WEST HOLLYWOOD — Sitting down with James Gunn, it’s clear the writer and director of “Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2” is battling to keep his energy up as he endures a day full of interviews and press conferences for his latest blockbuster. He is also no doubt coming off the high of the film’s world premiere that took place less than 24 hours earlier. A premiere where a good chunk of Hollywood learned that ‘Vol. 2’ is the rare sequel that is possibly better than its predecessor. And, yes, we’re aware that’s a tremendous amount of praise considering how well received the first ‘Guardians’ movie was almost three years ago. But, it’s that good.
Gunn isn’t one to mince words, however. He’s pretty much a straight shooter who will honestly answer your question if he can. This interview was no different. From the rumored “gay/bi” character who might not still be in this cut of the movie (although it’s possible Kevin Feige thinks you can tell) to the ease of getting Sylvester Stallone on board to his massive praise of Tom Holland (playing one of his favorite characters), Gunn pretty much takes it all in stride.
Note: There are no obvious spoilers in this interview, but we’d suggest you re-read this after you eventually see the movie, as some of Gunn’s answers provide some interesting context.
The Playlist: Congratulations on the movie.
James Gunn: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Thought it was awesome.
Oh, thank you. Thank you.
When you sat down to write the screenplay what was your initial story hook? Had you thought about it while working on the first movie?
Well, I mean the first thing I told to the Marvel guys is it’s going to be about Peter finding his father, and his father is Ego the Living Planet. So, I think that was where it all sort of started, and kind of moved on from there.
One of the things I think is going to be surprising for a lot of people is that Yondu’s character has a very significant role and it’s almost the emotional heart of the movie.
He’s the center of the movie, yeah. He’s absolutely the center of the film.
When did that idea come to you?
I think it developed over the script-writing phase. As I started writing, and most of my screenwriting takes place at the story phase, which is I write a long, very in-depth treatment, and during the time of writing that, I kind of saw where it was going to go and how this was really Yondu’s story, It’s really about his love for his son and it’s about his relationship with Peter Quill.
I’ve seen some other interviews were you mentioned there were some other characters you were going to put into the story, but that you took them out because you felt they made it feel too busy. That’s really hard for writers to do, to edit themselves. Is it as hard for you as anybody else?
It was hard, because I loved the character that I cut. But we’ll see that person in the future. But I’m ruthless with myself, and I’m ruthless with making a movie. And I’m always willing to do what it takes to make the movie as great as possible. If that means I have to write another draft and have another go at it, I’ll do that. If that means I have to do another edit, even though I thought the movie was perfect, I will go edit. If that means I have to cut a character or a scene that I loved, even if it’s the thing I love the most in the movie, if it’ll make the movie better, I’ll do it. I have utter and 100 percent ruthlessness when it comes to both writing and directing a movie.
Obviously when you make these tentpole movies, you have release dates, you have hard deadlines, whatever. Are you the sort of perfectionist where you would keep working on it if you could if there was more time?
So is it hard for you to watch them afterwards?
No, I really enjoy [‘Vol. 2’]. I watched the movie last night [at the premiere] and it was the first time I really saw the movie in that format for the whole film. I really love the film. I’m not a person that has a hard time watching my movies, I enjoy them. But you know there’s a couple of things I went, ‘I wish I would change that, I wish we had longer on that visual effect.’ I spend more time than anything else on this movie on visual effects. It’s taken up a large percentage of my time. And a lot of it has to do with, ‘Ugh, I wish I had told them that, or this,’ or something about that type of stuff. Sound notes. There’s a couple of sound notes that I had on the movie last night that I would have liked to have given that I didn’t notice when I was going through the mix. So yeah, there’s little things I always want to change.
You got ahead of a ton of press questions by announcing you were going to do a third ‘Guardians’ movie. Are you planning on taking any time to do anything else in between? Or do you sort of feel like, ‘Listen, I’m on a roll, I’ve got these characters, I’ve got these thoughts in my head, I just want to get them all out there?’
Well, if I do do something in-between, which I might, and there’s a good chance I will. If I do, it’ll probably be after I start working on three and kind of get the basic shape of three in place. And then I will take a little break, maybe. Last time I produced [“The Belko Experiment”], so I went to Colombia for a month. I took time off, I did some traveling, so it wasn’t like I worked the first three or four months after the movie, I didn’t work nonstop. But I’ll take some time off.
I was just curious if you feel it helps your creative juices to work on something else and then to come back to a franchise like this?
I think it helped producing the other movie last time, probably to get me a little of space and a little bit of objectivity. But my first instinct is just keep working on one thing for as long as I can.
