April 3, 2011|James Gunn has spent most of his career rewriting icons of decades past (Tromeo and Juliet, Dawn of the Dead, the big-screen Scooby-Doo pictures), and while I share many of my editor's misgivings about Gunn's latest post-modern exercise, Super, I was looking forward to interviewing him when his PA tour came around to Boston. Gunn had fifteen years on me, but it seemed apparent that our genre obsessions had sprung from similar sources. (Fresh out of college, I relished in the insanity of Gunn's then-recent Slither.) Still, despite our common lexicon, it took us a few minutes to get a bead on each other. "Just don't be like that last guy," Gunn told me with a laugh as I turned on my tape recorder. "He had two recording devices. He turned off the first one, and then I said some stuff that I shouldn't have said, and the thing was still recording. And I'm like, 'oh, fuck'--'cause he got me to say exactly what he was trying to get me to say."
Gunn's piercing blue eyes give him a Daniel Craig vibe, making him seem much more serious and severe than he actually is. At first, I thought he was suspicious of my apparently-contrarian assessments of Super. The truth was that the age gap between us was a bit wider than I had originally anticipated. We're both comic-book nerds, true, but I belonged to a later generation responsible for (as in guilty of) mainstreaming geek culture. Luckily, our dialogue soon became less formal; Gunn answered several of my thematic queries with the quick rejoinder "It's a question," which doesn't come off as evasive or noncommittal--he has strongly-held beliefs culled from experience, and he sees external interpretations as an opportunity to explore the possibilities of his own work.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How has your perspective on the superhero genre changed since you wrote The Specials?
JAMES GUNN: Well, you know, it's just... The superhero is just--it's strange, because it's such a larger part of our lives today, in terms of the world, than it was back then. I sort of long for those days. The Specials was very much geared towards readers of comic books, not fans of cinema. And Super, I think I originally wrote it in 2002, so it was the same thing, it was geared towards fans of comic books. But in the end, it ends up being geared more towards fans of cinema, because that's where the superhero [now] largely resides. So it's just a much different landscape than it was back then. And there's a part of me--y'know, like anything, like the people who like a band, and they think they're great, and all of a sudden they become huge--I think I sort of miss the days where superheroes were just for me... or just for me and my fellow comic-book geeks.
Does something specifically interest you about the Adam West era?
I think only because I was a child, I would watch the Adam West "Batman". And in fact, a lot of my sexuality emerged at that time, because the first things I ever remember being turned on to were Yvonne [Craig] as Batgirl and Lee Meriwether as Catwoman--I mean, really, that was the first time I remember having a woody, was watching those shows and being like, "What is this feeling?" So I think that because it's so closely linked with my childhood, and the innocence of childhood, I have an attachment to it.
You spoke about this relationship between cinema and superheroes. Considering the influence of Taxi Driver on Super, is there something about superheroes that speaks to a contemporary madness to you?
Well, I think it's a question. I don't think it's a statement, I think it's a question. We see Batman put on a cape and cowl, and we take for granted that he knows who the bad guys are, and he knows who the good guys are, and he knows who should be beaten up and who shouldn't be. And I think with Frank D'Arbo, we see a guy who puts on a costume, starts beating the shit out of people, and you're like, "Wait a second, slow down. What is wrong with you that you're doing that?" And I think there's a sort of fascism to the superhero, really, that isn't looked at very often.
At the same time, religion and mythology have played into the superhero since its inception, and with this recent trend, there seems to be an understanding of religious fervour surrounding the superhero, and it seems to interest you specifically.
I think that has more to do with the character than it does with the superhero, for me. When I started writing Super, it was about a guy without powers who became a superhero. But as I went on, that doesn't do it. It's gotta be about a real guy, and as I investigated this guy more deeply...I was really interested in a guy who wasn't a comic-book fan becoming a superhero, and a guy who was a little bit older becoming a superhero. And so--what would drive him to do that? And I think in this case, it's a religious experience, or a spiritual awakening of sorts--and that's what drives him to become a superhero. That's why he thinks he has a calling to put on the costume and go save his wife. So I think it's more a part of the character, and I think it's true for most of the choices the characters make in the movie. It's really [that] the character is more important than the costume, or the fact that he's a superhero. Which in some ways, he really isn't. He wears a costume, and he's a crimefighter, but besides that, he's not a hero in a lot of ways.
