'Galaxy' quest: James Gunn brings a wild crew of intergalactic warriors to the Marvel Universe


If James Gunn had had his way, the Marvel Studios blockbuster that's arriving in theatres on August 1 to conquer the late-summer box office would be…Hit-Monkey. Doesn't ring a bell? That's okay; after all, you'd have to be as devoted a Marvel Zombie as Gunn to be on a first-name basis with that particular character, a bad-ass, gun-toting simian assassin who scored a one-shot comic in 2010 followed by a three-issue guest arc alongside one of the company's more established anti-heroes, Deadpool.

"He's a character not very many people know, but I really wanted to do a Hit-Monkey movie," says Gunn, on the phone from California. The lack of name recognition coupled with the whole "monkey assassin" thing made it an unlikely pitch, but the 43-year-old writer-director still gave it the ol' college try, sitting down with Marvel and its creative head honcho Kevin Feige—who Gunn has known since 2008 when a little movie called Iron Man transformed the fledgling studio into a hit factory—a little over two years ago to sell them on the idea. Predictably, they declined, but not long afterwards Feige called Gunn in for a second meeting, this one to discuss another lesser-known Marvel property: Guardians of the Galaxy.

As improbable as a Hit-Monkey feature might sound, once upon a time the notion of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie was just as dubious, particularly one helmed by a filmmaker whose previous credits included a low-budget horror comedy (2006's Slither) and an even lower-budgeted send-up of costumed vigilantism (2010's Super). Gunn himself admits to being initially uncertain about the mass appeal of Guardians, a team of interstellar warriors/troublemakers who debuted in Marvel's pages in 1969 and have appeared off-and-on (mostly off) in various comics over the ensuing decades. (To date, their longest run was a 62-issue self-titled series that lasted from 1990 to 1995.) As a result, he headed into the meeting not entirely certain he wanted the gig, but those feelings changed during the course of the conversation.

"The more I talked about it, the more excited I got. I saw the opportunity to do the exact movie I'd always wanted to do and never thought I'd have the chance—a space opera. As we talked, I could see visually what I would do with the movie, like bringing back some of the colorful palettes of sci-fi movies like Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Voyage. So I threw my hat in the ring. At first it was me against five other directors; then it was me against three other directors; then it was me against one other director; and then it was just me."

Along with the job of shepherding Guardians to the big screen, Gunn also won arguably the most creative freedom any Marvel Studios-employed director has enjoyed since Jon Favreau kick-started the company's cinematic universe with Iron Man. The director is quick to downplay that suggestion, noting that Kenneth Branagh had the opportunity to introduce fantasy into the Marvel mix with Thor, while Joe and Anthony Russo recently applied the visual and narrative language of ’70s-era paranoid thrillers to Captain America in the wildly successful sequel, The Winter Soldier. At the same time, though, those movies all take advantage of the larger framework that Marvel has constructed for its Earthbound characters—a framework that has set the stage for successive Avengers team-ups, including next summer's Age of Ultron. Guardians, on the other hand, takes place far, far away from the cares and concerns of Cap, Thor and Iron Man in the as yet unexplored reaches of the so-called Marvel Cosmic Universe.

It was left to Gunn and his key collaborators, including production designer Charles Wood and makeup effects designer David White, to conjure up that spacescape and populate it with the many strange beings that call it home, beings like a walking, talking tree, an irritable, foul-mouthed raccoon, a green-skinned criminal, and a lone human light years removed from his native planet. While the exact details of the plot (and its relationship to the larger Marvel movie mythology) are being kept under wraps, the general arc involves that aforementioned lone human Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) nabbing a powerful orb from a messianic baddie (Lee Pace) and falling in with a ragtag group of outcasts and outlaws in order to keep his ill-gained prize safe, lest someone even worse gets their hands on it. In the process of protecting the orb, Quill and his reluctant comrades—including Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper)—go from being a team of squabbling enemies to…well, a team of squabbling frenemies who adopt the grandiose title of the "Guardians of the Galaxy."

