James Gunn
James Gunn

For an aspiring screenwriter, finding your first big break is not just about being in the right place at the right time–it’s about being willing to accept $150 for all your hard work. That’s just the total sum that moviemaker James Gunn received for penning the script to Tromeo & Juliet–the low-budget (but Troma-infused) retelling of the Shakespeare classic that has since become a worldwide cult classic.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, talent sems to run in the Gunn family–all four of James’ brothers have found success in the entertainment industry. But none have walked the eclectic path of James, who has taken turns as musician, actor, producer, director, novelist and more. But it’s the role of screenwriter that has garnered Gunn the most attention–and which is currently on full display. With two films in release, Scooby-Doo 2 and Dawn of the Dead, Gunn’s versatility could not be more apparent. Here, he chats with MM about his early beginnings, escaping categorization and the need to bitch-slap Matthew Lillard.

Jennifer Wood (MM): So the first question is: what is it in the St. Louis water? How is it that five brothers–surrounded by a family of lawyers–all turned to the entertainment industry, and have each been successful in their chosen careers?

James Gunn (JG): I have no idea. Other families are competitive in sports or academics. My family was competitive in making each other laugh and freaking each other out. These are the skills we finely-tuned and now use in our professional lives.

MM:At what point did you know that writing was the path you wanted to pursue? What is it about the process–or finished product–that attracted you the role of screenwriter?

JG: I took a creative writing class in college where I wrote a play. Until that time I had been playing in rock bands, traveling around the Midwest. But something about the class’ response to the play–as well as the fun I had writing the play itself–energized me in a way rock and roll rarely did. This is perhaps due to the fact I’m a better writer than musician, but who knows. I found writing a more direct route to sharing my imagination with others.

As far as screenwriting over other types of writing, I’m a social animal, so working in the film industry is more fun for me than writing novels. I like being alone, but not all the time.

MM:You seem to have found success relatively early–making a name for yourself at a very young age with Tromeo & Juliet. While the ’60s and ’70s may have had Roger Corman, those looking to become moviemakers in the ’80s and ’90s had the Lloyd Kaufman school of moviemaking. How much of your current success do you attribute to your work with Troma?

JG: Um, I’d say, well, probably about 57.3 percent. Yeah, exactly that. Which is a lot. I had never written a screenplay before I was hired to write Tromeo & Juliet for $150. I didn’t go to film school, but on Tromeo & Juliet I was able to learn about every aspect of practical filmmaking–from conception to shooting to editing to marketing.

MM:What do you see as the greatest benefit of working in such a low-budget, guerilla way? And how has that experience carried with you into your current work within Hollywood?

JG: The biggest benefit for me working in low-budget was freedom. On Tromeo & Juliet I was able to do almost anything I wanted. You want a five-foot penis monster? Great, go ahead. A Luis Buñuel-inspired scene where Juliet’s pregnant stomach bursts open to have popcorn and maggots and live rats come out? Fine, let’s do it. A slapstick scene of domestic violence? Fabulous idea! Tromeo was an experimental film in so many ways. I was able to learn what an audience liked and what they didn’t (uh, slapstick scenes of domestic violence). Tromeo cost $350,000, which to me was an astronomical amount. I would go to work every day, freaked out that everyone was going along with my ludicrous whims. It felt a little bit like being God: If I wanted it, it was there… as long as it didn’t cost over $15.95.

In Hollywood, there’s less freedom. But I have to keep that same “free” state in my mind to have fun and put out the kind of work that I like. Boundaries only get in the way, especially on the first draft.

MM:Let’s talk about the work that you’re currently doing. You currently have two films in release–Dawn of the Dead and Scooby-Doo 2. While the first may seem like a logical progression in your career, all of this Troma talk definitely begs the question: how do you go from Tromeo & Juliet to Scooby-Doo? How did you find your way to Hollywood?

JG: After I quit Troma, I wrote a script called The Specials, which was later turned into a film. Although the movie didn’t do so well, the script got me a lot of work, as well as a manager, an agent and a handful of fans. One of the people who liked the script was Jay Roach, who was willing to take a risk and back me to write a movie version of Spy vs. Spy for Warner Bros. with him to direct. Although it never got made, Warners liked the script enough to talk me into writing Scooby-Doo. I was very unsure about writing Scooby at the time. It wasn’t really where I had planned on my career going. I had never written a movie that wasn’t rated R. But today I’m happy I chose to do it.

MM:What was the genesis of both of your current projects: how did you get involved with Scooby-Doo 2 and Dawn of the Dead? What was it about each of the projects that spoke to you to make you sign on?

