The internet can be really unfair to James Gunn. There are people out there who still really hate him for writing the Dawn of the Dead remake. When I interviewed him for Slither’s theatrical release earlier this year, he told me that he got death threats. That’s especially sad because the DOTD remake is a pretty damn good movie – I ended up watching it on USA tonight, in fact, instead of transcribing this interview.
I think that if everybody on the internet could actually meet James Gunn, no one would hate him anymore. Or if they did it would be for completely legitimate reasons, like unending jealousy – he’s cool, he’s funny, he’s a good writer, his official directorial debut, Slither, is one of the year’s best films and one of the best horror movies in a decade, and he’s married to the endlessly adorable Jenna Fischer from The Office. Also he has some kind of manga character hairdo that defies gravity.
The good news is that everybody on the internet can get to know James Gunn better, and not just because of this probing, insightful and uncompromising interview; Gunn has been excellent about keeping his MySpace blog updated. Check out his profile by clicking here. Keep this link handy, because later on in the interview Gunn will reference a video of a gay threeway between him and his Slither stars Nathan Fillion and Gregg Henry, and you’re going to be able to find that on his blog.
There’s a pretty good chance that you haven’t seen Slither, the movie that predicated this interview in the first place. Now’s your chance – Slither is hitting DVD tomorrow, just in time for Halloween. Even if you’re not looking for something to watch on All Hallows, Slither is a movie that’s perfect for the CHUD audience – it’s funny and splattery in almost equal measures, and it’s a throwback to the kinds of body horror films that Cronenberg and Carpenter unleashed on our fragile, adolescent minds in the 80s. Slither’s a movie that works on pretty much every level, something that you can see for yourself by heading to Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s the best reviewed horror movie of the year.
Click here to buy Slither through CHUD. Don’t bother with renting it – this is one movie that’s a guaranteed great blind buy.
I got my copy of the Slither DVD and I watched the special features and I think there is more comedy on there than in most comedy films released this year.
Gunn: [laughs] Maybe. But just because Rooker’s insane. Rooker’s insanity ups the comedy percentage quite a bit.
I love the Who is Bill Pardy section. That was filmed as a roast for Nathan Fillion, right?
Gunn: That’s exactly what it was. Most of that stuff was filmed by my assistant, Dan West, who doubled as the second unit director. Dan would just film that shit during the whole making of the film, of me making fun of Nathan. Then we started getting everybody else in on it and made fun of Nathan the whole time.
Me and Nathan have, especially on set, a very strange relationship where all we did was talk about how much we hated each other. We showed that [film] at the wrap party, and if you know Nathan, he took that as the highest compliment he could get. And it was even worse before – there were a couple of things that got cut out by Universal. One of our black actors was talking about what a racist Nathan was, Don Thompson talked about Nathan was always sucking his dick. Elizabeth Banks talked about how she’d like to stuff dead rabbits up his ass. I don’t know how much of her stuff is still on there, but it was completely X-rated. It’s pretty funny.
I saw on your blog that Nathan had a barbecue a month or two ago and most of the cast went. Has Slither created this little family?
Gunn: It did. I think strangely, because of Nathan and because of Joss [Whedon] I see those Serenity people all the time too. So we’ll go to a barbecue and we’ll see either somebody from Serenity or somebody from Slither. I think Joss and I learned a lot of the same lessons in our careers, which is that if you’re going to cast people you want to cast people you’re going to like, and who are going to be easy to work with. At the end of the day you’re going to be happy or you’re going to be unhappy with your movie, but you’re going to have the memories of having done something you really enjoyed in the process. That’s all that really matters to me – the process of the filmmaking itself. Once the movie’s done the movie’s done and it’s in the hands of CHUD to decide if they like it or not.
I think that with Slither, and Joss with that series and that film, we put together teams of people that are just straight up good people. When I was putting Slither together I was very rigorous about doing background checks on the actors, just to see if they were people liked working with. We were going to be out in the cold in Vancouver in the middle of the night, freezing and covered in blood and goo, and I didn’t want to have namby-pamby pansies out there. And nobody was – everybody was a fucking trooper, and that made the experience a thousand times better. There was no star shit. Maybe a couple of our little day players pulled some star shit, but none of our lead actors. Not one.
