James Gunn on ‘Guardians Vol. 2,’ New Characters, and Why Thanos Isn’t Back for the Sequel
We’ve got still more coverage from the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for you. Following our visit to the set, and our conversation with Kevin Feige, here’s the full transcript (lightly edited for length, and removing a few spoilers that Marvel still doesn’t want out in the world) of the press’ lengthy chat with Guardians writer/director James Gunn. Topics included why Thanos and his Infinity Stones won’t show up this time around, how the sequel is both more intimate and more massive in scope, and the mystery character who Gunn originally wrote into the Guardians 2 script treatment, only to cut him (and he did say it was a him) out because there were just too many heroes at that point.
But who could it be?!? Let us know your guess in the comments below after you check out this wide-ranging interview with the man who gave us Guardians.
We were talking with Kevin Feige earlier today and he mentioned that you came in there with a 64-page treatment, something in that range?
James Gunn: Yeah.
How much has the script evolved since then?
I’ll say one major thing that happened during the treatment phase, not even during the script phase, during the treatment phase: There was another character that was a major character. That was a part of the treatment. Although it kind of worked generally in the story, I got to the place where there were to many characters. I think Civil War handles a lot of characters really well, but they’re minor characters, and in this movie every character has their own arc. And I thought it was one character too many, so I took one of the characters out of the story about halfway through the treatment phase.
But the eventual 70-page treatment, which is what it was, is what this movie is, and it has changed very, very little. And there’s been almost no changes in the past three or four months before shooting; minor, minor lines here and there. We did rehearsals and some things I changed because of that. Now who knows, we may get into post and go “oh my God, let’s change everything,” I hope that isn’t the case, but I’ve been really fortunate.
And part of it is because I knew on the last movie we did do a lot of changes later on. We did some changes in production. We did some changes in post-production, and I knew this time I was really fortunate to have such a head start on the script. And to make that story really strong so we could have that from the beginning. And so that was something I focused on, was really dialing in the screenplay, the dialogue, everything before we ever even came here to Atlanta.
It sounds like a big part of Nebula and Gamora’s arc is dealing with the residual trauma of being raised by Thanos. So why not have Thanos in the movie?
First of all, it’s about two sisters. It’s not about the sisters and their father. It’s about two sisters and what were the sisters’ problems with each other. And yeah, some of those things were caused by being raised by the ultimate abusive father. But it really isn’t about Thanos, and frankly I just wasn’t inspired to put him in the movie. I kind of go with my gut on these things and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. It wasn’t the most fun part of the movie last time for me, and I just didn’t really want to do it this time. And again, the relationship with Thanos has nothing to do with it. It’s not about their relationship with Thanos. It’s about their relationship to each other. That was interesting to me. And I thought that was important to our story, and that was important to our characters.
Same thing with Rocket. Rocket’s past is very important to the present story, but it’s not about how it affects him, it’s about how it affects his relationship with the other Guardians.
Are you doing any IMAX scenes?
Yeah, we’re switching aspect ratios just like did on the first movie. This time it’s a little more planned out ahead of time, but we switch between 2.35:1 and 1.89:1 aspect ratios.
What was the inspiration, when you first sat down to write the second movie?
The first film is about becoming a family, the second film is about being a family. But I also think I had more science-fiction concepts around Quill and his relationship to his father, that’s a little bit of a bigger idea. I felt extremely freed by not having to set up so many major characters in 20 minutes like I did in the first movie, which was by far the biggest pain in the ass.
Not only have you never done a sequel before, but it feels like most of your movies and projects have been departures from each other. So you're following up a movie, it’s your first sequel. Do you feel like you're doing another departure? Is this a departure from the first film?
I think it’s a departure from the first film. I think one of the things that worked about the first movie was that people went into the movie expecting one thing and they got something that they like more than what they expected. And it was different than what they expected, and I think the second movie is the same thing. I don’t think it’s going to be what anyone expects.
In terms of the new characters, how did you land on Mantis?
S---, I don’t know. I really wish I could remember how I landed on Mantis, but I just felt like she served this aspect of the story the best. I can’t remember.
Mantis is really complicated in the comics. There’s a lot of different versions of her, and she’s done a lot of different things. Is your version a clean slate or are there other elements of the comics?