JG: I wrote Scooby 1, and at first said no to writing 2. Then I started thinking of all the things I could do better, and some stories started coming, and I knew if the cast, the director and the producers did a 2 without me, I’d feel left out. Also, I didn’t want someone to come in and write a better Scooby movie than me. I wanted to one-up myself instead of having someone else doing it.

With Dawn of the Dead, Eric Newman called me up. He said he had a chance to buy the rights to Dawn of the Dead, and would do it if I agreed to write it. I don’t know why, but the idea spoke to me. I love zombie movies, and I love ’70s movies in general. I wanted to write a story about human beings, and how they reacted to having everything they used to define themselves stripped away–their jobs, their families, their churches, their belief systems. Who do people become when all they have is themselves? Most of the characters in the movie are pretty much losers, and this new life, as horrible as it is, is a chance for redemption. That’s the aspect of the story that interested me. And then I had to cut it all for the chainsaw sequences.

MM:Both of these projects mark separate but distinct challenges: one film being a sequel (and based on a well-known cartoon series), the other being a remake. For Scooby-Doo: had you known, when you were writing the first film, that there would likely be a sequel? Was the process of completing the script easier, considering that you had already familiarized yourself with the characters and developed their on-screen way of talking, etc. with the first film? What were some of the challenges you faced that you believe were particular to his being a sequel?

JG: I knew there was a strong possibility of a sequel–it’s one of the key reasons I didn’t have Scooby beheaded at the end of Scooby-Doo 1. But, yeah, Scooby 2 was easier than Scooby 1 in every way. I went into it being extremely familiar with the cast, the director, the producers, their strengths and weaknesses. I also knew what worked in the first film and what didn’t. Scooby-Doo 2 and Tromeo & Juliet have been my two best creative and professional experiences thus far, primarily because my roles went beyond those of a typical screenwriter, and I was involved in every step of the process. Also, the casts and crews of both films are among some of my best friends today.

MM:What about Dawn of the Dead: Modern-day remakes are becoming more and more common at the box office–but they’ve been attempted in so many different ways (shot-by-shot, etc.). What angle did you use with your take on the script? Was the process of completing this script easier in the sense that you already had a full script to work with?

JG: I love the original movie, but it’s already been done. I liked starting with the original premise–a band of survivors stuck in a mall during a flesh-eating zombie apocalypse–and taking it in a new direction, with new themes, characters, situations. I’ve never been a fan of remakes in the same way I usually don’t like watching movies of which I’ve already read the book versions. I’m constantly comparing in my mind. So I wanted to do something completely different, simply because that’s what interested me in the writing process. So, no, it wasn’t easier because of the original script. If I had used it, I imagine it would have been.

MM:What’s so interesting about these two films having opened up so close together is that they’re truly a testament to your diversity. Young writers in Hollywood often seem to be plagued by being pigeonholed into whatever their first script was. How have you managed to escape this tendency?

JG: Honestly, I took less money for Dawn of the Dead than I would have for writing a comedy. Since The Specials and Scooby, I was known as a comedy writer. Now I’m known as a comedy and horror writer. I’ll have to write a remake of Terms of Endearment to be taken seriously in drama, I suppose. Maybe I can do it with Muppets. Or maybe only one Muppet, in the Shirley MacLaine role.

MM:Has the experience of spending time on the set stirred up the desire to move into different directions within the industry–directing, producing, etc.?

JG: On Scooby 2 I was a co-producer, and was on set with Raja almost every second. One of the reasons I was there was to more actively learn about directing a large-budget film, which is something I desire to do. Raja put up with me and my screenwriter questions–“What’s a lens?” “What’s a mark?” “What’s DP stand for? Director of Photography? Well, I beg to differ, Raja. In my film experience at Troma, it stands for something else.”

My other reason in being there was to bitch-slap Matt Lillard every time he tried to change a line–only because I love him and I wanted what was best for him. If, by chance, he did improvise something funny, it was with the understanding that I’ll take credit for it in the DVD commentary. “Oh, I remember when I thought of that line, I was in the shower, blah blah blah…”

I wasn’t around for Dawn–they shot at exactly the same time, across the continent from one another. In truth, they probably wouldn’t have been able to put up with my controlling neuroses as well as the Scooby folks. They’ve learned how to handle me.

MM:So what’s up next for you?

JG: I’ve got a script called Super, with Chuck Roven producing, that I’d like to direct over the next year or so. We’re gonna use some lenses on that one. And we’re discussing how we’ll all be involved in the future of Scooby-Doo. I keep thinking I’m done with the little fella, but I keep having more ideas. I didn’t think I’d ever do a 3, but I’m considering it.

Also, I’m helping my wife Jenna Fischer to finish up a feature she directed called Lollilove. I acted in it, and was a total diva the whole time. I demanded Red Vines in my “trailer,” which was a corner of the room. And when a PA would give me Twizzlers I whipped him silly.