IAR Exclusive Interview: James Gunn Discusses 'Super'

Monday, 08 August 2011 12:21 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Exclusive Interview: James Gunn Discusses 'Super'

When Superman first debuted in Action Comics #1 all of 73 years ago, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster could not imagine that their creation would mark the beginning of an age of super heroes which would extend well into the 21st Century and permeate the popular culture and the collective American imagination for decades.  Over the last three decades in the pages of the comic books from which these spandex-clad heroes originally sprang, super heroes have evolved to include self-aware, postmodern spins on the genre. 

Comic book movies have reigned supreme for the last decade, this self-awareness has fully arrived in theaters with films that place their heroes in new tonal context.  In 2002, well before Kick-Ass, James Gunn wrote a screenplay titled Super, about a normal man who decides to take on crime as Crimson Bolt.  After multiple attempts to get the film off the ground, Super finally arrived this year, starring Rain Wilson, Liv Tyler, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, and Andre RoyoGunn, who got his start writing for the gleefully down-and-dirty Troma Pictures and moved on to script the Dawn of the Dead remake, The Specials, and Scooby Doo, made his feature directorial debut with Slither in 2006. 

In an exclusive interview with IAR managing editor Jami Philbrick at San Diego Comic-Con last month, Gunn talked about writing and directing Super, which brings his wickedly unique sensibilities to a riff on comic books, comedy, and vigilantism, complete with shocking violence and ultra-phallic tentacles.

Tell me a little bit about where the idea and the concept for Super came from again.

James Gunn: I started writing Super as a short film and I fell in love with the characters and just kept writing it and I ended up writing the first draft in one day. And worked on a little bit after that and that was back in 2002 and since then the story just kinda...I tried to not make this a movie, I really did.

Now what do you mean by that?

Gunn: Because I knew it was a very esoteric film, it's a dark film, there's a lot of tonal shifts in there and I love making money, man. I really do. I'm not opposed to making money. So if I'm gonna choose between making some esoteric film that is gonna make a little bit of money that I can make for a couple million bucks and make this big huge movie, in some ways I'd rather make a big huge movie, but this movie just nagged at me and nagged at me and nagged at me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I just felt called to do it so eventually I had to give in.

Did you originally want to make this into a big blockbuster super hero film?

Gunn: The movie is what it is. To me you can say this is a super hero movie, but really it's a movie about a guy, it's a certain, specific form of cinema which has tonal shifts in it and is both drama and comedy at the same time of people are very not used to. You have to be a certain type of soul to really sink in and I always knew, like once I started, once I really committed myself to making this film, my goal for it was not that it would be something that everybody would understand, but that it would really speak to the people who (it naturally) would speak to. I feel like in that respect we've been overwhelmingly successful. We've been monetarily successful extremely because we did so well on VOD and last week we were top ten in the Blu-rays on Amazon for this movie that doesn't come out in two weeks.

Can you talk about how that has changed the game with the advent of VOD and DVD/Blu-ray?

Gunn: Yes! The VOD is definitely. I mean a movie like Super is a very difficult movie because it does speak to specific people. In one respect it's an art house film, but in one respect it's not. It's what people would label a cult film, you know an extreme film or a Gonzo film or whatever. But it's element in both of those things. So our audience is spread out all over the United States and we can't afford to put it into all the theaters that we'd like to, but on VOD people were able to get it and we're able to make hundreds of thousands of downloads and that's a huge, awesome thing for us.

I wanted to ask you about the dark tones in the film. Obviously there's a lot of comedy, but there's all those other elements too.  Was it always the idea that the film would have those elements and not just be super hero movie, that it would also have that darkness, and that reality?

Gunn: I think it's a reality. I think that's what I thought of it as. I didn't think of it, when I was writing it, I didn't think of it as dark film necessarily, I just thought of it as a real story about this guy who would actually be pushed into the concept of becoming a super hero. And what would push a guy into that you know? How could that really happen? So I treated the whole thing as realistically as possible. What are the real ramifications of that? What could really happen in that situation? I just sort of followed it out. I usually outline movies pretty specifically before I write them, but in this case I didn't because I wrote it in a day.

You wrote the script in just one day?

Gunn: Yeah, I wrote the first draft in one day. So I wrote it in a day and it just sort of happened the way it happened.

Can you talk about how you felt when you were making the movie and then Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass was released. They are totally different films but do have similarities, were you concerned at all?

Gunn: Fuck yeah! I was totally concerned. Yeah, I was concerned by Defendor, by Kick-Ass, and by Special, before those. They all concerned me because I guess my script was written...I think it was written before all those movies, but it was definitely the only one that was written close to us was Special. As it started to come out, I'm like oh, great and in fact Mark Millar had a discussion with me over email about him writing the Kick-Ass comic as I was trying to make the first time I was trying to make Super back in 2005. And we were both kinda like oh fuck, but in the end it was kinda like who gives a shit. They're so different from each other.

As a filmmaker and as a creative person, do you feel like a good idea is just a good idea and that different artists are going to have similar ideas but that you just have to find your own way of putting a unique twist on the material and making it your own?

Gunn: Let me be clear about one thing: I had it first. But yeah, yeah. Those things happen simultaneously. There's a natural reaction to the proliferation of joining super hero movies to make an alternate viewpoint on that. This is The Rolling Stones to The Beatles so to speak. I think that it's sort of a natural result of that. I think originally I was not reacting to super hero movies, I was reacting to super hero comic books. This I didn't see Super so much as being something that was...it was more in the tradition of deconstruction of super heroness that I had read in comics for years. Whether it be Watchmen, or Kurt Busiek's Astro City, or one or all of these things. They were deconstructions of super heroness that are a part of comic books and have been for a long time and sort of entered the mainstream of comics and the way they haven't entered the film yet.

