Interviews · Movies

Interview: James Gunn Takes the Superheroes Out of ‘Super’

In 2011, Jack Giroux interviewed writer-director James Gunn about his superhero comedy ‘Super.’
James Gunn Super
IFC Films
By  · Published on August 13th, 2011

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful creatives in the industry. In this entry from 2011, we interview writer-director James Gunn about his movie Super.

Super isn’t tied to the world of comics. Writer/director James Gunn didn’t make a satire or a spoof; instead Super is its own extremist beast. The Taxi Driver-inspired religious tale is a gritty, dirty, and dark comedy that just so happens to have the leads sporting superhero costumes.

These aren’t your fluffy and perfect men-in-tights leads, but some seriously damaged individuals.

There’s a jarring dichotomy to the film and its characters, which is something that split both critics and audiences back in April. Frank D’Arbo, a.k.a The Crimson Bolt, is a sympathetic and understandable protagonist, but you question his sanity. Libby, a.k.a. Boltie, gains great glee from slicing up goons in the bloodiest ways possible, and yet has an endearing charm to her psychopathic and wish-fulfillment ambitions. These are repellant characters on the outside, but understandably unstable in the inside.

Here’s what James Gunn had to say about the fluctuating tone, writing a character-driven film versus a set-piece driven film, and making possible psychotics sympathetic in Super:

The film isn’t really a satire on the superhero genre. What was the intention behind not making a satire or poking fun at genre conventions?

I don’t really think it is a satire or a spoof. I think an unusual thing about Super ‐ well, one of the many unusual things ‐ is that it’s really this independent film about this group of people, and it just so happens they put on superhero costumes and beat people up. The fact it’s a “superhero” movie is secondary to the plight of these human beings and their relationships.

Did you also want to distance the film from the genre by having a gritty aesthetic instead of a poppy one?

For sure. From the time I first wrote the script back in 2002, I always wanted it to be a very gritty, handheld film. It was just to really come at a superhero from a completely different angle if you’ve ever seen a superhero movie before.

You shot it on the Red, right? How was that process?

It was okay. I think there are some problems with the Red One that I’ve heard they’ve straightened out with the Red Two, so I’m excited to try it out. One of the things about the Red One is that you have to use a special makeup, so people don’t look like this creepy yellow color. I think any camera that you have to use a special makeup for specifically that camera ‐ that’s a glitch [Laughs]. Also, it’s a heavy camera. Having Steve Gainer, our poor cinematographer who’s an amazing guy and very committed, walking around 12 hours a day doing between 45 and 54 camera setups carrying that thing around, I think the guy permanently injured his back.

Why’d you go with digital?

It was a monetary decision. It was a creative decision in that the speed that we needed to make this film. I knew exactly what my shots were going to be, I knew what I wanted it to look like, and we only had 24 days. We have a lot of effects and explosions along with a lot of acting sequences, which take a little time to get there emotionally. The speed of having the digital was worth it over the film, because the product, in the end, would be better. I like that kind of dirty look, and I always have going back to old ’70s movies and French New Wave. I like that style.

Tonally, the film goes for a very jarring feel. I feel that’s intentional, but a lot of people are just not understanding it or responding to it. Do you find that frustrating?

[Laughs] To be honest with you, Rainn Wilson was just complaining about that to me. It’s, like, that’s what Super is! It’s about having jarring tones, placing two different things together and seeing what they feel like back-to-back, and about feeling as many different parts of ourselves at the same time as we possibly can. It’s also about being inner-disturbing and taking us in directions we don’t expect to go. Yeah, that’s absolutely the tone. I don’t read too many reviews, but some get back to me. It’s a little frustrating when people think that’s some mistake on the part of the filmmaker. I can see that not being your taste, and I don’t think that taste is for everyone. It’s absolutely the intention of the film, and to not see that just makes you seem not that smart. For me, I find it very interesting to be sitting in a movie theater when Rainn is doing his prayer sequence at the beginning of the film ‐ his prayer is very heartbreaking, but also funny ‐ and people don’t know whether to laugh or not, and that’s always what that scene was.

That’s also just a very life-based thing. You could be joking around one minute, and then the next minute your Aunt’s dead [Laughs].

That’s exactly right. My life isn’t just one genre. It’s a romance one minute, an action movie the next ‐ it’s actually rarely, rarely an action film, to be frank [Laughs]. It changes, and I think [the film] is trying to capture that complexity of life. Obviously, a movie isn’t life, but Super does reflect an aspect of that in-between feeling of being more than one emotion at a time.

Is it tough expressing that tone and feel on paper in the script phase?

Well, the script looks exactly like what the movie is. Very little changed from script to screen, and we only cut one scene from the movie and another half-mini scene. Sometimes a script is very explicit with the tone. Like, with the montage and the shift of tone. Sometimes people try to be a little coy when writing screenplays, and I try not to do that. I try to, especially for a movie you’re trying to get made, the time for being coy is over. It’s about being explicit in the writing, so people know what movie they’re making and that everyone is on the same people.

Structurally, Super’s script is very character-driven. Your Scooby-Doo scripts were a lot different being set-piece driven —

You don’t think of Scooby-Doo as a character film? [Laughs]

[Laughs] I’d say they’re very free-form and Terrence Malick-y, actually.

[Laughs] I always think of it as an independent character film, so I don’t know what you’re talking about! It is different, but there are some similarities too. In Super, we have the role of Frank who’s there all the way through the movie. In Slither, the first act was more about Starla and Grant, then Bill Pardy and Kylie came in and became the main characters. Slither is definitely a multi-protagonist film, while Super is a single protagonist film. If you take some of it apart, like the external things of Super, it still has a basic three-act structure.