So you're saying that this modern obsession with superheroes is being used as an excuse?
Absolutely. I think that we go to the cinema, and we couch things in terms of right and wrong, but what we're really looking to do is to watch people get beat up. And I think the character that Ellen Page plays, Libby, is a perfect example of that. She's the ultimate comic-book nerd in the movie. At least Frank D'Arbo has a calling, or he believes he's doing the right thing--he's trying to right the wrongs of the world by beating people up. He's trying to take this corrupt fucking place we live in and bash it into shape. Libby's character [is] putting on the costume to give her a rationalization--to have an excuse to beat the shit out of people. Isn't that what it's like when we go see movies? I mean, we're not looking to have people do something good on screen. We're looking to watch violence. Just the fact that it's couched in terms of right and wrong--it's an excuse to watch it that way.
You mention Frank's attempt to fix corruption--I've noticed in a lot of your screenplays, your characters resist change to the status quo, whereas Frank wants to change the status quo.
Well, I also think that he resists change. If you listen to Frank and what he says...he doesn't believe in shifting morality. He believes that there are things that are right, and there things that are wrong, and no matter what you say, that's the way it is. I don't really disagree with that, within reason. So, yeah--that's interesting that you say that, nobody's ever said that before.
I found that even with Tromeo and Juliet, I thought the whole concept was this gag on the audience, who half-expect a normal version of "Romeo and Juliet", and it ends with Bill Shakespeare laughing his ass off at you. And with Dawn of the Dead--it goes back to the original version, but you grab that idea that people want their normal lives, and they'll take them at any cost. With Super, I see what you're saying about morality, that's definitely true. But at the same time, it takes a real desire for change to do what he did.
I think he does have a desire for change, but if you see the reason he's doing it at the end of the movie--what happens with Sarah, Sarah's character ends up having the normal life. And I think that probably is part of what I'm interested in--like, I don't have a normal life. I just don't. My brain's fucked up, and I'm terrible at relationships, and I live in Hollywood, and I make movies, and I always wanted to be famous when I was a kid. I'm a fucking mess, you know? But I really appreciate normal people. I come from an immigrant family. My grandparents were from Ireland, and I came from people that were not rich, and that were not special, and were not anything other than what they were. And I have a real appreciation for that. I despise pretension, even though I can sometimes be pretentious. [And] I love pop culture, that's the thing. I love pop culture, I love superhero movies if they're done well. I love stupid shit. I fuckin' loved "Everybody Loves Raymond", I thought that show was great. So I have a real appreciation for that, and I think that that's in Super, but at the same time I also like stuff that's off-kilter, I guess.
So where does your perspective on postmodernism fall? How do you strike a balance between reverence and contempt?
I'm more interested in playfulness than contempt. I do not have contempt for popular culture. I have questions about it--like the violence thing. I think that it's a real question. I don't know why I'm fascinated with violence, but I am. And definitely the audience is, and so in Super I take that thirst for violence that people have and I kind of make it uncomfortable, and make it something that people simultaneously seem to like and dislike, and that's what's interesting about it to me.
Do you want to bring the elements of your childhood to the screen, then, or do you want to bring your adult perspective on your childhood to the screen?
I think it's a question, again. I'm fascinated with innocence, and what innocence has to do to exist within this world, because so few people are. And basically, the world is about crushing out innocence as much as possible. And Frank, despite everything, he's an innocent character. He may he totally wrong, he may be totally screwed up, he may be anything, but he's got innocence, and he believes in certain things that are so simple. And I love him for that. And I think that within Super, to have that sort of "Batman" aesthetic mixed with the hyper-violence of the stuff that we're seeing, is really about that own conflict in myself. I am that conflicted guy. I'm that guy--I really do believe in the good in people, and yet also...like for instance, this job, it's hard. It takes a certain amount of ruthlessness to be a film director. It's a battlefield, constantly. I'm interested in all that stuff.
