December 4, 2014

James Gunn Visits SCA

“When I was first pitched the idea of making Guardians of the Galaxy, I thought it was kind of weird,” said Guardians writer-director, James Gunn, to thirty-five students in CTPR 386, Jason E. Squire’s Art and Industry of the Theatrical Film class. “But as I was driving home from the pitch for the film, it came to me how that movie could be. I saw how I would be able to make a space opera in the way that I always wanted to make a space opera, using the colors of 50s and 60s pulp films, while still having the grounded-ness of later movies to create this incredible, big movie.”

Professor James Squire and Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director James Gunn with students from CTPR-386.

CTPR 386, also known as “the case study class,” focuses on one current film from start to finish, highlighted by class visits with heads of key departments. Squire chooses a big-budget movie in the fall and a low-budget film in the spring. In January 2015, the case study will be a micro-budget genre movie produced in the DIY style  by an SCA production grad two years out, who has done seven features and never lost money for investors.

Gunn spoke at length about his writing process, his directorial vision, and the difficulties of helming a big budget film in a visit to Squire’s class on November 18th. His epic space fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy, which follows a ragtag band of intergalactic, alien outlaws as they try to save the galaxy from a power-mad warlord, was a massive hit at the box office this past summer, enjoying five non-consecutive weeks at number one and setting the record for the highest August opening in film history.

Given Marvel’s recent big box office wins with their franchise films for The Avengers, X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy’s success may not come as a surprise to most. With Guardians being the 9th consecutive Marvel film to hit number one at the box office, the company’s broad popularity and success as hitmaker was well established. Gunn, however, was less confident. Not only was Guardians of the Galaxy one of the more obscure titles in the Marvel universe, Gunn himself hadn’t yet worked on such a big-budget production.

In working with experienced veterans at Marvel such as School of Cinematic Arts alum Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios and also a class guest, and Joss Whedon, writer and director of The Avengers, Gunn was able to focus his attention on making a great, inventive film, without letting the concern of broad popularity hinder his efforts. Marvel’s encouragement of his unconventional humor and unique voice is, according to Gunn, part of what makes their studio great. “There was one point much later in the process when I went to Kevin and I said, ‘I know how to make a good movie. I think I can make a good movie. I know how to do that, but I don’t know how to make a hit movie.’ And Kevin said, ‘Well, I think I know how to do that.’”

From his first draft forward, their guidance affirmed his creative vision. “[After reading my first draft] Joss Whedon said, ‘This is too conventional. It needs to be more James Gunn’. And, I remember sitting in the room with Kevin Feige and Joss and a couple of others – Jeremy Latcham, Jonathan Schwartz – all the producers, and I thought, ‘This is where Joss is gonna get shot down.’ But he wasn’t getting shot down! And I said, ‘Really? You want it to be more James Gunn?” So, I went home and I made it more James Gunn.”

He elaborated that he still had some anxiety about the film, given the pressures associated with directing a movie with such high expectations attached to it, but steadied himself by focusing on the work. “Was it going to work as a movie? There’s no way you can possibly know that. I had a good feeling. I thought we were in good shape most of the time, but when I’m making a film, I try to focus as much on the quality of what I’m doing, with realizing that the results are not really in my hands.” Noting that he’d written a number of movies that became unexpected hits and some that were disappointments, he advised the class that popularity is too unpredictable a thing to dwell on.

Focusing on the work left him more than busy, especially given Gunn’s hands-on approach to filmmaking. From drawing the initial, rough storyboards himself, to personally overseeing the budget item by item, no aspect of the film went unexamined. “I don’t like not having control over things,” he said, in explaining that even seemingly mundane decisions can have a significant creative impact on the film. “I need to know exactly how much everything costs so that I can balance out my creative needs with the financial needs of the film. To me, financial choices are creative choices.”

With Marvel’s support of his creative vision, a meticulously crafted storyboard in place, and a talented cast and crew, Guardians of the Galaxy slowly came to life.

Looming doubts about the film’s success at the box office still crept in every now and again, but one event early on during shooting alleviated those concerns for everyone, cast included. “We went to Comic Con, and it was me, Zoe [Saldana], Dave [Bautista], Chris [Pratt], Benecio [Del Toro], and [Michael] Rooker, and showed the first trailer –we had shot for 11 days before we cut our first trailer for Comic Con –the audience flipped out. And more so than that, those guys flipped out. They could not believe it. And I think for the first time, they started to see what the movie was.” The fan support was invaluable on every level, from bolstering their confidence to keeping them focused on making a smart, high-quality film.

Now, with Guardians of the Galaxy cemented as an unquestionable success, Gunn is already hard at work on the sequel, recently slated for release in May of 2017 as part of Marvel’s Phase 3.