Is it tricky to write a film like Scooby-Doo, where I imagine you have to write a story around set-pieces?

Yes, it was. The first Scooby-Doo was extraordinarily difficult to do because it was initially written as a PG-13. It got an R-rating the first time it went through the MPAA, and that was the funny part. It was written as something a little raunchy and more for teens. Somewhere along the line after we were filming, the studio wanted to make it more of a pure kids film. To this day, I still think it was sort of a mistake. Both movies did extremely well, but one of the reasons why I think the first movie did better was because teens went out and saw the movie. We didn’t keep the teens, and we only kept the kids [for the sequel]. With that said, the second movie was much more fun to do because we knew we were making a kids’ movie from the beginning.

How would financiers react to the script? Would some not get what you were going for?

Totally. For the most part, it’s like the people who see the movie; they get it or they don’t. To explain that tone to someone seems like a very difficult thing to do. I had a crew member I’ve worked with before who’s a pretty talented guy that I sent the script to, and he sent me all these notes about the violence, the shifts, and all that stuff. I said, “Dude, I’m already making this movie with Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and all these people. They’re all doing the violence [in the movie] for a reason.” I knew Rainn would get it, because I’ve known him for a while and he’s like me. Meeting with Ellen [Page] for the first time, who I think was only 22 years old when I first met her, she totally understood the tone. Tyler Bates was enormously helpful as composer, because he knew we had to have this very delicate balance in terms of what the tone was.

Even during the editing process, was there constant discussion about getting the tone right?

In this case, no. The hard part was the actual shooting of it. The writing was pretty easy, and it was pretty simple to write it. I felt inspired writing it, so it flew quickly. The shooting of it and trying to get down what I had in my head was extremely challenging, because of the low budget, the cold conditions, and like I said, we were shooting between 45 to 54 camera setups a day. Even on an extremely cheap movie, you don’t get that many shots in a day. Once we had it done, I knew what I was going for in terms of the tone. There were a couple places where the tonal shifts were more jarring than I anticipated, and I tried to soften the blow a little bit through music. I think when the editor did the very first cut I needed to bring more darkness in the first act. For instance, with Rainn’s prayer sequence, I needed to darken it up. Even though I have the tonal shifts, I do foreshadow the tonal shifts through earlier moments. It took some work, but simultaneously, it was the easiest movie I ever cut.

Even with all the violence, the film comes off pretty personal and kind of intimate.

I do see the film as being very personal. I totally relate to Frank. The story of Frank is the story of me. Obviously, it’s a metaphor, but I see Frank’s journey as mine in many ways. The question of whether Frank is crazy or not, in some ways, applies to me as well. It was difficult making this movie. I can’t imagine these filmmakers who make every film so personal, because it takes a lot more out of you than another kind of movie. All my movies are personal in a way, even Slither was, but in a much different way.

Did you and Rainn talk a lot about how far you could have Frank go before he loses sympathy?

We thought about it and talked about it quite a bit. It was a matter of showing Frank’s vulnerability, playing him real, and keeping that sadness about him. I think everybody can relate to that sadness of loss that Frank has at the beginning of the movie. He does get a little stalkery about it, but I think we can all feel for that character because of Rainn’s performance. In the hands of another actor, that would probably not be the case. It was the same thing with Libby. I mean, Frank does amoral things, but he’s trying to do the right thing. No matter what he does, Frank is trying to right the world’s wrongs. Libby gets by on the force of pure charisma. She is putting on a costume to rationalize her thirst for violence. The fact that she’s still likable by the end is…

She’s surprisingly endearing [Laughs].

Yeah, she’s very endearing. That’s an amazing testament to Ellen’s abilities. The character was funny on the page, and a lot of people wanted to play her because she was the most dynamic person in the script. [SPOILER ALERT] Also, the fact that her love for Frank seems so sweet, even though she rapes him. I love those contrasts of innocence and corruption, and you see that throughout the movie.

The big surprise of the film is Libby’s death. Why did you feel the need to kill her?

[Laughs] Are you going to write about this in the article?

[Laughs] I plan on using a spoiler warning.

[Laughs] Oh boy, it’s hard not to write about it, like The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. I wanted to take the script in a bunch of different directions, where people don’t know what’s next. A lot of people like movies that are safe, where you pretend you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you really do know. There’s nobody that watches the beginning of Super, and knows where it ends up. I think a part of Super is showing the repercussions of violence. You see these big superhero movies where things are exploding and people are getting knocked unconscious, and it’s not really violence. In Super, when Frank hits someone in the face you see the repercussions. [end SPOILER ALERT]

Religion is a big part of Frank’s journey. Was it important not to parody religion or faith?

The movie is all about morality, and God is a big part of that. You watch movies today and think about all these taboo subjects ‐ whether it’s incest, drug use, or violence ‐ but the biggest taboo in film is God and the role of religion in our lives. You can go see a movie of someone dying of cancer for two hours, and the subject of God never comes up. There’s even a lot of examples of God being taken out of a lot of scripts and movies. It’s something that’s a conversation amongst real people in life, especially with Americans. I think it’s another part of the film where you think if Frank’s crazy and if his religious experience has real value. He has a calling from God but that call is violent, so how do you feel about that? I don’t think I’m making fun of that experience, because I’ve had those experiences myself. I’m making fun of Christian TV a little bit, because that’s just silly. I find that stuff funny, but also endearing.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.