How did Rainn Wilson become our DIY savior? Why is a movie as horrendously messed up and insane as Super even allowed to exist, in a rational universe? Who thought a psychotic superhero film would be a good idea?
We brought our questions to James Gunn, the director of Super, and he told us the whole tawdry story of how this masterpiece of wrongness came to exist. Minor spoilers ahead...
Gunn and Wilson brought their brilliantly insane movie to South By Southwest in Austin, TX, and we posted our early review here. We got the chance to see the director and star at a panel discussion, and we also took part in a roundtable interview with Gunn himself. Here's what we found out:
This movie isn't for everybody
The trouble with Hollywood, says Gunn, is that "every single movie is something that's designed to appeal to everyone." Sometimes, it even works, and you get a movie that everybody loves. Often, it doesn't. But Super isn't for everyone - it's "a low-budget film for the niche crowd."
Rainn Wilson says Super is for the "Tarantino audience." "It's rough, it's wild, it's violent, it's crazy funny."
Gunn told us at the roundtables:
I told the producers, "People are going to like this movie because it's extreme, or they're not going to like it. So if we start pulling back on the things that are extreme, that just pulling back on what some people are going to like about it, and we're going to make it a nothing movie."
It almost got made in 2004
Gunn originally wrote the script for Super back in 2002, and he had funding to make it in 2004. Charles Roven (producer of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies) was producing. They wanted Gunn to tone down the violence a bit, but otherwise it was all cool. (Gunn had already written another superhero film, 2000's The Specials starring Rob Lowe.)
The only trouble was, they couldn't agree on a lead actor to play the main character, Frank D'Arbo. Gunn wanted somebody who could be big enough to seem genuinely threatening - but still someone who you could believe getting pushed around.
Tons of Hollywood actors wanted to play Frank, but Gunn couldn't agree on any of them. The only actor at the time whom he could see carrying the role was John C. Reilly, who wasn't a big enough star for the producers.
Super made Mark Millar freak out
Back when Gunn was first trying to make Super, he was emailing with Mark Millar. When Millar asked Gunn what he was working on, he described Super: the story of a DIY superhero who gets his ass kicked. Millar went, "Fuck" because he was creating his own DIY superhero story, Kick-Ass, at the time.
But in fact, it's totally fine, says Gunn - Super and Kick-Ass are nothing like each other. "A lot of people think this movie is like Kick-Ass before they see the film, but if you still think it's like Kick-Ass after you walk out of the theater, there's something wrong with you." There have been five DIY superhero movies, he points out: Super, Kick-Ass, Special, Defendor, and Hero At Large.
James Gunn almost didn't make any more movies after Slither.
While Gunn was still trying to get Super made, he wrote the script that became the movie Slither. "I was just going to sell it to make a few bucks, so I could do Super for no money." But then producer Paul Brooks called Gunn up and said, "I'm in. I want to greenlight this movie, and I want you to direct it."
But after making Slither, Gunn wasn't sure he would ever direct a movie again. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to. I wasn't sure if it was worth it to me. And I just started doing web stuff because it was a lot more simple. It's hard making a movie, man, because it's like you lose your life. I like being alive, and I like having friends and I like going out, and I like watching other people's movies. All these things I can't do for a year while I make a movie. And then it comes out, and it's like, so what?"
It's all thanks to Pam from the Office.
Fast-forward to two years ago, and Gunn got a call from his ex-wife Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam on The Office. Gunn and Fischer were talking, and she asked him why he never made Super, which was her favorite script that he'd written. Gunn explained that he never found the lead actor he wanted, and Fischer asked, "What about Rainn?"
When Wilson came by Fischer's receptionist desk on the Office set, she asked him if it would be okay to send him this screenplay, and he said yes. So she emailed it to him, and he started reading it on the computer at Dwight's desk. Then he had it printed out and read more in his trailer. By the time he got 22 pages in, his hand was shaking, "And that's not a masturbation thing," says Wilson. He called Gunn and said he was in.
Liv Tyler got the movie funded.
At first, Gunn thought the movie would be Rainn Wilson plus a bunch of no-names. For the Crimson Bolt's sidekick, Libby, he wanted an "Ellen Page type," and the producers suggested asking Ellen Page to do it. Gunn was against the idea, because he thought Page would sit on it for a year and then say no. But she said yes almost immediately. And then they got Kevin Bacon to play Jacques, the villain.
But even with Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, and Kevin Bacon on board, they still couldn't get funding to make the movie.
It was only when Liv Tyler came on board as Sarah, Frank's wife, that they got funding. "In all honesty, Liv is the one who got this movie made," says Gunn. (Even so, the film only cost a total of $2 million to make. Liv Tyler's salary for playing one of the leading roles? $7,000. Everybody did this film for Scale. There's a Cheap Trick song on the soundtrack, which they got to use for free because Liv Tyler went backstage at her dad's concert and asked the band personally.)
