Indie veteran James Gunn takes a comedic look at the morality of comic book heroes in his new ultra-violent homage to Asian cinema Super.
Written by Denis Faye
Have you noticed a proliferation of movies in recent years that beg the question, “What if a real person tried to become a superhero?” James Gunn has. And every time a new one comes out, he’s had the same reaction.
“I was like, ‘Oh fuck!’” declares the writer-director. You see, back in 2002, he wrote the first draft of Super, the story of Frank D’Arbo, a disenfranchised outsider who vents his frustrations with the real world by emulating the masked avengers of comic books. Gunn then spent the better part of a decade trying to put this passion project together while simultaneously watching his at-the-time unique premise become a veritable subgenre of its own.
“There are a million times when I said I wasn’t going to make this movie,” confides Gunn, who got his start writing the Troma gore-fest Tromeo and Juliet, then went on to script big Hollywood films like the Dawn of the Dead remake and both Scooby Doo flicks, then finally took the director’s seat for the horror film Slither. “The first one was Special – that has a lot in common with Super. And I was very bummed out on that. And I was bummed out on Defendor, and I was bummed out on Kick-Ass. I was bummed out on all of them. Every time, I wasn’t going to make this movie, but it kept coming back to me, the need to make it.”
Fortunately, that need was finally satiated, resulting in a gloriously, disgustingly violent homage to Asian cinema, Sam Peckinpah, and the triumph of the human spirit, starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon.
Gunn chatted with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site recently about his bloody little indie. When you see Super and ask, “Was all that violence really necessary?” the answer is a resounding, “Hell, yes.”
I’ve seen pretty much everything you’ve ever written or directed.
Well, someone’s gotta do it, but the reason I tell you this is because this movie feels like it came from a different place.
Photo: © 2011 Ambush Entertainment
Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in Super.
It did. Most of the movies I’ve made, and I don’t even think this is a good thing, but I’ve looked at them from some amount of commercial perspective. This one wasn’t about that. This was a movie that I felt driven to tell. It’s really a personal film. It’s that old school type of filmmaking. It’s just more about me. I am Frank D’Arbo. That’s my story. I know I didn’t experience becoming a superhero or a shooting anybody in the face in real life, but I experienced that emotionally.
I identified with him too, even the prayer scene where he’s complaining that he has it harder than the starving kids in Africa.
That’s really one of my favorite scenes in the movie because it is one of the more tonally strange pieces because it’s a very funny prayer, but it’s also very sad at the same time. It was maybe my favorite moment on set because I think Rainn really killed that scene. We see a vulnerability in him as an actor we don’t normally see. I was sitting on the edge of the bed saying, “Thank God for Rainn. I was so happy.”
I did notice that the movie shifted a lot tonally. It worked, but that’s a big chance to take.
Yeah, it is. I grew up loving Asian cinema. Some of my biggest influences are some of the Hong Kong movies with the 1990s as well as South Korean cinema from the last 10 years. You watch a movie like Johnnie To’s Heroic Trio and you watch a group of superheroes who are, one minute, shooting and killing a group of infants and, in the next minute, they’re in a slapstick comedy, and the next scene is like a Douglas Sirkian melodrama. That’s tonal shifts! They’re crazy, and there’s nothing like that in Super, but getting used to watching Asian cinema, where they aren’t so confined about their sense of what genre is really opened me up to a different kind of storytelling. A lot of people are uncomfortable with it. There are a lot of people that are very comfortable with seeing movies where they know what’s going to happen next. Super isn’t that. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s not made for those people. It’s made for some people and luckily we made it at a low enough budget that it’s financially reasonable for what we did.
The violence felt like Troma-influenced mayhem for the first part of the story, then it took on a Sam Peckinpah feel and really became integral to the story.
For sure it is part of the story. I mean, we love superheroes, and we have somebody like Batman who puts on a cape and cowl and gets to decide who’s right and who’s wrong and who he gets to beat up because they did a bad thing. With Frank, we see somebody who’s putting on a costume and deciding who to beat up and who’s right and who’s wrong and who should be punished and we go, “Wait a second! What the hell is he doing?” Some of these people may or may not deserve to be punished. It’s really questioning the morality of the superhero. There’s almost a fascistic aspect to Batman – especially Batman – that’s not questioned very much.
And the violence in comic books that’s so glorified is kind of taken down to a different level. We see people hitting and punching all the time in these things, but it’s not the real down and dirty, ugly brawls of real life. If you hit somebody with something in the face, they don’t just fall down unconscious like they do in a TV show. Their face is split open and we see blood. So it’s really about showing the other end of the violence that cinema and comic books don’t show us.
I never set out to make a violent film. I set out to tell a story and when someone does something violent, there’s a reaction to that, which is gore. That’s what the story is.
Does including that aspect have something to do with your background?
Yeah, I think it has more to do with background of growing up in a dysfunctional home and getting in fights all the time as a kid, sort of a preoccupation with violence in general – but it is what it is.
The music felt very much like it belonged. Did you have the songs in mind when you were writing?
Yeah, I think some of the songs I had in mind from the beginning and a lot of songs, I tailored the script to later on, whether it was “God Knows My Name” by Monster, which is the wrench-beating song,” Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” and the Eric Carmen song, “It Hurts So Much.” The script wasn’t necessarily written to those songs, but I tailored the script to those songs. I was an idiot, because I was just praying I’d get the music. We played “God Knows My Name” on set when we shot that montage. And we played “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” on set so we could get the rhythm down and the camera movements down.
Your process, how does it differ when writing, say, Dawn of the Dead from an indie movie like Super?
It doesn’t differ that much. The only thing I can say that really differs about doing this is that when I first sat down to write Super, it was April 2, 2002, and I was going to write it as a short film, but I just kept writing it, and it kept getting bigger and bigger, and I wrote 57 pages in one day. That doesn’t normally happen. And the ending, when Frank is giving the voice-over narration, that’s remained almost unchanged. That felt like automatic writing when I was writing that. It was like Frank was talking to me.
Also, the other thing is, I usually outline pretty specifically what’s happening in a screenplay, only in this one I didn’t do it because I thought I was writing a 15-page screenplay.
Some scenes, like that scene in the garage where Libby and Frank talk about “in between the panels,” that scene is exactly the same onscreen as it was on that first day I wrote it, and it’s so weird.
So this is more of an intuitive script?
Well, I think after I wrote that first draft, I went back and really tried to make it so the scenes fit together a little bit more. Listen, I’d never show anyone that first draft. There’s a lot of bad writing in there, but you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get the good stuff. That’s part of it.