Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: James Gunn

You could argue that James Gunn is just very lucky—and yes, to have the third feature you direct make upwards of $770 million around the world requires some major karma no matter how you slice it.

But even the most begrudging have to admit that this man’s a moviemaker, through and through. The almost two decades he spent evolving from Lloyd Kaufman protégé to Marvel franchise mastermind (it sounds a little like a superhero origin story itself) were years Gunn spent learning the ropes and paying his dues, earning his current accolades as the guardian of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.

With the series’ second installment, Vol. 2, bursting into theaters this spring—and a third already announced, we thought we’d check up on Gunn to see just how much of that tireless, scrappy director from Slither (2006) and Super (2010) is left in the current model. Turns out, quite a lot. As he told us back in March (when indie horror hit The Belko Experiment, which he wrote and produced, opened), he’s actively trying to bring indie hallmarks—originality, verve, idiosyncrasy—into the megaplex: “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.”

Hooray for that. Here are more of Gunn’s secrets to success. – MM Editors.

1. Put Yourself Into the Film

When Joss Whedon read the first draft that I had written of Guardians of the Galaxy, he thought it wasn’t “James Gunn” enough. I had actually been holding back. I was afraid that to make a huge commercial movie, I had to make it like other movies. Joss said, “I like the parts that are ‘James Gunn.’ Just make it more ‘James Gunn.’” And that’s what I did. I was glad he gave me that vote of confidence.

2. Just Finish Writing

The first way that writers fail is not finishing things. Most people judge their writing really harshly and go onto something else that’s fresher. I get better about not judging my writing as time goes on. People can get narcissistic about their writing and not see it objectively, and that is a big impediment.

People don’t think they’re writing workable pieces of art. Yet when someone reads that script, he or she is your first audience member. A script is a machine that needs to affect people in certain ways. If it does, then it works, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t work. There’s a scientific element to being a screenwriter that is often forgotten. My success is due to the fact that my imagination is nearly insane, and then on top of that I have this other part of me that’s like a doctor in terms of seeing what works and what doesn’t.

3. Learn How to Do Everything

Being a director takes a lot of different skills, and we all have our blind spots, but you need to be really good at a lot of things. If you haven’t taken acting lessons, you need to take acting lessons, because you need to know how to talk to an actor. If you haven’t learned anything about cinematography and how a camera works and interacts with light, you need to learn that. If you don’t know what crossing the line is, start over at one. Those things are all so incredibly important to have a sense of filmmaking. It’s a very difficult process. It’s not simple.

4. Hire People Who Aren’t You

I spent a lot of time in independent film being able to do most jobs on the set better than the person that was doing that job, whether it was the assistant director or production designer. Tromeo and Juliet [the 1996 Troma movie he wrote] was a great for me because I got to experience every single aspect of making a movie, from writing a screenplay to finding locations, to casting, to directing the actors, to choreographing sex scenes, to editing the movie, to getting rights to the soundtrack, to making the posters and putting the movie into theaters. That’s a lot of experience for a kid still in grad school! Today, I look for people that can do those jobs better than I can. It’s about finding people whose talents aren’t the same as mine. When I’m interviewing cinematographers, I look for guys who know how to do the stuff I can’t do for myself.

5. Prep Like There’s No Tomorrow

I’ve met very few directors who prep as much as I do. The final movie is much like the original conception. Every single thing is prepped. I started writing the script for Guardians Vol. 2 in August 2014, and the treatment was written a couple months after that. The script was finished months before we started shooting, which is almost never the case for a big spectacle film. I draw all my own storyboards. I work stuff out so I know exactly what the movie is going to be. I plan every single thing out, I plan for things going wrong, I over-plan. I’m crazy about it.

6. Improv is Overrated

I’m a guy that believes in writing the script ahead of time. I rehearse a lot with the actors. If improv happens, it’s much more likely to happen in the rehearsals than on set. Occasionally you’ll find new moments, like a new camera move, or a funny line. But the role of improvisation is largely overrated.

7. Remember Colors!

A movie has a color story. I use color swatches. Every scene has a different set of swatches for what that scene is. You need to be able to look at those colors on a wall, lined up, and say, “That tells my story in the same way these words tell my story.”

8. Start on Music Early

The other thing I do in prep that other people don’t is write the score ahead of time. We play the score on set—we even play it with dialogue, so I’ll have the actors and camera people with ear buds in as we’re doing the scene. Music is such an undervalued part of films, whether it’s soundtrack or score. People largely think of film as a visual medium, and audio gets pushed all the way to the back, not decided upon until after the movie is cut together. That has always seemed crazy to me.

9. Second Unit is Overrated Too

I don’t shoot second unit. I’ve done it before and hate it. On Guardians Vol. 2 I don’t have second unit, I shoot it all myself. I find that when you have a second unit director, it just means we have longer shoots. It gets all screwy and I get very frustrated.

Gunn (L) and Chris Pratt (as Star-Lord/Peter Quill) on the set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Photograph by Chuck Zlotnick / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

10. Use Test Screenings Properly

I don’t think I’ll ever learn more in any single sitting about filmmaking than I did when I watched the first test screening of Tromeo and Juliet. I had a huge amount of growth in that one sitting which I’ve applied to the rest of my career since then. That said, the second highest screen test I’ve ever had was on Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. It got a 96 or something, but it didn’t exactly go on to light the critical world on fire. I don’t put a whole lot of stock in those test-screening scores. What I really want to know is: What scenes did you like the best? Are there scenes you didn’t like? Were there times you were bored? Most importantly, was there stuff that you didn’t understand? Did you like this character?

11. Don’t Get Hung Up on Budget

Movies are all the same, from small to big. People get tripped up about bigger movies, and there might be different skill sets involved, but making a movie is making a movie is making a movie. MM

As told to Andy Young.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens in theaters May 5, 2017, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2017 issue.

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