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A “Super”-Sized Interview with James Gunn

A “Super”-Sized Interview with James Gunn (photo)

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This interview originally ran as part of our Toronto Film Festival 2010 coverage.

Considering all the other subversive stuff in “Super,” it makes a certain degree of sense that in making a film about a self-made superhero of questionable sanity and suspect superpowers, James Gunn found the full command of his own abilities as a writer/director. Known for such cult faves “Tromeo and Juliet” and “Slither,” Gunn has been a master of the gross-out gag and the witty retort for quite some time, but in “Super,” he does the unexpected in making a delightfully obscene film where puke jokes and savage beatings are in service of something genuinely philosophical.

It’s a comedy first, every frame of which is as lovingly handmade as the costume of The Crimson Bolt, the alter ego of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a fry cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) falls back into her drug addiction and into the arms of a local drug kingpin (Kevin Bacon). Convinced he’s been touched by the finger of God, The Crimson Bolt has no talents to speak of, except a particularly good scrambled eggs recipe and enough money to buy himself a sturdy pipe wrench with which to whack local drug dealers, child molesters and thieves before taking on the thugs who’ve taken his wife. He is joined in his pursuit of cleaning up the community by a comic store clerk named Libby (Ellen Page), who reinvents herself as Boltie, an unusually frisky and enthusiastic sidekick who may be even crazier than Frank is.

However, Frank’s journey doesn’t end with blowing up bad guys and splitting their skulls in two – it is the start of a life where he begins to realize its full possibilities as well as even greater tragedies than he’s ever known before. “Super” also could be interpreted as a metaphor for Gunn’s own struggle to put the film together, having spent seven years developing it and stitching together a cast out of friends and family — as he’ll talk about below, he’s made a tradition out of killing his brother Sean on screen — that make this a labor of love that clearly everyone from Wilson to Page to Tyler to Bacon enjoyed working on. The wait was worth it: our sister company IFC Films picked up the film over the weekend, but before they did, I got to talk to Gunn and coincidentally, opened up by talking about its commercial prospects.

I don’t know what kind of success “Super” will have theatrically, but it feels like the kind of film that will live on forever – it’s already being referred to as an “instant cult classic.”

That’s what I hope for. Quite honestly, all I care about is that this movie really affects a few people in a big way and that’s so much more important to me than making a shitload of money. We made it for very little, so it’s going to make it’s money back. It’s just a matter of really affecting a few people in an awesome way.

Even though so much time has passed since you first wrote it, do you find the film’s themes resonate with you more now?

The ending of the movie is why I wanted to make this movie. That was the thing I couldn’t get out of my mind because I was writing it so quickly, but the ending, I know it’s difficult to talk about the ending in an interview, but the moment where Frank says to the audience, “I know you think you know what this is about, but maybe you don’t,” it really was a case of automatic writing for me where that was Frank speaking to me because I did think the movie was about something and it ended up being about something completely different. Those moments of revelation in writing and storytelling for me, at least, are few and far between where I’m taken to one place to another and I don’t really know where I’m going next. That’s what I wanted to do with this movie is to be able to have people not know where it’s going next and I think we succeeded in that, if nothing else.

If the script didn’t change, did the visual style for it change over the years?

It stayed exactly the same. In fact, to tell you the truth, I drew the storyboards for the finger of God sequence right after I wrote the movie and I have a big bulletin board in my office at home and I had those little tiny drawings of that storyboard on my wall for the past seven years. It really didn’t change at all.

The movies I like watching the most are these sort of cinema verite, handheld films where you really get gritty with people. But I also have this strange affinity for old Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies and things that sort of pop out where you see the frames, where you have these 2D animation moments and split-screens and things like that. So much of “Super” is about these contrasts, the gritty and the fake – and to be able to have those two things side-by-side throughout the movie is what I wanted to do from the beginning. Steve Gainer is the DP on the movie and he’s the DP I’ve always wanted. He understands my brain completely.

I’m also a much more confident filmmaker than when I did “Slither.” We planned out every tiny little move in that movie from the beginning and we memorized it and we knew it from the beginning. I was just much more comfortable. I think during “Slither” at times, I was probably a little bit afraid of looking like an idiot because my expertise is with actors and storytelling and pacing and it isn’t with cameras and I learned a lot through that process to really be more confident and I think that’s true of this film, so this film I think is a more accurate reflection of my own vision and how I see films.

Given the amount of time you spent on it and how many different media you used – you wrote songs, you’ve got animation — when you were talking to producers, how much did you bring into the room with you?

