And it makes perfect sense, when you’re a kid. And it’s terrifying. Yeah, it’s terrifying.
One of the things that we were talking about after the first Guardians was, and I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but there was a point where you withdrew from movies. Yeah, I almost quit making movies. Super had come out, didn’t make much of a mark on the world, at the time. And I had just done a videogame, which I had a lot of fun with. I was watching what was going on in film, and I thought, “Man, it’s like the lower budget and mid-budget movies are completely disappearing.” A lot of independent movies, people never see, they’re not marketed. And where the interesting stuff was happening, it seemed to me, was in television. Television has become the more artistic platform, and movies only were relevant to the culture when there were these big, huge spectacle films and Marvel films. And I said, “Well, nobody’s going to ever give me a Marvel film.” So I called my agent, my manager, and I said, “Listen, I’m just going to focus on doing videogames and television, and I’m not going to do movies anymore. I quit.” A week later Marvel’s like, “Will you come down to Manhattan Beach and listen to this idea we have?” And I almost didn’t go. I was like, really? Drive down to Manhattan Beach from Studio City, which is far away. So I kind of went down there regretfully. I remember I went to lunch with someone the day I was going down there, I think my lawyer, and I was like, “I’ve got to go to this meeting. And I don’t want to go and maybe I can cancel. I don’t know.” But then I went ahead and went, and that’s when this happened.
It’s very un-American, too, the idea of quitting. You never give up, never quit. But I think it’s really important to keep quitting until you end up someplace you don’t want to leave. Also, a lot of times quitting comes at people’s tolerance levels. You keep lifting weights and when your muscles literally cannot lift anymore, then you stop. And I think that’s true a lot. You listen to a lot of people who have these great bursts of success in their lives, and so often it comes after a moment of surrender. My ex-wife — Jenna Fischer, who was on The Office and still my close friend — she was about to quit acting and looking into what she needed to do to go to vet tech school. And then, she got The Office. You hear that story so often.
I did walk away from stuff. I didn’t turn my back on such and such a career, but I could’ve still been perpetuating this persona that people knew me for, and I could be directing television. You have directed a lot of television.
Yeah, but I mean, I could be pursuing it and making a lot of money doing it. Eric Idle’s my friend and he says, “I’ve been through a divorce and I’ve been through all this stuff. You’re a dreamer. You could be in a relationship, but you just don’t settle because you’re a dreamer and you could be rich and you’ve got a big house, but you’re a dreamer.” And I was telling Billy Connolly this, and Billy goes, “Or a failure. Did Eric tell you this in his mansion?” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “So he could fuck right off.” I asked you, I don’t know if I said it like, are you happy, but you said to me, “This is the kind of movie I’ve always wanted to make.” And when you said that, a big light went on in my head — okay, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Yeah, that is huge. I’ve wanted to make a space opera my whole life. That was the ultimate kind of movie I could make. I was really interested in the low-budget independent films I was making. It’s not like I didn’t love those movies, but I really, really wanted to make big, huge fucking movies that crossed country lines. And I don’t think people quite understand how much I think of the different countries and being able to go to Thailand or Brazil or these places where they love Guardians. And how happy that makes me feel. There’s always a lot of jokes that don’t translate. But fortunately, the other stuff works well enough, that it all seems to translate pretty well.
You said something that I think is the most important thing as a director, is I often don’t have an idea. Some people have all of these ideas and the whole thing is always evolving, all the way up until ADR. There’s still new jokes, there’s still new story, we’re moving scenes around. But when you showed up to Slither and you saw it, you knew it didn’t work and you stopped and did what it took to make it work correctly. Yeah, that’s always the worst.
But that’s our job. That’s our job, right. It’s hard.
We’ve got to stop and we’ve got to rethink this. Sometimes, it’s easy. It might be sitting, throwing the lines around and adjusting it. And then, other times, it’s just a scene, where you go, “Why did I write this?” Yeah, I’ve done it. I did it more on the first movie. I never did it on the second movie, because the script was much tighter on the second film. But the first movie, there were two scenes where I went, “This is bullshit. I’ve got to go rewrite this right now.” And sometimes that means firing people, too, which is the worst and I hate it.
Well, I have a rule on firing people. If you’re good at your job and you’re an asshole, I’ll put up with it. If you’re bad at your job, but you’re a good person and you bring something along to the set, I’ll put up with it. But if you’re an asshole and you’re not good at your job, I gotta cut you loose. Yeah, I don’t have that rule. I’ll fire somebody if they’re bad at their job for sure, and I will not work with you if you’re an asshole and good at your job. So the actors I work with, people are always like, “Why do you get along so well with them?” Well, it’s because I call everybody up. When I’m about to hire Kurt Russell to act in the movie, I make calls to producers that worked with Kurt Russell and directors that worked with Kurt Russell. And I’m like, “What’s Kurt Russell like to work with?” And I’ve had people who I’ve been interested in, and I’ve called up and I’ve found out they were dicks and I’m like, “Life is too short. I don’t want to have to work with that person.”
