The Meteoric Rise Of James Gunn

James Gunn isn’t your garden variety, cookie-cutter Hollywood director.

For a start, he’s only really directed one film that you could class as a Hollywood blockbuster. That film is Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy , and it’s pretty much the biggest film hitting screens this year.

Though he claims to be “a normal, boring guy in real life”, Gunn’s anything but. A horror enthusiast who’s best buds with Rob Zombie, he’s killed his brother Sean in just about every movie he’s made (“I love doing that”).

And Gunn is the perfect choice for Guardians , with its off-the-wall characters and its pulp-y sensibilities. (It features, lest we forget, an anthropomorphic raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper…)

Born in August 1970, Gunn’s been in the industry ever since he started working for cult studio Troma Entertainment in 1996. His hugely varied CV includes scripting everything from Scooby Doo to Dawn Of The Dead ’04 , and he’s even turned his hand to acting on occasion, mostly recently appearing in Twisted Pixel videogame LocoCycle.

It’s fair to say, though, that Guardians Of The Galaxy is Gunn’s (.44) magnum opus. A left-field choice by a notoriously open-minded studio, Gunn beat Peyton Reed (now directing Ant-Man ) and Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden to the director’s chair, and has been waxing lyrical over landing the gig ever since.

In fact, despite the film’s ginormous scale, it could just be the ‘most James Gunn’ movie ever made; Joss Whedon infamously advised the director to “Put in more James Gunn” when he read a draft of the script, and from what we’ve seen so far, he’s certainly done that.

But what exactly is a James Gunn movie? We took a look through his back catalogue to find out...

Tromeo & Juliet (1996)

The first feature Gunn ever wrote and directed, this loving Shakespearean pastiche sticks pretty close to the original plot, but throws in a ton of sex, violence and gory prosthetics (giant willy alert!) – because surely that’s what Will himself would’ve done if he was still alive in 1996.

“It influenced me a lot,” Gunn says of working for Troma. “It taught me things like, ‘How do you save money?’ and so on and so forth. It showed me where things work and where they don’t. It was a great education for me. It’s like a permanent part of my ass. I don’t even think of it as an influence anymore.”

Variety described T&R as “no-holds Bard” and the film’s considered a staple in the B-movie monster oeuvre. It also has an awesome soundtrack (see Guardians ), and it certainly makes other Shakespeare adaps like 10 Things I Hate About You look tame in comparison…

The Specials (2000)

Something of a precursor to Guardians Of The Galaxy , this one. A cheeky superhero send-up masterminded by Gunn and ’80s pin-up Rob Lowe, The Specials follows the titular group of heroes on their day off.

Don’t expect Marvel-style set-pieces, though. The Specials is all about zingy dialogue and brilliant banter as the team bicker and butt heads (see Guardians …). With a cast that includes Thomas Haden Church, Judy Greer, a VERY BLUE Jamie Kennedy plus Gunn himself (and bro Sean), it’s a cult-y delight.

The Specials was very much geared towards readers of comic books, not fans of cinema,” Gunn muses on how things have changed since then. “I sort of miss the days where superheroes were just for me... or just for me and my fellow comic-book geeks.”

Scooby Doo (2002)

“The first Scooby-Doo was extraordinary difficult to do,” Gunn recalls of the tricky adap, “because it was initially written as a PG-13. It got an R-rating the first time it went through the MPAA, and that was the funny part. It was written as something a little raunchy and more for teens.”

What it ended up being was a family comedy that took advantage of pioneering CGI (for Scooby) and the bankability of young stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr.

Many of Gunn’s more adult ideas (Shaggy as a full-on stoner, Velma and Daphne having a relationship) were excised in favour of something perkier and less confusing for the nippers.

Not that Gunn minded – he returned to script the sequel, which “was much more fun to do because we knew we were making a kids’ movie from the beginning”.

Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

Dead kids! Goresome special effects! Running zombies! Gunn scripted this reboot of the George A. Romero zombie classic (with Zack Snyder directing), generating something that was a leaner, meaner, action movie version of a zombie flick. And it’s every bit as good as Romero’s film.

Though he admitted being wary of remakes, Gunn reveals: “For some reason I was lit up by Dawn Of The Dead . I could see a different take on the same subject, with more survivors and more of a focus on surviving in a world where the rules have totally changed.”

Slither (2006)

What’s this? A philosophical monster movie? Proving that trying to put Gunn into a genre box is like stopping a Mogwai from eating after midnight, the director flipped genre tropes on their gooey heads with Slither , a gross-out, gag-filled, uber-violent ode to the very best of B-monster movies.

“I really wanted that feel of the old gritty ’80s horror films that I grew up with, that were fun and over the top and gory,” Gunn said at the time. “And I think prosthetic effects is the way to do that.

“I think that there’s a lot of craftsmanship to prosthetic effects that’s missing in today’s horror. I wanted to do something completely unique – so that’s what I did.”

James Gunn’s PG Porn (2008-2009)

Isn’t porn funny? Gunn certainly thought so when he created this web-series with brothers Sean and Brian, made for (as the tagline goes) “people who love everything about porn… except the sex”.

Comprised of a series of skits in which cool-cucumber actors (Nathan Fillion, Michael Rosenbaum, Craig Robinson) pair up with actual porn stars, it’s a mad idea that’s laugh-out-loud funny.

On the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to making the show, Gunn revealed that “it just reminded me how much I loved making something where there were no restraints whatsoever”.

Super (2010)

It took Gunn seven years to finally get this violent comic book spoof in front of cameras – but it was worth the wait. Rainn Wilson stars as Frank Darbo, a gawky everyman who transforms himself into The Crimson Bolt when his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon).

“It was the first truly independent, edgy film I’d written in years,” Gunn says, “so it was like returning to being completely free with something and not worrying about whether it fits in with commercial prospects.”

Packed full of shocks and making genre buddy Kick-Ass look meek in comparison, Super is the ultimate in dark comedy. (Seriously, have you seen that scene with Ellen Page?)

Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

“One of my goals with Guardians is to be able to make a movie that will entertain everybody, especially what you call ‘kids-at-heart’, the way Raiders Of The Lost Ark entertained me when I was a kid,” Gunn muses of his latest project.

Budgeted at roughly $170m (comparison: Slither was made for just $30m) and with a cast that includes a pumped-up Chris Pratt, a green-skinned Zoe Saldana, a bald-headed Karen Gillan and – yes – Bradley Cooper as a talking racoon, Guardians seems to contain everything awesome that Gunn’s spent his entire career honing.

You want an awesome soundtrack packed full of hummable ’80s classics? You got it. Crazy prosthetics? Oh yes. Quip-y one-liners? Hell yeah. Hollywood, James Gunn has landed, and he’s come packing serious heat. Let the games begin…

Guardians Of The Galaxy opens in the UK on 31 July 2014.

Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.