The early cinema of James Gunn

From Troma to Super, via Scooby Doo, we chart the movie career of Guardians Of The Galaxy director James Gunn...

Darling of outsider cinema turned blockbuster-building genius James Gunn is sure to have made millions of new fans in the last week alone.  With August box office records broken by Guardians Of The Galaxy (Marvel’s off-world gamble and a wildly entertaining space-romp with heaps of heart written and directed by James Gunn – as if you didn’t know), he’s about to get a lot more phone calls than he did before. And he may have already been getting a fair few.

You don’t have to wait years for the already-announced sequel for your next dose of his unique brand of cinema though; he’s got a hefty CV that blends horror, hilarity and heroes in equal measure. Here’s our low-down on some of the highlights…

The Troma Years

Naturally, the man who wound up miraculously bringing raccoons, tree-creatures and multi-coloured aliens together into a cohesive cinematic whole is no stranger to the weirder corners of the movie-making world. Gunn began his career at the legendary indie horror house Troma, who has famously mixed the comic with the gruesome since the 1970s.

Gunn fitted right in, channelling the oddball charm that would go on to cement him as Marvel’s new goldmine into a series of scripts. First came Tromeo And Juliet in 1996, Gunn’s uproarious reimagining of the most famous play in history with an unprecedented increase in screaming, impaling, girl-on-girl lustiness, cow costumes, car-flips and a truly gratuitous amount of people getting hit in the head by things.

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For a debut screenplay the gag-rate for Tromeo And Juliet was surprisingly high, with a particular highlight being Murray Martini’s foul-mouthed verbal tirade on Tyrone Capulet, including, but certainly not limited to, such glorious insults as boof-ball, dick-bag, fruitcake, fiddle-fucker and many many more. There’s also some gloriously hammy ladder-based pun action. Many of the elements that would make Gunn the filmmaker he is today are right there in Tromeo And Juliet.

However, his next film is one so neatly connected to his modern day work that it almost seems there’s some creepy sort of fate to it all. In 2000 Gunn wrote, produced and acted in The Specials – a superhero movie with a comedy twist which highlighted the importance of family and friends for a rag-tag group of second-tier superheroes. Pre-empting his 14-years-later recurring Star-Lord gag, James Gunn’s Minute Man even gets repeatedly annoyed when no-one gets his name right. Sound familiar?

Without the budget or scope of Marvel Studios cosmic expansion behind him though, Gunn took these similar ideas and spun them into a completely different, but similarly heart-warming feature. Alongside Minute Man, The Specials included Thomas Haden Church as group leader The Strobe (a bit of an arrogant prick), Rob Lowe as The Weevil (a charmer, but also a bit of prick), Jordan Ladd as the unfortunately-powered Nightbird, Mike Schwartz as U.S. Bill (Brick Tamland with superpowers) and Sean Gunn (James’ brother, regular collaborator and Guardians cast member) as the endearingly bizarre Alien Orphan.

The film centres on this superhero team – allegedly the seventh best in the world – on the day of their action figure range’s launch. They bicker, they fall out and it looks for a while like the team is set to disband. The centre-piece of the film is a truly awful advert for said action figures, which genuinely is hilarious.

Other highlights include flashes of an historic pterodactyl fight, off-hand references to accidentally summoning demons while drunk, and James Gunn’s delivery of the line “the great thing about not getting the person that you love is that you can still think about that person and masturbate, which is essentially the same thing.” There’s a touching speech about The Specials’ purpose, too.

If you love superheroes, James Gunn’s work, or blackly comic moments, The Specials is well worth checking out.

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The Hollywood Scripts

After rounding off his work at Troma with Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (although the influence of the studio’s quirky charm remains with Gunn to this day), Gunn got picked up for some interesting script work in Hollywood.

His first involvement in a Hollywood project was the 2002 live-action Scooby Doo movie, which Gunn wrote and produced. Looking back now, Scooby Doo does seem like one of the darker (or at least, scarier) kids movies in recent history. The word on the film nowadays is that it was originally intended to be a more adult affair, with Shaggy overtly a stoner and Velma and Daphne sharing a romantic moment.

Re-watching and closer-analysing the film now, the DNA of James Gunn and this original darker tone is still somewhat spottable – Shaggy’s love interest being called Mary-Jane (“that’s, like, my favourite name!”) is an allusion to the original stoner ideas, while Fred admits dorky chicks turn him on (as well as enthusing over seeing Daphne’s naked body) and everyone tries to quit the team at once (a throw-back to The Specials and a future Guardians plot point, perhaps?).

Fred’s attempts at acting gangster and Shaggy’s line encouraging Scrappy not to “freak out like a jerk and kill all humanity” reek of Gunn’s unique humour and playful writing, too. Looking for the Gunn influence in an otherwise largely forgettable film is actually a pretty enjoyable way to re-watch Scooby Doo. And there are not that many enjoyable ways to rewatch Scooby Doo.

Better was the 2004 Zack Snyder-directed remake of Dawn Of The Dead, which Gunn scripted. This horror reboot may not stand on the same genre-defining level as the original, but the script itself is fairly solid. For the record, the diminished threat of the running zombies remains this writer’s only real qualm with the newer version (a good number still rank this as Snyder’s best film to date).