And you let Frank surround himself with that fantasy even by the end of it.
You mean at the very end of it?
Yeah. You lay the ground rules out. You raise this question of the greater good, but at the same time, the fact that you're putting what are basically comic-book panels all over his walls--this is basically where we started.
Well, no. Because that was Frank--because we have to start with a guy who didn't appreciate any aspect of life. I mean, he's got two moments in his life that he appreciates--and at the end of the movie he appreciates drinking coffee. His life is not happy, it's not a happy ending. But it's happier than it was at the beginning. He's changed. It's a different wall.
I understand that, but you mention these two moments, and it's this fantastical version of them. When you're surrounding him with all of these moments, it's nostalgia--it's false nostalgia to a certain degree.
It's a tough ending, I'll definitely give you that. It's a difficult ending to process. But I really do think that, even with all of the wonderful things he's accomplished by the end of it, the fantasy wins out.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. (laughs) The way I look at it is--it what it is. It's not a matter of saying this is good or this is bad, or this is Frank's ending and it's a happy ending or a sad ending. He's a character that has different facets to him. I would look at him, I'd say he's more connected at the end than he is in the beginning. At least he's got the fuckin' rabbit. I mean, honestly. It's like, at least he has the fuckin' rabbit. That's pathetic in and of itself, and it's sad, but it's still better than where he started! That's the thing. He's got this little thing that really does love him and that he loves. And maybe he'll grow from there. Maybe that's as far as he's gonna get. But it's still a smidge better than where he started.
Is there such a thing as a greater good?
I don't know. I have no idea. Do you think there is?
I don't know. It's a difficult question.
And define "greater good."
Yeah, exactly. I like open-ended questions, sir. That's how I operate.
This is the discussion between filmmaker and critic. These are the things that I ask.
Right, right, right. Yeah, and those are the kinds of questions I avoid! Ah, no--y'know, I don't know. How could I know that? I'm not God! I mean, I have certain things I believe in. I don't know if the "greater good" is one of them... I don't know what that means. I mean, I really don't. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I just don't know what that means. I don't even know if I believe in good and evil. In the movie, I think that I kind of do--I think that I kind of do, like, the way I act towards life. I hate fuckin' child molesters. I hate 'em so fuckin' much! You know, the priest at my school molested the kids. And it's like, even though I was never molested, he fucked up my life because all those kids he molested fucked with me. I hate them, I think they're evil, I just think they should be killed. I hate 'em. I don't know what that has to do [with your question]--but I believe people should be good to each other, y'know? It's just basic. I kind of believe what Frank says. That's a very conservative belief from a pretty liberal guy.
Can that be accomplished through violence?
Sure! Of course it can! That's the question--it seems to be idealistic to say, "No, it can't be." You know what I mean? Listen, wars have solved things in the past. Not always. Usually, they're bullshit, usually they're fucked up, that's the problem with violence. It's that, usually, it's a fuckin' clusterfuck. But sometimes, yeah. Absolutely. There's no doubt! We'd have fuckin' Nazis running all over the world if it wasn't for violence in World War II. Problem is that usually it's a mess, it doesn't usually work.
One more thing--these little contradictions I wanted to ask you about. I wanted to ask why you have the detective tell Frank that he's a dog person, and then later on we see "I Heart My Cat" on his mug.
(laughing) You're not the only person to mention that! I just think--well, first of all, I had a dog and a cat for years, and I loved them both. I dunno, I think he's an animal person. But I also think there's a good chance that he just picked up whatever mug was sitting there at the fuckin' coffee station.
And why you had the same actor play both Jesus and "Guy in Line."
The real answer to that is so mundane. My fake answer would be that that's the guy that compels him to do what he does in that second, and he's also the guy who plays Jesus. And I thought that was kind of cool when I cast the same actor as both. The real reason was it was really hard to get somebody to do that guy in line. The hardest thing to find with actors in Louisiana are actors who can just do nothing--just say a line without acting, you know? And that guy--it was slim pickin's, and that guy was able to do both, and he auditioned the best for both. And so I'm like, "Okay, this could be interesting, we'll have the same guy play both of them."