James Gunn on His TIFF Hit SUPER, Sidekick Sex and Blending Art House with the Grindhouse

super_page_wilson_500.jpgJames Gunn just spent one of the most successful weekends of his life in Toronto, premiering his new superhero-splatter-comedy SUPER to Midnight Madness raves before selling it off to IFC Films in the festival's first distribution deal. In the end, though, Gunn's biggest triumph may have come in writing and directing the film he wanted to make exactly how he wanted to make it, with Rainn Wilson's nobody Frank adopting the crimefighting persona the Crimson Bolt after his wife (Liv Tyler) is all but kidnapped by a local drug baron (Kevin Bacon). It's a lot harder than it sounds in an age of indie-market turbulence, comic-book genre saturation, and even Gunn's own creative apprehensions following his 2006 debut Slither. He spoke to Movieline about these and other subjects -- from Joe Strummer to God -- over the weekend.

That premiere the other night was amazing. What was your impression as it was all unfolding?

[Long exhausted pause] My brain is a hard thing to explain, so that's a very complicated question. I try not to judge anything in life. I just try to move forward and take it all in. But if you're asking me if I think it went good or bad, it seemed to go quite well. I was very touched by all the people who came from so far away to come see the movie, and I was very touched by all the tweets I received this morning from all the people the movie affected. So that, to me, made it very worthwhile.

The subculture we've seen growing around SUPER in the last few months -- especially over Twitter and social media -- is kind of unprecedented. It's a community. Can you explain a little bit about building that community and why you wanted to be a part of that?

When I was a kid, I met a couple of people -- Joe Strummer was one in particular -- who were very nice to me. I was at a record store one day, and I went up to him and I said, "Mr. Strummer, you don't know me, but I think you're great. Thank you for everything you've done." And I shook his hand and went to walk away. And Joe Strummer followed me and hung out with me for about 20 minutes, talking to me about life. I thought that was a great thing. Another thing is that I wrote the comic-book artist John Romita Sr. when I was a kid, and he would write me back, and we would talk. Having contact with these guys... I mean, I was from Manchester, Missouri. I didn't have any contact with these people I thought as sort of beyond me. By having contact with them, it was really important to me. I'm not sure that without those three or four people who were successful in the entertainment industry being nice to me as a kid I'd be doing this today. So I feel like having communication be two ways with people who are my fans -- or not even my fans, but who are just interested in moviemaking and how you go about doing it -- I feel good about it.

Another relationship whose influence is conspicuous in SUPER is Troma, for whom you worked on projects before moving on to Slither. How did those years inform what you're doing now?

To be honest, most of what I got from Troma was production. There's a production experience with Troma that you don't get anywhere else. There's a way to do things very expensively that you don't learn how to do anywhere else. But also, one of the reasons I think Lloyd Kaufman and I get along so well and that we're such good friends is because Troma wasn't bound by any one genre. When he came out with those movies -- especially The Toxic Avenger -- that combined slapstick, splatter/gore, action and the superhero movie in a way that had never been done? He invented that! That was very influential to Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, everybody. I really admire that -- the ability to mix genres.

There are bad examples of ways people have tried to transcend the genre. There's a great quote from Joss Whedon where he says, "I don't want to transcend the genre; I want to embrace the genre." And I think it's accepting genre conventions and wanting to play with them -- not in a way that makes you better than them, but being able to use things in a way that's even more entertaining than what you'd originally seen. It's a dangerous thing to do. I did it with Slither, which made a very difficult road for that movie. And so I'm doing it again, but I feel a little bit more confident this time in the way I'm going about it and what the movie is. This is truly more of an art film, even though it has grindhouse aspects to it. It's different than Slither.

What made you more confident?

I directed a movie! I was always very confident with actors, but on Slither, maybe there were times I held back a little bit on dealing with the camera. I'm not a DP. And there were times I held back even from actors sometimes. I'd hold back saying what I really thought. On SUPER, I went into this movie saying, "There is nothing I'm going to hold back." Directing a sex scene with Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson is not easy! To be sitting there and saying, "Ellen, move your arm in this way so it looks like you're jerking him off..." That's a hard thing to say on set! And it used to be something I'd maybe shy away from. But any time I held back, it was really to the detriment of the film. So I wanted to really go all out there with any thought, any feeling I ever had.

I'll be completely honest: On Slither, it was still very important for me to be liked by people. And I like being liked. It's great! But I'd rather make a good movie than be liked. I'm not saying I'm going to be a jerk, but I'm not going to walk around couching what I say as opposed to just coming out and saying exactly what I mean every morning and always being true to that vision of what SUPER was. Because what SUPER ended up being was exactly what I intended SUPER to be when I first started writing the movie. Nothing has changed. I stayed true to the original vision. Right or wrong, it is the movie I wanted to make. I was committed to speaking up and staying true to that vision -- as outrageous as some of the ideas seem at times.

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  • The Winchester says:

    Really regretting not renewing my passport and attending Toronto this year. I have a feeling SUPER is a flick with my sensibilities.
    Terrific interview. Slither is one of those underrated gems I have to watch every Halloween since its release.

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  • jackson says:

    How much coke did he do right before this interview?
    Take it easy, man.

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