6 Filmmaking Tips From James Gunn

By  · Published on September 10th, 2014

IFC Midnight

James Gunn made the movie that ruled the summer, which is really fucking weird. Not because he isn’t talented (because he is), but because his rise to prominence doesn’t make mathematical sense. The odds were astronomical. To think about it in the worst way possible, Lloyd Kaufman ‐ the founder of Troma ‐ is still hustling Troma films wherever he can while his Tromatic protege has the #1 movie of the year. He’s a bona fide mainstream success who got his start rewriting Shakespeare so that Juliet becomes a monster with a giant dick. Now, the world has officially gotten his dick message.

But to try to nail down Gunn’s style is impossible. Beyond the genre fuckery of Troma which has proven itself to be a borrowed language, Gunn has also written and/or directed stripped-down horror, a surprisingly family friendly series where a talking dog solves mysteries and a hero satire that’s far smarter and more earnest than Kick-Ass.

Gunn has a fantastically twisted sense of humor, but instead of toiling in obscurity or b-level experimentalism, he’s making blockbusters that millions of people love. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a guy who learned everything from the Toxic Avenger.

Toxie’s Well-Rounded Film School

“The first movie I made was a movie called Tromeo and Juliet, and I truly learned every practical aspect of filmmaking from making that film. I wrote the script, you know, we had location scouts, they couldn’t find the location, so I had to go out and find the locations myself at various businesses and get the signatures, I learned about that. We started filming the movie, I got to choreograph the sex scenes, I got to learn about prosthetic effects, you know, I edited the movie, I got to work on every single aspect of the movie A through Z, through the designing the poster and booking it into theaters. I think the people that have had that kind of experience making films, they’re in the hundreds.”

A section header reading “On whether a former Troma director can fit in on the A-list” falls right below that answer on NPR’s highlights of the interview, and it’s the kind of question/statement that we can easily nod our heads to before realizing how faulty it is. In a world where Lucas and Spielberg invented the modern, blockbusting A-list, it seems strange how natural it is for us to view filmmakers who begin by rocking z-grade schlock as incapable of evolving. Or dominating. I even did it in the introduction, and now I’m ashamed.

The truth is that, if we were given access to the earliest work of most filmmakers, it would look terrible. Plus, those filmmakers didn’t get the added education that came with sending their ugly darlings out into the world to be judged.

The Right Time For Each Scene

On a key emotional scene in Super:

“I knew that Rainn [Wilson] was like Frank in a lot of ways. We actually recorded the voice over narration of the movie before we shot the film, so I had been able to work with Rainn a little bit on being Frank. But on that particular scene we shot that on the second day, and I knew it was a big test to see if Rainn could go there and be as vulnerable as he needed to be for that scene.

I’m very controlling about my budgets on my movies ‐ what we spend time on and how we spend it. On a regular movie you’ll do between 12 and 20 set ups a day, on Super we did between 45 and 50 set ups every day. We were moving extremely fast. But I also knew we needed to take the time for the acting scenes, and especially that particular one. So even though we were moving very fast, that scene we took a lot of time with, just giving Rainn the space. We cleared the set; there are only three or four people in that bedroom ‐ that’s a real bedroom ‐ when we shot the scene. I’m right there at the end of the bed, talking Rainn through the whole thing, two feet away off screen. But it’s a testament to Rainn that he allowed himself to go all that way.”

If you read a lot of interviews with indie filmmakers, the idea that you should focus on speed and energy during filmmaking stands out as the best method…until you read interviews with another filmmaker who values contemplation and perfection. Indie filmmaking comes with the necessity of break-neck speed (because the money is non-existent), but it also often comes with a romanticism about how quick and dirty you can get your takes. The binary between spending a full day on one scene vs. running down the street with your equipment is a false one ‐ some scenes will need more time, others more energy, and if you don’t have any money, you’ll have to be exacting in your judgment of what deserves more daylight.

Save Your Sperm

For those who want/need to avoid the semen analogy, the gist is that you should write a ton for yourself without showing all of it (or even any of it) to anyone because you might get pregnant. I may need to rewatch the video.

Answer the Call

“[Super] was just a more personal film. I like the movie; the movie is what I planned on making. I like the concept of it. Honestly, I just felt called to make the movie. I really tried to not make it. I did. I honestly tried to not make this movie. But I kept getting called back to it. When I originally wrote it, the ending was sort of an inspired moment for me, and I felt drawn to that. And I like the mix of all the different things that it is. I couldn’t leave it alone. I have plenty of scripts that I’ve written that I don’t want to do and I just don’t do them. Like, I had a movie I was supposed to make after I got divorced called The Belcoo Experiment, and I decided at one point that I didn’t want to do the movie, and I didn’t do it.

The little voice in your head at two in the morning makes a good point.

Start From Sincerity

Wired: Were you at all daunted coming from your more tongue-in-cheek indie hero films like The Specials or Super to Guardians?

Gunn: I don’t really think so. I don’t think of those movies as tongue in cheek ‐ I think of all of those movies as totally sincere. There’s a certain amount of ironic elements in Super and The Specials at least, but I still think there’s a lot more similarities between those movies [and Guardians] than differences, if you take aside the budget and the spectacle nature, all that stuff.

Another too-easy tendency is to label Gunn’s work as silly or wacky when the great bulk of it features characters who are genuine. Often they’re honest to a fault. “James” and “Jenna” in Lollilove (written/directed by Jenna Fischer) are stupidly earnest in their desire to help, but don’t have the faculty to understand what real charity is. Frank Darbo in Super dedicates his life (and his pain) to telling crime to shut up not because he worships superheroes (he doesn’t even know much about them), but because he has a deeply personal need to use what little he has to stop evil. Even characters who began literally as cartoons have heart and conviction.

This works as a storytelling advantage because it offers something to anchor the freak flag. Gunn can create outlandish figures and bizarre moments specifically because we’re already sold on the realistic humanity of the stories he’s telling. How do you make us believe in a talking raccoon and a walking tree? Prove that they’re human.

Make Yourself Happy While Making Others Happy

What Have We Learned

First of all, not to underestimate James Gunn. Second of all, to seek out powerful stories regardless of how insane they sound. Third of all, to avoid running away from those stories when they refuse to leave you alone.

There’s another lesson hidden in plain sight when looking at Gunn’s words and work. He is also just now “emerging” as a popular filmmaker, but he’s already got three decades of filmmaking experience under his belt. Screenwriting and directing are both long cons.

So before glamorizing his position or his colorful past, it’s important to remember that all of his advice comes from a storyteller who has been doing this a very, very long time.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.