James Gunn Talks Carefully Calibrating Every Aspect of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

James Gunn Talks Carefully Calibrating Every Aspect of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Delivering a third film in a trilogy is never an easy thing. But imagine going into it after the company making it fired you, and finishing it while you’re beginning to work for that company’s number-one rival.

Those are just some of the innumerable pressures writer-director James Gunn had to contend with making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The film was originally going to arrive several years ago, but Gunn was fired by Marvel after several (admittedly disgusting) old tweets of his emerged. As his Marvel cast and crew fought to bring him back, Gunn signed on to make The Suicide Squad with DC, which pushed Guardians 3 back several years; The Suicide Squad eventually ingratiated Gunn so much to the rival studio, it hired him and producer Peter Safran to run a whole new DC.

That second part was happening at the same time Gunn was finishing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a film he’d had — in some form or another — in his mind for years. It didn’t just have the weight of those massive Marvel expectations on it, it was also introducing new characters (like Adam Warlock) fans had been clamoring for for years, and was acting not just as Gunn’s farewell to Marvel, but his team of Guardians too.

All of which is to say, making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was no easy task. And so when Gunn sat down with Gizmodo to discuss it, we talked about the film’s origins, tying up all those loose ends, which parts of the puzzle were most difficult to add in, the pressure of finishing the movie while also working at DC, and what has to be not just one of the film’s most ambitious and memorable scenes, but one of Gunn’s too. (All of which was done without spoilers, because all spoilers were off the table at the request of the studio.)

Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: The first Guardians is my favourite Marvel movie ever. I love it so much, and I know that you sort of had this overall arc in your head at some point when you made that movie. How much of what happens in this one was already in your head at that point?

James Gunn: First of all, you know, I work on backstories for people, so I know where they come from. So my pathway into the Guardians initially was, Marvel talked to me about perhaps doing Guardians of the Galaxy. They actually had some art already done with Rocket in it. And I thought, “Boy, this can be goofy. This could be like Bugs Bunny in the middle of The Avengers.” I’m like, “How can I not make it goofy?” And I thought about, “Well, ok, if there was a talking space raccoon, how would he have come to exist?” And as I mused upon it, I started thinking about how this was the saddest creature in the universe, and that was actually the seed to me for the entire Guardians trilogy. That was my way into it, was this underpinning of just isolation and sadness and all of these characters are isolated and sad. So I knew what Rocket’s backstory was from that moment; before I had come up with the rest of that stuff for Volume 1, it was the first thing I came up with.

io9: So then why the hesitation? Did you know you’d be able to tell it in a third movie or did you ever think maybe you’d never get to tell it?

Gunn: Well, I definitely thought at one point there was a chance I wasn’t going to tell it.

io9: Right. [Laughs] 

Gunn: But I always thought it was a third movie thing because I thought we had to tell Peter Quill’s story first and then get into Rocket’s story. I think the only question was, was it going to be a Rocket and Groot movie or was it going to be Guardians 2 because initially I was going to do it as Rocket and Groot.

You aren't ready for Rocket's origin (Image: Marvel Studios)
You aren’t ready for Rocket’s origin (Image: Marvel Studios)

io9: You know, I remember you mentioned that at some point. Now this movie obviously comes in with a lot to tackle. You have Rocket’s origin as you said. There’s the whole Gamorra thing. It talks about Drax’s family, which has always been kind of a question. Then there are then these new characters. So what aspect of the story was the hardest to organically get into the mix of this movie?

Gunn: Well, there’s no doubt it was Adam Warlock.

io9: OK, yeah.

Gunn: It was really difficult. [Pause] You know, I promised Adam at the end of the other movie. The High Evolutionary has created Adam’s species. That was the way in. But everything else was, you know, the High Evolutionary is directly related to Rocket. War Pig, the recorders Vim and Theel, they’re directly related. So it was the thing that was the most kind of separate that we put back into it. Except we’d also teed up Ayesha in the second movie. So we had all of that. But it was definitely the most difficult part to make it part of it.

io9: Plus I know fans have been asking for years, even before Guardians 2, when you got the tease, “What’s going on with Adam Warlock?” Did you feel pressure to put him in, and how close is the final product to what you had in your head originally?

Gunn: I did feel pressure to put him in. A lot of the stuff was written for Volume 2. Originally, Adam Warlock was in Volume 2, and he was sort of the opposing force. I seem to always have a second force, right? So in the first movie, Yondu serves that position. He’s an alternative force. And in the second movie, Ayesha serves that position. In this movie, it’s Adam and Ayesha together. So I always had the character in mind from that movie. And then he seemed to fit better in this movie than he did in that movie.

Will Poulter as Adam Warlock. (Image: Marvel Studios)
Will Poulter as Adam Warlock. (Image: Marvel Studios)

io9: Did you make any decisions in the previous two movies, or maybe even something happened in the Avengers movies, that made this movie a little harder to crack?

Gunn: [One major] thing was Gamora dying. But I was a big part of that choice so that was easier and I actually think it makes the movie much better. It’s much more interesting. At one point, Gamora almost died in Volume 2. And so I was really happy to work with that in a unique way and work with kind of what Quill’s damage is. You know, one of the things that’s been interesting in making these movies is people get upset with people’s characteristics. So, like, Quill is a womanizer, and then people are outraged over that. Not “many” people but “some” people.

io9: I understand, sure.