You mention how tough the shoot was; there’s a bit on one of the extra features where you mention that you lost the use of your legs during shooting.
Gunn: I did. I collapsed. It happened not too long after we started shooting. It was the night we were shooting out on the deck with Bill and Starla at the Henenlotter Lodge. They had heat up there, but I had one heater near me and that was it. And it was fucking freezing. I was so, so fucking cold that night. I wasn’t dressed appropriately – by the end of the shoot I would have layers and layers on, but at that point I wasn’t dressed appropriately. I stood up from my director’s chair to go do something and I collapsed. Luckily I had somebody there besides me who helped me stand back up. I sat back down in the chair and I thought, I’m fucked. I’m going to be crippled for the rest of this shoot, and how can I finish this movie from a wheelchair? After a little while sitting there I was able to regain the use of my legs; I still don’t know what it was. I’m loathe to discuss it because some doctor’s going to get in touch and tell me that it’s a sign that in a couple of years I’m going to be crippled.
Good luck with that. Back at the Slither junket I asked you if you were going to keep up your MySpace page, and you have. You’ve been really active with it, in fact. Why is that? What does that do for you?
Gunn: I think when I procrastinate writing I fucking write a blog. That’s all it is, it’s a procrastination tool.
I don’t know. At some point I… I don’t know why I kept it up actually.
What’s funny is that I’ll get a notification that you put up a new blog, I’ll click on it and two minutes after you’ve posted there are already 60 responses.
Gunn: Yeah, I get a lot of readers. It wasn’t a matter of consciously trying to keep it up, I think it was a matter of I would think of something and write it up and put it out there. But it’s also been a great opportunity to tell people when I’m going to be at this place or that place or when something is on TV, so I guess there’s a use to it. But also in the past I would write down shit I was thinking about, or things I liked or didn’t like and I would mail it out to my friends – now I put it on my MySpace page.
It’s been fun and I think at a certain point I felt a responsibility to all the people who go to my blog. I don’t like to go too long without putting something up there. I have these great fans like the crazy Ablazin’ Devil Head, who makes an amazing assortment of my face in gay photos. I don’t know if you’ve seen his work, but it’s fucking crazy. He’s like one of my favorite guys.
Do you think you have a big following in the gay community?
Gunn: He’s not gay! He just likes to make me gay. I don’t know what it is exactly. He made a video of me and Nathan and Gregg Henry in a ménage a trois.
Gunn: It’s fucking crazy! It’s the craziest thing I have seen in my entire life! It’s on one of my old blogs. I got it and thought it was hilarious, and I immediately sent it to Nathan and Gregg and they were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’
Your blog also has updates on Scratch, the screenplay you were working on about the devil, which apparently fucked you up.
Gunn: Yeah, it fucked me up a little bit. Who knows, maybe I was going through a dark time in my life anyway, but I really think it had to do with a lot of personal shit. I like the screenplay a lot, I just don’t know if it’ll be the next thing I direct.
Do you find that happens a lot when you write, that whatever you’re writing takes over your mood?
Gunn: I do. I found it in writing and when I used to act I found the same thing. Whatever I’m writing sort of rules my life. But I think the only thing that affected me as much as that is my novel, and that fucked me up. Truth be told, most of the things I’ve written have been pretty light. Slither’s darkly comic, but it’s not like it’s about the end of the world or anything. It’s entertaining. Scratch hit me someplace deeper than that, and I don’t know why it is.
It began as something about the devil and it turned into something else.
Gunn: It 100% totally transformed. It started out in the 18th century and ended up completely present day. It kept transforming and transforming and transforming and at a certain point I was like, ‘Am I going to quit changing this thing? Is this an eternal thing, where I’m going to keep changing it and changing it and changing it, or am I going to get to a place where it feels right?’ It was very difficult because of that. In the end I feel like where it ended up is where it was supposed to be, but it was a very difficult road getting there and I don’t normally have that kind of an experience. But as a writer I don’t take the easy way out – I never finish a screenplay and there’s a big problem in it and I say, ‘Let that be.’ I’m always looking to make the work the best it can be, even if that means going through the pages and changing it and changing it. And that’s what happened with Scratch.
