In our new series, Then & Now, we track the professional paths and key career decisions of the people with the coolest creative jobs around.
If you were looking to explain the dichotomy of cinema on both a monetary and creative level, you could do worse than using as examples Marvel Studios and Troma Entertainment. One is the comic book-powered megabrand whose superpower is churning out intersecting billion-dollar franchises. The other is the schlock-factory behind movies like Bikini Swamp Girl Massacre. One plans out its slate of new projects years in advance, each new announcement generating worldwide headlines, while the other appears to be making it up as they go along in a charmingly ramshackle collective stream of conscious. Although the two entities have collaborated together in the comic book realm several times, their most recent common lineage is James Gunn.
The director of Marvel's new hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, got his start at Troma, working through the many complexities of bringing projects like Tromeo and Juliet from page to screen. Although Gunn eventually abandoned that world for writing more Hollywood fare like Scooby Doo and the Dawn of the Dead remake, he never left the scrappiness or genre sensibility he honed at Troma too far behind. Certainly those traits are evident in Gunn's directorial efforts like the gross-out opus Slither or the demented superhero warm-up Super. It's what the filmmaker has figured out and decided for himself along the way that's prepared him for reconciling old Troma instincts with a Marvel-sized budget.
As Guardians rolls out to a rapturous reception (92% on Rotten Tomatoes; $94 million opening weekend) Gunn talked with Co.Create about learning from audiences, gathering consensus, and when he started giving a shit.
James Gunn was paid $150 to write the screenplay for Tromeo and Juliet. During the production, he got a crash course in making a movie from start to finish. Eventually, he was hired as Troma’s head of production, a job that fortuitously required continual output. "We had a TV station, Troma Dish, which ran in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, and a Troma show on BBC as well, so I had to create just constant content. It was great because you got to set up angles and do effects and shoot, all of it without thinking, and not really caring about quality. You wanted it to be good as it could be, but you didn't really have time to overthink things and be a perfectionist. The amount of hours I logged actually shooting something vs. planning to shoot something was very high. When you have that kind of experience as filmmaking practice, you become comfortable. It just becomes second nature to shoot and talk to actors, deal with effects and all that stuff."
While he was at Troma, Gunn would work 60-hour weeks, going home every night to write screenplays for another three or four hours. Two of these early efforts generated interest, but one called The Specials became a viral screenplay, passed around all over Hollywood, and opening up doors. The success was partly based on some revelations Gunn had about writing at the time. "My biggest growth spurt ever in making films happened because of the very first test screening that we did for Tromeo and Juliet. I could really see when I'd written scenes that worked and when I'd written scenes that hadn't worked so well, and I really kind of got what the audience latched onto. I decided that stuff was my actual work. I think a lot of my career since then has been trying to create movies out of just those moments that really work.
Also, at the time, I was really doing everything for myself, like, how can I become more successful? And then one day I just sort of had this awakening where I realized I’m not only on this planet for myself, but for other people, and that by serving others the best I could, that’s how I could be the happiest. That moment was about a month before I wrote The Specials screenplay and my whole life began to change.
Before Gunn had the opportunity to direct a movie outside of his experience at Troma, he continued his cinematic education with an important mentorship. "On the Scooby Doo movies, the producer Chuck Groban took me aside and started grooming me to direct. And he wasn't just grooming me to direct the kinds of low-budget movies I'd already worked on, but big-budget films. I started to get an education in terms of visual effects and what they were and how to deal with them, and I owe a lot of what I'm able to do now to Chuck. I think Marvel was surprised when I came in to work on Guardians because I knew so much about visual effects.
Chuck Groban was just a bulldog when it came to filmmaking, but he really had a soft spot when people were rational—which is important on a big-budget movie. There are more people sitting at the table, so you have to be in communication with more people at the same time. That’s a skill that some people have and some people don’t. Luckily, I’m the oldest of six kids and I think I’ve always been able to gather a consensus at times. That’s what it’s like when you’re working on a big film. It was harder earlier on, though.
When I was working on the Scooby Doo script, I was working with Chuck and got along with him very well. All of a sudden, there’s also the studio and the director, the stars—lots of people who have opinions on how that screenplay should be, and it went from making me really happy to having to make a lot of different people happy and I hadn’t quite mastered the skill of making myself happy at the same time as making everybody else happy, and I just let go of making myself happy in favor of everybody else by the end of it."
Gunn's approach to winning the Guardians gig represented a departure from one long-standing element of his method for pitching projects. The success of this approach has made the director re-evaluate his future. "I’ve reached an interesting stage in my life where I’m going to have to learn from my experience lately when I make movies going forward. I used to think that my success in this industry was due to not giving a shit. I would be fully committed to something and completely unattached to it. I would go in and pitch a movie and I would work really hard on a monologue so that I’d know exactly what I’m pitching—and at the same time I would not care if it got made. Because I know how much work it is to make a movie, and I also love my free time. Every time I was faced with the possibility of making a movie I was equally excited by the prospect of not making a movie. And I thought putting myself into the mode of not giving a shit made me appealing to the producers. But with Guardians, it was the first time I ever really cared. I wanted this job badly. I would’ve been disappointed and I would’ve been a little confused about what to do next since I felt so right for the gig. And it’s caused something in me where I’m not sure how to approach it next time—whether to give a shit or not—so this movie has sort of opened me up to a new way of looking at my career."