James Gunn has done it all.
He’s been a musician, comic book artist, author, actor, writer, director, and producer.
Gunn has produced several blockbuster films in his career, including Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, and The Belko Experiment. He got his start making movies for famed B-movie studios Troma Entertainment, has written and directed cult classic films such as Slither and Super, and has produced several blockbuster films including Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. He also wrote and directed one of Marvel’s most memorable film franchises, Guardians of the Galaxy (including Vol. 3 coming in January 2023.) Gunn has also written/directed/produced the upcoming television series Peacemaker, a show about a DC superhero so dedicated to world peace he’s ready to use violence to get it.
Most recently, though, he’s the man behind The Suicide Squad — set for an August 6, 2021, release in the US. The new flick serves as a standalone installment following the 2016 Suicide Squad feature. Filmed in the style of a 1970s B-movie, the movie tells the tale of a task force of convicts from Belle Reve penitentiary sent to destroy a Nazi-era prison and laboratory. The film has a stellar cast, including Margot Robbie (returning as the deranged Harley Quinn), Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, and Sylvester Stallone. Innovation & Tech Today recently chatted with Gunn about life, films, and his passion for music.
Innovation & Tech Today: Growing up in St. Louis, what were some of the early influences that moved you and your brother Sean into music and film?
James Gunn: Well, I think it was each other. You know, it’s not only Sean but my brother, Patrick. He’s in the business side of the film industry, my brother Brian is a screenwriter, and my brother Matt is a writer on Real Time with Bill Maher and has been for many years. So, all of my brothers are in the entertainment industry.
And I think it was, other families, they sort of put a high worth on academia. Other families put their value on playing sports and athletics. And our family, all we ever cared about was telling stories and making each other laugh around the kitchen table like it was a competition. When you have six kids in your family within seven years, you don’t see much of your parents. They’re off dealing with something. Whatever else is going on at that time. And we were really left to our own devices, so we sort of created this little imaginative world of play and making movies and doing all these things that kept us happy.
I&T Today: When I think of you, and I think this is true for many fans, not only do we think of your movies, but music. You have a really personal relationship with the music you put in your films. What is your influence when it comes to blending the music with scenes in a movie?
JG: Well, yeah. I mean, I have a pretty OCD relationship to music. I listen to a lot of music, and I listen to it intently. I sort of collect and categorize it in my head at all times. I have hundreds and hundreds of playlists on both Spotify and iTunes.
I&T Today: I follow yours on Spotify. It’s awesome.
JG: Oh, and those are just my public ones. There are hundreds more that are not public. I keep everything categorized. Like, it’s a thing I do. And it really is just about having, and for me, it is always, part of it’s listening to music because I love listening to music. Part of it is listening to music so that I can be like, “Where could this ever go in a story? How would this fit? Would this be something that would contrast with what I saw on screen or something that would go along with what I see on the screen?” And so, the music is organically embedded in anything I do.
I&T Today: What are some of the production technologies that make you, as a storyteller, most excited? I’m sure many things have changed and new technologies are coming out, allowing you to do more things.
JG: Yeah. The biggest thing on Suicide Squad, one of the most exciting things, is we used a rig called a Stabileye on Guardians 2. We were the first movie to use it. And the Stabileye was a bigger rig, two people operate it, and it moves the camera in a way that is both very alive and very visceral. You can move it fast, but that also doesn’t give you a handheld feeling that makes you sick. The same guy who invented Stabileye invented, for me, a rig called the Nano.
It was created especially for The Suicide Squad, especially for me and how I want to shoot. Because I realized there are always these shots I’m designing that are not physically possible. I want to be able to move very quickly in and around faces, between people, and through people. There’s never been a rig that could do that. So today, with the really small size of the red cameras, combined with this tiny little rig that we have, we were able to shoot The Suicide Squad in a way that is ultra, incredibly alive, incredibly visceral, incredibly fast-moving, but also in a way that doesn’t make the audience sick to their stomachs. It’s a magnificent thing to see on a big screen, and it’s a completely new way of filming that was created for this movie by me, Henry Brimm, and the Nano and Stabileye teams.
I&T Today: What do you like watching when you’re not working? Are there particular shows that really impress you? What do you dig?
JG: Right now, I’m watching Gangs of London, which I think is pretty fun. It’s Gareth Evans’ show. He’s the guy who did The Raid movies. I’m a big action movie fan. So, I like a lot of that stuff. The way that my partner, Jen and I, relax is by watching TV and movies.