I heard through the grapevine that in one of the first iterations of the script, that Mantis was actually supposed to be bisexual or omni-sexual or something along those lines. I didn’t notice that in the movie. Is that true? Was that an idea that had sort of been in the script and then taken out?
I think we’ve talked about a lot of different ideas with different characters and their sexualities and what they are. You know, they’re aliens, so everything is very much up in the air in terms of what their parts are, and who they are. So it could have gone in a lot of different ways. There could have been a lot of different discussions around that at the time. But basically, I felt like for Mantis, it was best to just focus on her as a person. Not around what her sex was, but to make it clear in the movie that her relationship with Drax was not a romantic one. Her relationship was first and foremost a friendship and secondarily a sort of surrogate father-daughter relationship between the two of them.
How many years has she been stuck with Ego? Because there’s a sadness to her, not just because she’s an empath and she feels people’s feelings, but I sort of took it from Pom Klementieff’s performance that it was she’s been alone for long, long time.
I think forever. I mean I think she was a larva stage. So she says at the beginning, when she’s telling Drax where she’s from, she said, ‘He adopted me in my larval stage.’ So that means she was a baby, and I don’t think she’s really … She’s traveled the universe with him, so she’s interacted with people. But she’s never had intimate relationships with anybody other than Ego.
Who was harder to convince to get on board: Kurt Russell or Sylvester Stallone? I know Stallone gets asked to do a ton of stuff all the time and he says no to even some high profile offers. How did you get those guys on board to participate in the film?
First of all, I would never want to convince an actor to do a role in ‘Guardians’ because you want them to be enthusiastic, you know? You don’t want somebody coming in and thinking they’re doing you a favor. I mean yeah, if I have my buddy coming in as a star to do one line for one day, that’s kind of a favor and that’s nice. But you really want somebody who’s going to be enthusiastic, so I would never convince any actor to take on a major role like the two of them have. I don’t think either one of them was exceptionally hard. I think, if you asked me who took more time, it was Kurt. Sly I called and I talked to, we got along on the phone, he’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It was a much smaller commitment for him, he was coming in for four days versus coming in for months and months and months. Kurt, you know, we offered him the movie, he didn’t know anything about ‘Guardians.’ He watched ‘Guardians,’ he loved ‘Guardians,’ he read the script, he really loved the script, but he was afraid that he wasn’t right for the role. And so he had to really go do some soul-searching to make sure that this was something that he could do well. And I respected the hell out of that.
I had an actor who, I won’t say his name, but we talked to him about doing Starlord before Chris Pratt. He went off and he read the movie, and he’s like, ‘I really like this screenplay, but I am not this guy.’ And he passed on the movie. And if that actor had done the movie, we wouldn’t have found Chris, and that actor, he was correct, he was not right for the role. And so I respected Kurt as a longtime professional to be able to figure out whether or not he was going to be able to do the role or not. And if he told me no, I would have been fine with that, because I would have trusted him to know what his limitations were.
I know you’ve also said that, or I guess you said last night on the red carpet, that you’re not against doing more movies in the Marvel universe after the third ‘Guardians’ movie. Are there some characters already in the back of your mind that you’d sort of want to explore? Have you had any conversations with Marvel about them?
I have conversations with them. I talked with Kevin and Lou last night backstage about the character who I thought should be next after — not necessarily me directing it or even writing it — but in terms of where the Marvel MCU is going to go, what characters we would deal with. I’ve talked to them about a lot of different characters, and the one I made a case for last night I feel pretty strongly about, should be the next movie after ‘Guardians 3.’ Within the cosmic universe, at least.
Is there anything you’re most excited about the other upcoming Marvel movies?
I pretty much see a lot of the other ones. I read all the scripts, I give my notes on all the scripts. They fortunately have trusted me from the beginning to take part. They know I love Marvel, and they know I love the movies. They know I love Spider-Man, so when “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was in the works I read [the script] I told Jon [Watts] what I thought and talked to him last night about the movie. So I get really excited about the rest of the stuff. What was the question though?
I’ll rephrase. Is there one thing you would tell someone such as ‘watch for this performance’ or ‘look for this’ in any of the upcoming films? It could be “Spider-Man Homecoming,” “Thor: Ragnarok” or even “Black Panther.” Something that might surprise them.
Well I don’t think it’s a big surprise that Tom Holland is just an amazing find as Spider-Man, and truly fits that role in a way no actor has ever fit that role before. With all due respect to the other actors who have played that role who I think are very talented guys, Tom Holland, he continues to amaze as Spider-Man, and I think people will really enjoy him in that role.
“Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2” opens nationwide on May 5, 2016.