Everything. I told everyone straight up that this was the way the movie was going to be. We had original producers about five years ago who were on the film and it was the same script, but those guys were very afraid of the violence. We were going to make the film for a little bit more money and they were very afraid of the violence. The only substantial change in the script was there was another death in the movie where Boltie crushes that guy’s head with the bronze statue [laughs]. [The scene is here:]

That’s the one thing they talked me out of. That’s the one place where I pulled back and I think they were right about that. But I could tell even from the beginning, if the movie was made at that time, they would’ve been chipping away at the violence in the movie.

When I talked to the producers and even the foreign sales agents, from the beginning, it’s like this is not a movie for everybody. It isn’t. It’s a movie for some people. And it’s a movie of extremes and if this movie is going to be different or stand out, we make it for this budget, it’s got to be something that does more than other movies and for us to pull back, I actually think makes it less commercial in its own niche.

As for all the different superhero movies that came out in the interim, what were you thinking during that time?

I was thinking oh fuck, this sucks! I’m not going to lie. It sucked. And Mark Millar’s an online friend of mine and he told me he was writing the “Kick-Ass” comic and I’m like whoa…I’ve got this movie. So it sucked, but you know, there are 3000 bank heist movies, so I think we have room for four non-superpowered superhero movies, which are all pretty fucking different really. Tonally, they’re very different from each other.

Did this hearken back to your Troma days? You’ve talked a lot about doing 54 camera set-ups a day.

I never did 54 set-ups a day on “Tromeo and Juliet.” This is way more than we ever did, but yeah, I think it did. Also, I was making all these big movies and then I went and did this Web stuff. I did “PG Porn” and I did “Humanzee” and that was all this stuff where we had to move fast and we had to work on a budget, but it just reminded me how much I loved making something where there were no restraints whatsoever.

Actually at Troma, I had a lot of restraints because I had a deal with Lloyd [Kaufman] and that means putting a lot of puns in the movie and things like that, which I didn’t necessarily want to put in the movie, but it’s Lloyd’s thing. So I had to deal with restraints there, but when I was doing the Web stuff, I was free to do whatever the fuck I wanted. We had an instant audience. We had people paying for it and it was completely easy. And that really reminded me about how I would like to work that way with the movie, so when Rainn and I went out with this movie, we’re like “fuck it.” If we need to make this movie for half a million dollars, we’re going to do it – we made it for more than that, but it was like if we need to, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make it for whatever we can. And it’s possible. We’ll just use our L.A. “PG Porn” crew – five people, running around and stealing shots and we’ll do whatever we need to do to make the movie.

How did you end up with Rob Zombie as the voice of God?

Rob’s also in “Slither.” He plays a voice on the phone, Dr. Carl, who tells Elizabeth Banks that he hasn’t seen Michael Rooker for a long time, but Rob’s a friend and he’s one of my favorite guys in the industry. We needed a distinctive voice and I like this new tradition I have of putting Rob Zombie in as a voice in every James Gunn film and I will try to continue it for as long as I can.

Should anything be read that you play the devil in the film’s faux Christian TV show, “The Holy Avenger,” on the All Jesus Network [in which Nathan Fillion plays a God warrior who inspires The Crimson Bolt]?

You know, I was not supposed to play the devil. Somebody else was going to play the devil. It’s usually how I end up doing cameos in movies. It’s like something’s going to go wrong somewhere and when something goes wrong, I’ll play that role. And that’s what happened with the demon. I had a good friend who I wanted to play the role, Michael Rosenbaum, and something went wrong and he couldn’t do it. And so I’m like, okay, I’ll play the demon’s role.

You do torture your real-life brother Sean in the film. What was more fun for you? Making him wear an awful Mohawk or crushing him with a car?

The Mohawk he did on his own. This is the third movie we’ve made together and in every movie, he has a fucked up hairstyle. With “Tromeo and Juliet,” which was the worst, he had three little blond ponytails. And then in “The Specials,” he shaved his head bald. [For “Super,”] he’s like, “what do you think if I had one of those ugly guido ‘hawks?” So that was his idea. I’ve killed my brother a lot. And this movie, I kill him twice basically because there’s the beginning of poking him in the neck, although I don’t think he dies. He’s just crippled. I love doing that.

“Super” opens in limited release on April 1st and will be available on VOD starting April 13th. For more on the film, check out Matt Singer’s video interview with Wilson and Gunn from SXSW here.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar

via GIPHY

IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”


Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”


But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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