This week's "Guardians of the Galaxy" pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe into strange and surprising places. And the person piloting that particular spaceship is co-writer/director James Gunn, who took a relatively obscure property about a group of intergalactic outlaws and turned it into one of the summer's more outrageously entertaining confections. It's both a break from your standard superhero fare and keeps totally within the pre-existing mythological framework—and it should both expand the brand and reinforce its power in the cinematic landscape. We talked to Gunn about how he snagged A-list stars, what the movie's chief influences were, the situation with "Ant-Man," and where Gunn (and the 'Guardians') fit into the larger cinematic puzzle.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" takes place in the far off cosmos and follows a group of outlaws—goofy thief Star Lord (Chris Pratt), the lethal Gamora (Zoe Saldana), hulking brute (Dave Bautista) and two otherworldly companions—a talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a giant tree creature named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). The movie is inventive and fun—a playful exercise in what has become a somewhat predictable format. And while it's not 100% perfect (the plot is a bit unnecessarily convoluted and the villain is iffy), it's still a blast of fresh air in these dog days of summer.
Marvel took a chance on Gunn (and on "Guardians of the Galaxy"), so it was especially interesting to talk to the filmmaker about what drew him to the project and what it was like working with the studio.
Initially—what drew you to the project? It seemed like it was more Marvel pitching to you than you pitching to Marvel.
Marvel approached me with the project. They pitched it to me. And I was like, "I'm not sure." And then I thought about it and I sort of fell in love with it. And then I had to pitch it to Marvel a lot. But I think that, for me, it really was the opportunity to create a big space epic, which is something I always wanted. This really was that chance.
"Star Wars" seems to obviously be a key influence. But what else did you look to when creating this world?
I would say the biggest influence on 'Guardians' is actually "Raiders of the Lost Ark," simply because, as a kid, I loved that movie so much. And I loved the balance in that movie between the action, the adventure, the romance, the humor—all of those things were in that movie. And that was the movie I really loved as a kid. And I think that, like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," 'Guardians' has a very forward-looking, edgy feel to it while simultaneously loving things from the past, that kind of nostalgic aspect to it.
This is being perceived as the "riskiest" Marvel movie. How did it feel taking that on?
It wasn't that I was trying to tune it out, but my brain automatically does it. I think one of my greatest talents as an artist is that I'm an idiot. And that means that I can work in a black box—when I'm creating something, I fall in love with the characters and become completely immersed in those characters, and I don't think so much about how the movie is going to be perceived by others. I really don't see that as my business. My business is really creating the movie. It's somebody else's business, the way they perceive it. I don't involve myself in it too much.
What was your reaction when they brought you Chris Pratt? Was he your guy from the beginning?
Well, no. Sara Finn, who is our casting director, kept putting Chris Pratt in front of me because she thought he would be a good choice. And I kept saying, "The fat guy from 'Parks and Rec?' Are you kidding me?" and kept refusing to see him. She said, "He'll come in and read but he only wants to come in and read with the director." And, I kept saying, "No way!" Then one day she tricked me into reading him. I was reading somebody else and Chris came in and he was chubby at the time. He came in and read, and even though he was chubby, within 20 seconds of him reading, I was like, "Oh my god, that's the guy." We had already screen-tested over 20 people. A-list stars, no names, and everyone in between and had already auditioned 150 people and Chris came in and read it and within 20 seconds I knew he was the guy. Honestly, even if he had remained overweight, I thought that he would still have been a better Star Lord than anybody else we had seen.