What are some of your favorite comics? As a big comic book fan, what are some of the things that inspired you and in a way inspired the film?

Gunn: It's a huge list, I'm a huge comic book fan, I read comic books constantly. Alan Moore first of all to me is probably the greatest writer living of any sort and I love most of his stuff. I love Watchmen, I love Top Ten, Promethia, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, those things are all just amazing. I love Mark Millar's stuff. I think he's a great modern, mainstream writer. I like Brian Michael Bendis a lot. I like a lot of the Alt guys from the 90's. Joe Matt, Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes and all of those guys really you know who opened up underground comics into something that was a little bit more my taste I suppose. More so than like the fabulous furry freak brothers or something like that. Brian Azzarello I think is a really good writer, you know especially One Hundred Bullets I think was a great series. There's a lot. A lot of stuff I've been really into X-Force lately. I think that...I always give out the writer's name, I Tweeted at him the other day. But he's been doing a really great job on that title. It's great to find stuff like that.

So do you think that all of that pop culture in a way kind of inspired this film?

Gunn: Yeah, definitely. I mean I think this is in a lot of ways Super is about the interaction of an ordinary man and pop culture trying to you know that pop culture world is almost like this sort of nirvana that is beyond us that we watch, but we don't join in. And Rainn's character Frank tries to join in and become something beyond human.

I thought it was an interesting Easter egg that you cast Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) in the film.
When casting do you think about that? Does it even come up?

Gunn: Yeah, I forgot it. I forgot that she was Kitty Pryde (in X-Men: The Last Stand) until we sat down to lunch and she was telling me horror stories. So it was like I totally forgot that she was Kitty Pryde. Never even thought of it. In fact I probably would've if I had thought of it ... I probably would have thought of it as a negative.

Did that at all come up in casting Liv Tyler since she was in The Incredible Hulk?

Gunn: I think for that was considered positive. Because she was known by this audience whether it was Lord of the Rings or Incredible Hulk. I mean Liv Tyler is the one who got this movie made. Without a doubt. Liv Tyler, she gets us our international sales. Liv Tyler is one of the biggest actresses in the world. Like ten, ten top five. Because when you think about every single movie she's been in, it has been a huge, huge hit. Everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Incredible Hulk to The Strangers. They've all been huge movies. Armageddon, they've all been huge movies, so there's nobody that has better box office track record than Liv Tyler. She's the one who got us our movie made. Rainn and Ellen were attached for a while before I sat down with Liv and she said she wanted to do with it. And that was the day that I knew that our movie was getting made.

Kevin Bacon plays the villain in this film and his character is a total jerk, was that something he wanted to do?

Gunn: Yeah I guess. He signed up on to do it so yeah Kevin was a big fan of Slither, which I didn't even know for a long time, but yeah supposedly he watched Slither and loved it. He went with his son and they go to see horror movies and he got on the phone with his agent during the credits to see who directed it. So yeah, Kevin's the easiest guy in the world to work with, totally for an icon, to have such a lack of ego is out of...is a revelation to me quite honestly. I mean even for myself, I can be a diva at times and Kevin taught me a lot. He comes on set and he does the work. There's mean actors, who you just don't want to fucking deal with, and I don't. If I find out somebody's gonna be a bastard, I won't even work with them. I just cut them out, because life's too short. And then there's nice actors. Nice actors are great. They're pleasant to be around. They also almost always usually need to be the center of the spotlight so they're always goofing off, telling jokes, blah blah blah, which sometimes on a movie set can be a bit of a distraction. Kevin is both. I mean he's not both, but he's really nice and he comes to set and does the work. Never expects to like be the center, never does any of that bullshit. So everything works so smoothly. Ellen actually is very similar. Very similar you know and she's twenty-two years old so she goofs off a little more, but she's very, always the first you know they were always the first two on set. You know we'd have to wait around for (Michael) Rooker for hours. And he's my friend so I put up with him. But it's like they literally, Kevin was always the first actor on set.

Finally, I what can you tell me about the extras on the Blu-ray. 

Gunn: We have a commentary with me and Rainn, which is a lot of fun. We're very very honest about the making of the movie, the difficulties we went through, we talk about some of the stuff and how we made the movie and how we got it to be made and we're very honest about everything. Then we have a behind the scenes making of the movie, which was directed by Amanda Bailey who was our producer, which is a pretty interesting thing. She did a fabulous job on that piece. And then there's deleted scenes. There's this one deleted scene which is a scene which I...we didn't delete many scenes from this movie because I used everything I shot, but there's one scene between Rainn and Liv Tyler, which is fantastic, where he first discovers she starts drinking again when they're still married.

Why did you decide to cut that?

Gunn: It seemed to slow things down. It was like information that we already had and it just seemed to slow things down, but I LOVED the scene and the acting by both of them is great. So I really it's one of those kill your darling moments where you have to do it. But I did it. It's really great that people can see that now. There's a making of the animated titles by Puny Entertainment who did those and I hear that's great. I actually haven't seen it. And there's some stuff with Ellen and Rain goofing around down at SXSW where you would see them doing whatever the fuck they're doing down there.

Super is available on Blu-ray and DVD as of Tuesday, August 9th.

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