James Gunn’s life in some ways resembles that of Frank D’Arbo, the anything-but-super lead in his new dark comedy, Super. In the film, it’s a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) who steals the love of D’Arbo’s life (Liv Tyler) and propels the awkward diner cook (Rainn Wilson) into “the depths of hell.” There, he finds his skin: a shoddy red costume that serves as a disguise for the Crimson Bolt, who fights crime with a monkey wrench and sidekick Boltie (Ellen Page).
For Gunn—whose passion for film matched that of his four brothers—it was after stints as a rocker, hospital orderly, and author that he found his own skin, as a director. The Saint Louis University grad moved to L.A. in 1998; married fellow St. Louis native Jenna Fischer and divorced seven years later; directed critically acclaimed horror flick Slither in 2006; and finally wrote and directed Super—a movie at least six years in the making, a “ridiculous journey,” as Gunn describes it. That film is now poised to propel Gunn to greatness, as D’Arbo’s own ridiculous journey did for him.
“When I do a movie like Super, I think back to films that moved me as a kid,” says Gunn. “Things that made me feel like I wasn’t as alone as I often felt, being a weird kid from Manchester, Mo.”
As you were growing up, what movies left the biggest impression?
Strangely, the two movies that affected me—and maybe not in the way most people would think—were Night of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th. Those were both made for an extremely low budget. I saw those movies and I was like, “Wow, this is not something that’s completely outside of my reach.” You could go into the woods with a bunch of friends and shoot a movie where a slasher is coming and killing all of us without much special effects or money.
At age 12, you’d make 8-millimeter films with your brothers being devoured by bloodthirsty zombies. How did you do the special effects?
I read Fangoria and things like that, which taught me how to do basic makeup effects. We would use tissue paper and Karo syrup and red food-coloring dye—that’s how you made gore. For ray guns, you would scrape a line with a needle in the actual 8-millimeter film.
After graduating with a psych degree from SLU, you went to get an MFA at Columbia University, which you’ve written “may have been a wonderfully expensive waste of time.”
[Laughs.]Columbia has completely shunned me because of that statement... You know, you spend a lot of money to go to school, and I learned a lot. But I think it’s kind of silly for people to spend that kind of money to learn to write when there are a lot of free writing groups out there. It costs about $100,000 to get an MFA from Columbia, and I think I sold my novel The Toy Collector for $50,000.
It seems like your job at indie studio Troma Entertainment was far more valuable.
Exactly. I went and worked for Troma Studios, and I got paid $400 per week—which for Troma, frankly, was a whole lot of money at the time. I learned a lot about practically making movies. With Tromeo and Juliet, my first film, I learned how to write a screenplay, how to produce a film, scout locations, direct actors, put the movie into theaters, create the poster art—everything from A to Z.
Did you have a mentor at the time?
[Troma president] Lloyd Kaufman. I was like a son to him, and I still am... A lot of what Lloyd taught me was the production of filmmaking. I learned to try to make a movie for free, and you’ll end up spending the bare minimum of what you can spend.
It seems you’ve stuck with that philosophy—not trying to make blockbusters, but producing cost-efficient movies for certain audiences.
That’s the thing—everyone today seems to want to make movies for everybody. They talk about four quadrants in Hollywood: males, females, young, old. In some cases, like Toy Story 3 or Iron Man, that works really well. But as a kid, I liked seeing David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, or Hal Hartley’s movies—these films that I felt were made specifically for me… With a movie like Super, it’s fantastic, because our budget was a hundredth of Iron Man. For us to make a movie for a quarter of a quadrant, we can make a bigger profit than Iron Man.
Shortly after working at Troma, you visited the Cannes Film Festival, where you had a “spiritual awakening.” What happened?
I was writing the book for Lloyd—All I Need to Know About Filmmaking, I Learned From the Toxic Avenger—and I was very frustrated because I was not getting the attention that I wanted. So I got on my hands and knees, for the first time in a long time, and prayed to God, “Should I finish this book or not?” And the words went through my mind as clearly as the words of you speaking to me now, which were, “Finish the book.” And that was followed by what I can only call a spiritual revelation, which was essentially that I needed to quit caring what everyone else thought about me, and finish the projects I started and everything will be OK. I swear to God that within two months, I had moved to Los Angeles; I had an agent and a manager and a lawyer; my second movie, The Specials, was going to get made; I got two TV pilot deals; and I had a deal to write a movie for Warner Brothers. It was really overnight success after killing myself for over 10 years.
