James Gunn, whose previous credits include irreverent horror-comedy Slither and the underrated, pitch-black Super, is no exception, and feels like an ideal fit for the off-kilter tone of Guardians. Dubbed an "anti-hero superhero movie", the movie centres on an American pilot, Peter Quinn (Chris Pratt), who becomes the object of a manhunt after stealing a mysterious orb, and is forced into an uneasy alliance with a group of fellow fugitives.
When Digital Spy visited the movie's set last year, we had the chance to sit down with director James Gunn and pick his brains about the casting process, how Guardians ties into the rest of the Marvel universe, and why a talking raccoon might just be the heart of Marvel's least heroic movie to date.
I had to have sex with all the Marvel executives. [laughs] I went and met with them and at first I wasn't sure about it, but then I went home and couldn't get it out of my head. I wrote up a document that was like twenty pages long – and they weren't hiring me to write the screenplay they just wanted to hire me to direct. But I just could really, clearly see what the movie was visually and wrote about that and that got me to the next level. There were about eight guys in the beginning, and then there were five guys, and then two guys, and then there was just me. Which was pretty great.
Did you talk about what you think the film is about in that pitch?
Yeah, totally. I think this movie is just about family – they're a bunch of people who don't have a family and they learn to love each other. Some of them are heroes and some of them aren't at the end of this movie. And I think this is a movie about giving a s**t. We live in a world where not giving a s**t is the coolest thing, and that's what kids are taught, and this is a movie that shows it is really okay to give a s**t.
People are saying that this is the riskiest Marvel property…
I don't think it's Marvel's riskiest property, I think Iron Man was by far the riskiest Marvel property. That was a company that didn't have much money, raising money to make a film based on a property that wasn't that much more well-known than Guardians of the Galaxy, so I don't think it is even close to the riskiest Marvel property.
Would it be fair to say that this is the most morally grey Marvel movie so far?
I would say that the characters start the furthest from heroism of any Marvel movie so far.
You've said that Rocket Raccoon is the heart of the movie. What do you mean by that?
It really means that this is a movie that has a talking raccoon in it, and it's very important that it is not the Avengers with Bugs Bunny in the centre of it. It's really important that Rocket is a real creature, and I love him, and he is the heart of the movie. He's the most representative of the Guardians in that he is this mangled beast that was taken and experimented on and torn apart and put back together, and we have to feel that character's soul. If we feel that character's soul and we know him and we love him, we see his plight and see why he is such an angry little guy, then the movie will work.
What made Chris Pratt the right man to play Peter Quill?
I was really looking for somebody who was like Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man, somebody who could come along and inhabit this character and add something to what was already there. I didn't want to see Chris because I didn't think he was right for the role – I knew him a little bit from Moneyball and I knew him as the chunky guy in Parks and Rec. it seemed ridiculous to see Chris Pratt.
But finally I agreed to see him and he came in, and he was at probably his chunkiest because he had just gained a lot of weight for this Vince Vaughn movie, but he read and about 20 seconds into it I knew he was the guy.
When you're a writer, you always look for someone who can take what you do and make it better than you imagine. Most people are always doing sort of more vanilla versions of what you wrote. Everybody else [who auditioned] I thought would kind of get run over by Robert Downey Jr if they were ever in a movie together, and I think that Chris could completely hold his own and kick his ass. He is charming, but at the same time he is a guy who bumbles a lot and somehow through that bumbling ends up in a graceful position, and he constantly does that throughout the movie.
What was Karen Gillan's casting process like?
When Doctor Who people auditioned for the movie I would be sure to watch those auditions right away, and I saw Karen's name come up, and I watched it and kind of flipped out, frankly. I liked her on that show, but she is a really amazing actress. I've got to say – Chris's reading and Dave's reading were amazing in terms of those characters meeting those personalities, but in terms of the very, very best reading of anybody throughout this entire process, it was Karen reading for Nebula.
Nebula is very creepy and yet a villain that we feel for. She has got a conscience, unlike Ronan who doesn't really seem to have a conscience. But in this movie they are pretty bad guys, and Nebula is Gamora's polar opposite. Gamora finds something within herself that cares, and Nebula is just shy of that, and so their relationship is key. I thought it was important to have a relationship between two women in a movie that was not the usual bull. Karen was the person I fought the hardest for.
Nostalgia is a key part of the movie, with Peter Quill's Walkman and so on – how much of that is your own childhood influences?
It's sort of cultural reference points, because I knew that we were making a movie that is in outer space. You want to have it be this big grand adventure, but you also want to ground people in something that's real and feels familiar.
The track listing on the Walkman is 100% me, those are all songs that I went through and picked. Where the tape came from is very important to Peter, so it was about going through all of these 1970s songs that mean very different things. Music is very, very important to me and I think it is a really undervalued thing in movies.
When I think of all the big adventure films that I loved as a kid growing up; Superman, Star Wars, Jaws, they are all movies where the music meets the movie, and the thing you walked out of the movie remembering more than anything else, even more than the characters, was the music!
You have two or three antagonists, so how does that dynamic work?
The primary antagonist is Ronan, so everybody else he works for or works for him. He is the primary villain, and he is a really twisted guy, he has a really religious bent in this film. He has a very sick and twisted view of what morality is; strength is virtue and weakness is sin and that is what he lives by, and I think he is very scary because of his beliefs, which are real to him.
You know a bit about where Drax came from, you see where Gamora came from to some degree and you hear about Rocket, but the only one you really see the origin for is Quill.
Can we expect to see the same kind of twisted humour you've previously been known for?
Yeah, I would think so. When I turned in my first draft to Marvel, they were really happy with the screenplay, which of course I was overjoyed with. The only comment that they had is that they just wanted it to be 'more James Gunn', and that's what I did. I said 'It's your funeral!'
Can we expect any Marvel easter eggs?
It depends on how you define easter egg, but the amount of characters from the Marvel universe that we have in this movie, down to very, very minor characters, is enormous. We have way more characters in this movie than any other Marvel movie, and way more Marvel characters, so it is a lot of stuff. For me being an actual Marvel geek, it has been great.
What sci-fi influences played into Guardians?
I think of this as a space epic – it is not really science fiction, it is an adventure film. But I think that in the 1970s Alien and Blade Runner in particular came in, and they had this amazing production design but they also kind of became this lynchpin for everything else that came after, where it was always a dark and dreary world.
What I really wanted to do from the beginning was create an extremely colourful, big world like the pulp science fiction movies of the '50s and '60s. But at the same time to have the dirtiness and the grittiness of a Blade Runner or Alien, so that was the challenge, to create this bright, colourful, fun film that still has some of the grittiness from those other movies.
Where do you see Guardians fitting in with the rest of the Marvel movies?
We fit in, we are Marvel-cosmic, just the outer space wing of Marvel and it is pretty fun. I think of the Avengers as The Beatles and the Guardians are the Rolling Stones. That is really how I feel about the groups.
Guardians of the Galaxy is released on July 31.