James Gunn interview: Guardians, music, Marvel and more

We talk to the director of Guardians Of The Galaxy about working with Marvel, 70s music, and the mysterious end credits stinger...

Having made his name as an indie writer and director, James Gunn was given the reins to Guardians Of The Galaxy, Marvel’s first new cinematic property since 2011’s Captain America. Although seen as an uncertain prospect, Guardians has received almost universally positive praise.

We caught up with Gunn to get his thoughts about adapting the Marvel Universe, listening to 1970s pop music, and what Star Wars has to do with Guardians Of The Galaxy.

So, the reviews came in last night. I assume you’ve had time to at least glanced at them?

I’ve looked fleetingly at them. I know the gist.

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It’s great! I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s uncomfortable. I’m excited that people go to see the movie and like it. But reading reviews is weird for me. I really like the tweets, the people who are tweeting about how much they like it as soon as they come out of the cinema, that’s cool.

Do you get nervous once a film’s locked down and people start actually watching it?

Yes, although in this particular case I was more excited to share it with people. We’ve been working on it a long time. I felt good about it myself, I had fun watching it, and I was excited to share it.

Fun is the right word. I was thinking how it’s probably the first Marvel film that feels like it’s built to really appeal to children as much as adults, and its sense of fun is a big part of that. Was broad age-appeal something you specifically had in mind?

Sort of, I wasn’t too worried about it. Marvel had the same audience in mind as Avengers, so I don’t know how different it is from that. Maybe kids will be more attracted to it because there’s a raccoon. 

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It’s also hard not to compare Guardians to another film that does quite well with kids, which is Star Wars. You know, it’s bouncing around the galaxy, creating a universe of ideas and threads that can really grab the imagination. Is that what you were going for?

Yeah, totally. This was intentionally my version of Star Wars. When I was first considering doing the movie, the chance to make something like that was one of the things that get me on board. Not just Star Wars, but Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and other movies like that. The stuff I loved as a kid. I wanted to make a movie that made people feel the way they made me feel.

And it’s not that I wanted to make it actively resemble something that already exists, but all of them were all in the mix. It’s forward-looking. That’s what it shares with those movies more than anything else. Raiders and Star Wars and the like were updates of the 1930s serials, and my hope with Guardians is that we’ve done something similar, looking back at those movies while making something new.

Since this was an adaptation, how did you narrow down which elements to include, given the range of stuff Marvel has available to you?

The thing that was there when I got to the project was the core five characters, Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot. I talked to Joss about putting Thanos in, but other than that it was just about choosing what characters and story elements excited me. I went by what I liked. I liked the visuals of Nebula, she’s a really cool-looking character. I was into adding Yondu because I love his super-power. So I just added what excited me, and then had to keep it at least simple enough that people could understand what’s going on. There’s way more I’d have liked to put in, and hopefully we’ll get that opportunity to.

So you’d be back for a sequel?

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Oh yeah. If there’s a sequel, I’m doing it.

Do you have an idea of where you’ll go with it?

Yeah! Yeah, I do. I’ve been thinking of the next story ever since the beginning, I’ve got documents about every character and where they’re going, what their back story is, what happened with Yondu and Quill and Quill’s father, I know what happened with Drax and his full story… there’s a lot of answers to questions and new ideas for characters and events we could come upon in this cosmic side of Marvel. I’m ready for it. 

And you can’t talk about future films without the subject of an Avengers crossover coming up, so just to feed that back into the current movie, did knowing that a crossover was at least possible influence your process in defining these characters?

Only in terms of making the actors as good as possible. Avengers has some great actors, obviously there’s Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth is an amazing Thor, so knowing what they had, it was important for me to try find a cast that good. Especially for Star Lord. Our search for Star Lord was very long and hard. Chris Pratt brings so much to that role, and we want through a lot to find the right guy.

What I like, though, is that our cast is like the opposite to the Avengers. Those guys are billionaires and gods and giant green monsters. They’re not really like us. The Guardians are aliens, but they’re also everyday folk.

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In fact, that scene where Star Lord’s essentially saying to everyone “look at us, we’re losers!” – that, for me was the bit you can point to and say “this is why the Guardians aren’t just Avengers in space.”

Yeah, that speech in general is the heart of what the movie’s about. It’s about living in a generation where everyone’s trying to out-ironic everybody else and out-cool everybody else, and really it’s a movie about letting go of that and caring for each other. Finding the good in the asshole in all of us.

