Movie Director James Gunn on “Super,” Rob Zombie, and His Tiny Girlfriend

James Gunn (left) is best known as the director of Slither and the uncredited director of Tromeo and Juliet. Today, his latest movie, Super—about a man who turns himself into a super hero—comes out in select cities. It stars Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight Schrute on The Office, as Frank D’Arbo who becomes the Crimson Bolt, as well as Juno actress Ellen Page, whose character Libby becomes Frank’s sidekick, Boltie. Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, and Michael Rooker round out the cast, and Rob Zombie even makes a voice cameo in the movie. Recently we caught up with Gunn to talk about making Super, a movie that he’s had in the works for years.

REVOLVER How you came up with the idea for Super?
JAMES GUNN
I’m a big fan of “deconstruction of a super hero” comics, going back to Watchmen. In 2002 or 2003, I wanted to make a short film to prove to people that I could direct. And so I originally started writing Super just about this guy with no super powers that became a super hero. It was either going to be about a guy in a world of super powers with no super powers that tried to become a super hero, or just a guy in the regular world—and because of the budgetary effects of doing the former, I didn’t do that.

So it started as a short film, but then I started writing it, and it just kept getting longer and longer. And the character of Libby popped up, and I fell in love with her. And it kept getting bigger and bigger, so it just sort of took on a life of its own. And I fell in love with the script. It was my favorite script. And I didn’t think I could get it made because it was too esoteric, and then we almost got it made once five years ago. But at that same time I was offered to do Slither, which happened very quickly, so I did that instead. It was a long road but the script just stuck with me and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

How did the cast come together? Did you have actors in place in 2002?
Ellen Page would’ve been a child at that time. I think Ellen is 23 now, so she would’ve really been a child.

So you weren’t writing with actors in mind.
No, not at all. In fact, that was the big problem. When I was going to make it back in 2005, I had a pretty big budget. But we couldn’t agree with the financiers on a name actor who would fit the role. Because I have very specific ideas about who Frank is and what kind of guy he is. It really needed to be somebody who could do the comic stuff in the movie but also do the dramatic stuff in the movie. He cries a lot. He had to be able to be a guy who’s goofy enough, frankly, to be picked on by the dishwasher at the diner where he works.

The only person I found that could possibly do it really, was John C. Reilly. But in 2005, he wasn’t considered a big enough name, so I couldn’t offer the role to him. And there were a lot of people who wanted to do it, but just nobody who I thought fit the role perfectly. And that’s why it didn’t happen back then.

Rainn came along because [actress] Jenna Fischer from The Office—who’s my ex-wife and we’re still really close friends— called me up about two years ago, and she was like, “What are you doing with Super?” And I was like, “Well, right now nothing is happening with it.” She said to me, “Have you thought of Rainn?” And I had known Rainn for a number of years, he’s a good friend, and I’ve seen him do dramatic work, and I’ve seen him do all sorts of different things. And I just recently was like, Wow, Rainn would be perfect. I gave Rainn the script that day. And he calls me about 22 minutes in, and my hands are shaking, and he says, “This is exactly the type of thing that I want to do.”

Rainn Wilson as Frank D'Arbo, "The Crimson Bolt," in "Super"

How did Ellen Page get involved?
Ellen Page knows Rainn, and Rainn gave her the script. And we were like, We’re not gonna get Ellen ’cause she’s sort of the biggest name in that category. But she called back a few days later like, “Yeah, I love it, the script is great.” And Ellen and I went out to lunch, and we really liked each other, and she decided to do the movie. But the one who really got the movie made, like financed, was Liv Tyler, because, internationally, she’s such a huge star. And again, we thought that was a really big person to go out to for that role. We gave her the script, she loved it, and we really hit it off with Liv. And the rest was history. Kevin Bacon didn’t come on board until a week and a half before we started shooting. That’s a whole other story. We had another actor attached to that role, and he sort of became unreliable, so we offered it to Kevin at the last minute.

What did it mean to you to have Kevin Bacon in the movie?
I didn’t realize until Kevin was in the movie what a great draw that is to actors. Everyone wants to be one degree from Kevin Bacon. Especially if they can do it with a cameo.

How did you come to cast Rob Zombie as God?
Rob’s just been my friend for a while. He was also in Slither. He played the voice of a doctor on the phone with Elizabeth Banks in Slither. So I think I’ll probably just have Rob play a voice role in every single one of my movies. Or maybe we’ll upgrade to an actual cameo in the next film, we’ll see.

Are you a fan of his music?
Oh yeah, big fan. I love his stuff. I’ve been lucky enough to go see him a couple of times in concerts since we’ve met, and it’s amazing. And it’s really weird, too, because off-stage he’s such a low-key, laidback, normal guy. And then watching him on stage is a trippy experience.

How does he take direction?
He’s very self-effacing. [Laughs] When we did Slither, I’d give him some direction. And he’d be like, “I know, I suck.” And I was like, “No, you’re doing great.” He did great. And he brought me…I remember the day he came in to record his voice he brought me some big Devil’s Reject book that was a special limited edition. And he signed it, and was like, “I won’t care if you cut me out of the movie.”

Another connection you have to hard rock and metal is you’re dating Mia Matsumiya of the band Kayo Dot. How did you meet?
I was driving with Mia last night, and she was like “I think we were in Revolver once.” We’re not only dating, she lives with me. She’s the best. It’s been an extraordinarily fun, great relationship. So it’s great.

 

Gunn's Girlfriend, Mia Matsumiya, in a Newspaper Box

The photos of you putting her in small compartments on your website are insane.
Yeah, well Mia is very small. She’s 4 foot 9; she weighs 88 pounds. She’s very proud of this, that makes her a legal midget. She can get a free cup of coffee at McDonalds. And she is very proud of her ability to be able to fit into small spaces. In fact, on our very first date ever, which was in New York City, she was like, “I can fit in that newspaper machine.” And I was like, “Really?” And she was like, “Yeah.” So we put in a quarter and we opened it up and took out all the newspapers and she was right, she fit in there. And that was sort of the beginning of our relationship. Every chance we get to stuff her into small spaces, we do it.

What a first-date hook!
Yeah, we also had grasshopper tacos, so it wasn’t the most normal first date.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your movie?
No, I’m just really grateful to have done the movie. It’s a passion project. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. I think it’s a movie that’s not for everyone. But it is for some people. And that’s what I like about. It’s very violent, it’s very totally unusual, and I’m just really happy to have made the movie. It feels very very good. And it’s really exciting to have the reaction that we’ve had so far.

 

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