James Gunn is the man behind Marvel’s most unlikely juggernaut, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. When the first installment of this space-set series launched three years ago, industry observers thought its quirky sense of humor and unfamiliar characters might doom it to low grosses; instead, it became Marvel’s biggest franchise launch, pulling in $333 million domestically and winning over both critics and audiences. In some ways, Gunn says it was easier to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, out this weekend — after all, now he’s steering a known quantity with the wind at his back. But as Gunn told Vulture recently in a candid interview, success comes with its own costs, too.
You’ve talked before about how you always felt that what you liked was on the fringes. After you make a movie like the first Guardians of the Galaxy, where it’s imprinted with your unique sensibility but became a giant hit with just about every man, woman, and child on Earth, does that make you reevaluate your relationship to the world?
It does. It’s impossible not to constantly adjust the way you look at yourself. I’m not saying that it makes me think of myself more positively, necessarily, but there are certain good things about it and there are certain difficult things about it.
I think I’m more confident about my ability to tell a story by just being honest. People like that honesty, whether that’s as a person saying what my truth is, or as a storyteller. I feel like I’ve kinda danced around telling the truest story I can for many years of my life. I’ve been a little distracted by trying to be shocking or edgy or cool or whatever, and by letting go of that and telling the truest story I can — even if it’s about aliens and talking raccoons — it works. So that’s great.
And the downsides?
The amount of attention that comes with it can be difficult.
How do you mean?
[Long pause.] Getting so much attention all at once, with so many people who want something from you or want to talk to you … for someone who is overly sensitive to other people’s needs, that can be difficult. I don’t discount people or things they say. Anybody who’s online who asks me to retweet something that will help their parents with cancer, or something like that, I’ll do it.
You’ve always been very available online.
For me, that aspect of it is difficult. I love the attention and I hate the attention, you know? It’s not always good for your soul. Especially after the first film, I was caught up in the adrenalized excitement of it all and I just kept going: I kept traveling, and the movie kept going, and I kept talking about it and doing everything … and I crashed at a certain point. I really came down to earth and had to be like, “Where am I as a human being? What do I want to be doing and what’s truly important to me in all of this?” And I’m still there, trying to figure that out.
The most important song in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, a sailor’s lament that as much as he loves this young waitress named Brandy, “my life, my lover, my lady is the sea.” I wonder if you relate to that song as a director. It’s your way of telling people that while you love them, your life will be spent away from them, committed to making these movies.
Quite honestly, that song has been one of my favorite songs since I was a kid, and it’s also been a bit of a nightmare to me. I remember I was with a girlfriend who I was falling deeply in love with, and I was driving away from her house with oldies radio on, and “Brandy” came on. For some reason, it struck me and I listened to the words for the first time and realized what the song was about, and I related to that song in an incredibly personal way. I thought, “Oh my God, this woman’s going to pass out of my life and she’s gonna be gone.”
I was living in St. Louis at the time, going to college, and I knew I would keep moving on, too. I was going to keep chasing after the sea, which I’ve always chased after. It was an incredibly lonely moment to realize that. So it did affect me personally.
The relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) really gets a workout in this movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a giant action blockbuster where two sisters have to spend so much time working on their shit.
There’s something relieving about it, to have everyone’s voice represented in the movie. It’s not about their relationship to their father, ultimately, it’s about their relationship to each other. We have a giant action battle between them, but that’s what it’s about, and the battle is more fun because it comes from character, it comes from who they are.
They were pitted against each other as children by their cruel adoptive father Thanos, and in Vol. 2, Nebula talks about how Gamora turned a blind eye to the toll it took on her. And she’s got a point.
I think in the first movie, we saw Nebula as this evil villain and thought of Gamora as somebody with a bad past who’s really good inside when you get to know her. Here, we see that it’s not quite so cut and dried. The one we thought of as the villain, I don’t think is the villain! I think the one who historically is the villain is Gamora. If you saw them together as children, I’m not sure you’d think of Nebula as the bad one.
There’s a great shot in the trailer of Gamora screaming while she’s firing the biggest gun you’ve ever seen. But when you see it in context, as she’s fighting Nebula but wanting more to get over their lifetime of baggage, it takes on a deeper meaning. It’s primal, it’s painful.
It’s hurt, it’s angst. They’ve been pitted against each other by an outside force.
These are characters who are very important to you. How does it feel, then, to have the Guardians go off without you and meet up with other Marvel characters in Avengers: Infinity War?
Well, I’ve been dealing with the script, so it’s not 100 percent out of my hands. That’s a big part of what I’ve been doing with Infinity War.
Still, it’s almost like they’re heading out to college. You’re still in touch with them, but the final call belongs to Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo.
I like those guys a lot. Chris and I talk every day, so we’re always dealing with it, but it is a letting-go process. Part of it is about what will be best for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and beyond, in terms of where they should go. But it’s also about making myself of use to them and really focusing on what doesn’t have to do with my ego. It’s about what’s best for those characters.
And about Peter Quill meeting Tony Stark for the first time.
Yeah, oh yeah. All of it. It’s exciting and fun stuff.
This interview has been edited and condensed.