Interview: James Gunn On Super, Violence, and Roger Ebert

The interview you're about to read nearly didn't happen at all, but because James Gunn is a cool dude (and my publicity contact, Greg Longstreet, equally so), I got a second chance. You see, we were supposed to meet up in the exotic locale of San Diego Comic-Con. But I managed to lose my way to our press room, and no Con employee could tell me where it was. My scheduled time came and went, and then I was sucked into the morass of Hall H, unable to emerge until it was too late.

Normally, this would be the last you'd hear from talent. But no! I got a second chance, and I'm very grateful. I'm even more thankful that Gunn let me do the whole thing by email, since I'm coughing like Doc Holliday (in retrospect, this is probably how I got lost in the San Diego convention center -- the virus was eating my brain) and didn't want anyone to put up with me. Also, transcribing is awful, especially when you're on lots of cough medicine.

So! Now you know the circumstances behind this enjoyable exchange, and why it might read a little hollow on my end. Super is the kind of edgy, controversial, and messy movie one comes away with a lot of questions about, and I was eager to put a few of them to Gunn. There are a few spoilers, but I tried to keep stuff as general as possible in order for you to experience this film as viscerally as possible. I hope you enjoy reading.

Oh, and Marvel? Get Gunn on Hit Monkey, stat. Doctor Strange can wait.

One thing that struck me immediately about Super was that Frank didn't immediately work from a language of comic books and fandom. This surprised me because we see him drawing his cartoons at the beginning, so I fully expected he'd start namedropping comics. But he had to go and do his research. Obviously, this is how he meets Libby, but was there any other reason that you didn't make him a supergeek from the get-go?

JG: I think Super is less about a superhero or superheroes than it is about a guy who is trying to be something more than he is. It’s also more about Frank’s relationship with God (or his idea of God) than it is about someone’s relationship to fandom. So, no, Frank isn’t really a comic book fan. In fact, he’s laughed at in the comic store by other fans for buying Holy Avenger comics.

Frank and Libby are, to put it really gently, rather unhealthy individuals. You worked in a very brilliant Watchmen reference -- Hamilton's "It has to be a sex thing" line, and even Libby's attraction to Frank in his mask -- but was there a deliberate play on the stereotype of comic book readers being emotionally stunted, lonely, and angry individuals?

JG: No, I don’t think so. Again, Frank is stunted and he’s not a comic book reader. Libby is a comic book reader, and she’s stunted, but I don’t think comics have much to do with it. Ellen Page and I talked a little bit about Libby’s background. I think, despite being resolutely middle class, she’s had some difficult sexual experiences in her background -- as have, unfortunately, so many women and girls in our society. I think those experiences are much more responsible for her simmering rage and for her need to overly sexualize herself. As for Frank, I think we see the source of his unhealthiness from the very beginning. I think the only time he ever experienced any sort of love at all is in the beginning of his relationship with Sarah. Strangely, I think Libby also loves him in the movie. I think it’s actually the saddest part of the story -- in a strange way, these two f***ed up individuals are right for each other, but I don’t think Frank ever really sees that or acknowledges it. He’s already focused on someone who has stopped loving him.

The violence in this film makes it really stand out among any superhero-oriented film, and I couldn't help but notice the choice of Libby's Wolverine claws ... and the fact that she uses them with more gore and horror than an actual Wolverine film! Was the violence meant to be a commentary on how bloodless superhero films are -- "Here's what it would look like if Batman really slammed someone into a wall, or Wolverine really gutted someone!" -- or was it a gleeful wish to see that kind of blood in a superhero flick?

JG: Yes to the former. We see so many superhero movies -- and action movies in general -- where people are bashing each other around, but we rarely ever see the actual brutal result of this bashing around. Super is a superhero as it would actually be in the real world. When someone hits someone in the head with a pipe wrench, it’s horrifying.

The imagery of Frank's "Finger of God" vision is quite unique and rather Slitheresque. Can you talk at all about how that sequence came about? What inspired it? Why alien tentacles instead of, say, angels or something more conventionally religious?

JG: Well, it’s not the first time that I’ve admitted that Frank is very much based on me. Like Frank, I’ve had visions throughout my life.  And I even once had an experience where the finger of God touched my brain. My girlfriend thinks my visions are due to temporal lobe epilepsy -- who knows?  Whatever the case, what’s in the movie was just my attempt to visually express my actual experience. So, in that way, as strange as it is to say, that scene is pure autobiography.

Is there a single crime that actually goes unpunished in this film? It seems as if that every character who does something even mildly wrong ends up meeting a gruesome end, whether they butt in line or tell a white lie about being a dog person ... who drinks out of an "I love cats!" mug. There's a very strict, almost medieval morality code to not only Frank's ethics, but the entire film. Would you say that's true, or are these people are just innocent victims of Frank's vigilantism?