The director sums up the challenge—and thrill—of being let loose on Marvel's extraterrestrial outposts with a typically succinct and funny example involving, of all things, toast. "On a normal movie, you'd set a scene in a kitchen and then go to the production designer and he'd say, 'We can use this toaster or this toaster or this toaster.' In this movie, if the characters are going to have toast, you've got to figure out how the process works. Are there toasters? Are they in the wall? You're really creating everything from the ground up and I felt like I had a lot of freedom to create the universe I wanted."

As galvanizing as that freedom proved to be, it was accompanied by the pressure of launching an all-new team of heroes without the benefit of appearances by any of the established Marvel players. Furthermore, Gunn had to assemble the Guardians in a single movie, rather than the carefully orchestrated, five-film "Phase 1" operation that paved the way for The Avengers. "That was by far the most challenging aspect of the movie," he admits. "We had to let the audience know what's going on in this alternate landscape and also give them some sense of who the characters are. Because it's not just the Guardians; we also have several other major characters and we have to tell viewers where each of them comes from and what they do." (One of those "other major characters" represents the primary link between Marvel's Terrestrial Universe and its Cosmic Universe: Thanos, the world-conquering super-villain glimpsed at the end of The Avengers and featured more substantially here, with the newly acquired voice of Josh Brolin.)

Gunn also made the decision to further keep the audience on their toes by depriving them of the "stranger in a strange land" archetype who often functions as their guide to literally alien territory. Even the movie's one human character, Quill, doesn't play that role, having lived amongst the stars since his abduction from Earth as a child. "All of the characters treat this intergalactic community as if it's as ordinary as Earth," Gunn explains. "We don't have that one person who makes it easier for the audience to adjust to some degree. I think that's one of the reasons the soundtrack [which consists of ’70s rock favorites like "Spirit in the Sky" and "Hooked on a Feeling"] helps a lot. The story, setting and characters are so outlandish that having these songs in the movie grounds us and connects us to something we feel familiar with."

The abundance of strange people and places glimpsed in Guardians of the Galaxy made it all the more imperative that the actor cast as Peter Quill have the charisma necessary to anchor the movie's many moving parts. According to Gunn, numerous A-listers auditioned for the role, but none possessed the spark he was looking for—the same spark that Robert Downey, Jr. lit under the Iron Man movies. Marvel's ace casting director, Sarah Finn, was the first person to suggest Chris Pratt, at that point best known for his role on NBC's “Parks and Recreation,” but the director shot her down for one very simple, very superficial reason. "I kept saying, 'He's too fat,'" Gunn remarks, matter-of-factly. "And he was very chubby; he weighed 60 pounds more at the time. I kept saying 'No,' but then Sarah kind of tricked me and brought him in to read when I didn't know he'd be coming in. He read for about 20 seconds and I was like, 'He's it.' I was looking for that magic that Robert has with Iron Man, an actor who would come in and totally inhabit the character, not only servicing what was on the page but also bringing something more. Chris came in and did it within seconds. After that, I was like, 'I hope he can lose weight, but even if he can't, I guess we'll just have someone a little heftier as the lead in a superhero movie.' And then, of course, he lost all the weight." (Pratt famously posted a selfie depicting the muscular results of his weight-loss regimen on his Instagram feed in July 2013.)

While Marvel and Gunn were (eventually) in total agreement on Pratt, the director says he had to fight harder for other cast members, particular Bautista—a wrestler and mixed martial artist with limited acting experience—and former Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan, who plays Thanos' adopted daughter, Nebula. He also penned a role specifically for veteran character actor and regular collaborator Michael Rooker, following up memorable appearances in both Slither and Super, as Yondu, a member of the 1969 incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy who here fills the critical role of doling out important exposition at crucial moments.

"People usually play Rooker as this hard-ass who is always really mean and stoic. And that's part of who Rooker is, but at the same time he's got this maniacal laugh and is kind of a nut, and that craziness is something I feel is never brought to the screen. I think this may be his best role ever."

