Before James Gunn was one of the most successful writers and directors in movies, The Suicide Squad maestro used to think he needed to shout for people to take him seriously.
“When I started out in New York City, nobody would listen to me. And part of the culture of making movies in New York City were these incredibly angry sets with people screaming, and I learned early on, ‘Oh — I’m either going to be screamed at, or scream. I know which side I’m choosing: I’m choosing the scream-at side!’” he says.
Sometime after the 2014 blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, in which he turned one of Marvel’s lesser-known comics into one of its most successful and celebrated franchises, he realized he could stop screaming. Now people paid attention to everything he said.
Maybe too much attention.
“One of my issues is that people take what I say too seriously, if that makes any sense. I’ll say to an editor, ‘Hey, maybe, maybe, maybe this isn’t the best place for the shot. And that becomes then, ‘Oh, absolutely. We have to do everything we can to move heaven and earth to move the shot.’ But when I say maybe, I mean maybe,” Gunn explains.
Three years ago, Gunn suffered the too-familiar modern fate of being taken at face value for saying things he obviously meant as jokes. Right-wing sleuths, irritated by Gunn’s left-wing politics, dug up old tweets, about subjects like pedophilia, that were obviously meant to be, in Gunn’s words, “outrageous and taboo.” He apologized for them and said his work and sense of humor had evolved.
When you understand Gunn’s tough situation growing up, his jokes seem less like punching down and more like a dark attempt to process a painful childhood. But Disney dropped him as the keeper of the Guardians franchise.
Gunn was devastated. But he also thought about how he could improve himself, and about why he made movies. He realized he was seeking approval and love, and re-evaluated why he makes movies.
And that, you may be surprised to learn, is the unlikely origin story of The Suicide Squad.
The film, out today in theaters and on HBO Max, reintroduces a team of unlovable super villains who last assembled in 2016’s similarly titled Suicide Squad. Marvel’s rival, DC, reached out to Gunn between Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and his reinstatement to write and direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis are among the returning cast from the previous Suicide Squad film, and are joined by Idris Elba, Taika Waititi, and Gunn stalwarts like his brother, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker and Sylvester Stallone, all of whom appeared in the Guardians franchise, as well as Jennifer Holland, who is Gunn’s longtime partner.
James Gunn was a wittily subversive, sought-after screenwriter for years, writing films like 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet, 2002’s Scooby-Doo and its 2004 sequel, and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead before he directed his own script for 2006’s Slither. Along the way he wrote a series of bombastic, hilarious shorts — including a “PG Porn” series that is exactly what it sounds like — and “Humanzee,” the ridiculous, grotesque sitcom parody that he credits with getting him the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
We spoke with Gunn while he was shooting the new HBO Max Suicide Squad spinoff series Peacemaker, starring John Cena as a super bonehead who violently loves peace. Let’s not make the mistake of taking all of the words you’re about to read too seriously — James Gunn is prone to wry delivery.
Tim Molloy: I saw your tweet about your sober anniversary on April 22. I quit drinking about nine years ago and one of the things that kept me drinking for a long time was the fear that I wouldn’t have any more fun. But you’re a person who proves that you can be sober and have more fun than you probably ever did before.
James Gunn: Yeah, well, I wasn’t having fun before I was sober. And I’m having a little bit more now. For me, in terms of being a creative person, I think that, unlike the beliefs of many, alcohol and drugs actually blocked me from the pureness of my imagination, the purity of my imagination. And so I think that if anything, in terms of my career, it’s been helpful. … In my personal life, my spiritual life, all those things. It’s been helpful in a lot of other ways as well.
You grew up near St. Louis, which is a kind of notoriously straitlaced place. Did you find it to be that way?
I grew up in a place called Manchester, Missouri, outside of St. Louis. Today, it’s very suburban. When I was young, it was more rural, suburban. And it was parochial, in certain ways. Very Catholic, in both senses of the word. And so being an odd little kid from the start — for whatever reasons I was odd — it probably was not the most conducive atmosphere for me, for making friends or feeling like I belonged or anything like that. But it did give me an opportunity to sort of escape into my own little world with comic books and books. And to start to draw and write my own comic books, and start to make movies when I was 11.
