This weekend, a whole lot of people will be sitting in a dark theater, popcorn in their lap and a shockingly large soda in the armrest holder, watching a group of loveable misfits save the galaxy for the second time. Most people who watch the blockbuster sequel to the blockbuster original GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY may never wonder about the guy who wrote and directed both films, and that is a real shame; from his start as the lead singer for a semi-successful band in St. Louis, to his run of of cult and box office horror hits, to his status as the cosmic king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James Gunn has had one interesting career.
Gunn was a fan of horror from the start. He grew up watching classics like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and reading Fangoria. When he was twelve, Gunn started making his own zombie movies in the woods behind his home in Missouri using his brothers as actors and crew. In 1989, Gunn started a band called The Icons. By the time they released 1994’s Mom, We Like It Here On Earth, the Icons had gained a solid following in Missouri and scored two modest hits with “Sunday” and “Walking Naked”
Not too long after “Mom, We Like It Here On Earth” was released, the Icons called it quits, but before they did, Gunn put one of their songs in his first film, TROMEO AND JULIET. The movie, which Gunn co-wrote with the iconic Lloyd Kaufman (who also directed it) is a modern day retelling of ROMEO AND JULIET in a way that no studio but Troma would dare try. Overflowing with violence, gore, sex, and amazingly crude humor. In other words, the thing is a classic on par with Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES or Trey Parker’s CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL.
Working alongside Kaufman, on TROMEO AND JULIET, as well as writing, producing, and directing a few shorts and the bumper segments for THE TROMAVILLE CAFE, a Troma TV series created for the BBC, helped Gunn learn everything he needed to know about filmmaking. He took his newfound skills and wrote a screenplay for a movie that was about a decade ahead of it’s time, THE SPECIALS.
Released in 2000, THE SPECIALS stars Rob Lowe, Thomas Haden Church, Paget Brewster, Judy Greer, and Jamie Kennedy (and James Gunn himself!) and was directed by Craig Mazin. The film follows the “sixth or seventh most popular superhero team in the world” as they prepare for the release party of their very own toy line and fall victim to their own insecurities, egos, and infighting. The movie walks a fine line between absurd comedy and relationship drama, handling both beautifully. If you haven’t seen this one, you’re really missing out. In the least it is worth owning just for Sean Gunn as Alien Orphan.
In the same year, Gunn released his first book, THE TOY COLLECTOR, about a hospital orderly who steals drugs from the hospital to cover the costs of his toy collection addiction.
Gunn’s first mainstream success came when he wrote the screenplay for SCOOBY-DOO, a live action version of one of the greatest cartoons ever made. Gunn’s original script for SCOOBY-DOO was darker than the show it was based on – the studio was originally looking to make this in a similar fashion as THE BRADY BUNCH movie – poking fun at the source material for an older audience. Most of the more adult stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, but you can find it on the deleted scenes of the DVD. SCOOBY-DOO was panned by critics (though some reviews were kind to Matthew Lillard’s version of Shaggy), but audiences ate it up. A sequel was greenlit, with Gunn again supplying the script.
The two years between movies about those meddling kids and their dog were busy for Gunn. Along with writing SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, Gunn also wrote the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and co-starred in LOLLILOVE with his then-wife Jenna Fischer (who aso directed the film).
Both SCOOBY-DOO 2 and DAWN OF THE DEAD were commercial hits, and Gunn was given the opportunity to finally direct a feature. What he made is arguably a big budget Troma film and an homage to some of the weirder horror films from the 1980s, SLITHER.
With fantastic performances from Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry, Nathan Fillion, and the great Michael Rooker along with stupendously gory makeup and fx, SLITHER was everything horror fans love, but we failed to support it. The movie was a commercial flop, failing to cover its fifteen million dollar budget.
It seemed like Gunn’s directing career was over just as it began, at least when it came to major studio work. For two years, Gunn was silent, but in 2008 he reappeared with HUMANZEE! And SPARKY & MIKAELA.
HUMANZEE! Was originally made for Xbox Live’s HORROR MEETS COMEDY but was deemed too nasty for Microsoft’s gaming console. SPARKY & MIKAELA replaced it.
HUMANZEE! Is an over the top “sitcom” about a guy (James Gunn) who sent his sperm to a secret lab that then sent him a… well, a humanzee. Starring alongside Gunn is Sean Gunn as the titular character, Mackenzie Firgens as Penny, and Blumhouse’s own Ryan Turek! Here is HUMANZEE! but be warned, it is very NSFW…
With Xbox turning down HUMANZEE!, Gunn created SPARKY & MIKAELA, about best friends Mikaela Hoover and a raccoon puppet as they battle crime and man’s hatred of raccoons. While nowhere near as NSFW as HUMANZEE!, you should still be warned.
Gunn followed up his two shorts with PG PORN, a webseries for Spike, and was a judge on the first season of SCREAM QUEENS. After a film with Ben Stiller fell through, Gunn went to work on his second superhero movie, SUPER.
The movie, a dark comedy starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon focuses on a mentally ill short-order cook who becomes a costumed vigilante after his wife leaves him for a real piece of shit. SUPER wasn’t a hit with fans or audiences, which confuses the hell out of me because it’s a great movie filled with heart. Rainn Wilson, in a fair world, would have been nominated for every acting award out there.
Maybe it was SPARKY & MIKAELA that brought Gunn to the attention of Marvel, or maybe it was SUPER. Maybe Joss Whedon, who has long been friends with Gunn (he even named a character after James Gunn in ANGEL – can you figure out who?) suggested his pal for the job. Whatever it was, Gunn signed on to direct GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in 2012. If you look at his work, so much of GUARDIANS is already there – the heart mixed with humor, the angry raccoon, the love of superheroes. If you look at behind the scenes footage of GUARDIANS, you’ll even catch Sean Gunn doing the same walk he did for HUMANZEE! when he’s standing in for Rocket. From his start at Troma straight through to SUPER, everything Gunn did gave him the abilities needed to take a group of c-list superheroes and turn them into Marvel’s biggest origin movie, beating even IRON MAN.
How long will Gunn play in the Marvel universe? He’s already signed on for a third GUARDIANS and is executive producing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, but that doesn’t mean he’s walking away from his horror roots. This year he wrote and produced the office horror film THE BELKO EXPERIMENT. If I had to guess, I would bet on Gunn fitting in something very odd, very fun, and very James Gunn between GUARDIANS 2 and 3. The guy likes to keep it weird, and the world of film is better because of it.
*Header Photo: Behind-The-Scenes GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Marvel; Disney