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HASCON 2017: Playing In James Gunns’ Sandbox

The writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films shared his history, his process, and his advice for creative people at HASCON.

One of the highlights of HASCON was the spotlight on James Gunn. Moderated by Marvel’s Jesse Falcon, the on stage interview traced Gunn’s awesome career from the beginning to now, with him as the mastermind behind the cosmic corner of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It was an entertaining and insightful panel, and one that left me way more energized and inspired to create than I would have predicted.

On Becoming a Writer

James Gunn’s directorial debut was Tromeo and Juliet, and horror-comedy he created for Troma, but he was already creating years before that project. Inspired by low budget horror flicks like Night of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th, he made 8mm films when he was young, along with comic strips and comic books, photography, and playing in bands. It was a playwriting class that first made Gunn interested in becoming a writer, because the experience made him feel his “brain was being acknowledged instead of something else.”

One of the things I admire most about James Gunn is his sort of universal creativity… he’s not only a filmmaker, but a novelist (Toy Collector was a novel he wrote while in grad school, about a guy who sells drugs to
keep his toy collecting habit going). While he didn’t say it explicitly, I think this sort of non-restricted creativity in many fields is a big part of what makes him such a talented artist, regardless of the format he’s using.

On Developing Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel

There was already a draft of the first Guardians of the Galaxy script when Gunn came on board, but it lacked many of the core things that made the movie so great– there was no walkman, no music, and a very different Rocket. So Gunn had a lot to add to the story, and he spent a great deal of time developing his treatment.

This was without a doubt the most interesting part of the panel, as Gunn went into the nuts and bolts of his process when developing a movie.  The treatment, he says, is the most important part of writing a screenplay. His treatments include every single scene in the movie, most of the key dialogue, but is written in prose and easier to change around and adjust quickly. They include photos and illustrations based on Gunn’s vision of what he wants in the final movie.

Once the treatment is finished, Gunn writes the screenplay and draws storyboards at the same time, which helps since film is a visual medium. In Guardians Vol. 2, the big fight between Nebula and Gamora was drawn as a storyboard first, and then the screenplay was written around those drawings.

On The Importance of Guardians of the Galaxy Toys

Early in his days on the first Guardians movie, Gunn talked with Kevin Fiege of Marvel, and surprised him by asking to meet with the toy guys, because he wanted to discuss all the cool stuff from his movie that could be turned into toys. When developing ideas and drawing concepts, Gunn consciously thinks about toys based on his movies, imagining what figures and space ships and weapons would be fun to play with.

“I liked the idea of making a movie that had toys growing out of it… that people could be part of it, make up their own stories with these characters, and form a deeper connection with them.”

As a kid, he’d mix up his toys, so Oscar the Grouch would team up with his Star Wars figures and go on an adventure together. This was the foundation of his interest in storytelling… and it sort of brings things full circle considering how the disparate oddball characters of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies come together in Gunn’s latest cinematic stories.

On The Key To Success

James Gunn is enjoying an incredible career, and with a third Guardians movie on deck (along with hints of more cosmic Marvel properties in the works, which he will shepherd toward the big screen). Many creators and artists don’t have a definitive answer to what made them successful, but Gunn does.  Finish what you start.

“I had a really powerful spiritual awakening, for lack of a better term… I kept writing a screenplay and it didn’t work out, and I judged it. I wrote half of a book and didn’t like it, I worked really hard from a young age… I kept starting and it didn’t work out, so I did something else, and something else, and I was becoming very frustrated,” he said. “Then one night, like a bolt of lightning, it went through my head– finish what you start. I had been given all the tools I had to be successful, but I was balking. I would start something and then not complete it. The truth is, to be successful, you need to complete projects. The first one will probably suck. And the second will suck a little less. And the third will suck a little than that. It was about just completing the things I set in front of me and completing them.”

He wrote a screenplay called The Specials, and the movie was not very successful… but that screenplay itself opened doors in Hollywood, which lead to pretty much all the other opportunities Gunn has had since then.

Finished not perfect; It doesn’t matter if what you’re working on is great or if it sucks… as long as you finish it. Those seem like words to live by to me.

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