Top Gunn: An Interview with James Gunn

Saint Louis University doesn’t have a film school. And it’s not considered a key stop on the road to Hollywood. But for director and screenwriter James Gunn (A&S ’92), SLU is where his cinematic dreams took root.

Gunn, who wrote and directed the 2014 summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, credits SLU with his success.

Director and SLU alumnus James Gunn. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, Marvel Studios

“The whole birth of my career was at Saint Louis University. It was everything to me,” Gunn said. “I was a kid who was playing in bands and didn’t feel completely appreciated. I took a creative writing class with [English professor] Al Montesi, and I had to write a play in three days or something like that. And I did nothing else but write that play for three days.”

When Gunn got to class, fellow students performed his play. The experience was transformative. “That day was the beginning of my career,” he said. “People couldn’t stop laughing, and they really liked it. It felt amazing.

“I’d been playing in bands, and people maybe appreciated the way I looked or the way I performed, but this was people appreciating my brain.

“It was what I think I had been waiting for my entire life. I can honestly say that was one of the happiest days of my life.”

In February, as he was working on the more than 2,400 visual effects for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn talked to Universitas about Guardians, his film The Belko Experiment, his creative process and more.

UTAS: What can fans look forward to in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?

Gunn: I think it’s a deeper, stronger, more loving and beautiful film than the first film. In the first movie, we met this group of outcast weirdos, and they became a family. This movie is about them being a family. And as a many of us know, being a family is a lot more difficult than becoming a family, especially when you’re a damaged individual like these characters are, and you’re not used to intimacy of any sort, much less an extreme loyalty from other people. So this is about the struggles that they have to deal with emotionally. And that’s the most important part of the movie, even though it’s an amazingly huge set piece with the largest visual effects shots of all time in the movie — over a trillion polygons.

UTAS: How do you envision a film like Guardians in your head and bring it to life?

Gunn: That’s simply by the grace of God. I have no explanation for how my imagination works. I know my biggest strength in life is my imagination, oftentimes at the sake of a lot of other things. A lot of people imagine things and aren’t able to capture what is there, and I’m very fortunate in that I’m able to imagine and also capture and logically turn that imagination into something practical. So that’s really what I do.

There are huge sections of the movie that I don’t write as words, I draw. They’re the pictures first and the words second. You sort of visualize what the movie is, which is a series of moving rectangles. And that’s how you build a story.

UTAS: For the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, except for diehard comic book fans, people didn’t really know the characters. Obviously things are different now. How did that impact your writing and directing process?

Gunn: When I’m creating the movie, I really live within the world of the Guardians. So I’m not so much thinking about the fans, frankly. I’m thinking about what is going to happen with the Guardians and what’s exciting and where they’re going. And I’m existing within that story. For the first movie, the most difficult thing was having to present major characters that the audience didn’t know in the first 30 minutes.

On the second movie I didn’t have that weight, so it was a lot more fun to write because we could just get to the meat of the story with these characters. Being able to know the five first Guardians already walking into the theater made the writing of it much easier.

UTAS: A big sequel can mean big pressure commercially and critically. How do you deal with that?

Gunn: It was a lot easier overall. There was a lot less pressure on me the second time around because I knew that these were characters that people loved.

I was very excited about creating the first movie, and I had a lot of fun doing it, but there was also a learning curve. First, I’d never created a movie that cost over $150 million — which honestly wasn’t as big a learning curve as I would have thought because making a movie is making a movie is making a movie. And secondly, I didn’t really know if the characters or the story were going to resonate with people.

So there was a certain amount of fear the first time around. I would wake up at three in the morning and say, “Oh my God, am I making Pluto Nash 2?” This could be Marvel’s first bomb. People thought it was going to be Marvel’s first bomb. There were a lot of articles coming out that said now Marvel’s gotten cocky and they think they can do anything.

This time I knew that I was creating a story and working with characters that people already loved and that people were going to go see. And for me that was a freeing thing. I’m an entertainer, and I love to deal with an audience. It’s a lot easier for me than dealing with the unknown.

UTAS: And why was it important that you helm the sequel?

Gunn: Guardians is me. It really is. The thing that people think of as Guardians, it’s my voice, it’s my dialogue, it’s the characters that I created for the screen, so that’s me. Maybe at some point somebody would be able to take that and do an honorable job with it and change it slightly so it fits them, and that’s great. But I wanted to stick with the characters that I love, and Marvel, of course, wanted me to stick with the characters.

UTAS: If Guardians is you, which Guardian are you?

Gunn: Rocket is the character who I relate to the most. He’s a pretty angry guy. He has a lot of things that he needs to deal with. Guardians Vol. 2 in particular is about him dealing with that very specific anger in himself. And that’s probably, to me, what the center of the movie is in a lot of ways. As well as being a father-son story and a story about sisters. Those are three concurrent stories that are happening in Guardians Vol. 2.