Giving James Gunn an R-rated horror movie to work with really allowed the developing writer in him to grow further – his script juggles tension and emotion very effectively, even throwing in some heartstring-tugging moments and a surprisingly high gag-rate for a straight-faced zombie apocalypse movie.

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The latter is arguably where you can see the most James Gunn here, seeing as it’s impossible to tell how much of the action was reinterpreted on-set or mixed-up in the edit. With the laughs and the dialogue, Gunn’s vivid personality shines through.

“The plan is you drink a nice tall glass of shut the fuck up” sounds like it could have come from an 18-rated version of the amazingly funny Guardians “12% of a plan” scene, while Ty Burrell’s Steve seems to be the on-screen embodiment of a more free-reign James Gunn at play.

Gunn’s winningly subversive (and sometimes twisted) humour emits from Steve in fleeting moments, such as his discussion of Fort Pastor (a sarcastic reply to Kenneth’s morbid question brings an unexpected chortle), a cynical thumbs-up to a plan he himself unwittingly inspired and cutting put-down dialogue like “when you two fellas are done blowing each other, maybe Davy Crockett could tell us the deal here?”

The continuing influence of friendship on Gunn’s work is also present, with the roof-to-roof bromance between Kenneth and Andy offering some emotional moments towards the end. So, there’s more James Gunn in Dawn Of The Dead than you might think. If you’ve just fallen in love with his style, you could do worse than re-watching this previous writing effort from a different perspective.

Writer-director Efforts

Moving into even more recent history, Gunn followed a few more scripts (the wonderfully weird mockumentary LolliLove and the Scooby Doo sequel) by graduating into the world of managing his own projects. With his two brothers he developed web-series James Gunn’s PG Porn which is stuffed right to the brim with laughs and well worth Googling. He also scripted the videogame Lollipop Chainsaw for the PS3 and Xbox 360.

The cinematic realm is where Gunn has really excelled in recent years though, becoming a writer-director and further developing his own distinct style that would later catch the eyes of Marvel Studios’ head honchos.

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In 2006, Gunn released Slither, combining gooey horror, dark laughs and Nathan Fillion. It’s like a raucous recipe of everything geekdom thrives on. At the time the film, which follows an alien being as it attempts to devour a small town, got some stick for its similarities to Night Of The Creeps from 1986. However, Slither is much more than the rip-off some people dismissed it as. It’s a film that creeps you out as much as it makes you laugh – taking its influences (including some top Cronenberg nods) and subverting them into a pitch-black comedy with Gunn’s clear stamp on it.

Fillion does well in a slightly more nervous role than usual, and Elizabeth Banks impresses, but the greatest feat here is the performance Gunn drew out from Michael Rooker (now whistling murderer Yondu in Guardians). In Slither, Rooker truly commits to the role of grumpy-husband-turned-alien-killing-machine with a performance that knows when to be nuanced and when to embrace the hammy. Slither’s worth watching, if you haven’t already, for Rooker alone.

Directing for the first time, Gunn crafts some neat visual moments to compliment his ever-excellent dialogue in Slither (the Shivers homage, and the action sequence it spawns, is just excellent), showing how he’s developed from a gag-machine into an all-round filmmaker. The new-found creative control allows him to embrace his humour even more too, with “he looks like something that fell of my dick during the war” being a particular highlight for this writer.

Bringing us right up to date, James Gunn’s most recent pre-Guardians writer-director project was Super. As a tounge-in-cheek riff on the superhero genre, and as an oddly touching revenge drama, this movie really excels. Dabbling, for a change, in a world without sci-fi, horror or supernatural elements, Gunn flexes some impressive character development chops here, another facet of his filmmaking which he managed to cram into Guardians.

While Rooker does appear in the film, the star of the show this time is Rainn Wilson as Frank, the jilted husband who goes on to become homemade hero The Crimson Bolt. Again, Gunn draws out an amazing performance from a star some may not have expected to effectively carry a film (although it’s worth digging out the decent The Rocker for some more Rainn Wilson leading man action). Frank blends endearing emotional longing with completely unhinged threat to make a character who feels fully formed yet wildly unpredictable. Ellen Page is a little more one-note as aspiring sidekick Bolty, but there are enough other impressive facets to hold Super together as a highly enjoyable film, and clearly an effective calling card to Hollywood.

Again, if the thing you loved most about Guardians was the steady stream of laughs, you’ll find plenty to chortle at here, especially from Frank’s superhero escapades. From his catchphrase “Shut up, crime!” to his laying down of the law with a wrench to simply yelling rules at people – “You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t change!” – Frank is a great creation, attempting to save the world despite being completely mentally unhinged. If you love superhero films, and can stomach violence and strong language, it’s fairly likely you’ll love Super.

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As the mantra of The Specials goes, James Gunn is a filmmaker for “the oddball, the outcast, the rebel, the geek.” If you find yourself absolutely loving Guardians Of The Galaxy, we can’t encourage you enough to check out the rest of his filmography. There’s plenty more belly laughs, loads heart-felt moments and smatterings of well-executed action where that came from.

Just don’t mention Movie 43 if you ever bump into him.

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