Okay, so just to change tack. You left the stinger off screenings. I’m not going to ask what it is because…

Because I won’t tell you!

Yeah, exactly! But what I do want to know is whether it can’t be shown because it’ll spoil something that’s being announced.

No, it’s not. It’s being left off simply because we don’t want it spoiled. We want to have something out there for the fans. The people who are going to pay for a ticket on opening night. We want them to have something that’s just for them. Kevin [Feige] and I thought that’d be a really nice thing. I wish we could give them more. Press and other lucky people get to see it ahead of time, so it’s cool to give people who are actually going to spend their money something that the other people didn’t get. 

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Now, hopefully this isn’t too sausage factory for you, but when I visited the set last autumn and you were talking about how there was a big long flythrough shot where they first arrive at the Kyln and you go all around the prison then back to the characters. I waited for it, and then…

Yeah, then it wasn’t in there.

Can I ask what happened?

I cut it down. It’s sort of in there, it’s what became the Hooked On A Feeling montage. I still sometimes wonder whether I should’ve kept the full thing in or not. There are certain things that, as a filmmaker, if you’re on the cusp of not knowing what’s better, you might as well have the cut down version and keep things moving.

Was it just a kill your darlings moment?

Yeah, I kill my darlings constantly. That’s like my job. I’m ruthless when it comes to my darlings.

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You mentioned the music just then, so let’s get to that. It’s a huge part of the film both tonally and narratively, so what’s the process there. Was there anything you wanted to use and couldn’t?

No, nothing! Dave Jordan got the rights to every single song I asked for. Every single song that was in the screenplay is in the movie. The only one we chose afterwards was Moonage Daydream, the Bowie song. 

How did you select those tracks? Was it your personal collection?

No, I mean, I made a new collection when I had the idea, I don’t normally listen to ’70s pop songs. I decided that the cassette tape would be his only connection to his mother and Earth, and it became important to honour that. I liked the idea of these familiar ’70s pop songs contrasting with the strangeness of other worlds. So I downloaded like five hundred ’70s pop hits, like every song that hit the top 40, and then I listened to all of them, then I whittled that down to a hundred songs, then 20 songs, and I would just listen to that list all the time. Sometimes I’d be inspired by the song to create a scene, sometimes I had a scene and I needed a song.

That’s interesting, people normally assume the songs are placed over the film once they’re done, but for you it was even part of the writing process?

Yeah. I hate when they just put all the songs over the film afterwards! That Hooked On A Feeling sequence was only there at all because of Hooked on a Feeling. I’d written the scene where he enters the prison, and the song made me think “maybe this scene could be longer, in fact it could be a whole thing…”

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Do you worry you’ll have to repeat that trick in the sequel with a batch of new songs?

I do, but I don’t think I’m going to. I don’t necessarily want to have to take the template of the first and use it as on the second. We’ve got to move forward, take a risk. Do something different. 

You’ve obviously thrown yourself into this movie in a huge way, so is this where you saw yourself ending up as a filmmaker, making this kind of epic, effects-driven sci-fi picture?

Yes. Yeah, I always wanted to make big movies! I always felt restrained by lower-budget films. I enjoyed making them and I felt fulfilled, but I really did always want to make bigger movies. I didn’t want to make them under somebody else’s rules, so luckily I came upon a studio that had the same rules as I did, and that made it a lot easier. Marvel wanted to make the same movie that I wanted to make. There’s no way anybody but Marvel would’ve hired me for a movie like this, and I’m so grateful to them for that.

Now, to wrap up I’ll ask you the official Den Of Geek question: What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

Oh! Definitely… Crank. That movie is fucking awesome. I couldn’t believe that movie when I saw it. I like Jason Statham movies, like The Transporter or whatever, I watch them all the time when they come on TV. Then I saw Crank and I couldn’t believe how awesome it was. I thought it was just another Jason Statham movie!

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That, as far as I’m concerned, is the correct answer.

That’s the Den Of Geek question? That’s great. Does anyone say anything other than Crank!?

Kevin Feige said The Transporter.

That’s just because he didn’t see Crank. There’s no way anyone who saw Crank would prefer The Transporter.

James Gunn, thank you very much!

Guardians Of The Galaxy opens this weekend.

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