Last week’s Tokyo International Film Festival marked the first visit to the Japanese capital for the Playlist, but also for the President of the 2014 competition jury, James Gunn. Gunn is still riding high on the runaway success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (biggest film of the year so far) which had prior to release been regarded as the diciest prospect in the universe-consuming Marvel master plan (which just revealed its “Phase 3” recently —isn’t it funny how Marvel’s future planning is starting to sound increasingly like the galactic domination programs put forth by their very own supervillains?) So for Gunn, the chance to spend a week or so watching obscure foreign movies in an Asian megacity had to have been a welcome chance to temporarily hang up his newly-earned spurs as a blockbuster director and get back to basics.
We got to spend a little while with a relaxed, garrulous Gunn immediately following the festival’s closing ceremony at which he had announced the Grand Prix winner, with the prize going to the only U.S. film in competition, Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What” (our review). During our interview, we talked a little about ‘Guardians 2’ and a lot about the challenges of big-budget versus low-budget filmmaking (he’s refreshing unabashed in liking big budgets), and even got to veer off onto some interesting tangents about TV show finales. But first off, we asked about what it was about the impressionistic drug addiction drama that had so impressed him and his jury, comprised of directors Robert Luketic, John H Lee, Eric Khoo, Hiroshi Shinagawa and U.K. Casting Director Debbie McWilliams.
Tell us why you awarded “Heaven Knows What” the Grand Prix?
I started watching it and I instantly was enraptured. It was a movie that was authentic, it was so alive. Listen, I’m a fan of street cinema and what’s called lowlife writing —the works of Charles Bukowski, William T. Vollman…
I thought of Hubert Selby Jr. while watching it…
Exactly, I love all that stuff and this movie was one of the best instances of that in cinema I’ve seen. It’s up there with “Trainspotting” and “Drugstore Cowboy” and movies like that. So I knew I loved it instantly, and then to find out that the Jury also loved it made me extremely happy, because I was not sure that was going to be the case. But I was definitely the biggest supporter of the film on the jury.
It was the only U.S. film in competition. Were you worried selecting it might seem like bias?
I questioned that. But then I was talking to some audience members who were going to present an award, and they asked me for advice, and I said: just trust yourself. If you like something, go with that. I think there’s a way when you’re a judge or even when you’re a film critic that you can sometimes try to see things from other people’s points of view, like, what’s the cool thing to say? What’s the “right” thing to say? But for me, that’s not what cinema is about, that’s actually a blight on cinema. What do I love? What really turns me on? What really gets me excited? And so I just had to represent that. That’s my only responsibility and that was the movie that got me the most. Though there were others: I really loved “The Lesson.”
Oh me too, [our review is here] I thought that actress was great.
She was amazing. And I thought there were some amazing things about “The Test.” So there were a few that I loved quite a bit, but for me “Heaven Knows What” stood out the most. But I didn’t want to bully other people; I wanted to make sure that whoever we gave the Grand Prize to was an expression of the whole jury, and ultimately it was.
So were there heated debates in the jury room?
I wouldn’t say heated, because I knew instantly on the first day that everyone on the jury was of a pretty mellow temperament. There wasn’t That Asshole. I’ve been on a lot of juries and I’ve never been on a jury without an asshole. This was the first time.
Doesn’t that suggest that possibly you were the asshole?
Oh man, that’s probably true. Shit. Shit! No really, we were all pretty mellow and if we disagreed, we just disagreed, so what. One person liked the movie better is all.