The Untold Truth Of James Gunn
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James Gunn has had incredible success with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. But if you looked at his career leading up to the Marvel masterpiece, you probably wouldn't expect he'd wind up directing such a big-budget hit. From Troma to Taserface, here's the untold truth of James Gunn.
His film career started with his screenplay for Tromeo and Juliet
Gunn moved from his home of St. Louis to New York to attend Columbia University. While he was there, he applied for a part-time job doing menial tasks for the low budget film company Troma. Founder Lloyd Kaufman offered Gunn the chance to write a script for one of their upcoming films, and although Gunn wasn't thrilled about the idea, since Troma movies are known for their purposeful terrible cheesiness, he couldn't turn down a $150 check, so he rewrote Tromeo and Juliet.
Today, the movie is a cult favorite. If you want to see a hyper '90s film where they add masturbation, incest, and gore to a Shakespearean classic, Tromeo and Juliet is a must. Lemmy, the lead singer of Motörhead, was part of the cast—and Gunn thought he treated people terribly on set, alleging that he grabbed at women involved in the film and even punched one of Gunn's friends in the face.
Despite the harried production, Tromeo and Juliet became a cult classic of sorts and gave Gunn his first screenwriting credit.
He's a novelist
Gunn isn't just a writer and director, he's also the author of the 2000 novel The Toy Collector—the story of a man who starts stealing drugs from the hospital he works at in order to fund his collection of vintage robot toys. Though the protagonist is a troubled addict who refuses to grow up and hardly what you'd call a hero, Gunn named the character after himself.
The book was well reviewed, but didn't become a major hit. Looking back, it offers an early example of Gunn's true love and understanding of the world of toys and comic book heroes. So many pieces of Gunn's early career, though they diverged in completely different directions, seemed to unknowingly lead him to the Marvel Universe.
A superhero script gave him his big break in screenwriting
In 2000, Gunn went big and decided to write and star in his own superhero film. Called The Specials, it wasn't just some super low-budget feature between friends; it also starred Jamie Kennedy, Thomas Haden Church, and Rob Lowe. But before a shot was ever filmed, the script changed Gunn's life.
Gunn's brother Sean was an actor living in Los Angeles and got the script for The Specials to Jamie Kennedy, who loved it and sent it around to studios. Within two months Gunn had a deal to write a pilot for Fox and the WB, and Jay Roach (director of Austin Powers) hired him to write Spy vs. Spy—all just mere months after he'd been working for peanuts at Troma.
Unfortunately, the making of The Specials was less wonderful. Gunn's blunt tactics from Troma films didn't translate well on the set of a bigger-budget production, and he found himself constantly fighting to get his vision across. In the end, the film was distributed poorly and seen by pretty much no one, but Gunn learned some valuable lessons about how to work on a Hollywood set without hating everyone along the way.
He was the brain behind the live action Scooby Doo
When you think of James Gunn, you think of dark, sarcastic humor and films that play around with conventional ideas. You probably don't think of CGI talking dogs. But Gunn's first big-budget screenplay was for Scooby Doo, the live action adaptation of the '70s mystery cartoon.
Gunn seemed enthusiastic about the project. He loved the cartoons as a kid and liked the challenge of making a 30-minute show into a 90-minute film. As he told Daily Radar, "I love the character of Scooby-Doo, as well as the rest of Mystery Ink, and the cartoons are key components of my earliest memories." Much as he might have loved the original series, Gunn was adamant there would be no Scrappy Doo, vowing, "I can tell you I hate the little motherf****r with all my heart and soul."
He worked with Zack Snyder on his breakout film
After Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn was asked constantly whether he'd do a DC movie. In reality, he's turned down a DC film or two, though he didn't mention any of those offers by name, and he also already has a strong DC connection: Zack Snyder.
In 2004, Snyder had almost no directing credits under his belt, except for the Morrissey video for "Tomorrow." Sadly, Morrissey doesn't get CGI abs and there's a complete lack of explosions, so it's a far cry from Snyder's later work. Still, he was hired to direct the Dawn of the Dead remake—which happened to be written by James Gunn.
The film was a big success with a strong fanbase and when Snyder followed it up with 300, he cemented his place as an artistically innovative action director. Before Snyder and Gunn moved on to other projects, Gunn said they considered making a Dawn of the Dead sequel. Unfortunately for Dawn of the Dead fans, they both moved on, and the idea of a follow-up faded away.
