Roundtable Interview With James Gunn On Super

Super is an irreverent and twisted comedy about a sad loser who decides to take his fight against evil to the next level. And if you think the next level is fashioning a ridiculous superhero costume out of red cloth and naming himself the Crimson Bolt, you’d be right. With disturbing humor, graphic violence and comic book-esque animated sequences, Super puts the Ka-pow in action/comedies.

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Super is an irreverent and twisted comedy about a sad loser who decides to take his fight against evil to the next level. And if you think the next level is fashioning a ridiculous superhero costume out of red cloth and naming himself the Crimson Bolt, you’d be right. With disturbing humor, graphic violence and comic book-esque animated sequences, Super puts the Ka-pow in action/comedies.

The film premiered at Austin’s SXSW film fest last week to rave reviews. The razor-witted DIY superhero comedy stars Rainn Wilson and Liv Tyler and features some amazing acting talent from co-stars Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon and Nathan Fillion. Writer/director James Gunn took time to sit down with me and discuss the film. Check it out below, audio version included at the end of the page.

Gunn discussed the growing popularity of self-reflective comic book hero-type films, and how his film stands out from other films like Kick-Ass or Special. He said “I wrote my script around 2002 so it was around before all those things…the first thing I heard of was Special because Special was written after that and my movie was out there and we actually had financing from a different company by then…I actually heard of Kick-Ass from my friend Mark…I was definitely wary of it. I was like you know this sucks, Kick-Ass is being made into a movie…is that going to mean that we’re irrelevant? But in the end it’s just like the stories are so different; our story is about a guy who’s on his own sort of spiritual quest and he just happens to wear a superhero costume during it. The story could be told without the superhero costume, it’s like gravy. and frankly it helps the movie get more attention than it would otherwise…but really it’s about the guy and not the costumes.”

Gunn said this about his love for comic books, “I’m a huge comic book fan. I’ve read comic books ever since I was a kid, and I still read almost every comic book that comes out. I’m enamored of super heroes. I’m interested in how that interplays with our own lives. I think Super is a lot about pop culture and we see that pop culture world as beyond us, that we’re not a part of, and this is about a guy who tries to enter that other world that’s so impossible and does so with some degree of success.”

In discussing why it took so long to get the film produced, Gunn said, “In 2004 I had Chuck Rogen producing the script, and it was a little esoteric. They wanted me cut back on the violence a lot, that was a little difficult, but the biggest thing was that the company financing it, there was a list of people that could play the role that they would ok and green light the movie…but the only person I could see playing the role at the time was John C. Reilly….but he wasn’t considered a big enough star at the time to get the movie made. So I just couldn’t agree on an actor, so we were still going to make the movie but basically we hadn’t got to the point that we could cast the right actor. I needed somebody that could do the comedy, do the drama, was big enough that he was physically threatening but was goofy enough that he could be picked on by his fellow short-order cook at the diner, and it was hard to find somebody like that.”

Gunn went onto say “at that time, I wrote the movie Slither which I was gonna sell and just make a few bucks so that I could go off and make this movie for no money. I turned in Slither on like a Thursday night, and on Friday morning Paul Brooks who ended up producing it called me and said “yeah I wanna greenlight the movie and I want you to direct it” and I was like “…okay”, so that’s what I did.

That put a hold on things for awhile, and after Slither I wasn’t even sure I was going to direct another movie again, wasn’t sure if I wanted to, wasn’t sure if it was worth it to me, and started doing Web stuff because it was a lot more simple. It’s hard making a movie because it’s like…you lose your life. I mean really, I like being alive; I like having friends, going out, watching other people’s movies, and all these things I can’t do for a year while I make a movie. And then it comes out and it’s like “so what?”; as a kid growing up, I was like “I really wanna make movies and have everyone love me and go to film festivals and be interviewed by a bunch of people at a table” but none of it gives me any joy in real life, it just doesn’t. I like making the movies sometimes but it’s also hellish to make a movie so I’m a very confused individual.

He added, “It really wasn’t until my ex-wife called me up one day and said ‘what are you doing with Super? Why aren‘t you making that movie?’…and I said ‘I don’t know, it’s a little esoteric, it’s weird, my manager doesn’t want me to make it, I’m not sure’…and she said ‘have you ever thought of Rainn as Frank?’. And I had known Rainn for five years, we had always gotten along we had a sort of camaraderie…and from that moment forward I felt called to make the movie and I had my heart in it. And it made all the difference from other things I’ve done in the past because I feel really good about the movie. And I would love for other people to love it but if they don’t that’s ok to. It was a great experience and then having those other actors put themselves into the movie so completely for literally no money…for them to do all of that for me and for this project…it’s a really great experience.”