Both. It’s my version, there’s elements of the comics as well. I think that, frankly, some of these characters that do have the various pasts, and various different origins are a little bit easier in Guardians movies, because they don’t come with as much expectations. From the beginning I say, for the time being, Quill is the only Earthling member of the Guardians. So, that was part of what I had I in mind with her, and that’s probably part of why I landed on her as well.
Can you talk about the music, and choosing the songs, and what inspired your choices?
I think that the soundtrack is an evolution from the soundtrack to the first movie. I think the first movie was made for a child that was a couple years younger than the child that this music was made for. So it’s slightly more complex songs. We have a wider variety of songs. You guys heard, probably, one of the songs today. We have a couple of songs that are enormous songs, which we didn’t have on the first movie. We also have a couple songs that are almost completely unknown, or not very well known at all. So there’s a bigger gamut between the popular and unpopular songs on the second album.
We all met and fell in love with Baby Groot today. Was there any consideration of ever having him be more full grown in this movie?
Totally, 100 percent. I started out thinking of him as full grown. Then all of a sudden I thought “That’s what you would think you would do,” and I’m like it could be Baby Groot, and Baby Groot is very different. He’s a unique little fella, and he’s pretty great in the movie even though he’s not even there. But all the time Chris [Pratt] is like “Dammit, he’s gonna steal the f---ing movie!” And it’s nothing. It’s nothing there, but he’s funny even in the dailies we’re watching. And we got the guy on a stick, and people are laughing. There’s something really cool about him, and he’s funny in the movie. He’s a little jerk too.
What’s easier to shoot with Baby Groot or the Groot you were working with last time?
Quite honestly, I’d say Baby Groot, but the reason for that is unknown. A lot of times on the first movie we were like “Are we even putting Groot in this movie?” Because Shawn plays Rocket on set, and he’s so present as Rocket that you’re very aware of Rocket as a character. The guy playing Groot was a stand-in on the last movie and so he was there we just kind of always forgot he was there. He doesn’t talk very much, so you’re doing all these scenes and when we have the scenes in the movie where they turn to Groot and Groot’s like “Why are you forgetting me?” That’s really what we felt like while we were shooting the first film. And I think also, the whole personality of Groot and who he was, it was there on the page and then you forget about it while you were shooting the first movie.
But now everyone knows Groot so well that we have much larger awareness, me and the cast, of a Baby Groot being there at all times. And him being one of the members in the scene. So it’s been much easier from that respect. I think he’s a better-written character than the first Groot in some ways. Not that he was poorly written at all, but I think he’s just more complete character.
So outside of looking totally badass, is [the change to] Yondu’s fin, is there an impetus for that?
Yeah, there’s a reason. There’s a reason for it. Yes, there’s a reason for the change of fins.
Does that have to do with the Ravagers’ larger role in this movie?
Yeah, it does. It does, yeah. These are exciting answers! Put that down. Write that down.
We saw a little bit of the art, but we don’t really know a ton about Ayesha, can you explain a little bit about her character and what she presents to the Guardians?
She’s a member of this race called the Sovereign, and they’re all genetically created by themselves as a self-sustaining race who are perfect. They’re created as perfect beings, and they think of themselves as perfect.
In the comics she’s related to Adam Warlock. Is that the case in the film?
Totally possible. They’re created in pods.
The first movie had the Collector scene with a lot of Easter eggs. Is there a scene in this movie where you can put [those in]?
Oh my God. Our Easter egg obsession is insane. And in fact, I have the dumbest Easter egg. We have so many incredibly obscure Easter eggs in this movie that it’s ridiculous. Yeah, we’ve been working hard on the Easter eggs. I feel this need to do it now since people have been pouring over stuff so much.
We’ve heard the relationship between Rocket and Groot has flipped now where Rocket’s the protector.
Yes, Rocket is the protector. Yeah, that’s part of the story and the story being about families. As I’ve said before, I relate to Rocket more than any of the other characters, and this is really about Rocket coming to terms with accepting his place within a group of people, which probably seemed like a good idea for two seconds when they were getting along and saving a planet. And now he’s just not very comfortable with the idea of being a part of this group, which come to think of it, is probably what I’m like with everything in making this movie.
Can you talk about the Infinity Stone, and the impact that it had on Peter and possibly the other members of the team? ... [Kevin Feige] said that Star-Lord’s mythology has expanded because he was able to hold it.