The script for Slither was sold overnight
Gunn got his first real shot at directing with the dark horror comedy Slither. Though you often hear about writers having a very tough time breaking into directing, everything about Slither pretty much fell into Gunn's lap.
"I wrote the script in two months. I went out on a Thursday night and by Friday morning, two places wanted to buy the movie and make it," he told the A.V. Club. "I wasn't even going to direct it, but one of them asked me to direct it." Considering that Gunn had a Spy vs. Spy script still floating around from 2000, the fact that Slither got purchased literally overnight and released by 2006 is some kind of Hollywood miracle. In the end, he got his first big directing credit without even trying—and met Michael Rooker, who he'd work with for years to come.
It took almost ten years to make Super
Unlike the easy production of Slither, Super was much more difficult. The dark story, about a pathetic man who decides to become a superhero after his ex-wife is kidnapped, was written in 2002, and Gunn had the opportunity to make the film in 2004, but it wasn't right. In 2008, Sony expressed interest, but gave him such a low-budget offer, he didn't think it was worth it.
Between larger, more commercial projects, Gunn kept coming back to the project. Eventually, Gunn's ex-wife Jenna Fischer suggested her Office castmate Rainn Wilson for the lead role, and it proved the perfect fit. Once Wilson was on board, Gunn was determined to make the film happen. "Honestly, I just felt called to make the movie," he reflected. "I honestly tried to not make this movie. But I kept getting called back to it."
He had a rare amicable Hollywood divorce
For seven years, Gunn was married to The Office actress Jenna Fischer, but they divorced in 2007. Instead of generating endless gossip about who's trying to get money from who or allegations of cheating and other craziness, they simply parted ways and remained friendly. That's unusual enough for a relationship that isn't under a constant media spotlight, but for a Hollywood divorce it's almost unheard of.
Pajiba wrote an article about the couple being so sweet to one another even after splitting up, prompting Gunn to share it on Facebook. "I never quite understood how two people can love each other deeply but, when they break up, they grow suddenly hateful and cruel," he wrote. "Just because a relationship doesn't work doesn't mean the other person is bad. I'm proud of the good relationships I have with most of my exes, but especially Jenna. She's a great person, a true and wonderful friend, and she'll always make me laugh."
Lots of people thought Guardians of the Galaxy would bomb
When Gunn was hired to direct Guardians of the Galaxy, he was thrilled. Sadly, the internet was not. Most people didn't have a problem with Gunn directing specifically, but industry pundits doubted that Guardians could be made into any kind of successful film, and plenty of people thought it would be Marvel's first major bomb.
Uproxx felt Gunn was a wild card choice that undermined the movie's already low chances of success, and The Motley Fool made this confident statement: "A movie about an unknown group of superheroes that includes a talking raccoon and a tree that's sort of a person won't be a box office hit no matter how many Marvel fanboys watch its trailer online." Nearly $775 million in worldwide grosses later, no one was betting against the franchise—or Gunn's big-budget bona fides.
Gunn's crying almost ruined a pivotal Guardians scene
When we hear the voice of Peter Quinn's mom reading the letter she wrote her son, it's one of the most emotional moments in Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn definitely agreed—and his crying almost ruined the moment.
Laura Haddock, who played Meredith Quinn, had to record her lines for that scene in her car in London. Not the best place for a huge emotional moment, but she did such a lovely job, Gunn was in tears as she spoke. Gunn thought they might have to come back and record the piece again since he was crying so hard; fortunately, it didn't interfere with the taping, and the letter read in a car made it to the big screen.
Gunn has a personal attachment to the song 'Brandy'
"Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass is played throughout Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—in fact, it's arguably the most important song in the movie. This is no accident: Gunn has always loved that song, and has a complicated personal history with it.
"I remember I was with a girlfriend who I was falling deeply in love with, and I was driving away from her house with oldies radio on, and 'Brandy' came on," Gunn told New York Magazine. "For some reason, it struck me and I listened to the words for the first time and realized what the song was about, and I related to that song in an incredibly personal way. I thought, 'Oh my God, this woman's going to pass out of my life and she's gonna be gone.'"
It's a pretty deep moment for such a jaunty tune, but that song and memory stayed with Gunn, and he wove some of that connection into the hit sequel.