Is it so personal that you couldn’t hand it off to someone else to direct it?
Gunn: No, possibly with somebody who I trusted. One of the great things about meeting and making friends in the horror community, with people who I trust as directors, is finding people I would be willing to work with on something like that. I’m not sure if it’s Scratch necessarily, but it’s possible.
So you’re not ruling out the possibility of writing a screenplay for someone else in the future.
Gunn: You know, I write the screenplays I want to write and then I think at the end of the road – right now I’m writing a second screenplay – and at the end of that road I’ll decide, do I want to direct this or do I want to direct Scratch? Or do I want to direct neither. And that’s where I am right now, and whichever one I decide I don’t want to direct I’ll talk to my director friends about to see if it’s something they’d be interested in doing. If they’re right for that type of film. And if they are that could be a fun thing to do.
Can you drop any hints about what you’re writing now?
Gunn: I can’t. It’s a horrific film, but there’s a little more action in it. There’s more of a thriller feel to it. But it’s very, very specific. It’s different from Scratch and it’s different from Slither.
You essentially co-directed Tromeo & Juliet, and you were very closely involved in the making of Lollilove. But directing Slither was probably a very different thing because of the bigger budget, and because it was a studio picture. What did you learn on Slither?
Gunn: There was more freedom on Slither than I’ve ever had on anything in my life. A thousand percent. There was one time that Universal and the producers got involved in casting one role, and there were a couple of things that I talk about on the DVD; they had me cut two scenes out of the movie. They actually wanted me to cut three scenes out of the movie, one which I agreed with immediately and cut it. The other scene I disagreed completely and I said I didn’t want to and they said OK. The third scene I was on the fence about and I went ahead and cut it, and I still that was probably the right thing to do, but I’m not 100% sure.
Is that the meat filing scene?
Gunn: Yeah, the meat filing scene. That was the only times that Universal ever got involved. They gave me notes all the time, but they were never laying down the line about anything and I was always following my own conscience and my own instincts. They were very nervous before shooting, Universal was, and then they saw the first day of dailies. The first day went extraordinarily well. Even though I was sick we got off thirty something shots, and it was all that dancing stuff at the Wheelsy Saddle Lodge, so it was a lot of people. They saw it and they were really happy and really excited. From then on, for the rest of shooting, they gave me one note about the lighting of one actor and that was it. And I didn’t even listen to that because I disagreed with it.
I had way more freedom than with Troma. Troma’s great, but I didn’t have any freedom on Tromeo & Juliet because I was working with Lloyd and he was my boss. I had a certain amount of freedom, but people would never imagine the amount of say I’ve had on different projects as a screenwriter. I had way more say on Scooby Doo 2 than I did on The Specials, for instance. I got completely cock-blocked on The Specials, a movie I acted in and produced!
Paul Brooks, who was my primary producer on the movie, the guy who financed it and who had final say on everything, trusted me. We’re going to work together again – I think in the end he trusted my artistic vision over his artistic vision. So he gave me tons of notes. He would come in and say his opinion on everything, and I would always listen to his opinion but it was always my choice.
Are you worried that you’re spoiled now?
Gunn: Occasionally I’ll get these scripts that people want me to direct that are hundred million dollar movies, and I think if I went off and did one of those right now I would probably be upset about it.
But at the same time I’m not one of those directors who says, ‘I don’t want to hear from you.’ I’m totally willing to listen everything, and that’s what everybody wants. Even executives, for the most part, want to be heard. If you listen to them and then tell them what you agree with – Dylan Clark was the name of our executive over at Universal, and Dylan told me a lot of stuff he did and didn’t like. I listened to him on every single thing he said, and sometimes I agreed with what he said but a lot of the time I didn’t. I explained to him why I thought what I thought, and he was always cool with it. In the end, admittedly, studios think of horror movies as product. Because they think of horror movies as product they don’t get as tied up in it as they do with over movies.