Yes, we say that at the end of the [first] movie. There’s a question as to why Star-Lord was able to hold the Infinity Stone and not be completely and immediately destroyed. And we learn a little bit more about why that’s the case in this movie.
One of the things that I loved, and I think many people loved, about the first film was how weird and crazy it was for a Hollywood movie, and how it pushed the sci-fi angle. Does this push it even further?
Times 10. I was scared last time, and this time I’m not really scared because I know that people want to go see the movie, and they probably will go see the movie. This is truly my movie from start to finish and there have been absolutely no restrictions placed on me in terms of “That’s too far, that’s too artistic, or that’s too unique, that’s too dramatic, that’s too comedic.” None of that stuff has ever come up. We’re really, really pushing it.
I’ve heard from a couple of the filmmakers in Marvel that it seems like in Phase Three things have gotten a lot looser, more artistically inclined. Is that your experience?
Yeah. I think that’s been true because a lot of different reasons, but I think for me personally, they let me do my movie the first time around and it was a huge hit and much bigger than they expected it to be. So that gives them the faith in me that I know what I’m doing, and they’ll let me take it another step further.
I went into [Marvel executives] Kevin [Feige] and Louis [D’Esposito] with an outlandish premise, and I said I want to do this movie. And they were like “Oh f---, I don’t know.” They didn’t say that to me actually, they were said “Oh that’s great, that’s great.” Then I said, “Okay good, I’m gonna go write the treatment,” and they’re like “Okay.” Then I wrote the treatment and Kevin called me up and he was just ecstatic and he loved the treatment. He loved the story. It pushes things.
I know people have had different things to say about Marvel, about how creatively free they are or not free they are, but for me the rule has always just been stay as good as I can possibly be, and stay one step ahead of the curve, and stay unique, and stay myself. And they seem to like that. Whether or not they would like that with another filmmaker, I don’t know. Not everybody likes everybody else’s aesthetic, but luckily with me whatever is strange about me to them has always been nice. So, I’ve been really, really lucky in that respect.
You said writing Thanos wasn’t the most fun part of the first Guardians for you, and based on what Kevin told us, this movie’s a lot more standalone in terms of interconnectedness. Are you looking forward to the day when you can draw the Guardians into the other pre-established parts of the MCU, or do you want to keep them in your own private corner?
Honest to God for me, I’ve never been a guy to stack projects. A lot of these other guys they like to do this and then line up what they’re doing next, and line up what they’re doing next. I just can’t do it. It makes me miserable, and by the time I get to that other project is usually not what I want to do. So, I’m doing Guardians Vol. 2 and then after that am I going to do Guardians 3. Am I going to do something else with Marvel? I really, really don’t know. We’ve talk about it. We talk about it all the time. Is it what I want to do? I don't know. I honest to God don’t know.
Can you talk about the decision to make the movie take place a couple months later as opposed to a couple years?
I think because they’re just such fragile egos, and they’re so combustible that this is really the time. I think they’d have problems with each other pretty instantly. And so I just felt like it was more ... Again, you ask me why I do these things, I don’t know why. It seemed funny when I was writing it. It’s what came up, and I thought about it being later and I think a lot of it was the Groot thing as well. When I first started thinking about it, when I was jotting down ideas, I thought Groot was maybe going to be an adult. And I thought “God, what if I just make Groot a baby for the whole movie?” And that just felt right. So a lot of it had to do with that.
In the first treatment you mentioned there’s a character that got cut, wasn’t really necessary, was that another Guardian [we might] eventually see in the future?
Yeah. Yeah for sure, I love the character actually. I loved everything about the character, I just didn’t have room for him.
Was it a classic Guardian?
I don’t know what you think is “a classic Guardian.” You mean Yondu, Starhawk classic Guardians? No.
Can you talk about Mantis and what dynamic she adds to the group?
Mantis is as odd and strange as Pom is. And I think she is an incredibly unique character. And I think she’s funny as s---. And she’s also a little creepy. And she’s great. I remember when we were auditioning Star-Lord, you’re asking for this straight white dude and we screen tested 25 guys and it was really hard finding somebody great because, honestly, a lot of the really great guys in that age categories become movie stars. And to be auditioning Asian actresses was awesome. Truly, we screen tested four actresses who all four of them were totally incredible. It’s just Pom happened to fit the role the best, but it was a really amazing experience. And honestly, it was an example of there’s a lot of actors out there who don’t get the opportunities of these lead roles that a regular white dude does.