(Gunn's other favorite actor, Nathan Fillion, also extends their now three-movie partnership with a small cameo in Guardians. His appearance was intended to be a surprise, but the ex-“Firefly” star spilled the beans at a comics convention in April, a crime that technically should have landed him in Marvel Jail. As Gunn wryly remarks, though, "You're not supposed to leak those things, but he did it, so that's okay.")

Another actor that Gunn went to bat for in the face of studio uncertainty was Bradley Cooper, who provides the voice of the movie's most outlandish character, Rocket, a genetically engineered space raccoon with a short-fuse temper and an itchy trigger finger. Already Guardians' breakout star in the early trailers (Gunn cheerfully refers to him as the "cheat code of movies"), Rocket proved a tricky role to cast as Gunn initially auditioned experienced voice actors, only to reject each of them for sounding too cartoony. "The truth is that while Rocket is very humorous and gets a lot of the laugh lines, he's also a very sad, mangled beast who was created through some very Island of Dr. Moreau-type experiments. And that was a part of his personality that it seemed like most of the voice actors couldn't get. So then we had more dramatic-type actors come in, but they couldn't get the comedy! One of the hallmarks of Bradley's performances in movies like Silver Linings Playbook is that he balanced the comedic and the dramatic very well and he was able to do that with Rocket; he keeps him as real a creature as possible while still utilizing the humor to the best of his ability. I'll be honest, some of the business types [at Marvel] saw the first cut of the film and said, 'Wait a second, we paid money for Bradley Cooper and that raccoon doesn't sound like Bradley Cooper!' And I was like, 'That's the idea; he's an actor and he's playing a character.'"

Occasional casting disagreements aside, Gunn emphasizes that he and Marvel shared a strong working relationship throughout production and that the theatrical cut of Guardians very much reflects his creative vision for the movie. The studio's leniency with the filmmakers in its employ has become a hot-button issue in recent months, particularly in the wake of Edgar Wright's high-profile departure from Ant-Man—a project he had originated and nurtured for many years—reportedly after disagreements about a new version of the script. Gunn himself weighed in on the situation in a widely circulated Facebook post and reiterates that his sympathies lie with both parties.

"Edgar is one of my closest friends and he's one of the most talented filmmakers alive. I would have loved to have seen his Ant-Man. But everybody isn't meant to work together. Kevin [Feige] and I happen to see a lot of things in the same way. We argue from time to time and have differences of opinion, but we also are willing to try different ideas. I think a lot of Kevin's strengths are my weaknesses and possibly vice versa. Early on when I turned in my first draft, I was really afraid that I had made the movie too funny and he and the other [executives] were like, 'No, make it as funny as you want.' So I went home and wrote a seven-page scene where the characters just argue and it seems to be people’s favorite scene in the movie! So I've felt bolstered by the presence of Marvel creatively; I feel they're able to help me fully speak to the audience in the way I would like to speak to them."

And Gunn is certainly aware that he's speaking to a larger audience than he's ever had before. "With a movie like Super, I knew it would have a punk-rock vibe of fucking with the viewers, so obviously it was going to be made for a much smaller audience. Guardians is for a broader group and I wanted to make the most fun, exciting and emotional film I could for as many people as possible." And should that broad audience turn up as expected, Marvel and its owner, The Walt Disney Company, is already prepared to capitalize on Guardians mania, with Disney CEO Robert Iger recently announcing that certain members of the team could be spun off into their own movies. (In other words, get ready for Rocket Raccoon: Assassin to the Stars.) And while Gunn, who is contracted to direct at least one other movie for Marvel, may be back to oversee another adventure in the studio's Cosmic Universe, right now he's just pleased that he won the opportunity to plant a flag in new creative territory. "I really didn't think Marvel was going to go with me; a lot of times, these kinds of movies come up and the executives talk to everybody about them, but they're really not that serious about anybody but a handful of directors. The fact that Marvel took a risk on me is something I really appreciate." And hey, maybe somewhere down the line they'll be willing to return the favor by taking a risk on that Hit-Monkey movie.