SXSW: ‘Super’ director James Gunn on God, drugs, Batman and Ellen Page
Posted in: Movies
In “Super,” a dark comedy premiering at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, Rainn Wilson is a diner cook who reinvents himself as a masked hero called the Crimson Bolt to rescue his drug-addicted wife (Liv Tyler) from her new dealer (Kevin Bacon). Along the way he speaks to God, cracks some craniums and picks up a very enthusiastic sidekick, Boltie (Ellen Page). Director James Gunn, best known for his 2006 horror comedy “Slither,” talked with Hero Complex writer Rebecca Keegan in Austin about the lack of God in mainstream American cinema, Page’s motivation for taking her top off in a superhero movie and whether we might reach a point of too many superhero films.
RK: Why put God in a superhero movie?
JG: The topic of God or faith is something that isn’t in movies. It’s more taboo than incest, or drug use or violence. It’s just not there. People are dying of cancer for two hours and the concept of God hardly comes up. Rainn and I have a similar strange spirituality where we both feel spiritual in certain ways but we’re not traditional. And we’re also both very pro-science, and that today is at odds with having spiritual beliefs. The spiritual angle is one thing. The morality of it is another. We watch Batman all the time. He’s this guy who puts on a costume, decides who’s good, who’s bad, who gets beaten up, who doesn’t. We just say, “Oh, he’s knows what’s right and what’s wrong.” And in “Super” there’s a big question. Is what Rainn’s doing right or wrong? Is he going too far? I love westerns more than almost anything because they discuss morality in those films. “Super” is really akin to the western, in a way.
RK: The moral of this movie would seem to be — don’t cut in line. Is there a larger moral message?
JG: I wrote this script in 2002 and I wrote 59 pages in one day. I was writing it as a short film so I thought it was gonna be like 20 pages but I was in the groove. I had an experience of automatic writing at the end of the movie. The narration at the end of the movie where Frank is speaking to the audience it was like Frank was speaking to me. It was a very powerful experience. It felt as if it was not written by me. I was sobbing. That was the reason I wanted to tell the story, cause it was about somebody who had a calling, and not judging people and not judging yourself so quickly.
RK: You don’t follow the rules of any particular genre — horror or comedy or comic-book film. There are a lot of tonal shifts. What influenced you to do that?
JG: I’m a very big fan of Asian cinema — Hong Kong movies of the early ’90s, Japanese films going back to the ’70s, South Korean films of today — “Old Boy.” I think the best movie last year was the South Korean film “Mother.” They seem to not have the same restraints on genre as we do here. My life is not one genre. Some days it’s a comedy, some days it’s an action film, it’s usually a tragedy, but it’s all those things combined. That’s one of the things I wanted to play with. The one American movie that shifts tone really well is Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”
RK: How did you cast Rainn?
JG: I originally had funding for this movie before “Slither” and I couldn’t agree with the finance people about the lead actor. There were some pretty big actors who wanted the role. There was nobody at the time I thought could really handle Frank. I needed somebody who was able to do the comedy, the drama, be big enough that you felt he was really threatening. My ex-wife [Jenna Fischer] is the one who called me and said, “What are you doing with ‘Super’? Have you ever thought of Rainn?” I was like, that makes total sense. I gave the script to Rainn that day and that night he said he was gonna do it.
RK: Ellen Page’s character is a total psychopath. What did you see in Ellen that you thought she’d be right for that?
JG: Ellen said to me when we first met, “I’m so sick of being offered all these characters who are wise beyond their years,” which “Juno” is, “Hard Candy” is, and this is a character who is the opposite of that. It’s a 22-year-old, but the girl’s got a mentality of an 11-year-old. And she’s over-sexualized and over-excited and ADHD and everything else. We talked a lot about her killing her superego and ego and going all the way with it. The first day we shot, she had to drive this car into a wall and come running out laughing at these criminals in her bra and it was 14 degrees outside. And she was magnificent.
RK: Like Liv Tyler’s character, you once battled an addiction. Were you sober when you wrote this?
JG: I had been sober at that time. Writing “Super,” I’m just writing about characters. It shaped my understanding of the character of Sarah more. I like writing characters and it doesn’t matter to me what sex they are. I think one of the reasons we were able to attract the cast we were is that female characters are usually just “the girl,” especially in comedies. In this movie to be able to write these extravagant characters, one who’s a little nutjob and the other who’s a relapsed drug addict, there’s just not those kind of roles out their for women. But as for Liv’s character, I understood how difficult it is to get sober and the reasons we go back, because people start feeling so much. People who do drugs a lot do them to stop feeling.
RK: You’ve said Batman is your favorite superhero. I would have guessed someone weirder.
JG: Batman is a guy who’s parents were brutally murdered in front of him and he’s never gonna heal that wound. I like the tragic element of him. Also, just practically, he’s had more great comic books written about him than any other superhero.
RK: Is there such a thing as too many comic-book movies?
JG: What’s going on now with superheroes is strictly an element of technology. You go back and watch that first “Superman” movie and it looks terrible, the effects. But for years comic books have been around and people have loved superheroes and now they’re able to do that same thing in films. When you see “Iron Man,” it’s the same thing that’s in the comic books in terms of the spectacle of it all. As long as the stories are good and the characters are appealing and it continues to change in the way that comic books did — they started out with two dimensional characters and then Stan Lee came along with Spider-Man who had weakness and personal lives and then you had Alan Moore who puts a whole other spin on things. To have that happen in films is definitely cool.
RK: What’s next for you?
JG: “Movie 43,” which is this collection of comedy short films the Farrelly brothers put together. I did one with Elizabeth Banks and Josh Duhamel and an animated creature. And then I have a video game coming out this summer that I worked on for X-box.
RK: What are your games of choice?
JG: Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption. I don’t have the time to game all the time cause I’m too obsessive. A few times a year I’ll play a game from start to finish. After this I’ll have a game-cation coming. I’ll play a game for 3 or 4 days. It’s like cleansing the palate of my brain.
— Rebecca Keegan (twitter.com/@thatrebecca)
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