As James Gunn told The A.V. Club, he doesn’t make movies for everyone. In the case of Super, that’s a gross understatement. Finding an audience willing to stick with the story about a glum short-order cook (Rainn Wilson) who becomes a violent, mildly inept vigilante would be tough enough, but Gunn raises the degree of difficulty by constantly shifting gears. Ellen Page turns up as a winsome comic-book store clerk who advises Wilson on the finer points of costumed crime-fighting, then all but forces him to accept her as his scrawny sidekick. Got it? Now imagine that hyper, emotionally stunted girl geek with a profound sadistic streak, such that she’s filled with childish glee every time she smashes in a wrongdoer’s skull or sinks her Wolverine claws into his face. Super goes from sentimental and goofy to appallingly violent in the blink of an eye, lulling audiences into comfortable rhythms, then cracking them full in the face with a pipe wrench. Perhaps you have to be Gunn’s kind of sicko to appreciate it, but if you are, you’ll appreciate it in spades. Gunn recently spoke with The A.V. Club about Super, a film he “honestly tried to not make,” but did anyway.
The A.V. Club: You wrote the script for Super around 2002, right? Was that after you wrote Scooby-Doo?
James Gunn: Yes, it was after Scooby-Doo, but before Scooby Two. I had just moved into my house. I was honestly just looking to write a short film, and it kept getting longer and became what it is.
AVC: So having done The Specials, a superhero movie you were pretty unhappy with, and then a family-oriented film, you go and write Super, which is a pretty hard R. Was that part of where you were coming from at the time?
JG: Now that you mention it, a lot of it was probably a reaction to doing a lot of studio stuff. Not only had I written Scooby-Doo, but I had also done a script for Spy Vs. Spy, and I imagine that it was after the script for Scooby-Doo 2. I also did a romantic comedy at that time for Warner Bros. It was the first truly independent, edgy film I’d written in years, so it was like returning to being completely free with something and not worrying about whether it fits in with commercial prospects.
AVC: So you came back to the script many years later. How did it look when you dusted it off? Had it aged well, or did you need to change it?
JG: No, I didn’t want to do a lot to it. The truth is, I almost made the movie in 2004 with [Scooby-Doo producer] Chuck Roven, and then I also almost made it again with Sony Pictures. They were making these web movies that would go straight to DVD for a million bucks, but the deal was just too bad. I couldn’t say yes to that deal. That was probably 2008. So I kept coming back to the script. Every few years, I would pick it up and make some changes. Not even every few years, like every 10 months. I just couldn’t leave it alone, but I thought it was a stupid movie to make, frankly. It is exactly what it is, a very dark movie with tonal shifts in it. You don’t really think of it as a commercial film.
AVC: Not the kind of thing your agent would suggest doing next.
JG: Yeah, they definitely didn’t suggest doing it next. [Laughs.] But they were cool, because I wanted to do it. But it was still an uphill battle all the way.
AVC: Movies, especially writer-director projects, don’t get made by accident. There’s a large degree of persistence that goes into getting through what can be a long, convoluted process.
AVC: So what about Super kept you coming back to it?
JG: It was just a more personal film. I like the movie; the movie is what I planned on making. I like the concept of it. Honestly, I just felt called to make the movie. I really tried to not make it. I did. I honestly tried to not make this movie. But I kept getting called back to it. When I originally wrote it, the ending was sort of an inspired moment for me, and I felt drawn to that. And I like the mix of all the different things that it is. I couldn’t leave it alone. I have plenty of scripts that I’ve written that I don’t want to do and I just don’t do them. Like, I had a movie I was supposed to make after I got divorced called The Belcoo Experiment, and I decided at one point that I didn’t want to do the movie, and I didn’t do it.
AVC: It’s interesting that you use the word “called,” because that’s one of the aspects of the film that’s harder for people to parse. Rainn Wilson’s character has what he considers a divine visitation. You stage it like a tentacle-rape scene from an anime movie, but there’s also an extent to which the film takes his epiphany at face value.
JG: Yeah, yeah.
AVC: When you talk about it being personal, was that one of the elements?