James Gunn on the set of The Belko Experiment.
James Gunn on the set of The Belko Experiment. Photo by Hector Alvarez

UTAS: You’re the writer and producer on another 2017 film, The Belko Experiment. It’s a horror film set in an office building, rather than some typical cabin in the woods. How did you come up with that idea?

Gunn: I dreamt it, frankly. I dreamt the trailer for The Belko Experiment. I woke up one morning and had the trailer in my head, which is basically the trailer that we released. I’m like, “What happens with these people?” Then I wrote the story to find out what happens. It was that simple. It was just me following through on an initial vision.

UTAS: You’ve got two movies coming out in 2017. How did you manage that?

Gunn: Belko was an older script that I’d written before Guardians. And I was going to make it at one time, but I was going through a rough time in my life and I didn’t feel like going down to Brazil and making a movie about people shooting each other in the head. It didn’t seem like a real joy to make.

Little did I know that when I actually did go down to make The Belko Experiment in Colombia, instead of Brazil where it was originally going to be, it was actually the most fun I ever had on a set because it was the greatest group of actors — most of whom were my friends that I just gave roles to — that I’d ever been around. And we just had an amazing time in Colombia. Despite the darkness of the film, it was the most loving, terrific group of people.

UTAS: The scale and scope of the movies you direct has grown exponentially. Has that changed you as a filmmaker? If so, how?

Gunn: Yes, honestly, it’s changed me for the better. As a younger man I was pretty angry. And I relied on that anger to provide comedy or whatever. I was very aggressive. When you start to make movies in a bigger way, not only for an American audience but a worldwide audience, I needed to let go of some of that to speak to a mass audience. And what I found was that that wasn’t me letting go of who I really was, that was me letting go of the things I used to protect myself from who I really was.

Writing for everyone allows me to be more vulnerable; it allows me to be more emotional; it allows me to be more truthful about who I am, what I believe in, the depths of the characters. And, I think, create better cinema.

I learned that when I didn’t just go to the easy, dirty joke all the time that it made me stronger, more honest and more focused on real stuff.

UTAS: You’re very active on social media. Why do you engage with the fans? Does their feedback influence you?

Gunn: It definitely influences me. I want to stay in touch with who the audience is and what they’re into, what they like and what they don’t like. I’m on social networking because it actually helps me to be a better storyteller who speaks to a modern world.

When I was kid, I met Joe Strummer, the lead singer of the Clash, in a music store. I interrupted him and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Strummer, I just want to let you know that your music means a great deal to me, and I love your stuff, and thank you so much. The Clash is my favorite band.” And Joe turned, and he talked to me. Instead of just saying thanks and nodding, he talked with me, then he walked with me and had a conversation with me. That made a great deal of difference to me. I’m a kid from Manchester, Missouri, who knew no one in the entertainment industry in my entire life. And the fact that we had a humanizing encounter was cool. So I try and be that same thing that Joe Strummer was to me.

UTAS: What advice would you give to people who want a career in Hollywood?

Gunn: There are certain things that I see in people who are successful, and the No. 1 thing is that they’re self-starters. If you really are someone who wants to be an actor, director or screenwriter, or something in an incredibly competitive field, you have to be doing that stuff on your own without anyone prompting you.

I’d say that the other thing is finding what you’re good at. I’m directing because that’s what I’m good at. I did a lot of different things: I drew comic strips; I acted; I played in bands. But at the end of the day, I saw what I was best at and that’s what I did. I think that’s something that people miss a lot. They get latched on to some idea of the thing they want to be instead of truly examining what they’re good at.

My time at Saint Louis University was very much spent trying to figure out what I was best at in life. I was lucky to have a creative writing class in which I found out this is what I’m best at. And I kind of just ran with the ball from there. I was very fortunate that once I started writing, the world met me halfway. And that was an important element to success.

The James Gunn File

SLU legacy: Among the many SLU alumni in his family are his father, James (A&S í63, Law í65), brother Patrick (A&S '89) and numerous uncles and cousins.

While at SLU: Alumni may remember his band The Icons or his comic strip Young Alien Lust, which appeared in The University News.

Early career: He began his filmmaking career at the low-budget, horror film company Troma Studios, where his first job was writing the screenplay for Tromeo and Juliet.

Screenwriting success: He penned the screenplays for Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. The latter two films, released on consecutive weekends in 2004, were back-to-back No. 1 box-office hits, making Gunn the first person in history to write two films that debuted successively in the first-place slot.

Double threat: He has written and directed several films, including Slither, Super and Guardians of the Galaxy.

What’s next?: His plans are open-ended, but he said heís working on a TV project with his brother Brian and is in talks with Marvel about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Whatever project comes next, it will likely be a spectacle.