In the film, Rainn Wilson’s character calls himself the Crimson Bolt and walks around with a pipe wrench. It sounds kind of odd for a superhero so we asked Gunn what inspired him to include those elements. He told us that “I don’t know where the Crimson Bolt came from…it’s very difficult to find superhero names that aren’t already claimed, we had that same problem in The Specials. I guess what inspired me for that name was just trying to think of a name that no one had come up with. And in the movie, Frank isn’t exactly the most eloquent guy in the world so he’s not going to come up with the greatest name. As for the pipe wrench, it’s just something I wouldn’t want to be hit with.”

Some of the producers found the film too violent and too weird. Gunn told us though that this was his intention, he wanted to go all out. “I told the producers that people were going to like this movie because it’s extreme. If we start pulling back, that just means that we’re pulling back on what some people are going to like about it and we’re going to make it a nothing movie. So they went with that and I got to do whatever I wanted. Plus, I had this cast behind me who signed on because of me and because of the script. We were all doing this movie for nothing and it’s like the reason we are doing it is because we want to make it in that way.”

As dark and fucked up as the film is, on some level there is that belief in the film that there is a possibility of changing the world. It’s almost like a sense of optimism that is present throughout. Gunn told us that “I think that one of the things that drives me in telling stories, and art in general, is finding the beautiful in a big mass of ugly. I guess I am an optimist in a pessimist brain, if that makes any sense. I believe in the innate goodness of most people in this world, and yet I’m a damaged soul like many other people and have my own demons and things I struggle with. I can’t be told life is beautiful through a normal positive thinking book or a Hallmark movie; that language doesn’t work for me. The language that works for me is the language of fucked up cinema, and comics and things like that. To find the beauty, I really need to go through a darker channel than most people.”

Continuing on about the darkness of the film and the whole ‘fucked up’ nature of it, Gunn was asked if he expected audiences to laugh at some of the more messed up things in the film. He said “here’s thing about Super; that’s the fun of the movie. An easy one to explain is when he’s saying his prayer at the beginning of the movie. That may be my favorite scene of the movie. When he’s talking about his hair…it’s so so sad and so funny at the same time. [In the audience] there are always people laughing and other people getting mad at the people who are laughing and that’s what that scene is intended to be; it’s intended to be all those things mixed up together and you can laugh at it or you can feel sad. It’s all up to you.

About the grueling shooting schedule, Gunn said “we shot for 24 days…we hardly ever had to wait on camera, we moved really quickly. We waited on props more than we waited on camera. We had to create on set what we called the culture of speed. Which means we needed to have the speed work for us rather than against us. We wanted that sense of urgency, something that fed the film rather than detracted from it. I had a very explicit, specific shot list for the entire movie, all of which is pretty much in the film. I only lost one shot, it’s the one when Rainn is getting beaten up by the thugs, outside Jacques car, there was supposed to be a shot from the back of the van where we pull away from it really quickly and swing to the next shot. But ya, we basically got everything we needed.”

Speaking about future projects, Gunn told us “I have this movie coming up called Movie 43. It’s a Farrelly brothers film where a bunch of different comedy directors came in and directed different actors. I have Elizabeth Banks and Josh Duhamel in my segment. It’s full out comedy, no heart to it whatsoever. It’s a lot of fun though.” We brought up a possible Dawn of the Dead sequel and Gunn said that “years ago Zack [Snyder] and I sat down and talked about Dawn of The Dead 2 but I’m just not feeling zombies right now. If I ever did do a zombie movie though it would have to be something different, not Dawn of the Dead 2.”

On working with Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page and bringing out different performances from them than that of which the audience would expect, Gunn told us “Rainn said to me at the beginning, if I do something that is a Dwight-ism, pull me aside and tell me. And that’s because he can fall into it very easily. To really bring out that vulnerability in the character was the most important thing for Rainn. With Ellen, the reason she liked the script was that she is always asked to play these snarky, teenage girls who are wise beyond these years but this character is the exact opposite! It’s a very immature character. Ellen brought this great energy to the role which was awesome because usually she’s low key. For the actors I think it’s important for them to create characters that they’re not usually associated with.”

Everyone loves Nathan Fillion and his role in the film was great, Fillion fans are going to love it. Gunn was asked how easy it was to get Fillion to come on board. Gunn said “Nathan’s my good buddy. He’ll do whatever I ask. I thought he’d be perfect for this role. I love working with him. I love working with people who are my friends, it’s nice when making a movie. Nathan always goes above and beyond the call of duty. He’s really one of the greatest film actors around and it’s great to work with him.”

That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank James very much for talking with us. Be sure to go out and see Super when it hits theatres on April 1, 2011. And remember to check out our Super review.

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