What’s different about your villains this time around?
I think the main thing that was different, and this is really important to me, was to be able to make the story one where the personal story of the Guardians and the villain agenda, plot, was all about one thing. And that was important to me. It wasn’t like “Oh, here’s our characters on a journey with each other while they’re fighting this Big Bad that’s doing whatever he or she is doing, and just that’s it.” Which honestly, the first movie if there was one thing that ... it’s fine, but it is, kind of, two separate stories. There’s Ronan taking over this planet and murdering the universe, and then there’s these guys who through that journey get to know each other and come together. In this movie all of those things are a little bit more interwoven. It really is all one story. And that is, to me, a lot more satisfying way to tell a story.
The core theme of this whole thing seems to be family. Do you come up with that theme before you start writing this, or does that theme come out as you work?
It’s a step-by-step thing. Probably the first thing was the larger science-fiction concept. The movie’s more science fiction than the first one was. It’s still a space fantasy. They still have jet-packs. Gamora has a sword and s--- they would never have in space, but it’s more of a science-fiction concept behind it. That’s what came first and then the theme started its way into that. That would sort of push me forward in another direction. Then maybe I’d have a character moment that would push me forward in another direction. Then an ending that pulls. So it really is going step by step in terms of what affects me the most.
One of the things that I thought was really interesting about the reception of the first film was that people with autism really embraced Drax. Did that impact you, writing the character this time?
It really did, and not only Drax. I think outsiders as a whole reacted to the Guardians ... Listen, that’s what I am. That’s what I feel like. But it’s being able to tell those stories for those people is what really the only reason I give a s--- about any of this, frankly. And the only reason I would ever put myself through this is to be able to bring people together, and make people feel like maybe they belong a little bit more than they would feel before they saw the movie.
For kids, [Star-Lord] is Han Solo to them. He’s almost Indiana Jones. So, coming back to him a second time, tell me about some of the challenges of just figuring out what the next steps for him are.
It is the whole team’s story, but there’s a big huge part of it that’s his story too. When I was writing up the first movie I wrote the whole backstory of where Peter came from, who his father was, why did Yondu pick him up from the planet. I wrote all that stuff, and there was a part of me that thought about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, maybe there’ll be a story in between the answers to that story. And I said “I don’t know.” How long am I going to be around for? I don’t know, let’s just go for that story. So, that’s a big part of what this story is. Those other characters are now major characters in the movie; Nebula, Yondu, these characters that were tertiary characters in the first film.
Could you talk about the set pieces, we haven’t really heard much about the action in the movie, how many scenes there are, how big it gets? When you think about the end of the first movie, that’s a pretty huge set piece.
I really set out to write a more intimate, personal story and I think it is, and then somehow in the midst of writing this more intimate, personal, emotional story the set pieces got five times as big. I feel great about it. Honestly, I’ve been focusing a lot on it because I think that I want this movie to be better in every aspect. And that includes that it’s funnier. The emotion works on a deeper level, which is probably the most important to me frankly. And then the fact that the action is bigger and more exciting.
I love the audacity of Star-Lord challenging Ronan to a dance off. In the final battle.
Again, I think there’s a trap a lot of sequels fall in. Where they say “Okay, we had that beat where there was a dance-off, so what is our dance-off in this movie?” And we had that moment where they “We are Groot,” so what our “We are Groot” moment? And then I’m like “Screw all of that, this is its own thing.” Other people can go and try to figure out what the moments are in this movie. I don’t want to do the same types of things. I think the only tradition is that we try to give the audience what’s unexpected and what they don’t think is coming next.
What character do you think will surprise audiences most coming out of this movie?
Yondu? But Dave Bautista. Bautista’s murdering, he’s just murdering, murdering, murdering every scene ... He wouldn’t want to hear me say it. The greatest thing was walking on to the first day of set and being back with these people and it was kind of like we just picked up where we left off except for one thing, that they had all gotten incredibly better. Zoe probably had the most experience starting off, but she got a lot better. Chris got way better. And Bautista exponentially got better from what he was in the first movie, and he’s going to flip people out. And then Rooker is just like, it’s the role of a lifetime. It really is, he’s amazing. And then people don’t know Pom.