JG: Yeah. I mean, my girlfriend says I have frontal-lobe epilepsy. I have visions. They have slowed down as I’ve gotten older, but I still have them. So what Frank goes through in the movie is not so dissimilar from experiences I’ve had. When you’re making a movie, you have to tell it in a visual way so audiences can see it, and those experiences don’t happen in a purely visual way. It’s only partially visual. So it’s not totally like it is in the movie, but it is my experience.
AVC: How long has that been going on for you? It seems like a frightening thing.
JG: It probably started when I was about 15 years old. It kept getting more extreme until my late 20s, and then it sort of peaked and it started getting a little bit less after that.
AVC: Did those visions have anything to do with you going into a fantastic medium professionally?
JG: Oh, I think so. I think whatever is going on with my brain, I’m very, very—and I’m not saying this as a positive thing, it’s just a fact—I’m very creative. I have a very strong imagination, and have since I was a little kid. That is where a lot of my world comes from. It’s like I’m off somewhere else. And I can have a problem in life because of that, because I’m always off in some other world thinking about something else. It’s constant.
AVC: A real affection for the superhero genre underlies Super, but there’s also a potent, funny critique of the gritty, putatively “realistic” post-Watchmen approach. Is the movie a reaction against or a satire of those kinds of stories?
JG: I’m a big comic-book reader. When I wrote Super, same thing with The Specials, they probably are reacting way more to comic books than they are to films. With The Specials, I wrote that as a reaction to comic books, and it came out at a time when only comic-book geeks understood it. But with Super, I wrote it about comic books and it comes out nine years later, at a time when that same conversation that was happening with comic books is now on the screen. So everyone thinks that it is a commentary on movie superheroes, but it is really a reaction to comic books. I don’t think it’s a condemnation, or saying that [Wilson’s character] Frank is sociopathic. He’s not a sociopath for sure, because he has compassion. I think it’s questionable whether [Ellen Page’s character] Libby is a sociopath.
AVC: You mention the shifts in tone, and there are some doozies in the movie. We’re going along with Frank, maybe getting into his identity as a fairly inept vigilante crime-fighter, and then he splits some guy’s head open with a pipe wrench for cutting in a movie line—there’s one. When we realize that Libby’s giddy enthusiasm for being his sidekick is actually masking a profound desire to hurt people, there’s another. How specific were those moments for you when writing the script?
JG: Very specific. I made a choice from the beginning of the film to make a film that would take, throughout the movie, turns that you aren’t expecting. If you saw the movie and didn’t have the opening credits, the fact that Frank becomes a superhero is a weird turn. The fact that Libby becomes a main character halfway through the movie is a weird turn. The violence is at first very violent but very funny, and then all of a sudden you’re watching him beat up that guy and his girlfriend in the line—and you’re questioning whether you still like it. The interesting thing to me is that you’re still kind of rooting Frank on. It’s a weird thing, because audiences sometimes applaud after that. I just wanted to make a movie where you really didn’t know what was going to happen next. And I succeeded in that, if nothing else. I don’t think anybody could walk into the theater and guess the ending. But it is outside of a lot of people’s comfort zone. When people go to the theater, people say they want something different, but what they really want is something the same with slight permutations. To really not know what is going to happen next is a hard thing.
AVC: That’s definitely true from a studio point of view. The idea is to create things that look different but feel familiar, so people feel like they’re seeing something new without having to adjust their expectations.
JG: With Super, the great thing was that we had a very low budget, but I have a fair amount of experience, and we had all the actors behind the script, so I got to do whatever I wanted to do. There was no messing with anything. I wasn’t going to do the movie if there was messing with it, because the movie is what it is, and for me, it was worth telling as it was. It’s a movie about extremes that is extreme, and if I had to start pulling back on things that were extreme, then the movie wouldn’t have been what it was. Like making a movie about the Hulk and then saying “This is about Bruce Banner.” That was part of the deal from the beginning: If I did this movie, it was going to be done in the way I wanted to do it.
AVC: There’s a pivotal moment near the end that clearly establishes that there are consequences for the way Frank has been acting, that this isn’t cartoon violence, where someone gets a building dropped on their head and they wind up with a little soot on their face.
JG: Yeah, yeah, nothing is black and white. We are talking about someone killing someone in a really brutal fashion.
AVC: Or the guy with his arms blown off, begging, “Please don’t kill me.”
