Tell James Gunn that his movie “Super” isn’t what you expected and he’ll flash you an ear-to-ear smile that could melt glaciers. Part comedy, part drama and overflowing with tongue-in-cheek violence, "Super" is the story of hard-luck short-order cook Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), whose wife (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict, has relapsed and run away with a charming drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Frank has a spiritual awakening and decides to become a vigilante superhero to save her.
Tell James Gunn that his movie “Super” isn’t what you expected and he’ll flash you an ear-to-ear smile that could melt glaciers.
“That’s what I want to hear,” said Gunn, about the pitch-black flick he wrote and directed. Part comedy, part drama and overflowing with tongue-in-cheek violence, Gunn tells the story of hard-luck short-order cook Frank D’Arbo, whose wife (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict, has relapsed and run away with a charming drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Frank has a spiritual awakening and decides to become a vigilante superhero to save her. Along the way he meets a young nympho (Ellen Page), who inserts herself in his life and together they set out to save his wife and rid the streets of dirt bags, one monkey wrench to the head at a time.
It took nearly seven years before Gunn got his camera rolling on the movie, which opens Friday. He wrote the script in 2002, had funding in 2004, then shelved it. Not because he didn’t want to make the movie, but because he couldn’t find a lead actor.
“I needed somebody who had the comedic chops, who had the dramatic chops, who you can think was a big enough goof that he’s getting picked on by his fellow short-order cook at the diner, but who’s also physically powerful enough that you can imagine him beating people up,” Gunn said.
That’s until two years ago when his ex-wife, Jenna Fischer, planted the idea of casting her 6-foot, 3-inch “Office” costar Rainn Wilson as the sad-sack superhero, the Crimson Bolt.
The light bulb in his head lit up.
“I sent him the script and he texted me back about an hour later and said ‘I’m 28 pages in, my hands are shaking and I want to do this movie no matter what,’” Gunn said.
As excited as Gunn was about securing Wilson, he was just as fired up about casting Kevin Bacon as drug dealer Jacques. “He’s the easiest actor I’ve ever worked with in my life. He’s an icon,” Gunn said. “He was like my hero when I was a kid.”
But perhaps his biggest coup was nabbing Oscar-nominee Ellen Page, whom he initially didn’t think he would ever have a chance of casting in the role of Frank’s superhero sidekick, Boltie.
“Rainn knew Ellen because they were in ‘Juno,’ and he said ‘Why don’t we send it to Ellen?’ and I said, ‘Rainn that’s ridiculous,’ because at the time I thought it would be Rainn and a bunch of up-and-coming actors. I didn’t think we were going to get any other names besides the people who were my friends, like Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker.
“I thought it was a waste of time. She’s like the biggest star at that age and I thought we’d have to wait for her. I didn’t even want to send it to her because I didn’t think it was possible. Rainn convinced me to take a chance. He gave her the script directly without getting the agents involved and she wrote him back right away and said she loved it. Then she and I went to lunch together and we got along and I was really impressed by her understanding of the type of movie that I wanted to make.”
The oldest of six siblings – four brothers, one sister, each seven years apart, Gunn grew up in St. Louis in a “very Catholic” – and large – Irish family. His brothers are also involved in the entertainment business. Sean Gunn has a part in “Super” and played the wildly eccentric Kirk on the “Gilmore Girls.” Matt Gunn is a writer for “Real Time With Bill Maher” and Patrick Gunn is on the financing end. Brian Gunn is a screenwriter, working on the sequel to “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and a MacGyver movie.
“I don’t know how that happened, my dad is a lawyer and mom’s a homemaker,” he said, laughing. “Holidays were crazy. Other kids were competitive with sports or academics and we were always just trying to be the funniest one at the table.”
However, Gunn is quick to point out that there’s no sibling rivalry. The Gunns are a tight bunch. “We back each other. What we all do is a little different. We don’t tread on each other’s toes.”
Gunn earned a degree in psychology from Saint Louis University and went on to graduate school at Columbia to study fiction writing. While there he got hired by Troma Films. His first foray into filmmaking was “Tromeo and Juliet,” which he wrote and co-directed.
“I just have a love of storytelling. I drew comic strips for a long time. I wrote plays. I’ve written songs. I don’t really care what the format is, but I do seem to work best in film because I’m a very visual person and I just like doing shots. I like putting shots together. And, I like working with actors.”
In 2002 Gunn wrote the screenplay for “Scooby-Doo,” his first major Hollywood project. Two years later he was a writer on the reboot of “Dawn of the Dead.” His directorial film debut was “Slither,” in 2006. It bombed at the box office, but “Slither” found its audience on DVD and has become a cult favorite. Like “Super,” that film is also a mix of comedy and horror, but Gunn maintains the two films are different. “‘Super’ is more tonally complicated. Part of it comes from you just don’t know what is going to happen next and that makes people uncomfortable,” he said.
A likely part of what will make moviegoers ill at ease are the religious currents that flow throughout “Super.”
“People don’t know if I’m being spiritual or if I’m mocking it or what. I like just having the conversation. You can watch whole movies of people dying of cancer for two hours and they never bring up God. The conversation of God, from believers and nonbelievers, just doesn’t exist in Hollywood filmmaking. People go to war, are in foxholes and they don’t even pray. They’re talking about something like their girlfriend back home. I mean it just doesn’t exist. You think of what are the great taboos on screen, incest, drug abuse, violence or sex, and the real taboo is a conversation about God and spiritual life.”
In “Super,” Wilson’s Frank has the epiphany to don the tights and masks after watching The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) on Catholic cable TV.
“Is Frank’s spiritual awakening the real thing or is he crazy?” Gunn asks. “The movie doesn’t come out and say what it is, but it’s something for people to think about.”
And stirring that kind of debate is just what Gunn was after. In fact, he said he resisted requests to make the film more conventional.
“It’s an arthouse/grindhouse film. That’s just what it is. And to try to make it something different, I mean, it’s just not ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ it’s not that kind of movie.”
While Gunn’s movies might lack that mainstream appeal, his choice of favorite superhero is more garden-variety: Batman.
“It’s a boring answer, I know,” Gunn said, “but Batman has the most good comics book of any superhero, and I just like the character. I like Batman’s tragic nature. I like the fact that he was a guy whose parents were killed, and he’s trying forever to avenge their deaths and he can’t.”
Gunn’s next project is a short-film contribution to “Movie 43,” a Farrelly Brothers production. “I did one with Josh Duhamel and Elizabeth Banks and an animated creature. And it’s very messed up.”
And we wouldn’t expect anything else.
Reach Dana Barbuto at firstname.lastname@example.org.