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St. Louis director James Gunn goes galactic

St. Louis director James Gunn goes galactic

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“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said James Gunn as he prepared for the Hollywood premiere of “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“I got to direct a movie involving three of my favorite things in the world: space operas, Marvel superheroes and raccoons.”

Raccoons?

For those many people who don’t know the comic book on which the movie is based, one of the main characters is an angry, gun-toting raccoon. And it gets weirder from there.

Maybe the weirdest thing about “Guardians” is that a corporation like Marvel let a fanboy from Manchester spend a reported $170 million to adapt a comic-book series that hadn’t been oversold on lunchboxes, trading cards and cartoon series. The first film in Marvel history that could rightly be called a comedy is perhaps the riskiest bet that the comic-book publisher has placed since it became a standalone studio 10 movies ago.

“Guardians” is about a team of misfits from various planets who careen around the cosmos righting wrongs — and skimming a percentage of the profits. It’s more akin to “Star Wars” than it is to “Spider-Man.”

Gunn, who is a comic-book completist, admits he wasn’t a fanatic about the franchise before Marvel executives invited him to pitch some ideas for making it into a movie. He says that after more than a decade of outsider status in Hollywood, his attitude going into the meeting was skeptical.

“Actually, I thought it was an insane idea,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I shook their hands and left the building. Then suddenly on the way driving home, the whole thing came to me.

“There were five or six really big directors competing for the same gig, so I put together a whole presentation. I wrote a 17-page document with my vision for the movie — how I would approach the cinematography, how I would approach the makeup, how I would approach the music. Then I storyboarded a whole big action sequence.”

When Marvel handed him the keys to the spaceship, he says he was prepared. “I’ve been making movies for a long time, so I am well-prepped for all facets of it, from actually making the movie to dealing with the press and fans. My last movie (‘Super’) cost $3 million; but it turns out that having a bigger budget is a real relief. With a bigger team, I can take anything that’s in my mind and put in on screen. And these are some of the best people in the business.”

Some of those people include longtime friends such as actor Michael Rooker. He plays a blue-skinned alien who abducts an orphan from Missouri who grows into the space scoundrel called Starlord (Chris Pratt). Rooker has been in several of Gunn’s films and was the star of a movie that inspired him to become a director in the first place: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”

The rest of the principal cast includes Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket Raccoon, Vin Diesel as the voice of grunting tree Groot, Zoe Saldana as green-skinned assassin Gamora and pro wrestler Dave Bautista as humorless hulk Drax.

Sharp-eyed viewers will also notice cameos by Gunn mainstays such as his younger brother Sean, Nathan Fillion and Lloyd Kaufman. The latter is the ultra low-budget auteur who hired Gunn to write the horror spoof “Tromeo and Juliet” in 1996, when he was a fiction-writing student at Columbia University in New York. (Kaufman also officiated at Gunn’s 2000 wedding to St. Louis actress Jenna Fischer, late of the TV series “The Office.” They amicably divorced in 2008.)

FILMMAKER’S LAUNCH

Gunn’s path to the stratosphere started in a West County cul-de-sac, where he befriended raccoons. He says he was a troubled kid, and his lawyer dad, James Sr., bought him a cache of comic books to keep him occupied. At age 12, he started making 8mm horror flicks with his younger brothers. At St. Louis University High, he found kindred spirits such as George Hickenlooper (who directed several Hollywood films before his death in 2010).

Gunn graduated from SLUH in 1984. (Several sources, including IMDb.com, say he was born in 1970, but you do the math.)

In the late ’80s, he feasted on body-horror flicks by John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, and he sang in a St. Louis new-wave band called the Icons that released an album titled “Mom, We Like it Here on Earth.” (His love for guitar-pop music is expressed in the retro “Guardians” soundtrack, which he calls the emotional spine of the film.)

During Gunn’s tenure at Troma Studios in New York, he had a spiritual epiphany, got sober and wrote a novel called “The Toy Collector” about a hospital orderly named James Gunn who sells stolen pills to buy action figures.

He moved to Hollywood, wrote a low-budget spoof about neurotic heroes called “The Supers” and eked out a living in the gray area between movies, video games and cable projects.

In 2002, Gunn became the first screenwriter in history to pen back-to-back No. 1 films: “Scooby Doo” and the remake of “Dawn of the Dead.”

His studio debut as a director, the 2006 body-horror flick “Slither,” was well-reviewed but financially unsuccessful.

Gunn took a step down in budget for the 2010 “Super” (not to be confused with “The Supers”), in which Rainn Wilson plays an emotionally damaged man who reinvents himself as a crime-fighter.

Now that he’s aboard the Marvel mothership, teleporting to publicity events in Singapore, London and Mexico City, Gunn hasn’t forgotten his roots. “Guardians” contains some Easter-egg references to the Show-Me State (which you’ll have to find for yourself), and he still visits his hometown on special occasions.

In 2010, on a return visit to SLUH, he was asked if his Jesuit education had played a part in his career. He answered that the search for God and the meaning of family is the secret theme in all his work.

“That’s a conversation that I started in St. Louis years ago.”


JAMES GUNN’S SNAP JUDGMENTS

Favorite superhero character: “Moon Knight”

Favorite superhero film: “The first ‘Iron Man’”

Least favorite superhero film: “Tim Burton’s first ‘Batman’ movie, because it did so much damage to the character”

Worst miscasting: “Shaquille O’Neal in ‘Steel’”

A female Thor, yea or nay: “I’m in favor of anything that will give strong women more visibility in popular culture.”

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Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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