JG: Right, right. Seth Rogen had a screening in L.A. for industry folks because he had seen the movie and liked it. I sat next to him, and he has that very distinctive laugh, and he was giggling at that moment, and it was so sick. My girlfriend and I couldn’t stop laughing at Seth laughing. [Laughs.] Incidentally, that guy is really a guy with no arms. He wrote me and was like, “Look, I have no arms, is there anything you could do with me in your movie?” And I’m like, “Yeah, let me think.” So I put him in that scene.
AVC: The ending, as you mentioned, is a massive shift in tone. It almost turns it into a completely different movie. There is a kind of lyrical quality that comes in all of a sudden.
JG: That was the part that took me by surprise. When Frank is speaking to the audience, in my screenplay, it was like automatic writing. He was speaking to me. I did kind of think of Frank as a stalker, essentially. In a lot of ways, that is how I thought of the movie when I was writing it. I thought it was a guy who was a superhero who was actually a stalker. And at the end of the movie, whatever Frank is or is not, he is not a stalker. He really wants to save his wife for the right reasons. He doesn’t want her to be fucked up, and he wants to help her.
AVC: There is a sort of selflessness.
JG: Yeah, it is selfless, no doubt. He isn’t in it for himself; he’s in it for her. I think that’s the thing. When I was writing the screenplay, I thought of it in a different way. It was one of those weird moments where the characters take you by surprise. One of the reasons why I was probably attracted to the script was that the characters kept taking me by surprise. Normally, I outline things pretty specifically, but here, I didn’t. I mean, it was supposed to be a 15-page-long script, but people kept doing things that surprised me. I was very outside myself while I was doing it.
AVC: Libby is the biggest surprise. It’s not usually in the sidekick’s portfolio to be more violent than the hero, especially when the sidekick is a petite woman.
JG: Libby is an interesting character. We definitely like her. She is the most likeable person in the movie in many ways, but she is also really pretty abhorrent. I mean, her reason for putting on the costume is a rationalization for beating people up. That’s what she wants to do. But we still like her anyway. Frank may be doing totally fucked-up things, but he is trying to do the right thing. Libby, I don’t think she really cares. She and Jacques both have this theme of taking no accountability for things that they do.
AVC: Did she surprise you when you were writing her?
JG: Yeah, completely. I wrote her as a comic-book-store clerk, I didn’t know she was going to become a sidekick. I really didn’t. I wrote her as the clerk and the scenes were making me laugh so much that I was like, “I want to keep having her in the screenplay.” So I just kept writing her, and she just inserted herself into his life.
AVC: The bloodlust that comes along with it, did that just happen? There’s a really interesting idea there.
JG: I did plan on having this twist at the end where all of a sudden it would just be complete violent mayhem. That was always a part of it, that you would be watching this movie and it would come to a time when Frank had to face the enemy and he would be destroying people. That was part of it from the beginning.
AVC: How does Nathan Fillion’s character, The Holy Avenger, come into it? On the one hand, you treat Frank’s spiritual convictions with a straight face, but then you have this incredibly goofy Christian superhero in an ill-fitting yellow costume.
JG: Holy Avenger is based on Bibleman, who is a real Christian TV superhero played by Willie Aames of Eight Is Enough fame. Definitely Holy Avenger is inspired by Bibleman—big muscular costume, the whole deal, learns a lesson, all the stuff.
AVC: Was that part of your background? Or did you come into it as a kitschy artifact as an adult?
JG: It was a kitschy artifact as an adult. I found it interesting to have something so goofy be the impetus for somebody changing. I think it’s interesting, too, because Frank is not obviously Christian in any way. He never talks about Jesus or Christ. He believes in God, obviously, but he isn’t really Christian. Yet he is inspired by this Christian TV show.
AVC: I don’t remember the part of the New Testament where God rapes people with tentacles.
JG: You don’t remember the character the Holy Avenger in the Bible? It’s in the book of Paul. It was written by the second Paul, the fake Paul. There are the letters from Paul—the first ones were written by one guy, and the second ones were written by someone 300 years later who had a stick up his ass. That’s where the Holy Avenger was.
AVC: You started out at Troma Films, and co-wrote Llloyd Kaufman’s book, All I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger. How formative was that experience?
