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James Gunn on Directing Guardians of the Galaxy (and Cutting His Favorite Part)

Guardians of the Galaxy may be Marvel’s weirdest movie yet, and the studio didn’t play it safe with its choice of director: Instead, they hired James Gunn, whose delightfully deranged sensibility (in movies like Super and Slither) survived the big-budget transfer fully intact. It’s a tough task to make a movie work when it’s this stuffed with eccentric characters — including Chris Pratt’s space jockey Peter Quill, Zoe Saldana’s green Gamora, Bradley Cooper voicing the gun-crazy Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel lending his pipes to the tree-creature Groot — but Gunn juggles them all so well that you’ll be wanting even more … and you’ll get it, since Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was announced this weekend at Comic-Con. Prior to that, Gunn rang up Vulture to discuss the movie’s craziest jokes, some of the casting challenges, and the big scene that didn’t make the final cut.

What makes you laugh the hardest when you watch this movie?
I’m a little bit twisted, so what makes me laugh the hardest doesn’t necessarily make other people laugh. First, a lot of the moments that I find funniest in the movie are the moments where there was a true back-and-forth between me and Chris Pratt. Chris and I have very, very similar senses of humor, and when we’re on set, it really is like we’re constantly doing one bit. There’s one line where he talks about how dirty his spaceship would look if you brought a black light in, and then I went up to him and said, “Add that it would look like a Jackson Pollock painting in here.” Those are some of my favorite moments from a creative standpoint just because Chris was such a great partner, but the thing that I laugh at the hardest is something that no one else will think is funny. I shouldn’t even talk about it, because it’s so stupid! It’s the moment where Quill is talking the guys into going after the bad guy and fighting for their lives, and Rocket looks up at him with these big, huge brown eyes and says, “But Quill, we’re all gonna die!” He’s got these eyes that look like a Margaret Keane painting, and I just laugh and laugh. And every time I laugh at it at a screening, [Marvel Studios chief] Kevin Feige turns to me and goes, “There’s really something wrong with you. I don’t know why you laugh at that!”

I found it kind of refreshing that although this is a movie with a lot of comedy in it, it’s very sincere, too. The characters’ friendship is literally the thing that allows them to triumph over evil.
Listen, we live in an era where we’re so afraid of emotion and showing that we care about things. It’s so cool to be cynical, but at the end of the day, Guardians is about emotions and caring. That aspect of the film is actually more important than all the humor. It’s a movie about aliens, but it’s an extremely human movie, and I think both the humor and the emotion come from the exact same place because it’s based in character and relationships.

Because of the way Marvel contracts are drawn, a lot of these actors are signing on for six to nine movies all at once. Does it take some doing to convince an actor like Benicio del Toro to come on board for Guardians, since it means he’s now committed to appear in other Marvel movies?
Yeah, it did. [Laughs.] It’s a difficult thing, because Benicio and I instantly connected as two artists, and that’s why Benicio did the movie. In fact, he saw the movie the other day, and he wrote me a text message immediately. He was so happy, and he said, “I’ll do anything you want, anytime, anyplace,” so I hope that whoever else ends up working with Benicio on these movies, he’ll have the same connection with. But you know, for some of these characters, the time commitment isn’t that big, so it’s not that hard. It’s more difficult for someone like Zoe Saldana: She’s a major character in this movie and she’s got a lot to do, and she’s already a big star. It’s great that she signed on for something like this, and as long as I’m around, I’ll do my best to take care of all of those actors.

In this film, we briefly get to see Thanos, the big bad of the Marvel universe. All signs point to him becoming an Avengers villain someday, so tell me what you were looking for and why you went to Josh Brolin to play him.
Thanos needed to be this imposing character. He needed to have weight to him. So it was about finding the right person to fulfill that role, and we actually auditioned a lot of people for Thanos. That role really is a big commitment, because as everyone has guessed, Thanos is a big part of the Marvel universe going forward, and his role is likely to expand greatly. It was a big challenge to cast.

How did you guys keep Brolin's casting secret for so long? Was he brought on late in the game, or are you just that good at keeping your lips zipped?
A little bit of both. He was brought on later, and we were good at keeping it quiet, so it didn’t come out for a long time. My brother Sean read for Thanos on set, and then we motion-captured Josh later on down the line, when we got back to Los Angeles.

In the trailer, we see Gamora’s naked green back and Quill putting his shirt on in the spaceship, but none of those provocative shots made the final cut. What were those moments from?
You know, it’s so hard, because there are moments and scenes that I really loved, but they didn’t work perfectly in the movie. One of the things that I’m sure people will be able to see on the Blu-ray was a montage to the ELO song “Livin' Thing,” which is one of my favorite songs of all time. This was a sequence that came right after they broke out of the prison, and there’s a moment where he’s changing and she’s changing, and he kind of looks at her and nods, and she closes the door on him. Those shots got lost in the process, and you’re mentioning the exact scene that was the hardest for me to let go of … and, honestly, the post-production crew was sort of up in arms about me cutting that scene, because it also had some great Groot moments.

Rumor has it that the Hulk could join a Guardians sequel. Now, I’m sure you can’t talk much about it, but …
No, I can! It’s total bullshit. Total, 100 percent, unadulterated bullshit. There you go! All of that stuff is total bullshit, all of this Planet Hulk stuff is bullshit, the speculation about why the Sakaaran aliens are in the movie — it’s simply because I couldn’t use the Badoon. We don’t own the rights to them, and the Sakaaran were some of the aliens that worked the best for me. So there’s absolutely no truth to it whatsoever.

And you’ve already got your green character, anyway. I love that you had all these eye-popping shades of green and red and blue and yellow all over the place. A lot of comic-book movies tend to mute those colors.
It’s one of the things that’s tickled me the most, that people seem to enjoy the color palette and the way the movie looks. Picking every single color is something that I personally put so much care into, and this movie is very much a reaction to so many of the dark, brooding movies that have come out since Blade Runner, really. It’s about bringing back the bright, pulpy colors of the '50s and '60s, and for me, it feels like being able to breathe. It gives us so much more to do! It’s not that I don’t like those dark movies, but I think we can be gritty and still have a lot of the color as part of the film. It made it more fun to make, honestly.