James Gunn started his career in 1996 writing Tromeo and Juliet for famous schlock impresario Lloyd Kaufman. Six years later he was writing the big screen Scooby-Doo, and ten years later he had written and directed Slither for Universal studios. Now, James Gunn has made Super, his “arthouse-grindhouse” film about Frank (Rainn Wilson) a short order cook who – when his wife leaves him for a drug dealer/bad guy – is told by God to become a superhero. It’s a weird movie, which is why he did it on the cheap. But it’s also a very personal movie for its writer/director, one that took nearly ten years to come to gestation.
On Writing, Writing Super, and Studio Work
What was the impetus for Super?
James Gunn: I originally wrote it as a short film. I hadn’t directed a feature yet, and the stuff I had directed was Troma stuff, and I wanted to show people I could direct. So I thought “I’ll do a short film,” and I wrote it to be a short film and I fell in love with the characters along the way and the story kept getting bigger and bigger.
Was there a moment where you thought “yes! I’ve got it!”
JG: There were a couple of moments like that – though I wrote it quickly. The first was the character of Libby (Ellen Page’s character). She was always in the script as the comic book girl, but then she became something much more as the script went on, I didn’t plan on any of this. And I fell in love with her, and their relationship. And the ending was – I can’t explain it – it was like automatic writing, like voiceover narration, a very powerful thing. Probably the powerful moment I’ve ever had while writing. I felt beholden to this script I think because of that.
Have you had those – say – when you’re doing studio work, like Dawn of the Dead or Scooby Doo, where the pen moves, as it were?
JG: Definitely with Dawn of the Dead. I’m trying to think if that was my most positive writing experience ever in terms of writing a screenplay, I felt very connected to that script. The Scooby Doo movies, not really… There were times when I really made myself laugh when I was writing them, but it wasn’t the same thing, although I definitely had love for those characters. The Specials was also a powerful experience. Slither was just fun and funny.
Do you find that those moments – especially when you’re working in the studio system – are the ones that make it?
JG: No, I kind of feel like they get squelched, to be quite honest with you. Not necessarily because of the studio system, but being a screenwriter with someone else directing your stuff is very difficult to have your vision seen all the way through. Things never end up on screen the way you originally envisioned them, and sometimes you get lucky and have a talented director and though it isn’t exactly what you envisions, it’s something pretty cool. And sometimes it’s a milky version of what you wrote because they don’t have a vision, and that’s happened as well. And it’s extremely disappointing.
Do you think after this you could go back to “for hire” screenwriting?
JG: No, but I’m getting offered directing gigs for hire, I might be able to do that.
Is there anything you can tell us about?
JG: No. People seem to be clued in on stuff, I don’t know where they find this stuff but they do. I’m trying to decide.
That’s got to be an interesting challenge, depending on studio, and how much freedom you have.
JG: That’s the thing. I’ve gotten offers… enormous movies, in fact I was doing a movie that was going to cost over a hundred million but I didn’t like that at all, I would rather not do that. I would rather take the next step up, I would rather make a movie for $20 Million. Then I can maintain my freedom in doing something unique, and not be beholden to a studio – the studios are really concerned with these hundred million dollar movies because that’s what makes them most of their money. So there’s hundred million dollar movies, and a bunch of two million dollar movies and the in-betweens don’t exist.
Was there anything you went to movie-wise to get a tone right for this?
JG: There were things I would show people, but it mostly was in terms of shooting style. So I would show people the films of Lucas Moodyson. Who you would never think of as being the inspiration for this movie, but in terms of the acting and how it was shot I’d show people Show Me Love, and there was something about the roughness of that But also I hired Steve Gainer – the DP – because he shot the movie Bully for Larry Clark. And Bully I had seen shortly after I had written the script, and I thought “wow that’s what I want Super to look like.”
Super was shot with the Red, Slither was shot on film. How do you feel about film versus digital?
