Movie Interviews
4:00 am
Fri August 1, 2014

'Guardians' Director: This Movie Needed Me!

Originally published on Tue August 5, 2014 12:02 pm

Marvel's cinematic universe of superheroes has become one of the most successful movie franchises ever. So it's easy to forget that less than a decade ago, Iron Man and Captain America weren't even on the radar of many filmgoers.

Now, Marvel's pinning its summer blockbuster hopes on an outer-space misadventure that features heroes from one of its more obscure comic book titles: Guardians of the Galaxy. They're hoping to create a Star Wars-scale epic — with a director who's never directed anything this big: James Gunn.

"The Guardians of the Galaxy are a bunch of criminals and misfits, most of them are orphans of one type or another who don't fit in anywhere else in the world," he tells NPR's David Greene.

They include a would-be interstellar outlaw called Starlord, Gamora the green woman, a walking, talking tree named Groot, and a homicidal raccoon named Rocket, who's voiced by Bradley Cooper. "Many of them are the only members of their species, and they come together and find a cause greater than themselves," Gunn says.


Interview Highlights

On Rocket Raccoon

Rocket's this mutated little beast, he's a character from the island of Dr. Moreau, he's a small animal who was taken and experimented upon, and turned from this little innocent animal into something that was completely and utterly alone in this world, because there's nothing else like him. And he has no attachment to anything else except this talking tree, who he doesn't really treat too well in the first place.

On getting the audience to identify with Rocket and his mostly non-human team

I identify with all of them, I think that at the heart of this story, strangely, I think there's a story about a boy's relationship to his mother — which is Starlord and his mother, who he leaves Planet Earth and his mother dies at the beginning of the film, and all he has left from his mother is this cassette tape, this mix tape that she made for him of her favorite songs. And I think that there's a lot of movies about boys and their fathers, and there's some movies about girls and their fathers or girls and their mothers. But for there to be a story about a male child and his relationship to his mother is a sort of unique thing, especially for a spectacle film with, you know, a spaceship chase and space battles and talking raccoons and so on.

On what he learned from working with Troma, the famed independent horror-comedy studio

The first movie I made was a movie called Tromeo and Juliet, and I truly learned every practical aspect of filmmaking from making that film. I wrote the script, you know, we had location scouts, they couldn't find the location, so I had to go out and find the locations myself at various businesses and get the signatures, I learned about that. We started filming the movie, I got to choreograph the sex scenes, I got to learn about prosthetic effects, you know, I edited the movie, I got to work on every single aspect of the movie A through Z, through the designing the poster and booking it into theaters. I think the people that have had that kind of experience making films, they're in the hundreds.

On whether a former Troma director can fit in on the A-list

I really felt like it was a movie that I needed to make. I grew up loving big budget spectacle films — I mean, Star Wars changed my life as a kid. You know, the most relevant films today are truly spectacle films. Those are the films that people go to see in the theaters today. And it's important for me to be relevant. And yet I feel like most spectacle films have become so boring, where story isn't important, where they try to get so dark and so brooding that it really becomes sort of pathetic. And where they're just sort of one explosion after the next with just no connective tissue whatsoever. And I felt like the movie needed me, frankly!

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Marvel's cinematic universe of superheroes has become one of the most successful movie franchises ever. So it's easy to forget that less than a decade ago "Iron Man" and "Captain America" were not even on the radar of many theatergoers.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now Marvel's pinning its summer blockbuster hopes on an outer space misadventure that features heroes from one of its more obscure comic book titles "The Guardians Of The Galaxy." It's hoping to create a "Star Wars" scale epic with a director who's never directed anything this big, James Gunn.

JAMES GUNN: "The Guardians Of The Galaxy" are a bunch of criminals and misfits, most of them are orphans of one type or another who don't fit in anywhere else in the world. Many of them are the only surviving members of their species and they come together and find a cause greater than themselves.

MONTAGNE: There's one human in the group, he goes by Star Lord and he's a would-be outlaw in the mold of Han Solo. He's played by Chris Pratt from the TV show "Parks And Recreation."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY")

DAVE BAUTISTA: (As Drax) Who are you?

CHRIS PRATT: (As Star Lord) Star Lord.

BAUTISTA: (As Drax) Who?

PRATT: (As Star Lord) Star Lord, man, legendary outlaw?

MONTAGNE: It's not long before Star Lord lands himself in jail with the rag tag crew. A green woman named Gamora, a walking talking tree named Groot and a homicidal raccoon named Rocket who's voiced by Bradley Cooper.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Rocket) I ain't going to be here long. I've escaped 22 prisons. This one's no different.