I remember Daryl Sabara, who was in World’s Greatest Dad, he came in to audition for Robin’s son and and he was great, but he was an asshole. And I called around and I go, “What’s up with this kid? I love him, he’s perfect for the role, but he seems like a dick.” And they go, “No, Daryl’s really sweet.” So he comes back in again, he thinks he’s reading again. And I go, “No, I just wanted to see if you were nice.” And I saw this character just fall. Like, he had read somewhere that you come in and stay in character. Very tangentially related to that: I got to work on this movie with Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone, which is weird to me, because I ran around in my backyard pretending I was Snake Plissken and Johnny Rambo. I love those guys. So this, to me, was huge. And of course, I was around Kurt so much and we hung out so much before shooting, that he became Kurt and not Kurt Russell to me. Sly, we shot with for three or four days, and he still is kind of Sylvester Stallone, yeah. I like him a lot, we have fun together and he makes me laugh, but he’s Sly. The very first day I shot with him, there’s this big scene with him and Michael Rooker screaming at each other, and I was so happy because he went all the way with it. But he had to say all these nonsense, science fiction words, and that’s not really Sly’s thing. So he’s giving this big speech and yelling at Rooker, and I did it a bunch of times. And then he said, “Is that good?” And I said, “That’s great, let’s move on,” because the day was getting long. And he said, “Are you sure? Is it perfect?” “Yeah, yeah, it’s perfect.” I went home that night and I laid in bed and I went, “You know what? There’s something missing in that scene that’s really important. Oh shit. I’m going to have to go back and ask Sylvester Stallone to do this big speech again.” And I was scared. So I’m all worried about it on Friday night, because I’m going to have to ask him Monday morning. Sunday, in the middle of the afternoon, my phone rings and it’s Sly, and he said, “James, I’ve just been thinking. There’s that one scene in that section in that scene that I feel wasn’t quite right, and I want to do it again. Is there any chance we can do it again?” And I was like, “Oh, you know what? I think that’s a good idea. Let’s do that.” It made me feel great because I’m like, god, our instincts were very much aligned, and you see how there’s a reason why that guy’s been around for so many years.
That’s really funny. So this is the confession. That’s the confession that I tricked Sylvester Stallone into doing a scene again, and made it seem like it was his idea.
I do think there’s one thing that the layperson doesn’t get when you’re making a movie, and that’s when you’re watching takes and it’s coming together in your head, it works and you know that you can move on, or you go “this doesn’t work.” But there’s just so many distractions, that there’s no way you can possibly do that. And it’s not like, oh, we’ve got some superior muscle, it’s just something we’ve learned over the years. I think people are really confused when they come to a set and they see people doing multiple takes. Because sometimes you’re doing a multiple take, and it’s just because you want the actor to feel good or you’re getting coverage. I think people think that I’m incredibly controlling, and I am. I think it’s the thing of being a director. People see me do a take 50 times and be looking for that little thing. And to them, it’ll seem like it’s all the same every single time, or the same thing, if I’m looking at a visual effect, and I keep going over it and over it, because the light is off in this part of it or the comp is off or whatever. And I’ll go through it again and again and again. And sometimes I go, “Geez, people aren’t going to care.” And it’s true, about any one of those things, people won’t care, but in all together, it makes a huge difference. If I gave up on every single moment, the movie itself is just not going to be together.
And it’s not being a perfectionist, it’s what gives you your tone. Yeah, it’s what gives me my tone, and it’s also me just going the distance with it and not stopping and not giving up. That’s a big thing I’ve learned over the years. The hardest thing about being a director for me is pushing other people past where they think they can go. A costume designer brings you this costume that they’ve brought you 20 times before, and you go, “Still not good. Still not what I want. Go back.” And their faces drop. And as a director, I see people so disappointed all day long, because they all look to you to make you happy about what they’re doing. And you have to push people past the point where they think they can go. I think that’s true of actors, who I see exhausted and get frustrated with me because I keep pushing them. I see it with every single person on set. I see it with visual effects people. I see it with the prosthetics guys.
The other hard part of making movies is even if you don’t have the title, you really are a producer. You are looking at the clock. You are going to go into turnaround. You are going to lose this. Even a movie the scope of yours, I’m sure there’s some days you’re going, “I can’t believe we don’t have enough money to do this.” Oh, all the time. When I first came and worked at Marvel, I was like, “Okay, let me see the budget.” And they were like, “What?” Because their directors never look at the budget. And I’m like, “Listen, this isn’t a matter of me producing, this is a creative decision, because when I have to go through those lines and figure out how much does this set cost versus how much this effect costs versus how much this actor costs versus how much whatever, those are creative decisions, because I don’t want to be spending $2 million on a single shot if it’s not that important, and then not spend that money on a set that’s incredibly important to the movie.” So for me, putting the money into it is a way of balancing out what matters creatively, what doesn’t.
It’s fun visiting you on the set because it was like— [Laughs] What was I doing?
You were chewing your hand and stuff. It was this tiny little insert of one face, and I was just going, “Oh good. I’m not crazy. That’s exactly what I do.” That was an easy day, too