Right now, you can catch Slither director James Gunn’s most recent foray into violence and comedy. Super tells a tale of a do-it-yourself superhero who attempts to save his drug addicted wife from her dealer with mainly unsuccessful and violent results. Recently, Andy and I were lucky enough to sit down with the St. Louis born director to discuss his new vigilante film. Besides discussing Super and the “deconstructionist superhero” genre, the three of us chatted about his start with Troma, his “hiatus” after Slither, the troubles of filmmaking, and his most recent favorite films.
How did you get involved working with Troma?
When I was at school, going to Columbia, I needed a part-time job. I knew somebody that knew Lloyd Kaufman, the head of Troma. They got me an interview with him and I went in. I thought I was going to get a job filing papers or something, but instead he knew I was a writer. He found out about some performances I had written and done downtown and he was getting excited about me writing a screenplay. He said, “I want you to write one of three screenplays. Either the Toxic Avenger 4, something else you could come up with on your own, or Tromeo and Juliet.” The last one I wanted to write was Tromeo and Juliet. It seemed completely unappealing to me, but that was the one he wanted me to write. So I got paid $150 dollars to write that. Once I got paid to write it, I was so excited about doing it and having a movie with my name in it, I went full force … as hard as I could … basically taking over the production.
So did you end up directing most of it? Just because there has been some stuff that’s been said that’s up in the air regarding (who directed the film) . . .
My title in the film was associate director; which is a very nebulous title. But … I basically directed the actors. Lloyd’s a director. He’s basically in charge of everything but I dealt with the actors and a lot of the creative stuff. It’s a real partnership between us, in terms of the movie. You know with Troma, those lines are very blurred. I think the difference between me and other guys that have been in my position on Troma movies, is that I am very planned out. I know what I want to do and am very aggressive about that. So with other Troma movies, there are guys that assume that position . . . but they may not have done shot lists ahead of time.
So did Lloyd read any of your material before he hired you?
I think he read something of mine. He knew about my performances. I used to do performance monologues. He knew about them but I don’t think he ever saw them. I think because of that that is the main reason I got hired.
You know . . . I remember giving him a packet of my writing. So I think maybe he did read it. I forgot about that since you mentioned it.
So you have mentioned you came from a religious background. The whole character of Frank (Rainn Wilson in Super) is obviously instigated and makes his decisions based on religion and his questions to God. Was that you slipping into the character and fleshing yourself out through the character?
You mean, was I God?
No … I can see how that could be in the film. The finger of God could be me *(referencing a specific scene in the film) depending on how you look at it.
*(In the film, Frank is triggered to go out and fight crime because he prayed for direction and help in his life and was literally touched by the hand of God and told to do this.)
Basically I’m asking: Was that your output going into the character or if you had always wanted that religious aspect regardless of your background?
No. The religious aspect of it was sort of a surprise but came up immediately. In fact, I had the storyboards for that spiritual awakening scene on my wall since 2002. I took sheets of paper and started drawing them back then and they were essentially what is all in the movie today. I have talked about it a million times, so it’s not a secret, but it’s weird every time I bring it up: I’ve had a bunch of spiritual visions throughout my life. So, the character of Frank is informed by me in that way. In a way, Super and Frank coming to terms with that, is me coming to terms with what that is in my own life cause I am not a religious person.
Frank is not a religious person, he is a spiritual person.
I am kind of curious about the long break between Slither (2006) and Super. You did a lot of short films like the PG Porn and these other independent short projects you put out yourself during that time. Was it intentional that you didn’t do a feature length film for so long?
Ahh … It’s a mixed thing. So there were a couple of things that took a lot of out of me that screwed me up. The first is that I was working on this movie that I was getting ready to go into production with in Brazil called The Belcoo Experiment. It was a very, very dark film. I mean, it’s darker than Super. It doesn’t have the humor or warmth of Super. It was a much darker film. Then I got divorced at that time. And I was like, “I really don’t want to go down to Brazil and be stuck down there without my friends and family and directing this movie that I am not 100% sure about that is so dark.” I would just be stuck in this world and I couldn’t do that personally.
