Tag Archives: James Gunn

Young Gunn: how I “discovered” the director of Guardians of the Galaxy

7 Aug
Director/writer James Gunn on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Director/writer James Gunn, now 44, on set of Guardians of the Galaxy

Giving a $150 million movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy to a relatively unknown writer/director was a huge gamble, as I wrote here. James Gunn is a graduate of the Troma school of schlock (see here for my meeting last year with Troma head Lloyd Kaufman), and his chief writing credits previously were on Scooby-Doo. But I’d like to think Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, somehow read my review in The Times a decade ago.

Scooby-Doo 2 did not find favour with most mainstream critics in 2004. It languishes in the IMDB with a pitiful 4.9 rating. But to me, James Gunn’s script fizzed with energy. Here’s an extract from my Times review:

“On the way, something unexpected happens. The film acquires a life beyond the formula. ‘Oh no!’ cries Shaggy, as the monsters begin taking over the town. ‘They’re turning Coolsville into Ghoulsville!’ And, excusing himself from Velma’s potentially criminal boyfriend: ‘We’ve got to make like your personality — and split!’

“In fact, the film is almost too good, piling sensation on to sensation and chase on to chase, until the overall effect is deadening. But all credit to James Gunn, a young veteran of the low-budget Troma studio who also wrote the fine Dawn of the Dead remake, for creating that rare beast — a sequel that improves upon the original. And all credit to the audience for demanding better. Because they might have just remade it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids.”

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel rolls the dice, and…

7 Aug

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Poster-Art1

Playing poker, like making films, is all about taking calculated risks. Last night I called a £200 re-raise with just a pair, to someone who was representing a straight, because I sensed he might be bluffing. I was right, and doubled up.

Hollywood seems to know all about the calculation, but has forgotten about the risk. This summer’s blockbusters are, yet again, all franchise sequels (22 Jump Street, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3) or properties with existing brand recognition (Hercules). So when a new film by a relatively untried but hugely talented director (James Gunn) gets a mammoth budget, forgive us jaded viewers if we go a bit ga-ga.

Guardians of the Galaxy, currently scoring 8.8 on IMDB, is every bit as fun as people say it is: brash, colourful, irreverent, risky, and both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. As a tiny example, Stan Lee gets a Hitchcockian cameo in every Marvel movie. Usually it’s something pretty innocuous, but here the revered 91-year-old founder of Marvel is shown talking to a pretty girl young enough to be his great-granddaughter, at which a wise-cracking alien raccoon comments: “What a Class-A Pre-vert.” Or this: the climactic battle scene turns on a moving plea from the roguish leader of the Guardians: “I am an A-hole but I’m not 100% a dick.” If Shakespeare were alive today – and smoking a lot of dope – he could surely do no better.

Yes, there are spectacular action scenes and spaceships and explosions and aliens and strange new worlds. But it’s the left-field dialogue and characters that really sing. The closest comparison might be Avengers Assemble, also brilliantly scripted. But that was based on established, well known superheroes who had already been set up over the course of multiple movies. Guardians was not a comic many people read or knew about; the film seems to have come out of nowhere.

All credit, then, to Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios. In 2008, I interviewed Feige for The Times on the eve of the biggest gamble of his career. Instead of licensing their comics to studios who barely understood them in return for a fee, he reckoned Marvel could do better. So he bet the company’s future on a $550 million loan to fund an initial three movies. It worked. The first, Iron Man, took over half a billion dollars worldwide; Avengers Assemble, which in 2012 brought all their different superhero movies together, made over $1.5 billion.

With figures like these, it would be tempting to stick with a sure thing. But Feige rolled the dice once again, pitting the full might of Marvel behind a much quirkier, edgier, cultish sort of film. It’s paid off in spades: Guardians of the Galaxy had by far the biggest August opening in Hollywood history, taking $172 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

So c’mon, execs. Lighten up a little. Take some risks. Give us something fresh. And who knows? You might just get another franchise to milk out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already slated for summer 2017.

See also: how I “discovered” the young James Gunn

Cannes confessions #3: Troma Warriors in Festival Hell!

18 May

Yesterday morning in Cannes a gang made off with a million dollars of Chopard jewellery destined for the swan-like necks of the festival’s red-carpet stars. Later the same day, a lone gunman was arrested after firing blanks at Tarantino actor Christoph Waltz. My first thought, in both cases, was “I wonder what movies these stunts have been staged to promote?”

Maybe I’ve been hanging out in Tromaville too long.

I met up with Lloyd Kaufman, the legendary cult film-maker and founder of Troma, in the Marché du Film. Over nearly four decades, Troma has made hundreds of films bearing a distinctive brand of high-octane schlock, gross-out effects  and occasional gratuitous nudity, coupled with relatively high production values and often surprisingly witty scripts. Some titles to savour: A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell; Alien Blood; Angel Negro; Attack of the Tromaggot; and, appropriately, All The Love You Cannes. And that’s just from the ‘A’s. Enjoy the full list here: http://www.troma.com/films/.

At 67, Kaufman shows no signs of slowing down. With a limited budget for marketing, he has long found inventive ways to generate heat. Hence the foundation this year of Troma’s “Occupy Cannes” movement, staging a different promotional stunt – sorry, piece of performance art – each day.

On Thursday they handed out flyers and stickers while a male streaker Tromatised the crowds on the Croisette. On Friday they attempted to stage a lesbian “wedding”, in honour of the tender love story at the heart of Kaufman’s latest oeuvre, Return to Nuke ‘Em High, but the event was shut down by the police.

Opinions vary as to why: Justin the publicist thinks it was revenge by the authorities for the streaker incident. Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran, the film’s young stars, say that it was the gay celebration that disturbed the authorities. “France has legalised gay marriage, but it doesn’t come into effect until the 26th, so they said they were in fear of riots. It’s ridiculous: yesterday we had a streaker and nothing happened, but two women displaying a public symbol of love was threatening.”

It’s refreshing, incidentally, that these girls are clearly both highly intelligent (Paredes previously wrote and directed her own short) rather than rent-a-babes. As to Kaufman, there is no doubting his drive and conviction. “You think I do this for the money? These films don’t make any money. Unless you make an underground movie for $150 million and cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one gives a fart for true art.”

He likes to smuggle social messages into the films, and behind the laughs, he is in deadly earnest. Kaufman made a promotional film for PETA called Sunny Acres Farms, in which naked humans are locked in tiny cages like chickens, injected with drugs and “humanely” slaughtered. Even Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead is, he says, about “the dangers of fast food”. The New York Times called it “about as perfect as a film predicated on the joys of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea can be”.

As Paredes puts it: “That’s the role of the jester, isn’t it? To make social commentary through humour?”

I’ll leave you with a final intriguing piece of Tromatrivia. I asked Kaufman if, like B-movie maestro Roger Corman, he had helped launch any A-list careers. “They call me the East Coast Roger Corman!” he said, before rattling off a string of names: the creators of South Park; Oliver Stone; Kevin Costner; Samuel L. Jackson; Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (aged nine in Monster in the Closet).

And you may not have heard of James Gunn, whose first film was Tromeo and Juliet, but you will. He is currently directing the mega-budget Marvel/Disney movie Guardians of the Galaxy.

More on Troma in my International Business Times feature on Cannes promotion: click here.

Click here for the next thrilling episode of Cannes confessions, in glorious Picturerama!