I just finished Schitt’s Creek. I thought that was a blast. I think I watch a lot of Asian cinemas. So, a lot of things that maybe other people aren’t watching. A lot of South Korean movies and Japanese films. So, there’s a lot. I have an eclectic taste.
I&T Today: What kind of a setup do you have for your home theater? Is there any particular gear that you really like?
JG: Well, right now, I’m a nomad. So, I’ve been moving around. The only home I own is in Georgia, so I’m a Georgia resident. But I never fully moved in, in the way of moving all my home theater equipment. I’ve been here in Vancouver.
Before that, I was renting a house in Los Angeles. So, in terms of the newest stuff, I’m just not there. I will say I love my computer setup. I have the new big monitor for my apple that I love. Their new ultra high-def monitor is fantastic.
I&T Today: I think everybody’s really excited for The Suicide Squad.
JG: I feel great about it. I mean, it’s like, I think it’s the most fun movie I’ve ever made. I set out to do something completely unhinged, something without limits, making it a type of superhero movie that nobody’s ever seen before.
But, they’re not really superheroes; they’re supervillains. And to really be true about the comics and sort of reinvigorate the old war caper films I loved growing up, watching the late-60s war caper films on Saturday afternoons out on the local TV stations. Whether it’s The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, the old war adventure films. And that’s what [The Suicide Squad] is at its essence, just with a bunch of shitty super villains.
I&T Today: Can you tell me a little bit about The Peacemaker?
JG: Yeah. I mean, that’s truly a result of [COVID-19]. So, we were fortunate to finish shooting The Suicide Squad right before the pandemic really took hold in the United States. So, I finished shooting that, went into quarantine in this house we were renting in Los Angeles, edited the movie from home over the internet with my editors, Fred and Chris. And that was great.
Then I was stuck with nothing to do because I still had quite a few months before we started shooting Guardians Vol. 3. And so, being stuck, I just started writing this TV series. I wrote eight episodes of the TV series in two months. And now, I’ve got the greatest cast around me with a bunch of fantastic people, and we’re shooting it. We’re on the seventh episode of eight. Then, we have one more to shoot. Fred Anderson is directing this one, and I’ll direct the last one.
What’s so fun about doing a TV show, which I’ve never done before, is that I love my characters. In a movie, basically, you have to be like, “Oh, this scene goes to the next scene, this scene goes to the next scene, this scene …” Even in movies that seem sort of languid, that’s still the general structure of them. But with a TV show, you really can focus on the characters. You can get into the intricacies of their relationships and their personalities and get to know those people. So, this show is both more comedy and more drama than I’ve ever done before because you have the room for all of those things. It’s been a complete blast making the show. And it’s hard to have a blast when you’re sitting in plexiglass booths with masks on your face.
I&T Today: You’re obviously talented at what you do. But, still, you also get to work with some really incredible people who, it seems like, are super hard workers, too. John Cena, Dave Bautista — you’ve really been blessed.
JG: Yeah. I think that if I have one gift, it’s that I’m able to pick good people to be around me. And we’re very careful. I don’t choose haphazardly. Every once in a while, I’ll make a mistake and choose the wrong person. But, for the most part, I’m really careful about who I put around me. Life is way too short, and I don’t need the headaches. I don’t care how famous somebody is if they’re an asshole or difficult or pushy or controlling, I just don’t want them in my projects. So, I worked very, very hard to put the right people in there and people that will treat the crews with respect. It’s very important that we have a healthy atmosphere on set and a supportive atmosphere so that every person working on the project is proud of what we’re creating and feels like a part of it, whether they’re a PA or number one on the call sheet. I think of those people you mentioned, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, and Zoe Saldana. They are those people.
I&T Today: It’s the same thing in business. You can have someone with all the talent in the world, but if they’re a pain in the ass, it’s not worth it. They’re poison.
JG: How much worse is this movie because that star is in it? I’m thinking of specific people, but I won’t say.
I&T Today: Well, given the popularity of cinematic universes, are there any mashups you would like to see? For example, would it be cool to see DC and Marvel in a movie like Alien vs. Predator?
JG: Not only would it be cool, I have already volunteered to do it. So, I brought it up. I’ve honestly brought it up, and I was not told no. So, I think it’s unlikely that it’s going to happen in the near future, but I would never say never. Like Marvel vs. DC, Marvel, and DC, or whatever way you want to look at it. I think there is a possibility of doing that. And I think that would be just a blast to do that if the structure was right. At the end of the day, what matters to me the most is that the story is good, and the story is exciting. I don’t care if you have Alien meets Scooby-Doo. Yes, I love the idea of Alien and Scooby-Doo, but if it’s not a good story, then who cares. ■