So once that stuff came around, it helped me get through life and it helped me to develop the skills that allow me to do what I do today and get paid to do what I do today. And I don’t know if I would have had those skills had I not been such an outcast as a young child.
By the time I got into high school it was a little different. I was in the punk scene. Sex became a part of it. I got along better with women in many ways than men anyway. Life was a little bit easier in high school. I met a group of friends… and I found another group of young filmmakers, and people that were interested in the same things I was. And that was a big relief for me.
Do you think being odd was kind of the best thing for you? I know it’s painful when you’re a kid, but you develop character.
I mean, being completely honest, no. My grade school was a difficult place, because… I’ve talked about it before, but there was a priest that was molesting kids in the class, and it caused sort of a down trickle of just… a lot of cruelty among the boys in our class. So it was a difficult place because of that. And I would give it up for less money. I would give up that past.
You’re really communicative with fans. Do you think part of that is because of being a fan yourself, who looked at movies and comics as an escape?
It’s one of the positive things about social networking, of which there aren’t that many positive things. But one of the positive things is being able to communicate with people that you look up to. And I was lucky as a kid. I wrote letters to John Romita, the comic book artist, and he wrote me back. I got Sybil Danning’s autograph. Also when I was a kid, I met Joe Strummer, the lead singer of the Clash, in a music store, looking through music. And I went up to him, and I didn’t want to bother him. And I said, you know, “Mr. Strummer, I’m such a huge fan, you’ve affected my life in a big way.’” And he was nice to me. And I started to walk away, and he just walked with me and hung out with me for 10 or 15 minutes in the store. And we talked, and I was like, “God, that really made a difference in my life — that small act made a difference in my life.”
Whenever I met anybody who I looked up to, just the act of their being present, just looking at somebody and taking in who they are, it makes a huge difference. Because most people don’t. If you see most people signing autographs or doing whatever, they’re just kind of off in space. But there are people that just take a moment to be with that person—just give them that one moment.
By answering questions on social networking sites and being able to talk to people directly, that is my way of being able to do that.
Your 2010 film Super is fantastic. But I don’t quite get how you went from a relatively low-budget film like Super to Guardians of the Galaxy. How did you sell Marvel on doing that?
James Gunn: Marvel came to me initially. I had talked to Kevin Feige back when the Hulk movie was coming out after Slither, back when Iron Man was first coming out. He knew that I knew Marvel. I know more about the characters than most of the people at Marvel. I know more about DC too—I love comic books. I always did love comic books. So I understood comics, but also, I thought that was sort of a dream job.
I don’t know why they came to me. I think they took a risk. They always liked me. Even weirder is, I did a short for Xbox, originally — it got kicked off Xbox because it was too messed up — called “Humanzee.” Which I don’t even know if you can find on YouTube anymore. And they loved “Humanzee.” So it’s not only Super, it’s even the weirder stuff. It’s “Humanzee” and “PG Porn” and all the different things I’d done. But I was incredibly fortunate because I had co-produced the Scooby-Doo movies. I had been around big-budget movies, I knew a lot about visual effects. …
By the time I got the Guardians, people thought of me as a lower-budget filmmaker, but I had a lot of visual effects and Slither and a lot of visual effects in Super. You know, it’s a $3 million movie, but we did a lot with it. So I had 15 years of filmmaking experience behind me, and a lot of practical knowledge that made me completely ready to take on Guardians of the Galaxy.
I was talking with my partner the other night about this: My biggest regret with Guardians was that I still had too much of a producer hat on. … We were in such a rush to be able to get our shots for the day. I mean, we were doing 54 setups a day with one camera on Super, which is unheard of. And just rushing, rushing, rushing—that speed became a part of everything I was doing. That panic, that anxiety that I had on set all day long. And I retained that through Guardians Vol. 1, and through Guardians Vol. 2 even, really. But I really needed to learn how to concentrate more on just relaxing and getting everything right. And that anxiety, I think, is something that is one of my few regrets from that time.
The Guardians movies feel really nostalgic to me. I’ve been thinking about nostalgia a lot because at one point it seemed like nostalgia was kind of a thing for us weirdos living in the past. But then in the last year, we all had nothing to do but look to the past, because the present was pretty much sitting indoors. And then I started thinking about the Victorian idea of nostalgia as a sickness. Has your feeling about nostalgia changed at all recently?