As long you stay in the budget they don’t care.
Gunn: You keep to the budget and if the quality is decent they don’t get so involved with it. While the studios don’t give horror movies any attention or enough money or enough concern or enough love, a lot of us horror guys get to play in the sandbox with a lot more freedom than other directors do.
I think a lot of us have had problems with the way things have been marketed, but I haven’t come across – after talking to a lot of these guys – anyone that have had lots of issues with executives getting involved in the creative process or the cutting of the movie that’s oppressive.
Even Rob Zombie, who had such a tough time with House of 1000 Corpses, found the issues came when it was time to release the movie and not when he was making it.
Gunn: That’s right. And with Devil’s Rejects there were probably issues they faced down the line from a marketing perspective, but I think Devil’s Rejects was the movie he wanted to make. The MPAA people can have issues with it…
You didn’t have issues with the MPAA.
Gunn: They let me go scott free.
They’ve been tough lately but they let Slither go, and it’s really gory.
Gunn: It’s really gory. People sometimes say that it’s not gory, but watch that shot of Wally getting his head shot in half. I don’t know what the fuck – there’s not really anything quite that gory in Hostel. But those movies are so brutal, and I think at this point because Slither is so over the top that we were able to get away with a lot more gore.
So it’s a tonal thing.
Gunn: I think it’s a tonal thing. We’re splatter, and we have one pretty brutal scene – the rape scene with Rooker and Brenda James – but it’s not the same type of brutality that’s in Devil’s Rejects or Hostel or Texas Chainsaw.
On the commentary you mention the rape scene and how it was difficult for you on the day. How did you deal with it?
Gunn: It was weird because it really came off. I remember seeing shots and saying, ‘Oh fuck.’ We have a lot of light, funny stuff in Slither. We didn’t shoot the movie in order, but in a lot of ways we shot it in rough order because we were rushed into production so quickly that we didn’t have our effects finished when we started shooting, so that meant the big effects sequences like the monsters at the end were shot at the end of the shoot. The movie as a whole becomes crazier and crazier as it goes on, and there are more creatures as it goes on, and it becomes more and more fast paced. So we shot that scene after about the time it happens in the movie, after we had shot mostly scenes between human beings. It was particularly brutal – and I like that – but it was strange, too. Also, I knew the music that was going to go over it, and that has a strange effect.
It was difficult because I wanted to keep it brutal and Rooker is a very real actor and the actress got beat up a little bit. That was hard because I don’t like seeing my actors – whether they’re female or male – getting hurt in any way. But there are some things you just can’t fake. You can’t fake somebody throwing her around and throwing her down and ramming his body up and down on top of her without having that really take place. The stage fighting has a limit when you’re doing close-quarters filming. That’s true throughout the whole movie; there’s a scene later where Rooker beats up Elizabeth Banks and she really got beaten up. There are two scenes with Nathan near the end, one with a monster and one with the tubules in him, and he beat the shit out of himself. He was completely fucked up through those scenes. It’s always bothered me when that stuff looks fake.
Are you doing anything for Halloween?
Gunn: Todd Masters has some sort of big bash and we’re having a Slither event there, with posters and stuff. And then we’re giving out candy in one of our neighborhoods with the Office crew.
Are you going to dress up?
Gunn: I like to dress up as something that’s just a little bit too scary for small children. I get a real kick out of giving kids nightmares. It’s true, not at all a lie.
What’s your costume going to be?
Gunn: I don’t know yet. I’d like to dress up as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari guy, but my wife was telling me I shouldn’t because it’s too creepy.
When will find out what the next script is?
Gunn: I don’t know, man, it depends on how much I drag my feet. I should have been working today, but instead I was out fucking eating veggie burgers with Rob Zombie.
That is the least horror movie thing you can do, eating veggie burgers. That is so not hardcore.
Gunn: Dude, you would be shocked by amount of horror film directors like me who don’t eat red meat. That’s why I put so much meat in Slither – it grosses me out. I don’t eat pigs or cows.