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Guardians filmmaker charts the challenges of making a movie in the Marvel galaxy

James Gunn uses his sly humor and distinctive voice to create one of the year’s biggest hits

James Gunn
Writer-director James Gunn, left, with Jason Squire (Photo/Katherine Vu)

Meeting lofty expectations in Hollywood is never easy.

“When I was first pitched the idea of making Guardians of the Galaxy, I thought it was kind of weird,” writer-director James Gunn told students enrolled in Jason Squire’s “Art and Industry of the Theatrical Film” class at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “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.”

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, the case study will focus on a micro-budget genre movie produced in the do-it-yourself style by a School of Cinematic Arts production grad two years out who has never lost money for investors after seven films.

Space saga

Gunn spoke at length in mid-November at USC about his writing process, his directorial vision and the difficulties of helming a big-budget film. His epic space fantasy, which follows a ragtag band of intergalactic, alien outlaws, was a huge hit at the box office this summer, enjoying five non-consecutive weeks at number one and setting a record for the highest August opening in film history.

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

James Gunn with SCA students

Gunn chats with USC School of Cinematic Arts students. (Photo/Katherine Vu)

In collaborating with experienced Marvel veterans such as Kevin Feige ’95, president of Marvel Studios and also a former class guest, and Joss Whedon, writer and director of The Avengers, Gunn was able to focus his attention on making an inventive film, without letting the concern of broad popularity hinder his efforts.

Marvel’s encouragement of his unconventional humor and unique voice, according to Gunn, is part of what makes the 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.’ ”

Being himself

From his first draft forward, the studio’s 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 — 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 still had some anxiety about the film, given the pressures associated with directing a movie that had such high expectations, but Gunn steadied himself by focusing on the work.

“Was it going to work as a movie? There’s no way you can possibly know that,” he said. “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 on the quality of what I’m doing, with realizing that the results are not really in my hands.”

Centering on the work left him more than busy, especially given his hands-on approach to filmmaking. From drawing the initial, rough storyboards to personally overseeing the budget item by item, no aspect of the film went unexamined.

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.

James Gunn

“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 the team’s confidence to keeping it focused on making a smart, high-quality film.

Now, with Guardians cemented as an unqualified success, Gunn is hard at work on the sequel, recently slated for release in 2017.

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Guardians filmmaker charts the challenges of making a movie in the Marvel galaxy

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