I don’t think it has. Obviously, I love a lot of things. One of the beautiful things about, say, Spotify, is that we aren’t limited to listening to just what’s brand new. When we grew up, it was always like, what’s brand new? What’s that new thing? What’s that new sound? Because whatever happened yesterday is over and done. And I just need whatever is new.
With movies, it’s even more so. I mean, so many young filmmakers don’t watch the classic films, and I’m like, “That is insane. You’ve never seen A Touch of Evil? You’ve never seen Citizen Kane? You’ve never seen any of these old films?” And that is unhealthy to me. That is not having a respect for the roots of where you came from. You should go back to the beginning.
If you’re writing a comic book, you should go back to the beginning of when they started and see what they’re like. We need to know where the stuff grew from, to really take it organically into yourself. So I don’t think of that as nostalgia. I think of that as a love of the art form.
But I do think that there’s a fetishization of nostalgia that can be harmful. And I do think that Peter Quill in the Guardians movies suffers from that. And that in some ways, there’s an unhealthiness to that. He has commodified the planet Earth, is what Peter Quill has done. Peter Quill has taken the planet Earth and turned it into John Stamos and Starsky and Hutch action figures and ALF stickers, because he doesn’t want to face what Earth really is to him, which is the death of his mother. And the fact that he left his grandfather and whole family there and never returned, except once during the Infinity Saga, in which he went back for two seconds, and then got off as quickly as he could.
And so I think that he uses some of that nostalgia as a protection against what Earth really means to him.
I thought, like a lot of people, that you got a completely raw deal with the whole Twitter situation in 2018. It was really unfair. And it was really people just weaponizing fake offense, to make an example of you. When that happened, were you crushed by it? Were you angry? Or did you just kind of get strategic and go, “What do I do next?”
James Gunn: I did all those things. I did all of those things. I was emotionally, emotionally affected, obviously, in the very beginning, emotionally devastated. And I was hurt by it, but I also have both my reason and my faith as great tools in my toolshed, and used those things to really say, well, this is the situation as it is. How do I best approach it? What should I do?
And listen, it may not all be my fault, but some of it’s my fault. I asked, where are the places that I need to take accountability and look at myself and see what I could have done differently? And ways in which maybe I was being callous towards others, which I was. So I did that.
And, obviously, everything turned out OK. And listen, I needed it. Like, I’ll tell you, I really just needed it. I was getting too swept up in everything, like the business, the money, the this, the that, the bigger and bigger and bigger. And I was like, what do I really care about?
And number one, the main thing I got out of the situation was, I have, for whatever reasons, because of my own mental issues, I have a problem taking love in. I have a problem seeing how other people care about me. And part of what I have always done is tried to get attention and be famous, and be “great,” so that people will love me.
And I realized in that moment — where I was at my least great, I was at my least genius, I was at my worst— I felt loved for the first time. I felt love from my partner, Jen. I felt love from my mom and dad, who were beautiful. I felt love from my brothers, from my sister, who was a huge friend, and from the Guardians — from Dave Bautista, and Chris Pratt, and Pom [Klementieff] and Karen [Gillan] and Zoe [Saldana], from Vin Diesel, Sly Stallone… All these people gave me this love and showed me love I just didn’t, hadn’t experienced.
So in that way, that was a great day for me, when that stuff happened, because I was able to experience that love. And then the other thing is, it was like, why am I making movies? Am I making movies to get attention? Am I making movies so that people will like me?
And I’m like, yeah, in part, I am. But I thought, that’s not why I want to make movies. What do I enjoy? Because I don’t enjoy that part. That’s just unfulfilling. I don’t like reading about myself, negative or positive, because… I don’t need all that. What I love is creating. I love creating stories. I love molding characters. I love working with actors. I love working with camera operators. I love shooting a film. I love the geometry of putting shots together. I love the creativity of filmmaking.
And so it put me into a wonderful place that I hadn’t been in for a long time. And that’s what led to The Suicide Squad and choosing that project and making that movie.
Continue for more of James Gunn on The Suicide Squad…