After writing a remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and then writing and directing the messy monster movie Slither, James Gunn may have a horror pedigree, but it's laced with impulses from all sorts of other genres - comedy, action, melodrama. But never have these seemingly disparate threads been woven together as effectively as in his latest work, Super, about a griddle jockey at a diner who decides to fight crime after his wife leaves him for her drug dealer. Boxoffice caught up with Gunn last week via telephone to talk about the challenges of combining different genres into this great, unwieldy, but undeniably powerful new film.
When I talked to you for Slither, you compared that film to Basket Case or From Dusk Till Dawn - these movies that fit some really unconventional ideas inside genre conventions. This seems to be doing the same thing for superhero movies - is that a fair characterization?
Yeah, only more so. I think one of the weird things with Slither was a lot of people went to see Slither expecting to see a horror film and saw a comedy. Super is almost the exact opposite. They are expecting to see a comedy, and they get a horror film. It's---yeah I think that Slither was a little bit more of a pure, just pure fun, fucked up movie, and this one is more of a fucked up movie. So it's a little bit different but, yeah I'm definitely attracted to things that are tonally unique.
There's a sense that even in movies that sort of deconstruct superhero conventions, they almost inevitably have to sort of become the thing that they're deconstructing. Why do you think that is? Is there an aspect of the superhero mythos that transcends spandex and superpowers and really is sort of universal?
I don't know. I mean, number one, I don't completely think Super as being a deconstruction of the superhero film, simply because I don't completely think of Frank as a superhero. I think of him as a guy who puts on a costume and wants to be a superhero, but the truth is that what he does isn't always that heroic. And I also think of it as rather than the deconstruction of the superhero, I think of it as looking at the superhero from a different angle. We see Frank from underneath the underbelly of the beast. We take for granted that Batman puts on a cape and cowl and gets to decide whose right and whose wrong, who should be punished, and who shouldn't. But the truth is, is when we really see that in action, like we do with Frank, it's a very morally ambiguous thing. And life is filled with lots of shades of grey, and Frank's journey is the same and the characters in the movie are the same.
We have a good guy, and a supposed quote-unquote good guy in Bolty, played by Ellen Page, who is obviously a sociopath. I mean she is very likeable, but she's a sociopath, without a doubt. And then we have a bad guy, quote-unquote, like Michael Rooker's character Abe, who is a bad guy, but the guy obviously has a conscience; he feels bad about things that are happening around him. So I think it's fun to play with that. But I guess it is in another way it is a deconstruction of a superhero, because we're deconstructing what we automatically assume, that superhero is good, and that there is such a thing as superheroes and super villains in the world.
And also the nobility I think of superheroes, that their motivations are pure and there not maybe clouded or affected by personal trauma.
But the real story of the Batman is that he is affected by that. That's one of my favorite things about that character is we are talking about it a guy whose parents were murdered in front of him. And he wants to seek vengeance for that, but he is perpetually unable to do it because he's never killing the person he wants to kill. And that is such an apt metaphor for what we all go through in life and dealing with the issues of our youth and childhood, and trying to fill holes with our lovers that we didn't get met by our mothers and so forth. I mean that's what who the Batman is, I mean that's one of the reasons that character is so exciting and has lasted for so long.
There's almost a mundane-ness to Kevin Bacon's character. Why did you specifically want there to be a sort of comparatively plain adversary for the main character to face instead of someone maybe grander?
Well, I think Kevin's character is pretty crazy, but I think the thing that sets him aside is that Kevin's character, who's also a sociopath, is also a people pleaser. He wants people to like him, and when we see him at the beginning of the movie with Rainn Wilson, he wants Rainn Wilson's character to like him. And I found that to be an interesting thing for a villain, that villains don't normally care what anyone thinks of them. But Kevin Bacon's character, Jock, cares a great deal about what other people think of him, and it's a part of his character throughout. When I was writing a villainous character, I didn't want him to be just a typical guy, standing malevolently in the corner making his master plan and not caring about what anyone else thought, so he's not like that at all.
How tough was it to balance the tone of this film? I don't mean it to sound like a backhanded compliment, but I feel like the fact that it feels so sort of uneven with comedy and then real serious drama and back and forth that it sort of feels even as a whole.
I think there is a lot to be said about that, and it's hard to make it into five sentences, but the truth is that I have been a fan of Asian cinema for twenty years. And you go back to the Hong Kong movies of the early ‘90s where there's Johnny To's Heroic Trio, which is about a group of three superheroines, who in one scene, they're slaughtering infants, and then in the next scene it's this over the top slapstick comedy, and in the next next scene it's this Douglas Sirk melodrama. They have all these different genres within one film and Asians are used to that, but we aren't, but I was always enjoyed something about that. I enjoy seeing a movie where I can feel different parts of myself at the same time.
I mean, even in the prayer sequence with Rainn Wilson at the beginning, I think that's one of the most tonally tricky moments in the movie, because he's praying to God and it's very, very sad, but it's also a funny what he is saying. And to feel both of those things side by side, that's more interesting to me than just laughing or just feeling sad. I like some element of discomfort in my films, and there is an element of discomfort in Super and that's intentional and I enjoy that feeling. I also think life is not one genre; my life, sometimes it's a romance, sometimes it's a comedy, sometimes it's an adventure, and usually a tragedy. But it changes from moment to moment, and I wanted to get some tiny, little glimpse of that. I'm obviously not making real life, I'm making a movie. But to get some semblance or reflection or an aspect of life, it's something that interests me. And to get the aspect of life that is an aspect of our life changes moment to moment to reflect that onto the screen was an exciting thing to me.
How far along are you on either working on or deciding what your next project will be?
Well, my next project is already done. It's Movie 43 for the Farrelly brothers, so that's already done and in the can and almost done being edited, so that's finished. But other than that, I have a script that I want to do that's a comedy, but I'm also being offered a couple of things. So I'm just trying to figure it out - I'm not sure. I may be really close, or it may not be that close at all.