Then I sold this huge film Pets; my biggest script sale ever. With Pets, I was attached to write and direct this 100 million dollar movie. Ben Stiller was attached to it. I started working on that, and going through a few levels of that with the studio (New Regency) and the producers at Red Hour (Ben’s company). I started getting very discouraged. This person wanted this type of movie. This person wanted this type of movie. With Slither I had almost complete freedom, and with Super I had absolutely 100% freedom. And with PG Porn I had 100% freedom. Now, I was in this place where I felt like a cog in a wheel making a movie that was going to be a movie anyone could make because it was done by numbers. In the end, I didn’t care how much money I was going to make or if this was going to be a big summer movie tent pole. I couldn’t do it anymore so I quit. Much to their … well … they still hate me. They really do. I mean they still talk shit about it all the time. But I just couldn’t do it. So … I still like that project and if we could do it the right way I would go back to it.
Do you have any rights to it?
No. They have it. I sold it. I took the money and ran.
That’s the thing … making a movie is hard! I like to be alive and have fun with my friends and go out. With making a movie, you lose a long period of your life. At the end of Slither, there was a part of me that said, “I am not sure it this is worth it. I don’t know if I ever want to do this again.” I just really wasn’t sure about it. I think, through really doing those web shorts, I think it was a cleansing of my palette. I came to really fall in love with the medium again. We were making a little bit of money, not much money, but it was something that I really loved doing. When I finally chose to do Super, it was not for commercial success at all. We all did it for free basically. So, it was doing something that I really cared about. Now, I feel like I am ready to go. I feel much better, you know? I even have another film coming out, this Farrelly Bothers collaboration film (Movie 43) coming out, and I feel really good about it too! I feel that I kind of exorcised some of my demons. I can now focus on the right part of filmmaking: the process. I do what I do cause I love storytelling. I think through the PG Porns and Super, I have kind of come back to that. And I think what I will be doing next time will be a little more commercial. It’s not going to be Pets or this big film, but it will be a something a little more mainstream.
I have something already written.
Does it fit with your sense of comedy?
It’s a comedy but it’s violent. I can’t seem to escape the violence. There are the tonal complexities of Super. Which I love, but it’s not for everyone. It’s not as sad … which is one of the things I hear so much … how sad they felt Super was. It’s definitely not a mainstream film.
I would like to talk to you about the budget of Super. You shot on film…
The Red 1.
That was my main question. Because you have gone and talked about how everyone did it for free or very little money. I was curious cause It looks great. The Red looks fucking awesome.
We got it there. The Red 2 is way better.
Is that with the Mysterium sensor?
Yeah. It’s way better! It has fixed some color problems with the Red 1. It’s a very heavy camera, which for our DP was very hard. He literally injured himself. He had shot on it before but I don’t think he had done a film that was 100% handheld on the Red. So that was difficult, but it served our purpose. You have to wear this special make-up for the Red 1. Which, if you have to wear special make-up for a camera … come on. But the Red 2 improves all that.
Who did your make-up effects for Super?
Todd Masters. He also did the make-up effects for Slither. He’s my man. Todd’s my guy. There are just certain guys. Once I find someone I really like, I kind of hook on to them. And there’s a visual fx company called Modus that did all our visual fx and you won’t believe how inexpensive they were for us. They did an amazing job! I love them. I love Tyler Bates who does all my scores for my films. When I find someone I like, like with the actors, I like to stick with them. I mean, I have had the same agent since I have moved to Hollywood.
I know that you are a fan of comic books and the violence in Super is completely different than what is “typical” of comics. Super is more visceral and realistic.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s true.
Why did you decide to stray so far from the norm?
Listen. I love comic books and mainstream comics. But my favorite comics are deconstructionist superheroes. It started with The Watchmen. Then there is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. Those are some of my favorite titles of all time. They are really about going back and taking a different look at the superhero. So, really for me, Super is within that genre of deconstructionist superhero titles. People think that I made this because I don’t like comic books, when it’s really the opposite.