JG: I don’t think Felkner the cop sinned or lied by saying he’s a dog person. I am both a dog person and I love cats. Also, if you’ve ever been in an office space, there’s usually a stash of mugs to drink from -- I doubt Felkner even knew what mug he had chosen. I think Felkner’s truth is expressed right before he’s killed, when he stands under Frank’s banner “Some of his children are chosen.” I think Felkner is simply one of his chosen, and it was his time to go. That said, I do think there’s a strict morality code to the film that I can’t deny that I myself adhere to emotionally, if not intellectually. I get chills every time I hear Frank say, “You don’t butt in line, you don’t deal drugs, you don’t molest little children. You don’t profit on the misery of others. The rules were set a long time ago. They don’t change!” Again, I have a hard time wrapping my head around that intellectually, but emotionally I buy it 100 percent. There’s good and there’s evil. People can try to rationalize otherwise, but that’s the way it is, and the way it always will be.

Super ends on such an unexpectedly sweet and happy note. As you were creating this story, was there ever a version where it didn't -- where it did follow the "traditional," bleak, lesson-learned story Frank outlines in his closing monologue?

JG: No. The story always ended the way it did. The ending is almost exactly the same as it was in my first draft, written in one day on April 2, 2002. The last act is what made me compelled to tell the story, precisely because it is a different story than someone else would tell.  Super is an extremely subversive film that simultaneously courts traditional and fringe values. The reason I made the movie was because if I didn’t, no one else would.  Right before Super I was attached to write and direct a big-budget tentpole film with a big star. At the end of the day I felt like there were dozens of people that could direct that movie, so what use was I? It had a great deal to do with why I left the project. Super was another matter.

And speaking of that gentle ending ... your films often veer from very emotional, serious, or dark places into pure toilet humor. Super dared to go a lot of places, and may be the only film I know of that features someone's one true love appearing in vomit. (There may be others.  I don't know ALL movies!) Do you think you will ever do a movie that is "straight", with no bodily fluids or gore, or will you always be a Troma type? (I mean that as a compliment, not a criticism by the way.)

JG: Sure. I don’t have any problems of movies without gore or toilet humor.

Out of curiosity, why a rabbit as the chosen pet? :)

JG: Because I don’t think Frank was ready for a more emotionally developed animal like a dog or a cat. I think, as far as life goes, he is at rabbit level in his own emotional life.

JG: No, I was upset by it. I think it was ridiculous that Ebert mentioned the most shocking reveal of the film in the first paragraph of his review. It’d be like talking about how Bruce Willis is a ghost in the first paragraph of your Sixth Sense review.  I mean, I feel for Ebert -- I do think he’s losing it a little, maybe a little senile. But, still, it was a f***ed up move on his part, and the part of the Tribune, who published it.

Much of your work tends to have a fun, comic-book sensibility. Would you ever consider writing for comics, either for a pre-established, ongoing series or of your own creation?

JG: Yeah, for sure. I just did my first video game, Lollipop Chainsaw, and I look forward to doing my first comic someday. But it’s hard to find the time. I had a deal with Marvel a few years back to create a series. I was way into it, but I got distracted by movies as I often do.

It seems as if everyone is clamoring for a shot to write or direct a superhero property.  Would you ever like to be handed the reins of one of these major Marvel or DC tentpoles? And if so, which one would you want?

JG: There’s a few I’d consider. But my problem is I’m more interested in lesser known entities. I’d love to do a balls-out Hit Monkey movie. You probably don’t even know who that is, but he’s an assassin monkey who kills other assassins. It’s a Marvel product.

Could you ever be tempted to make a sequel to Slither?

JG: The problem is Slither didn’t make enough money to do a proper sequel. Had it made a lot of money, I would have done it. We talked a lot about it. I think it was going to take place in Vegas, and Bill, Kylie, and Starla would be together again, but would all have a sort of post traumatic stress disorder from the ordeal of the first movie.

What happened to Humanzee?

JG: As in why aren’t there more episodes of Humanzee? I love Humanzee, and I have some scripts for more Humanzee episodes I love even more. But Humanzee had some inherent problems. Firstly, my brother was in constant agony in that makeup. And as much as I like making Sean suffer, it was too much for me and for him. Humanzee also cost way more than, say, PG Porn. Now, not much -- 10 grand an episode vs. two grand an episode -- but it also had a smaller audience. Finally, Xbox originally financed Humanzee but was freaked out on how taboo it was and dropped it. So we don’t have any financing. If someone wants to finance a Humanzee series, I’m definitely game.

What's next for you?

I’ve got Lollipop Chainsaw, a video game with Suda 51, Grasshopper, and Warner Bros., coming out some time in the next year. And I have Movie 43, a collaboration with the Farrelly Brothers and other comedy directors coming out in theaters in April. After that, your guess is as good as mine.

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