JG: It was formative, but it wasn’t formative in the ways that people think. I pretty much came to it with my own aesthetic intact. Tromeo And Juliet is really half my aesthetic and half Lloyd’s. A lot of the stuff you see in Tromeo And Juliet is just a practice stab at what you see in Super with the tonal shifts. And it’s something I would never do again, because it’s such a disorienting thing for audiences. My very first screening of Tromeo And Juliet, I learned more about filmmaking than I have in the rest of my life combined, because I got to see something I had worked on and created in front of an audience. When you make a movie like Super and you’re making it for a couple million bucks, I’m involved in the budget. It’s not because I care so much about the money part of it, but I want to spend the money where it needs to be spent.
Every single movie that I’ve been a part of and haven’t directed, there comes a time when you’ve spent too much money up front and there is something at the end that is more important, and you can’t spend any more money. For instance, with Super, I knew that we had to spend money on song rights, and I knew we were going to end up with no money at the end unless I really started being very strong in terms of structure on how we were spending that money. Half of when I’m making a film is that stuff. The amount of camera setups, my amount of preparation, which is extreme, all of that has to do with what I learned at Troma. The preparation wasn’t exactly the same—I mean, we weren’t that prepared. And we did nowhere near as many shots on a Troma movie as we did on Super. We doubled most of our days on Tromeo And Juliet. When I was on set for the first time on Tromeo And Juliet, a movie I had written and where I was directing the actors, it felt like home to me. This is where I belong. I don’t know, if hadn’t ended up, sort of by freak occurrence, in that situation, if I would be a filmmaker today.
AVC: The thing about running out of money at the end, does that go for the much larger studio movies you’ve been involved with?
JG: Oh yeah. One of the big bummers to me on the first Scooby-Doo movie was that I had to rewrite the whole third act, which was my favorite part, halfway through filming, strictly for budgetary reasons. It can be a real bummer. I knew on Super that our last act had twice as many shots as any other part of the movie. I knew that we needed to spend nearly half of our schedule at that ranch, and we needed the time to get those shots right. I mean, the whole thing, it was amazing that we got it done. But I had it structured in a way that the movie would build. And I wanted it to build, start slower and get faster and faster. Most movies don’t do that. They schedule the same amount of time for the first act and the third act, but the truth is, there should be more time for the third act.
AVC: A lot of movies have good first and second acts, but don’t finish strong.
JG: Right, a huge amount of films. Part of that is because of the premise and the idea. But part of it is strictly how they are budgeting their time, and how much time they are spending on the third act in comparison to the rest.
AVC: You mentioned that you learned as much from the first audience screening of Tromeo And Juliet as anything else. Was it just a question of seeing what plays and what doesn’t?
JG: Yeah, it was a matter of me seeing what actually works. There is an aspect of filmmaking that is just seeing what works. It was a matter of remembering how I approached each scene and remembering how my brain was when I did that scene, and then just trying to figure that all out. How did I create every scene, where was I coming from, what was I doing tonally? One of the hardest things about doing Super was that I knew it wasn’t going to be a film everyone was going to love. It was just too esoteric. I knew it was not going to work for everybody. Movies aren’t machines. They interact with our brains. And Super is not a machine that is made for every person’s brain. It’s just for oddballs. It was a difficult choice to make, and it was part of why I didn’t want to do the movie.
AVC: In 2004, you had just written three big-grossing Hollywood movies in a row. It seems like, to a certain extent, you could have written your own ticket at that point. And that’s the point at which you made a movie about killer worms from outer space, and then did PG-rated porn for the web.
JG: Well, I mean, I was writing my own ticket. After Scooby-Doo 2 and Dawn Of The Dead came out two weeks in a row and were both the No. 1 movies, I could have done whatever the fuck I wanted. And I did what I wanted. I just wanted to do what I wanted from then on, and I’m glad I did. Slither was a weird experience, a difficult experience in some ways, but I’m glad I did it.
AVC: It’s not a choice everyone would have made.
JG: Yeah, well, it’s like, “How much money can you have? And what is my intention being a filmmaker? To make as much money as possible, or get as much attention as possible?” It’s not really either of those things. Now I can tell the stories that I want to tell. And I care about communication to an audience. My brain has always been wired in such a way that I’d rather communicate to a smaller audience who really get turned on by what I do than meet a wider audience and give them milk.