Gunn: Almost as if that’s me saying, “Hey, this guy is a womanizer!” But he is a womanizer. It’s a good thing. He’s a womanizer. It’s a part of his characteristics. It’s a part of who he is. And I think that we see in this movie is it’s very much something that he uses to not be himself and not to be with himself and not to acknowledge the truths that he’s turned away from since the death of his mother. And so I think that this version of Gamora makes him come face to face with that issue in a really dramatic and unusually dramatic way. Which is cool. 

Zoe Saldana as Gamora.  (Image: Marvel Studios)
Zoe Saldana as Gamora. (Image: Marvel Studios)

io9: That kind of leads into a little bit of what I’m going to say next. This movie, obviously, it’s the end of the trilogy. You’ve got lots of great payoffs, but it’s also really dark. Like that Peter stuff is probably the happiest of some of the dark stuff. How did you sort of calibrate what the line is in a Disney Marvel movie of how deep and dark you can get?

Gunn: Well, I never take that into account, but I do take into account the audience. So I think the only place I ever decided to pull back is with anything about animal cruelty. So there’s animal cruelty in the movie. It’s something people are squeamish about. It’s something I’m squeamish about. But I don’t show it. And I think it’s just a place that I had to be really careful with because I don’t want to traumatize people with the animal cruelty. But I also want them to be able to see characters who are being treated cruelly, who are animals and half animals.

io9: Those things speak to the fact I think your movies always have great big emotions in them. I think you’re really great at that. And yes, we’re here to talk about Guardians, but seeing that your next movie is also a big superhero movie, how would you describe the emotions you want to evoke with a Superman movie?

Gunn: Um, you know, listen, I don’t really think I come to Guardians 3 and say, “I want to write a movie that’s going to make everybody cry.” I don’t think about that. I just think I want to tell a story that treats the characters with dignity and compassion and is the best, most surprising, most moving story I can possibly tell. And if that ends up being moving because it’s a fun blast of a film, or if it ends up being moving because you’re sobbing or it makes you feel that rage or whatever it makes you feel, I’m good with all of those things as long as it works. And so I can’t say I’m looking for any particular emotions to bring out through Superman, but I don’t want it to be unemotional. I don’t want it to, you know, deny that we are as human beings, emotional characters and that Superman is also that.

The Superman image we keep using to show the feeling of James Gunn's film. (Image: DC Comics)
The Superman image we keep using to show the feeling of James Gunn’s film. (Image: DC Comics)

io9: And what is the transition been like? Because I know you’re hired for the DC thing, you’ve been writing several things there, you’re finishing this movie, which is something that you’d been waiting to do for a long time. So tell me what the last couple months has been like.

Gunn: It’s been hell.

io9: [Laughs] How were you able to do it?

Gunn: Give up most of my sleep.

io9: There you go.

Gunn: Give up any quality time with my friends and family and just work seven days a week, 15, 16 hours a day and you got it. 

io9:  Ha. And that’s it. That’s all it takes. Last thing on DC is, does your Superman movie happening mean that the Ta-Nehisi Coates movie that we’ve been hearing about might not happen?

Gunn: No, those two things are totally unrelated. That’s an exciting movie. I know that Chantal Nong, who is the executive on that project, is extremely excited about it. So if it comes in and it’s great, which I haven’t read the script and if the timing is right, that could absolutely happen. That’s totally unrelated. It would be an “Elseworlds” tale like Joker.

Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary in Guardians 3. (Image: Marvel Studios)
Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary in Guardians 3. (Image: Marvel Studios)

io9: Oh, ok. There you go. Back to Guardians, later in the movie, we have this spectacular long-take fight that’s insanely awesome. How long did it take to shoot and what were the biggest challenges on that scene?

Gunn: You know, it just took a lot of planning. So Wayne Daglish and I, who is this incredibly talented stunt coordinator — he’s a co-stunt coordinator with Heidi Moneymaker on this — that was basically his baby. And we started putting that together months and months before the very beginning of shooting. And we shot that near the end of shooting. The very end of shooting. And that whole time we just did different iterations of it, shooting it with the stunt people, and putting some post viz in, but mostly with stunt people and just did it again and again and again. Cutting parts. At one point it was longer, it was a little shorter, and it just kept going on and on and on. I was very afraid of it because I was afraid of the MPAA, because it’s pretty brutal.

io9: Yeah, it’s pretty brutal.

Gunn: But it ended up being fine. And yeah, we put a lot of work in. And then the final work, of course, is shooting it on a day. And I was just talking to Chris Pratt and he heard me say it’s not that difficult, because some things are difficult because of the amount of hours you put in. And some things are difficult because they aren’t working and you get frustrated. This was not that. It was just a lot of hours. And he said, “But yeah, you were doing things like 30, 40 times.” I said, “Yeah, that’s repetition, man. That’s Jackie Chan.” When he does his stunts, he just does them again and again and again until he gets them right. And then on screen it looks like magic. And that’s what we did. So we shot lots of takes. I think it took, I’m going to have to ask my first AD Lars [P. Winther] how many days it was, but it might have been five days. And it was a lot. A lot of takes. And it was making it better. I’m like, “Oh, you know, well, you could swing a little wider, get in a little bit closer and let’s do it one more time. Oh, Chris, you can do this a little better. Do that one more time. Do it one more time.”

io9:  It was awesome. And I hope we do this another time in a couple of years.

Gunn: We will!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is in theatres this weekend. Gunn’s next film, Superman: Legacy, is in theatres July 11, 2025.

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