Every medium needs its weirdos, the ones that are content to be off in the corner, operating way left of center. Suda 51 is that guy for gaming. Killer 7 alone contains enough What The Fuck to fuel a What The Fuckmobile on a cross country roadtrip. But even the mighty Suda needs help once in a while. His last adventure outside of his comfort zone to team up with Resident Evil‘s Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka resulted in the criminally underplayed Shadows of the Damned. His new game, Lollipop Chainsaw, has him handing story and script duties to a fine gentleman named James Gunn, the guy you might remember as having Dwight Schrute beating criminals with hammers and making with the ambiguously consensual love with Juno last year in Super. He also nearly got Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks tentacle screwed–quite non-consentually–a few years prior to that, and depending on who you ask, either grandly homaged or took an interminable piss on George Romero’s magnum opus back in 2004. Like Suda, James Gunn’s resume is an acquired taste. And he’s bringing his sensibilities, and a bunch of his friends (Linda Cardellini, Michael Rooker, his brother Sean among them) to a Suda 51 joint about a high school cheerleader, her disembodied head boyfriend, a legion of zombies, and her love of chainsaws.
James was kind enough to be up way too damned early to say a few words about the game, due out on June 12th on 360 and PS3.
Justin: How much of the concept was in place when you came onboard?
James Gunn: Warner Bros. and Suda came to me about 2 years ago, and said “We have this idea”, and they brought me in and showed me this test footage of a high school cheerleader jumping around with a chainsaw chopping zombies in half, colorful bursts of blood and rainbows coming out. So, the concept was already there. What Suda asked me to do was to help create the characters, come up with the story. Some of the mechanics were already there and the sets, for lack of a better term, and it was up to me to basically create the characters, all the dialog in the game , and direct the actors.
Justin: So you didn’t have to step on their toes in terms of the game mechanics or anything like that?
JG: No, not at all, but I did have some say in there with the game mechanics. The idea came up at one point to put the head of Juliet’s boyfriend actually on the zombies. I was a big proponent of that. I was consulted on that stuff, but the game was basically already in place. He came up with the idea of this boyfriend, Nick, who had been beheaded, and I came up with the why and what his and Juliet’s relationship was like.
JG: Yeah, and that was one of the most dynamite aspects of the whole thing for me, because in writing for a game….basically the script for this is huge, it’s a foot high. My scripts are normally half an inch high. There’s a big difference in the amount of actual dialogue I had to write. There’ll be a situation where a college student’s trapped in a corner by a zombie, and Juliet’s trying to save the girl, and there’s the possibility she won’t, so there’s 30 lines of dialogue if she saves her, and 30 lines of dialogue if she runs out of the room, and 30 lines if she dies. It’s just a ton of dialogue, and I found it very freeing to just write nonstop, and add fun little things for fans, incredibly strange jokes you would never put in a movie. I found that aspect to be really fun, and much different than writing a screenplay. I’m a fast writer, and can usually move pretty quickly, but this is just sitting down for days and just writing and writing and writing. It put me in this sort of zen state of writing dialogue that I really enjoyed. I felt more creative than I have in a really long time.
Justin: You also directed the actors performing the dialogue, a lot of them friends and regulars from your films. On top of the written dialogue, was there a lot of room in there for them to expand and improv as well?
JG: There were little moments of improv, but by the time we got to the actors, the game was pretty well in place, and more or less everything was written down. There just wasn’t any room. Plus, I’m funnier than my friends.
Justin: Fast forward to two weeks from now to Michael Rooker on the phone screaming “What the hell?!”
JG: If Rooker wrote something funnier, maybe we’d do it, but he’s just not *that* funny.
Justin: It’s surprising this kind of thing doesn’t happen way more than it does. Like, you never see a David Mamet come out and say “I want to write this story, but make it interactive”. Any insight as to why that is?
JG: I think there’s two reasons why it doesn’t happen. One of them is simple: Most screenwriters are not gamers. I’ve talked to Warner Bros. about this, and I know that they’ve had other screenwriters come in and write video games before, and most of them just don’t understand the dynamics of how all the different elements fit in. I’ve been playing video games my entire life, so even though I’ve never worked on a video game, I very much understand the dynamics, in the same way that when I made Tromeo and Juliet, I understood how to put shots together, not because I had made anything other than short films, but simply because I had watched so many movies.
Justin: It does seem like a whole different creative language. I can’t imagine something like Scott Pilgrim happening if Edgar Wright didn’t really know how to speak that language. Is it that much harder to pick up on, though?