The year 2000 was huge for you: You wrote the script for Scooby Doo, published The Toy Collector, and married Jenna Fischer. How did you and Fischer meet?
We met through my brother Sean, because they did plays together in high school. When we were doing the movie The Specials, we did readings of the script to potential financers, and Jenna played the main female role—one of the roles that was sort of opposite me. We started dating about a year after that.
In 2004, you starred together in Lollilove.
That was 100 percent Jenna’s idea. The whole thing was improv, so that’s why I guess I get writing credits at times... What’s interesting about it is it was before The Office. I think it’s because of that training for Jenna—doing that sort of realistic character on film—she learned how to do that style of acting that then became [her style in] The Office.
That same year, you wrote the remake of Dawn of the Dead. How did that come about?
I was a huge fan of Dawn of the Dead. In fact, I had the poster for the original movie on my wall throughout high school—and I only had maybe five posters, that were mostly Clint Eastwood movies. The producer, Eric Newman, called me and said, “What do you think of doing a remake of Dawn of the Dead?” To do the remake of a sequel seemed strange, but I instantly started to see how the screenplay could work.
What did George A. Romero [director of the original Dawn of the Dead] think of it?
Romero’s exact words are, “It’s a good action movie.” So I think that’s sort of a backhanded compliment, but I’ll take a backhanded compliment if that’s all we get.
Your directorial debut was also a horror movie: Slither. What did you take away from your experience with that?
I learned to fight for what I believed in. At the time, a lot of horror movies were not screening for critics. Universal wasn’t going to spend the money to screen Slither for critics… But I woke up at 5 the next morning, and I just had this instinct like that wasn’t right, so I wrote this long email to the heads of Universal saying, “I really think we should screen it for critics, and here’s why.” So we screened it for critics, and it ended up being the best-reviewed horror movie in the last 10 years. The truth is that Slither was not financially successful, so the fact that it was so well-reviewed really helped my career. There are times in life when I just have to follow this instinct, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
You’re very hands-on with your films. You often write, act, direct; you even designed the costumes in Super. What’s your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
I feel like I’m called to write and direct; it’s hard for me to disconnect those two. The reason for me is, you come up with an idea, you write it, and the final draft of a screenplay is the movie itself. I don’t think there’s a huge difference between writing and directing a film—not for me. When you’re directing, it’s just putting the visual aspect to it.
Is part of the reason that you’re so involved because you want more control?
I’m crazy controlling! It’s an issue in my personal life—even in my professional life, I guess… With Super, we had the financing for it from another company in 2005, but we couldn’t agree on a lead actor... The only person that I thought could do it at the time was John C. Reilly, but they didn’t think he was a big enough star at the time. There were all these other actors that wanted to play it, but I couldn’t say yes to someone who wasn’t completely right for the role… I just wanted it to be the way I see it in my head, otherwise you corrupt it little by little. With Super, I didn’t change a single thing from the way I saw it.
How did you pick Rainn Wilson as the lead? Through Jenna?
Yeah, when Jenna first got The Office pilot, we hung out with all those guys quite a bit, and I really hit it off with Rainn… It’s actually because of Jenna that Super exists. Jenna and I are still very close—we talked this morning, in fact. We weren’t the best at being married, but we’re the very best at being divorced, and we see each other quite frequently. She called me up two years ago and said, “What are you doing with the script for Super? That’s my favorite script you’ve ever written, and I really want you to make that movie.” She said, “Have you ever thought of Rainn?” And I said, “Wow, that really works!” I’d known him for a long time, and I just never thought of him for the role. She told Rainn about it, and he’s like, “Send me the script right away.” I sent him the script, and I get a text from him about two hours later that’s like, “I’m 22 pages in. My hands are shaking. This is exactly what I want to do. I’m in!”
And it’s because of a tweet from Wilson that Super was possible, right?
Rainn and I pitched to a low-budget company, and he tweeted that we were going out and doing an f’d-up, low-rent Watchmen—something like that. The producer, Ted Hope, read that tweet and started pursuing us to get the screenplay and to become the producer on the project… It’s because of Ted that we got the financing; without him, it never would have happened.
There’s a scene in the movie where Frank goes to fight crime on Euclid Street. Is that a coincidence, or is it a bit of a nod to
[Laughs.]Yeah, that’s a little call-out…to my own days back on Euclid Ave.
Any chance you’ll return to St. Louis when Super opens here?
I’m certainly coming back to town. The movie opens April 15 in St. Louis, at the Tivoli, which is always great to me because it was a place that was very important to me when I was growing up. In fact, I saw Dawn of the Dead for the first time at the Tivoli.