James Gunn Goes Dark Again: As Writer-Producer of The Belko Experiment, He Doesn’t Hold Back

Now best known as the mind behind Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (and its highly anticipated sequel, Vol. 2, out in theaters May 5), moviemaker James Gunn has done it all.

He got his start with low-budget horror Troma flicks, then penned the live-action Scooby Doo films, then broke into directing with his debut feature, the 2006 horror film Slither. As a huge fan of his intense 2010 indie-superhero film Super—not to mention his script for the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake—after Guardians made its enormous splash in 2014, I wondered if we’d ever see Gunn go that dark (or that indie) again.
Turns out, he can get even darker. His latest script, The Belko Experiment, directed by Wolf Creek helmer Greg McLean, is Battle Royale meets The Office in the best way possible. Eighty white-collar Americans are locked inside their corporate offices in Colombia and, as part of a social experiment, are forced to kill or be killed. Gunn may have given the director’s chair to the talented Aussie and taken an executive producer role instead, but the film is full of his trademark humor and storytelling chops. It could well be a breakout horror hit for spring—this year’s The Cabin in the Woods.

James Gunn (L) and Greg McLean on the set of The Belko Experiment

Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I believe you wrote the initial draft for The Belko Experiment in 2007, and in between you’ve made all these films. In what way did the script change in that time?

James Gunn (JG): It’s really pretty much the same. It had a lot of changes very early on, in that 2007-2008 period. Since then, I read over it to make sure we weren’t using cellphones in a different way. Surprisingly we weren’t! You’d think at least cellphone reception would be better since 2007, but it seems like its not. So it didn’t really change much since that original script.

MM: What were some of your influences on Belko?

JG: Battle Royale. My ex-wife [Jenna Fischer] was on the TV show The Office when I was writing Belko, so I think that influenced me in some ways in terms of that green florescent lightfield, that space. Also, a lot of old grindhouse exploitation cinema that went really far. Everything from Ms. 45 to all of the ultraviolent films of the ’60s and ’70s.

MM: Was there ever a point after Super where you were considering directing this yourself?

JG: I had a deal to direct the movie in 2007, and I was going to do it with Gold Circle Films, who produced Slither. We had a budget and I was going to fly down to Brazil and shoot it; we scouted locations and everything. Then I got divorced. I didn’t feel like going down to Brazil and filming a movie about people shooting their best friends and the people they loved. It just didn’t seem good for my soul at that time. I wanted to be with my friends and family and not stuck far away with nobody I knew, so I said screw it and took this gig doing this Ben Stiller thing. Do I regret it? I don’t think I do. I think the movie works better now than it would’ve then.

MM: I don’t know if you got to have a choice in who ended up directing it, but if so, was Greg McLean always your first choice?

JG: All the choices were made by me. I chose Greg, I cast the movie. I’m a real producer on the film; it’s not just an honorary title. Basically MGM gave the movie to me and my partner Peter Safran. When MGM and Orion came to me and said, “Hey we still have this screenplay from years ago and still love this movie. What do we have to do to get you to make it? If we give you a few million dollars, will you do it?” And I said, “Yeah, but I have to have total freedom to do whatever I want, and you can’t balk, and it has to be as harsh as it is on the page because the movie is only gonna work if it’s harsh. I have to be able to OK the director. If I can’t find a director I like then I’m not going to do the movie.” [MGM president] John Glickman said, “Cool.” That’s when we went off in search of directors. I met a lot of directors that I didn’t think were best for the film and weren’t that exciting, and then I met Greg. We saw things eye to eye in a lot of different ways and he seemed to understand my position on the film and how I looked at it, so we went with him.

MM: Was John Gallagher Jr. always your first choice for the lead? I’m a fan of everything he’s done for the past couple years.

JG: John auditioned for the role as Peter Quill [Chris Pratt’s role] in Guardians. I met him then and although he wasn’t right for that role, it was maybe the best audition I had ever seen in my life. No matter what, I had to figure out a way to work with this guy. I’d been thinking about it since then. So when Belko came up I was like, “Shit, John would be perfect for this. Let’s get him to do it,” and luckily he agreed to it.

John Gallagher Jr. and Adria Arjona in The Belko Experiment

MM: What I love about a lot of your movies is they have a very clear voice and specific vision. When you’re working as a producer with Greg, is it difficult to let however you saw the script go, and give notes to him?

JG: I don’t let go of that. My voice has been part of the process. If I feel like things are going too far astray, then I’ll say it and try and right the ship. Greg was very understanding of that with me. At the same time, I’m always open, whether I’m producing a movie or directing a movie, to everybody else’s ideas. If somebody says they don’t like something or something doesn’t work for them, no matter who it is, I’ll listen to them because it means something. If I cut a scene from a movie and all of a sudden all the people in the visual effects department are like, “Oh, we love that scene, we love that scene,” I listen to them and consider that, because that’s my audience right now.

MM: Do you show your film to other director friends of yours as you’re working on them or other creatives that you trust?

JG: The first people I ever showed [Guardians Vol. 2] to were my buddy Dave Yarovesky—who directed this horror movie called The Hive—my brother Brian, and my cousin Mark. And that was before I showed it to Marvel. And that was when I got my first advice from them, which was really helpful.

I just showed the film a month ago to a small group of directors who I really trust: Elizabeth Banks, Bobcat Goldthwait, my friend Dave Yarovesky, who is my biggest confidante; comic book writer Ed Brubaker, writer Jeremy Slater… a small group of some of the smartest people I know. Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon who just did The Big Sick. That’s my group of close creator friends and I listen to everything they say. This screening was more the end of the road. It was after we knew audiences understood what was going on, we didn’t need as much as the bigger overall questions answered, but I needed to know about some very specific things, so I asked them some very specific questions about if certain things made sense or they understood, or what worked, and then asked them also just generally what their ideas were.

Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian in The Belko Experiment

MM: As a fan of your smaller films like Super, will we ever see you direct smaller films at the level of The Belko Experiment again? Or is that just something you’re not interested in at this point in your career?

JG: I most likely know the next two things I’m doing, but besides that, I don’t have any clue. So far, I feel very at home making spectacle films and I feel like I’ve actually had more freedom creatively and in every way in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than I’ve had on any other movie I’ve made before. And when I’m able to do something like this that speaks to the entire world, it’s an exciting place to be. And I think it is something that is necessary at this time for cinema to survive. There needs to be more personal, exciting, risky voices in mainstream spectacle films because that’s what most people go to the movies to see by far. I feel a calling there and I feel a necessity to make those types of movies. That’s where I am today. Where I’ll be tomorrow, I don’t know. If I have an idea that really excited me for a $3 million movie that I want to direct myself, then I’ll go do that. But right now, making these sort of bigger projects is where my heart is. MM

The Belko Experiment opens in theaters March 17, 2017, courtesy of BH Tilt.

 

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