JG: It’s a matter of them being two different mediums, you know? It’s like saying, “You’re a plumber, but I want you to come fix my electricity”. There’s similarities in those crafts, but they’re very different. That’s one of the reasons. I also think that [writing for] video games hasn’t been paying as much as screenwriters normally get paid. They don’t wanna come in and get paid less to write more. And I think that, again, the different mediums thing. People take film seriously, they think of film as an artform, and if they do a game, it’s something silly. So, it hasn’t been getting the first class writers. There have been a few games that have been really well-written, but I think you can pretty much name them all on two hands. That’s going to be changing drastically, though, and that’s another reason why I like doing video games. It really is sort of an untamed area. It’s new, untrampled snow. I think it’s fun to be part of something that’s still developing. Whereas film is kind of the stodgy old man in the corner with the cigar stuck in his ways, games are new, fresh, exciting….
Justin: It also seems like this project in particular is one of a scant few to go all out on two extremes neither movies or games go really, between being this sweet, innocent, poppy love story, and having a goth dude trying to run the apocalypse.
JG: That’s the thing that attracted me to the project to begin with. It’s Powerpuff Girls meets Dawn of the Dead. That’s where Suda and I were really well aligned. We both have an obsession with the contrast between the innocent and the profane, and putting both of those things in a video game side by side is really not that different from what I’ve been doing for a long time, be it with Super or PG Porn, or Tromeo and Juliet. Those are the things I’m interested in, the mix of tones, and the things that make for such an incredible game.
Justin: On top of that, in terms of the whole zombie thing, Chainsaw seems like the first project in a while to do *something* different with that concept in a really, really long time. What’s the key to making sure the genre–which I really, REALLY loved once–avoids losing its teeth?
JG: I hate to break it to you but it kinda has lost its teeth. (laughs) I think that, once something becomes a weekly TV show…
Justin: …they kinda HAVE to run it into the ground.
JG: I mean, yeah, if they keep making zombie apocalypse stories, where the zombies are the exact same types of zombies from movie to movie. They’re either original Dawn of the Dead zombies or new Dawn of the Dead zombies. Fast or slow. Those are the only two things that differentiate zombies in zombie movies, and it’s kinda boring. Lollipop Chainsaw is more of a comedy. A fantastical comedy which has much more to do with something like Return of the Living Dead than any of the other movies. It’s just a different twist on the genre. People love zombies, I grew up loving zombies more than anything in the world, but even me, today, I see a something coming out today with zombies, and I just go “Eh.” I’m excited for World War Z, because it’s gonna be such an incredible, big-budget, A-list movie, and I can’t wait to see what they do with that, but other than that, I think that for the zombie to be continually interesting, you gotta do new things with them. I really think the thing to do with the zombie is to go back to the old school zombie–I Walked With A Zombie, White Zombie, what zombies originally were. I’m interested in those Haitian zombie stories. That’s the place to play around. We’re just so stuck on the Romero zombies. And I know I haven’t helped. Even Slither had a little bit of that.
Justin: Would you work on a video game again? Anybody in particular you’d like to work with?
JG: I’d like to work with my old friend Cliffy B. from Gears of War. Gotta give him a shout out. Other than that…I’ll tell you, though, I loved working with Warner Interactive. It was one of the best working experiences of my life, Them, and working with the crew at VH1 on Scream Queens are two of the smoothest experiences I’ve ever had. Of course, those were the two experiences where I wasn’t completely in charge, so that might have had something to do with it. Still, anyone who’s interviewed me knows I don’t always say that about whoever I’m working with. It’s usually the opposite.
Justin: Yeah, I remember reading one of the interviews you gave with us where you said it was really hard for a director to translate your ideas to the screen without losing something.
JG: Yeah, and that’s happened a lot with a lot of companies over the years, and I’ve had some good experiences, It’s definitely not a black and white situation. I’m not one of those guys who hates guys in suits, or studio execs–I’ve met quite a few good studio execs over the years–but the Warner Interactive guys have been the best. I’d love to do something with them again.
Justin: Lastly, what have you been playing recently?
I’m actually between games. What I usually do is I play a few games in a year, play them through, then take time off. So right now, I’ve been playing a lot of iPhone and iPad games. But I have Mass Effect 3, which I started, but I’m gonna go back and restart Mass Effect 2, so all my characters live. And I have Witcher 2.