We shot on the Red One, I hear the Red Two has a lot of improvements. There are problems with the Red One, but It worked well for me. Our camera was working well for us in Shreveport, Louisiana. We did twenty days in Louisiana, and four days in Los Angeles, and in LA we got one of the glitchy cameras, which I hear there were a lot of, and we had problems, so that could be a little rough – we got lucky overall. But I’ve heard of people losing mass amount of footage to the Red. And there’s problems with the colors on the Red One, as well. It serves its purpose; we got done what we needed to get done.
Do you have an aesthetic preference?
My aesthetic preference seems irrelevant because there’s no way 35mm will exist in a couple of years. Because of the way I shoot – which is quickly – the benefits of digital overrides the personal preference I may have for the look of 35mm. In addition, digital is progressing forward so quickly that we’re going to have something that looks very, very close to 35mm in the near future. And having small cameras? Fuck yeah, that’s the best thing in the world. I want to be able to jump around with a camera and shoot from any angle and not worry about it.
How did this compare to Slither. You didn’t have the big studio behind you, which can be both a positive and negative.
I had mixture of extreme confidence and extreme fear. The confidence was I already knew what I wanted to do, and I had already chosen the movie I wanted to make. I knew what all the shots were, I knew what all the effects would look like, I knew the performances I was trying to get from the actors – for good or bad that’s what I did. The fear was that if any one thing went wrong I wasn’t going to be able to make the movie I wanted, and I had so many shots to get done each day. If it rained – I had part of the schedule set aside for the big finale, and it was raining on and off during the time, and we got very lucky that it rained on most of the days we were shooting inside or could switch easily. If it rained more than it did we would have been absolutely screwed. We got very, very lucky on Super.
What was the scariest moment, was it the rain?
Waking up every morning scared about the rain? Yeah, that was pretty scary. I originally had a different guy cast in the role of Jacques who disappeared and I couldn’t get a hold of him. He was off in Russia and his management couldn’t find him, his agent couldn’t find him and he’s supposed to show up on set in two weeks and do this movie, and I had heard weird things about him and I was waking up every morning with heart palpitations and finally I was like “I can’t take the risk.” So I fired him, and luckily I gave the script to Kevin Bacon. He liked Slither, and he read it and was in to it, and I feel completely blessed. And he’s perfect in the role.
What then was the best part of the shoot for you?
Number one, the first prayer scene, when Rainn is praying, it’s a very delicate tone because it’s heartbreaking but funny and it called on Rainn to be a vulnerable performer, which he isn’t in “The Office” and stuff, and we shot that on the second day. Seeing Rainn do that scene was a real high for me because I knew he was just hitting it home. Another high was lighting a dude on fire, because I’ve done a lot of effects over my career and I had never had a chance to light a guy on fire, and it was a lot of fun.
How did he take it, had he done it before?
Yeah, he was a stuntman, he had been lit on fire before, but we had a pretty big fire, and they have different levels, so we said “let’s go for it, let’s get the big daddy.” That was the ten.
On His Supporting (Annoying) Cast
Lloyd Kaufman – the president and face of Troma – is in the movie, is he something of a rabbit’s foot for you?
Absolutely not. He’s more of a pest. Any time I do a movie he does not stop badgering me about his role in the film, so I feel obliged to put him in the film. If I do what I think I’m doing next I don’t have a role for him, and I’m already scared of telling him. I’m in this industry because of Lloyd Kaufman. But I’d cut him without hesitation, I would have found it funny, in fact.
So if Lloyd Kaufman isn’t your rabbit’s foot, do you think it’s Michael Rooker?
No, I think it’s the voice of Rob Zombie, he’s the voice of Dr. Carl in Slither, and here he’s the voice of God. I hope he’s in all my movies. Rooker’s not a rabbit’s foot, he’s another pain in the ass. One of my best friends, but man he’s a fucking whack job. (his role) Abe on paper is a very small role and I was embarrassed to offer it to Michael, but I offered it to him, and it was as a local – he had to drive himself in because we didn’t have the money to fly him in or anything. Linda Cardelini had to fly herself in on her own dime. But he was like “fuck yeah.” And he’s also friends with Steven Blackheart and Sean Gunn, my brother, who were the other two thugs. And so they got to hang out the whole time and go get drunk.
Super hits theaters and VOD on April 1st. Check it out.