SxSW ‘Super’ Interview with James Gunn

Early on the second evening of Austin’s epic SxSW 2011, the eagerly-awaited symphony of spandex otherwise known as Super premiered, with director James Gunn and stars Rainn Wilson and Ellen Paige in attendance. A few days prior, 40-year-old Gunn, who’s 1999 Tromeo and Juliet became a cult hit (Motorhead’s Lemmy narrates the film), talked with me about this bizarre, violent, and remarkably emotional new film about an everyday Joe who decides to become a super.

How would you categorize this film? I went from laughing to being disturbed to nearly crying by the final scenes. Yeah, um… you can’t. I think that’s what we were trying to do: have a lot of emotional responses within one movie. A lot of people want to make things by very strict genre standards, but I notice with my life there isn’t just one genre. One minute it’s a comedy, the next it’s a romance… most times it’s a tragedy. I wanted to make a film that incorporated a little bit of everything. I was influenced a lot by Asian films in that way. They don’t seem to be bound by the confines by the same genre necessities as American films are.

It seems like you focus on different things throughout the film, rather then the plot from scene to scene. We have certain themes in the film and we comment on them from a number of different directions. We have the theme of what it means to be a superhero, the theme of morality, the theme of man’s relationship to god, and the theme questioning exactly what insanity is. We are taking Frank Darbo [Rainn Wilson’s character] and coming at him from as many different angles as we possibly can. It’s more modeled after post-modern fiction then a standard superhero story.

What audience was this film intended for? It seems set in the Midwest and there’s a lot of religious influences as well. Did this play a part? I wasn’t thinking of a particular audience at all. I originally wrote this as a short film and it just kept growing and growing until it became a feature film. To be honest, I never expected to be making this movie at all. By the time I had finished the script, I honestly felt this calling to make this film. The Middle America and God stuff seems more taboo then incest and drugs and sex and violence these days. We have whole movies of people dying from cancer, yet these people never bring up what they think of as God once. I feel like if you have a well-rounded character, that’s something they think about, in some way, shape, or form. Your ex-wife Jenna Fischer had encouraged you to pursue this and make it into a feature. Did this play into Frank’s character trying to chase down his wife in the film? I don’t think it did. Truthfully, I wrote the film while Jenna and I were still married and almost nothing changed from that draft to what’s onscreen. My relationship with Jenna is as a friend today. After it almost got made a couple of times and then it didn’t, she just started riding my ass about why I hadn’t made it yet. She said it was her favorite screenplay I had ever written and suggested bringing Rainn into the mix, as she thought it would be a good role for him. That’s what really got the film started, actually.

Have you heard about the people in and around Seattle who are actually acting like superheroes? Not only have I heard about them, but Rainn and I were just in Seattle a few weekends ago at the Emerald City Comicon where we did a sneak peek of the film. The whole time we had been trying to get a hold of this guy named Phoenix Jones, who is the guy who dresses up as a superhero and patrols neighborhoods there. And while we were doing our panel in front of 700 people, all of a sudden this guy walks in from the back of the crowd and walks though the 700 people to the front, in a full rubber costume.

Isn’t Phoenix Jones wanted by the police? I know he does not have a good relationship with the police. He’d been stabbed the day before, while doing one of his “patrols,” and he’d had his nose broken a little while back.

Well, did he at least like the movie? He didn’t see the movie. He just came to the panel.

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