Having quickly risen the ranks of cultural pertinence, James Gunn has become one of the most important mainstream filmmakers in the modern industry. Responsible for such hits as Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad, Gunn has helped to sculpt the superhero landscape, infusing the universes of Marvel and DC with a distinct funny bone and sense of bombastic fun.
Though he began his movie career as a scriptwriter, taking his pen to several high-profile films including the much-beloved Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, as well as Dawn of the Dead by director Zack Snyder, Gunn is now better known as a director, a career path he kickstarted with the release of Slither in 2006.
16 years later and James Gunn may as well be the pilot of Marvel’s cinematic universe, with his influential comedic style becoming the norm for the quickly growing franchise. Currently working on the third film in his Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, the director has become a staple Marvel name, as significant as fellow filmmaker Taika Waititi, producer Kevin Feige and the Spider-Man star Tom Holland.
For any budding filmmaker eager to reach the same heights as Gunn, it might be worth checking out his 11 essential secrets for success via Movie Maker, below.
James Gunn names his 11 essential secrets for success:
1. Put yourself into the film
Whether it’s his 2004 screenplay for Dawn of the Dead or his subversive 2010 superhero movie Super, every James Gunn project has a distinct throughline that revels in dark comedy and blissful thrills.
Remembering when he was given feedback from Joss Wheadon regarding his first Guardians of the Galaxy script, the filmmaker stated, “I had actually been holding back. I was afraid that to make a huge commercial movie, I had to make it like other movies”. Eager to capture the same energy as his earlier movies, Gunn remembers Wheadon commenting, “Just make it more ‘James Gunn’’.
2. Finish writing
Writing a screenplay is no walk in the park by any means, with the whole process involving meticulous planning and organisation. Though, as Gunn states, “The first way that writers fail is not finishing things. Most people judge their writing really harshly and go onto something else that’s fresher. I get better about not judging my writing as time goes on”.
When you’re the only person who has read your material it becomes really hard to get an objective reading of the script’s quality, explaining his view, the director adds, “People don’t think they’re writing workable pieces of art. Yet when someone reads that script, he or she is your first audience member”.
3. Learn how to do everything
This is a crucial one that many filmmakers over the years have recommended. It’s all well and good to dedicate all your time to be a director, but without having done all the other key roles on a film set, your scope of understanding will be severely limited.
Commenting on the process, Gunn explains, “Being a director takes a lot of different skills, and we all have our blind spots, but you need to be really good at a lot of things”. Suggesting that any budding filmmaker takes acting lessons to learn what it’s like to be in front of the camera among other key skills, Gunn rightly believes that a good film is made up of many crucial parts.
4. Hire and trust other people who aren’t you!
When it comes to a project you hold dear, it can be easy to be possessive over the project and want to take charge of every key role available to make sure the film comes to life ‘properly’. This is nearly always a trap, however, with James Gunn commenting, “I look for people that can do those jobs better than I can. It’s about finding people whose talents aren’t the same as mine”.
When a crew of people have different key skills you’ll soon realise that your moviemaking squad is built for any occasion, no matter how hard.
5. Preparation is everything
This may as well be a rule for life in general, with everybody aware that if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. In meticulously planning your route from pre-production to post, the whole process will run like a well-oiled machine.
“I’ve met very few directors who prep as much as I do,” Gunn states, worried that the schedule for the film will run off course, if not. Continuing, the director adds, “I draw all my own storyboards. I work stuff out so I know exactly what the movie is going to be. I plan every single thing out, I plan for things going wrong, I over-plan. I’m crazy about it”.
6. Improvisation is overrated
As we just heard in the previous rule, Gunn is a big fan of planning ahead of time, which makes improvisation a big ‘no-no’ on his sets. Strange too, considering that a lot of his writing, including quick quips and witty one-liners, feel like organic improvisations.
“I’m a guy that believes in writing the script ahead of time,” the director reveals, adding, “I rehearse a lot with the actors. If improv happens, it’s much more likely to happen in the rehearsals than on set”. So it’s less that he hates improvisation, and more that there’s a time and place for it.
7. Colour is crucial
Colour may not be the very first thing you think of when you think of a James Gunn movie, but cast your mind back to the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Suicide Squad and Super and you’ll remember the vibrancy of the colours that pop off the screen in each film. “A movie has a color story. I use color swatches. Every scene has a different set of swatches for what that scene is,” the director fascinatingly reveals.
Colour “tells my story in the same way these words tell my story,” Gunn states, with the post-production practice of colour correction being crucial to every one of his films.
8. Start on music early
Whilst you may not think of James Gunn’s use of colour straight away, his use of music should be obvious, with iconic pop songs finding themselves in many key scenes of his movies. Including ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ by Blue Swede used in Guardians of the Galaxy to Hey by The Pixies in The Suicide Squad, Gunn loves a bit of musical pop culture as well as an original score.
As the director himself states, “Music is such an undervalued part of films, whether it’s soundtrack or score. People largely think of film as a visual medium, and audio gets pushed all the way to the back, not decided upon until after the movie is cut together”.
9. Second unit is overrated
Shooting through a second unit is a practice reserved for the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, where a separate team away from the director will capture certain minor scenes in order to save time and money. “I don’t shoot second unit,” Gunn explains, berating the practice, revealing, “I’ve done it before and hate it. On Guardians Vol. 2 I don’t have second unit, I shoot it all myself”.
Sounding like a controlling director who likes to take charge of his creative vision, the director adds, “I find that when you have a second unit director, it just means we have longer shoots. It gets all screwy and I get very frustrated”.
10. Test screenings are crucial
Giving a director and their team the very first impression of how good their movie really is from the opinion of an objective audience, test screenings are crucial for the improvement of a filmmaker’s final movie. “I don’t think I’ll ever learn more in any single sitting about filmmaking than I did when I watched the first test screening of Tromeo and Juliet,” Gunn comments, learning several valuable lessons.
Whilst the filmmaker doesn’t get hung up by the test scores themselves, he asserts that the most important questions are: “What scenes did you like the best? Are there scenes you didn’t like? Were there times you were bored? Most importantly, was there stuff that you didn’t understand? Did you like this character?”.
11. Don’t get frustrated by your budget
This one can be a tricky one to her for up and coming filmmakers, but in James Gunn’s point of view, there’s no point in getting frustrated by your budget restrictions. “Movies are all the same, from small to big. People get tripped up about bigger movies, and there might be different skill sets involved,” the Guardians of the Galaxy director explains.
Ultimately, no matter how much money you have to make your film, “making a movie is making a movie is making a movie”.