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION'S David Greene spoke with director James Gunn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GUNN: Rocket's this mutated little beast. He's a character from the Island of Doctor Moreau. He's a small animal who was taken and experimented upon and turned from this little innocent animal into something that was completely and utterly alone in this world because there's nothing else like him and he has no attachment to anything else except for this talking tree, who he doesn't really treat too well in the first place.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, I wanted to ask you about the talking tree, Groot. You know, you chose Vin Diesel, the actor, to do the voice. And literally all this tree says over and over again is, I am Groot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY")

VIN DIESEL: (As Groot) I am Groot.

PRATT: (As Star Lord) So what?

DIESEL: (As Groot) I am Groot.

PRATT: (As Star Lord) Yeah, you said that.

GREENE: Why cast a huge star, like Vin Diesel, in a role where he's only saying three words?

GUNN: It sounds so silly. The only language that Groot has is being able to say, I am Groot. And even though he has to say, I am Groot, Vin and I went through every single line very specifically and I gave him a script of exactly which I am Groot meant in the movie. And some of them are very long, sometimes I am Groot means a paragraph of speaking. And Vin would go through and he would say, I am Groot probably 250-300 times for every single time he needed to say, I am Groot. And you can get a pretty good idea of what Groot is saying every single time just by the way Vin did it.

GREENE: And, I mean, this is not a totally conventional group of characters, as you say. Groot the walking tree, you've got an anthropomorphic raccoon. How does an audience identify with these sorts of things?

GUNN: I identify with all of them. I think that at the heart of this story strangely I think there's a story about a boy's relationship to his mother. Which is Star Lord and his mother who he leaves planet Earth and his mother dies at beginning of the film. And all he has left from his mother is this cassette tape, this mix-tape, that she made for him of her favorite songs and I think that there's a lot of movies about boys and their fathers. And there's some movies about girls and their fathers or girls and their mothers. But for there to be a story about a male child in his relationship to his mother is sort of a unique thing - especially for a spectacle film with, you know, spaceship chase and space battles and talking raccoons and so on.

GREENE: Well, while you've worked on some pretty big budget movies. I mean, you worked with an independent movie studio, Troma, you made a movie with them, "Tromeo And Juliet." I mean, they're also known for things like "The Toxic Avenger" and "Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead." You know, B-movie style, sex, gore. Did you learn anything from those smaller films that sort of you're using with this big one?

GUNN: You know, I think that I learned, you know, the first movie I made was a movie called "Tromeo and Juliet" and I truly learned every practical aspect of filmmaking from making that film. I wrote the script, you know, we had location scouts that couldn't find the location so I had to go out and find locations myself at various businesses and get the signatures. I learned about that. We started filming the movie, I got to choreograph the sex scenes. I got to learn about prosthetic effects. You know, I edited the movie. I got to work on every single aspect of the movie A-Z through designing the poster and booking it into theaters. I think the people that have had that kind of experience making films that are, they're in the hundreds.

GREENE: Isn't there often a concern though that a director who has had that kind of experience on smaller films doesn't totally fit with an A-list movie? I mean, I've seen you quoted saying that, you know, other A-list films you've worked on they were trying to get you to be vanilla, you felt like it was useless and there's so much money at stake. I mean, this new movie is huge. It has a huge budget. What was it that made you feel comfortable that this would be a good fit?

GUNN: I really felt like it was a movie that I needed to make. I grew up loving big-budget spectacle films. I mean, "Star Wars" changed my life as a kid. You know, the most relevant films today are truly spectacle films. Those are the films that people go to see in the theaters today. And it's important for me to be relevant. And yet I feel like most spectacle films have become so boring where story isn't important, where they try to get so dark and so brooding that it really becomes sort of pathetic. And where they're, you know, just one explosion after the next with no connective tissue whatsoever. And I felt like the movie needed me, frankly.

GREENE: One of the lead characters, Peter Quill, Star Lord, carries around a Walkman that was very important to him as a child. Did you have a Walkman as a 9-year-old?

GUNN: Yeah, I mean, I definitely had a Walkman as a kid and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. That was a wonderful piece of modern technology. When I first started working on the screenplay for this movie I was afraid I didn't know where I was going to go with it. And then the Walkman popped in my head. I went with this thing that they were the songs that Quill's mother loved, they were 1970s pop songs, and that was really, to me, that's the seed of the entire movie. All the rest of the movie sort of grows from that. The Walkman, the relationship to Quill's mother. You know, there's an orb in there that everybody's chasing after. That's the MacGuffin on a sort of practical plot wise but the real thing that is the center of the movie at least is the Walkman and the cassette tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Put down a feeling.

GREENE: Alright, James Gunn, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for taking the time. Best of luck with the movie.

GUNN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: David Greene talking to Director James Gunn. "Guardians Of The Galaxy" comes out today. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.