SXSW Interview: Director James Gunn on his new movie, ‘Super’

When I was at SXSW, I got a chance to see one of the most violent, twisted and funniest movies I’d seen in a while; James Gunn’s, Super.

Starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon, the film is a guy named Frank (Wilson), a cook whose wife leaves him for another man (Bacon). His pain turns into anger and soon, he’s dressing in make-shift suoer-hero garb, whacking (literally!) evil. His alter-ego, Crimson Bolt, takes on a side-kick – Bolty (Page) – and the two set out to clean up their city. From people butting in line at the movies to drug dealers, no one is safe.

It was nice to see Rainn Wilson and especially Ellen Page do something completely different on screen and for that, you have to thank Gunn.

I talked to James at SXSW where, with a sandwich and fries in hand, he talked about how his ex-wife, Jenna Fischer, got Rainn involved, the casting of the film and how he came up with the design of the costumes.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download from iTunes

Ellen and Rainn, those are two unique personalities that seem to fit very well with this movie.

James Gunn: Rainn I’ve known for a long time and he fits the role, Frank Darbo quite well, but I had never thought of him.

I wrote this movie back in 2002, my ex-wife, Jenna Fischer called me up, we had funding a long time ago but I made Slither instead of Super – it’s a long story – but my ex-wife Jenna Fischer called me up and she said – we’re still very close friends – and she said, “What are you doing with Super?”, and I said, “Nothing, it’s a little bit of a weird movie, it’s very violent, there’s a lot of tonal shifts, I’m not so sure we can make this movie. And she says, “Well, I really want you to make that film, that’s my favorite script you’ve ever written and I think that story should be told.” And I said, “Ok, that’s good Jenna.”, and then she said, “Have you ever thought of Rainn to play the role of Frank?” And it was like, yeah it was weird, I’ve been friends with him for a long time and I just had never thought of it. I’m like, “Yeah, ok, ok.”

So, she kind of orchestrated this whole thing, ‘cause she was off talking to Rainn about something and me, she was the one who put it all together, she had some little evil woman thing that she did. And then she went, and she talked to Rainn about it, she got me to send the script to Rainn which I did, and then Rainn wrote me and hour and a half later, he says I’m 22 pages in, my hands are shaking, I’m in. And I was like, “Rainn, there’s a lot of violence that comes up in the movie. Why don’t you get to the end of script before you say you’re in. And he was like, “I’m in, I’m in.”

So from that time forward we didn’t stop and we got Ellen and Liv. Liv is actually the one who got the movie made because she is a big foreign sales person, because all of her movies are huge, so she’s the biggest star in the movie. Because of Lord of the Rings, Incredible Hulk and the Strangers, all of these movies are big, big hits, and she hadn’t done a movie I think in 2 years when she did this movie.

With a movie like this, I would think the actors have to be completely just all in, was it hard to find a set of actors like that?

James Gunn: We’re kind of lucky with it. I mean, Ellen just, of course she didn’t audition for the movie, I didn’t know her outside of just meeting with her on the project, but from the first day on set she has to jump out of her car in her bra in 14 degrees weather, and yelling at these people and going crazy, and she was obviously committed 100%. And she almost fainted on set numerous times to prove it. Liv, I knew a little bit more. I had hang out with Liv a lot before this movie so, I knew that she was really on board for anything. For instance, in the movie she gets her foot shot up with heroin and she insisted that it was her real foot in the movie and that’s her foot on screen.

Most of the actors in the movie were friends of mine. I mean, Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry, I used them in Slither, we hang out a lot. Linda Cardellini is one of my two or three best friends in the world I knew her from the Scooby Doo movie. So all those people I knew very well, I knew what they were capable of, was just really grateful that they wanted to come down to Louisiana, and work for no money.

Does one of the challenges of making a super hero movie have to be, “what can I do that hasn’t been seen to make this movie stand out?”

James Gunn: Well, listen, I find it’s almost the opposite, I find that a lot of people are very comforted going to a movie and knowing exactly what to expect. I just saw Unstoppable on Pay Per View the other night. It’s not a bad movie, you know exactly what’s gonna happen in that movie from scene to scene, I mean there is nothing in that movie you don’t know what’s gonna happen.

Just based on the trailer.

James Gunn: Based on like the first 3 minutes of the movie. You know that, what’s his face is gonna get back together with his wife at the end of the movie, you know they’re both gonna live, nobody’s gonna die, you know they’re gonna stop the train, nothing’s gonna blow up, you know every single thing that happens at the end of the movie. And yet, you still kinda feel this tension, but it’s not so much tension that it’s uncomfortable.

A lot of people are not comfortable with what’s in Super, they’re just aren’t, because the tension is the kind where you really don’t know what’s gonna happen. You don’t know who’s gonna live, you don’t know who’s gonna die, you don’t really even know who’s right and wrong. Is Frank crazy guy? Or does he have a real point? Is he called by God, does he not? You don’t know any of that, and that makes it an uncertain thing for people, and you have to have a taste for that.

There are test for people who like different types of music, there’s actually a scale. And one end is a scale of people who like music that you know exactly what’s gonna come next in the song. It’s like, those very familiar; it’s like a pop song, what will be like teen pop, like the Hanson’s of the world. I guess it’s Justin Bieber’s of the world now, but you’d have very familiar stuff, towards the people at the end who like experimental music, where you don’t know what’s gonna happen from moment to moment. And it’s just where people’s taste can lie anywhere along that spectrum and it has nothing to do with what’s right or wrong; it just has to do with taste. And with a movie like Super, we are way over there; we’re towards the experimental side because you don’t always gonna happen. Yet, within that we have this imagery that’s very familiar with people, the imagery of the super hero, the imagery of the big stars. A lot of different things that are familiar to people.

How did you come up with the look of the costumes?

James Gunn: Crimson Bolt is very specific and I needed a lot of things from that costume, but the one word I kept using was Frankensteinian. Because I wanted it to look like this crazy guy had made the costume, who’s totally OCD and he like, he puts it on, it’s ill-fitting, it’s too tight, so he cuts it open and that’s a patch and then it’s too loose and so he has to cut it again and just tighten it up and he does that all over the cool costume, so it looks demented.

But it also had to have a specific effect where the costume could look funny, and scenes that were more based around the humor, and at the end of the movie it almost looks like he’s a fucking demon. So it has to have both of those aspects to it. I actually drew the original costumes and that’s what we based it on.

Bolty’s costume, we did the opposite. We put absolutely no thought into it whatsoever. I said make it something that a girl can make that she’s gonna do largely from buying stuff in American Apparel, that’s sort of sexy and fetishistic, and she’s much more worried about the way she looks in it than any practical use whatsoever and that’s what that was.

I went to countless, countless revisions of the Crimson Bolt costume. I saw Bolty one time like the day before we shot it and I made one change.

Follow James on Twitter and follow his blog!

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