At the start of Guardians of the Galaxy, “A Film By James Gunn” flashes on the screen, and that’s exactly what we get. For a big Marvel movie under the Disney banner, this isn’t the kind of story we expect to see from them, so when the end credits roll, Gunn’s name seems to shine brighter than the audience-magnet brand and the internationally beloved corporate entity above them both. His style survived the blockbuster process.
Of course, once you know the director behind Super and Slither made Marvel’s latest, it’s not much of a surprise. The drama is unexpectedly sincere, while the jokes are wonderfully dirty — a tonal blend he can’t get enough of — while staying strangely innocent in the face of serving a story about lovable misfits finding a higher purpose. There’s no mean-spirited marrow in the movie’s funny bone.
Gunn has managed to top the comedy done by the likes of Joss Whedon, Shane Black and Jon Favreau in past Marvel movies, so when we spoke with him recently, we asked him how he’d pulled it off.
More Time Than He’s Used To
With the galaxy guarding movie’s budget, Gunn could probably remake his last film Super about fifty time. His low-budget indie allowed him to tell the story of Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) the way he saw fit, but it was a movie where they had to accomplish between 45 to 54 camera set ups a day in a single 12-hour period, which is an insane amount of work. On Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn was afforded far more time, so he really had the chance to fine tune a scene or joke until they got it right.
“More freeing,” he tells us about the benefit of large piles of cash. “In this movie for instance, the scene where they’re deciding to save Xandar and they’re sitting around in a circle and arguing, we shot eleven and a half hours of film for that one scene. We shot it all one day, but we kept going and going. We started with Chris Pratt‘s angle. He did a good job. Then we went around and did everyone else, but then Chris came to me and said, ‘I don’t feel I was as good as this scene deserves to be. Can you give me another shot?’ I said, ‘Okay. I think you’re right.’ We turned the camera back around on him.”
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Not only was Gunn pleased with the amount of time he had on Guardians of the Galaxy, but also the level of creative freedom. He’s still clearly pinching himself over the movie he got to make, laughing whenever one of the riskier or more out-there jokes is mentioned. So, naturally, he spoke highly of Marvel and how they pushed harder for his personal comedic sensibility.
“Every step along the way I’ve been surprised by how much freedom Marvel gave me. So much to the point I sometimes doubted their wisdom in letting me do so much,” Gunn says with a laugh. “It’s strange, my first draft probably wasn’t quite as funny as the second draft. They loved the humor, but I was worried about making a movie too funny. I naturally make things funny, I guess. I don’t want to mix genre and confuse people, but they were like, ‘We love it.’ They know how to make a hit movie, while I know how to make my kind of movie. I hope that’s the right path, so I kept going.”
Since Marvel pointed Gunn down that path, we ended up getting Yondu (Michael Rooker). He was brought into the film in later drafts. Thank God for that, because Rooker, playing Peter Quill’s somewhat complicated stepfather, is a blast as a blue skinned thief. He represents the film’s humor well: darkly tongue-in-cheek.
Bradley Cooper and Sean Gunn’s Rocket Raccoon
Already actor Bradley Cooper is earning heaps of praise for his performance as Rocket Raccoon, and for good reason. The angry, bitter, and funny fur pile never feels like a CG creation, but a character just as real as the humans running around. Cooper deserves credit for that, of course, but so does James Gunn’s brother, Sean Gunn. “My brother Sean Gunn played Rocket on set,” Gunn says. “Listen, Bradley is most of the performance because it’s his voice, but a lot of the performance is Sean. In fact, in that scene where they’re sitting around in a circle, all those facial motions and all the rolling of the eyes and everything he’s doing, that’s 100% Sean. We just put his face on the Raccoon. Sean is Rocket on the set. If we’re lucky to do another Guardians, Sean will be as much a part of that as everybody else. He’s a full member of the team.”
The character is a major scene stealer in a movie packed with scene stealers. No Rocket joke fails to hit its mark, thanks both to Cooper and Gunn’s performances. What makes the character’s humor standout more is the fact that its coming from a place of insecurity. It’s a defense mechanism, so his great jokes also serve as a reminder of his dilemma: he was tortured to become the only one of his kind. Deep existential crisis meets the sarcasm button.
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Like Gunn points out, Rocket Raccoon is still very much Cooper’s performance. Nobody is ever going to forget this character, in part because, yes, that is a talking raccoon we’re watching voiced by Bradley Cooper grabbing his nuts.
“Bradley was our top choice,” Gunn recalls, discussing the challenge of finding an actor who could vocally play comedy and drama. “It was after Comic-Con of last year we cast the voice. It was pretty hard, because we auditioned a lot of people for Rocket. We auditioned voice actors, big movie actors, a lot of comedians and all sorts. None of them seemed to work perfectly. I am a super fan of Bradley Cooper. I think he’s one of the best movie stars out there. He’s able to do comedy, drama, and create a character. The people who can do those things are few and far between. Those seem to be the actors I really gravitate towards.”
Vin Diesel Is Groot
Who’d Gunn cast to voice Cooper’s sidekick? Vin Diesel, obviously. The actor, who’s more known for his physicality in action movies, is oddly well-suited for vocal work. Looking at The Iron Giant and Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s a shame Diesel hasn’t done more animation. He’s managed to earn tears, spectacle and laughs in both.
It’s strange to think Diesel does some of his finest work as a humanoid tree that only says “I am Groot,” but just because he only has one line, doesn’t mean the role was easy.
“When we shot the film it was a combination of my brother’s voice, my voice, and Christian, the guy who played Groot on set. They were fine. I thought I was probably the best of those three people,” Gunn jokes. “Then Vin came in. The difference was incredible. I don’t think people will really ever quite get how much he brings to the role. His voice really does fill out the character perfectly. His voice doesn’t seem like it’s human, it seems like a tree talking. He’s a perfectionist who says ‘I am Groot’ at least 300 or 400 times for every ‘I am Groot’ in the movie. He really felt connected to the character.”
If you’re going to cast someone to voice someone from out of this world, who better than Riddick? Each time Diesel delivers that singular line, it’s distinct. More often than not, it’s hilarious. The character has the mind of a child in the body of a nine-foot tree, which leads to some excellent physical humor. Beyond Diesel’s variable inflection, the CG animators certainly deserve credit for the character’s sharp physical comedy.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters August 1st.