By the way though, comics have been pretty fucking violent lately. I don’t know if you have been reading Wolverine. Even mainstream Wolverine, he is tearing people’s faces off.
A lot of people have different stigmas regarding Ellen Page. Where she is always “too smart for her own good” teenager. Was it intentional to cast her in this role, which is quite different for her?
I think it was intentional for me. But it was especially intentional for her. When we first sat down and had lunch after Rainn gave her the script, she said, “I would really love to do this movie because it is totally different from anything that I am being offered.” She said, “I am always offered these wiser than my years roles and this is something totally crazy and immature.” She’s younger than her years (in Super). She also said that it is hard to find good female roles in movies that aren’t the girlfriend or the femme fatale. Most movies you see, there are all these interesting male characters and then the woman. I like writing female characters. I put myself inside of them as much as when I write a man. Someone can be a psycho and a female. Someone can be a drug addict and a female (referring to Liv Tyler in Super). Someone can have other characteristics other than just femme fatale or girlfriend. For me, Ellen was a risk because I wasn’t sure if she could do it. If Libby doesn’t work (her character) the movie doesn’t work. You have to like Libby, even though she is a despicable character in a lot of ways. So when I met with her, she just understood it. So I hoped and prayed that she would work, and she did. The first thing we shot with her is the scene when she jumps out of the car in her bra and yells at those guys. It was 14 degrees outside and she totally went for it 100%.
I know you have had this idea for Super for a while. Did you write the script for The Specials (another “superhero” film you wrote) before this?
I wrote the script for The Specials in 1998 and an early draft of this in 2002. The Specials got me every bit of work I have. We made The Specials in ’98 –’99.
Were you happy with the end result of The Specials?
I think there are good things about it.
Yeah. I do too.
But there are a lot of missed opportunities. It was supposed to be much more realistic and it ended up looking a lot more sitcom. Frankly, we were all very, very disappointed with it. All of us. Me, Thomas (Hayden Church), Rob Lowe, my brother, were all disappointed when we saw the film. You know, the director sold us on how he was going to shoot the film. He mouthed the words and thought he understood how he was going to do it; Which was more handheld and real life. He just really didn’t understand what he was saying. It was rough.
That said … I know a lot of people love that movie and I still get a lot of compliments on it. But the movie itself was hard.
A lot of people, when they were putting together their favorite horror movies of the past decade, placed Slither on their list. Do you ever see yourself returning to the horror genre and making a full-on horror film?
I always have tons of ideas and it depends on the day when I have time to sit and write something. Whatever one I snatch up, I do that. The most recent one was this upcoming comedy. But I have two horror ideas I really like a lot that I would like to write! It’s just a matter of finding the time.
How much time do you have to watch any recent cinema that is coming out?
Recently I’ve had a real hard time. I haven’t seen a movie in a theater in about a month. There are so many I want to check out. I saw Insidious at STIGES. I saw Hesher at SXSW because Rainn is in it and the director of that came to my premiere. So I have seen a couple things at film festivals but that’s about it.
What were some of your favorites from last year?
Mother was my favorite! That was great. Blue Valentine is my second. That movie killed me. I loved Piranha 3D.
I got so mad when we went to the Scream Awards and they had “Best Bad Movie of the Year” and gave it to Piranha 3D. I was like, that’s fucking bullshit! That movie was great! I liked The Crazies quite a bit. But the two that I loved were Mother and Blue Valentine. Those two, to me, were just really great movies and those are very few and far between these days.
I want to thank James Gunn for sitting down with Andy and I and having lunch with us. Aside from someone that is clearly passionate about his work, James Gunn is an extremely personable and likeable guy. He’s from St. Louis . . . no wonder he’s great! Make sure to check out IFC’s Super in theaters and on VOD right now. To view the dates and cities Super will be playing, click here.