The first thing you notice about James Gunn is that he fits right into the universe of the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (henceforth abbreviated as ‘GOTG’). Yes, the lanky bespectacled director may not appear in the movie, but once he starts speaking, there is no doubt in your head that Gunn – who also co-wrote the movie – is its beating heart and soul.
“GOTG is a movie for everybody, a movie about the galaxy,” he says about the latest Marvel movie that has surprised critics and general box-office prognosticators by opening atop the US box office with close to US$100 million and reining in equally impressive numbers overseas. That’s a feat considering that GOTG isn’t as well-known as other Marvel properties such as ‘The Avengers’ and that this is their first big-screen incarnation.
Gunn, whose previous features include the US$3 million-budgeted ‘Slither’ and an similarly little-seen indie superhero movie known as ‘Super’, is grateful to Marvel for giving me both the vote of confidence with a US$170 million price tag and the artistic liberty to bring his vision of the comic to screen.
“Because GOTG is not as well known, I felt like it gave us a lot of freedom to create the cinematic vision of it, and after seeing what we’ve created, I am confident that GOTG feels more at home on screen than in the comic pages,” Gunn says. “Kevin Feige [president of Marvel Studios] gave me the keys to create a whole lot of lovable characters; sure, they are a bunch of a-holes but still very lovable a-holes!’
Watching Gunn talk about GOTG is probably just as significant as hearing what he says. He talks excitedly and animatedly about the movie, the characters as well as its cast, two of whom accompanied him on the Southeast Asia leg of the press tour held in Marina Bay Sands about a month ago. They are Zoe Saldana, who plays the kick-ass assassin Gamora and former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, who plays the hulking muscleman Drax.
Gunn is proud that every single member of the cast were not just people who were the very best for their roles, but also people whom he liked as people and whom he forged a strong bond with during the shoot. In particular, he reserves some of the most unreserved praise for Bautista, whose reaction when he had heard from his agent that he had been offered the role of Drax is one of the favourite stories journalists ask him to retell.
Says Gunn of Bautista: “Sometimes you meet really nice people who are actors, and you really want to give them the role, but they really aren’t right for the role, and you don’t do it and you really give it to the person who most deserves the role. And from the moment I met Dave, he and I got such a connection, and from minutes of talking I sort of got Dave and I like him so much as a person I was rooting for him to come through a series of screen tests. When he actually proved himself to be by far the best - and despite some stuff the press said, he is the only person whom we offered the role to because he is the very best - it was really touching to me.”
Gunn’s version of course doesn’t have the details that hearing from the horse’s mouth has. “I literally broke down when I heard the news. I was driving on my way to gym and my manager called – he’s my best friend of the world, I’ve known him for 26, 27 years and he is my rock – and got my agent on the phone who congratulated me for getting the role of Drax. It was a big deal for me, a life-changing thing for me; I can say that I pretty much got the dream role of a lifetime.”
Though Bautista is laconic where Gunn is effusive, you can see the literal resemblance the actor bears to Drax. Indeed, there is no muscle-suit involved here; what you see on screen is really the actor just with layers of make-up. Yet, Bautista is quick to correct those who think the transition from the ring to the set was easy.
“It couldn’t be more different,” Bautista explains. “The first time I did it was as a favour to a friend, and I learnt two things – one was how hard it was and second was how much I loved i. The only similarity was that there is a camera pointed at you – but wrestling is so broad and so conversational whereas movies are so much more intimate and more intimidating.”
Asked to describe his character, Bautista says: “-The great thing about Drax is he’s a very literal character which leads to a lot of great laughs. At the core of Drax, he’s really quite an emotional person who is heartbroken over his family and that drives an insane sociopathic side to him.” And just as it isn’t difficult to understand why Bautista is the right actor for Drax, one can also say likewise about Zoe Saldana for Gamora.
“It was a great experience, because it ended up having everything that I grew up wanting movies to have – action, comedy, and imagination. The story was really great, the characters have such a believable journey individually and also as a collective, and it was really a great ensemble picture to be part of,” says Saldana, whose green-screen role (pun intended) is a sharp colour contrast to those still used to her appearing in blue in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.
Like ‘Avatar’, this role required hours and hours of make-up daily; and like ‘Avatar’, Saldana is called to be one of the few woman characters in the story. “It feels great to be the only woman in the main cast, because it brings out such a strong message to the girls that besides being delicate flowers one can also channel your strength.”
She is also quick to mention her female supporting star Karen Gillan, who plays her nemesis and adoptive sibling, with whom she had a great time interacting with on the set. “Karen and Zoe were great to watch on the set,” Gunn jumps in to add. “They have this super fight scene in the movie so you’ll see these two females battling it out; and once we yell ‘cut’, they would be giggling to each other.” .
And despite the high expectations riding on the movie, Gunn says that at the end of it all, he just basically wanted to make the most ‘fun’ movie he could. In an impassioned speech on it, Gunn says: “I wanted to make a movie so that people will be able to walk out feeling a little better about themselves, about the people they sat next to in the theatre, and feeling a little better about the world. We are living in a time where there are so many problems in the world. GOTG is about a group of outcasts, a group whom people feel that they don’t belong, coming together, finding something within themselves that they did not know was there – something heroic, something wonderful and something good.”
“This is a movie about the good in all of us - no matter what country we’re from, no matter what part of the world we are from, no matter rich or poor. It is a movie about the love in ourselves and in each other and finding the good within ourselves,” he adds. And to the oddballs and outcasts in the world, he has this to say: “The first thing to remember if you’re feeling an oddball or outcast is that there is more of us than there is of them - so many of us pushed aside, or made fun of, or told we cannot do something. There is really more of us than of them; we are the majority even though we feel like the minority.”
If you haven’t yet heard, Gunn will be returning to direct the next GOTG movie due in 2017. “I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to create the first leg of the Marvel cosmos universe,” he says. “Joss [Whedon, director of ‘The Avengers’ and its sequel] and I have been friends for a long time. He read the script and gave me notes, and the base note he gave was to make it more James Gunn. I said, ‘It’s your funeral’, and that’s what I did.”
Text and Photos by Gabriel Chong