Rob Zombie is the voice of God.
When the tentacles peel open Rainn Wilson's head and he's touched by the finger of God and he hears God talking to him? That's Rob Zombie, singer from White Zombie and director of House of 1000 Corpses.
Gunn likes the "mixture of the spiritual and the visceral" in that scene, and says the script actually calls it a "Cronenbergian" moment.
James Gunn has had his brain touched by the finger of God too.
"I had the finger of God touch my brain one time," Gunn told us in the roundtable interviews, while munching on a burger and fries. "You think I'm kidding, but that's real. So that's what that's inspired by." He didn't have tentacles peel his skull open, that part is made up, but "the finger of God came through the roof and touched my brain. That part's real."
He says that he's been having "spiritual experiences" since he was a little kid. He recommends reading a 1904 book called The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, and says that some people have a thing in their brain that makes them have weird religious encounters. "Whatever it is, I have it."
Super is "not really a superhero movie, it's about a guy who's on a spiritual quest," Gunn says.
This film was made at lightning speed
Super had 24 days of filming. Most movies shoot between a dozen and 24 setups per day, but Super had 40 to 50 setups per day. Gunn choreographed the filming with military precision, so that there was hardly ever a wait for the camera to set up. "We waited on props more than we waited on camera," he says. "We had to create on set what we called a culture of speed."
Gunn would memorize the shots he wanted to get in advance, so there was no dithering on set to try and figure out what he needed. His years of working with Troma gave him a "producer side" of his brain to go with the "director side," and the producer side was pushing him to get the shots quickly instead of tinkering.
But Wilson says Gunn also gave the actors room to work when there were "scenes with heartfelt dialogue for actors." He would just set up a two-shot medium shot and let the actors work and give them space. It's the rare art of "knowing what's an actor type of shot, and what's a film-maker, storyteller type of shot."
Nathan Fillion will do whatever James Gunn asks him to do
"Nathan's my good buddy, we hang out a lot," says Gunn. "Nathan would just do whatever I asked, he's my good pal."
When Gunn originally wrote Super, he pictured the role of the Holy Avenger, the religious superhero who inspires the Crimson Bolt, as being played by Bruce Campbell. But Fillion was perfect for the role. "Slither or PG Porn or this, he always brings something more than I expect to the role," says Gunn.
The Holy Avenger's costume cost more than the other costumes in the film, because it's a real costume with fake muscles. Fillion was the one who suggested that it would be awesome if he had "long Jesus hair."
All of the actors stretched themselves
Before the filming started, Rainn Wilson told Gunn, "if I do something that's a Dwight-ism, just pull me aside and say that I'm doing Dwight." There were a couple of times in the movie that this happened. Dwight has a sense of vulnerability but is an idiot, but Frank is vulnerable and won't admit it. Plus Wilson told the Super panel he enjoyed playing a character who's walking the line between "sociopath and superhero."
Meanwhile, Page felt like for years she'd been asked to play characters who are wise beyond their years and say snarky, brilliant things. Her character in Super, Libby, is the opposite - she's got the mentality of an eleven-year-old who says whatever pops into her head. She's immature and full of crazy energy. Gunn wasn't sure if Page would be able to bring it, until she did her first shot on set where she had to "crash a car into a wall, jump out of the car in her underwear in 14-degree weather, and go insane." And she totally aced it.
This is an exploitation movie with real characters who stay grounded - so it's very different than a Troma movie, where the characters and the situations are both ridiculous. "In Troma movies, the acting is usually pretty atrocious," says Gunn. "In Tromeo and Juliet, I tried to write for bad actors, so you can enjoy it for the bad acting." But in Super, he really wanted to have strong performances in the midst of his insanity.
This is an optimistic film for fucked-up people.
One of the really striking things about Super is how optimistic and beautiful it is, in spite of all the darkness and weirdness. We asked Gunn about this, and he says:
I think that one of the things that drives me and telling stories and art in general is finding the beautiful within this big mass of ugly, and so much of people especially when you live in hollywood is really ugly stuff. I guess I am an optimist in a pessimists brain, I believe in people, I believe in the innate goodness of most people in this world.
And yet I'm a damaged soul, like a lot of other people, and I have my own demons and stuff I struggle with. And so I can't be told that life is beautiful through a normal positive thinking book or through a hallmark movie. That language doesn't work for me, the language that works for me is the language of fucked up cinema and literature and comic books and stuff like that. So to find the beauty I really need to go through a darker channel. And I think there's a lot of people like that.