Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana on the Atlanta set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. We visited in April 2016. All Images: Marvel/Disney

The excitement for the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie has been palpable. But when the sequel begins, that enthusiasm is strictly in the audience. As we learned on the set of the movie, things are not going smoothly for Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes places just a few short months after the end of the first movie. After defeating Ronan and saving the galaxy, the Guardians are pretty happy with themselves, very cocky, and extremely famous around the galaxy. It’s very volatile place to be. “They’re like a garage band with one hit record,” said Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. They’re hired to help a proud race called the Sovereign but when Rocket betrays and offends their leader, Ayesha, she sets her sights on killing the Guardians.

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But as we learned on April 22, 2016—day 50 of the film’s shooting—we learned that Ayesha’s vendetta is not the focus of Vol. 2. Instead, it’s all about family: Star-Lord and his biological father, Ego, the Living Planet (Kurt Russell); Star-Lord and his surrogate father, the Ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker); the contentious relationship between stepsisters Gamora and Nebula; and more. “The first film is about becoming a family,” said writer-director James Gunn. “The second film is about being a family.”

The Guardians meet the Sovereign at the start of Vol. 2.

Although Gunn revealed Star-Lord’s father’s identity at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, on set it was a closely guarded secret—Russell’s chair even had the name J’Son on it, the Spartoi alien who is Star-Lord’s father in the comics. But despite the original secrecy shrouding Russell’s character, Gunn wants everyone to know the important part is the character’s relationship to his son, not his identity.

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“It’s not about this big reveal of who the father is,” said Gunn. “It really is about the story between the different characters.” (We’ll have more on Russell in a couple weeks.)

Chris Pratt as Star-Lord on the set.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was shot all around Atlanta, Georgia, along wth Pinewood Studios Atlanta (which is kind of Marvel’s unofficial home base, having hosted Ant-Man, Civil War, Guardians 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and now Infinity War ), a small town called Cartersville, and the former Atlanta Convention Center, near the airport, which is where they were shooting during our visit—on a set that looked uncannily like a disco.

Huge beads of LED lights hung from the ceiling, forming a square of orange and red. Inside, on a set that you had to wear booties to walk on, was Ego’s ship—basically a bunch of huge white ovals, set up to just barely resemble the outline of a ship, with that orange light shining in through it (see the next photo). Despite its disco-esque aesthetics, the set was representing the forest planet of Berhert, where Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) go to meet Ego and Mantis. “This is what happens when the Guardians go on vacation,” said Zoe Saldana. “You know, we decide to go on a retreat for a weekend and it ends up being much more interesting than what we were imagining.”

The three characters entered the ship. Ego seemed happy to see them, but the Guardians did not seem happy to be there. Pratt had a very worried look on his face as he enters the ship and was greeted by his father. Meanwhile, blaring on speakers all throughout the stage was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

Writer/director James Gunn talks to Pratt in Ego’s ship on the set of Vol. 2.

Of course, this is a song from Vol. 2 of the Awesome Mix Star-Lord’s mom gave her son, which he opened at the end of the first film. Outside of Russell’s character’s identity, the track listing was the second most highly guarded secret on set. “There’s never a moment that the music isn’t justified and isn’t a part of the storytelling process,” said Pratt. “It’s not just an accompaniment or a score. The songs, more so in this movie [than in the first], really help tell the story.”

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Gunn added that, because Peter got this tape when he was older, it’s a more mature mix. “The soundtrack is an evolution from the soundtrack to the first movie,” he said. “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 [got] slightly more complex songs.”

Cast members raved about Gunn playing the songs during filming to get them into the right mindset, a practice that carried over from the first film. And though no one would give up any other tracks (Gunn did tease a couple of “enormous” songs, as well as “songs that are almost completely unknown”) we did hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” playing during a scene we weren’t allowed to watch.

Gamora has a big ass gun at some point in the film.

Outside of the themes of family, much of the talk about the movie itself was about the look of the film and character dynamics. “There’s a conscious return to pulp and getting a greater sense of getting pulp from all areas,” said Gunn. “But everything from ‘50s Amazing Stories covers to the ‘60s stuff that you can see in that ship, it’s very ‘60s-inspired. A lot of almost Ralph Bakshi-inspired, Yes album cover-inspired stuff.”

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This was clear in the concept art we saw of various new planets, that looked like something out of a Bollywood music video, drippy and bright and crazy. Gunn is pushing the weird, scifi angle much more in Vol. 2. “I was scared last time,” he admitted. “And this time I’m not really scared because I know that people want to go see the movie. 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.”

The Guardians will get a few new members in Vol. 2. Here Michael Rooker’s Yondu and Karen Gillan’s Nebula join Pratt, Saldana and Drax.

“One of the things I think makes James so special as a writer/director is for as fun as it is, for outrageous as it is, characters named Taserface, baby Groot, killing people and throwing them around, it is very, very emotional,” said Feige “And it’s not cynical in the least. It is very, very truthful and sort of unabashedly so, in its emotions. It’s a very special combination, that I think James is perfect for, and that’s sort of the crux of this whole movie.”

Rocket and Baby Groot.

Speaking of Taserface, the film’s secondary villain, has his arc based on the fact he wants to take over the Ravagers because they think Yondu has gone soft. (He has.) Since Groot is still just growing up after his sacrifice in the first film, now Rocket is his protector instead of the other way around. “From the moment we were shooting and animating Rocket on Groot’s shoulder [in the first film], we were saying, ‘On the next one, we’ll reverse it. Wouldn’t that be cool?’” Feige recalled. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

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Meanwhile, Gamora and Nebula will dive deeper into their backstories of how Thanos raised them (though Thanos isn’t in the movie, nor are there Infinity Stones). “I get to have a sister on screen,” Saldana said. “I don’t think many actresses can say that about the characters that they’re playing in films lately.” Meanwhile, Nebula will not only tag along with the Guardians, but be on the quest for a new arm. Then there’s Drax, who’ll bond with Mantis, Kurt Russell’s right hand.

“At the very core of Drax, he’s really just heartbroken,” said Bautista. “There’s a real innocence about Drax and I think Mantis has that as well. I think that’s probably where the connection would be the most. There’s just a very child-like innocence with both characters.”

Mantis, the right hand of Ego, will develop a strong bond with Drax.

Mantis was another relative mystery on set; how she came to be with Ego and what role she plays was largely skirted over. Even more mysteriously, Gunn hinted that Ayesha’s people, the Sovereign, could have a link to the race of Adam Warlock, one of Marvel’s most cosmic (and cult favorite) characters. “Totally possible,” he said. “They’re created in pods.”

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But they also said whatever happens in this movie, it will not be a huge jump off for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I think we’re that branch that’s really reaching out, you know? “ said Pratt. “Trying to find sunlight in space. And so that gets me really excited because I think the potential for this group of heroes is really unlimited.”

That even extends to the film’s post-credits scenes. “I don’t think the fate of the Marvel universe is gonna be after the credits,” Gunn joked. “Don’t wait for that. Wait for stupid shit.”

Zoe Saldana gets in the action the Atlanta set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Gunn may call it “stupid shit,” but we suspect what he really meant was “fun shit.” Despite how unknown the characters were, the first film became one of Marvel’s most beloved hits because it was something no one expected. And everyone making the movie feels the only way to do that again is to play with audience expectations. “The pressure we’re feeling now is, how do we do the same thing in terms of wowing an audience, getting people to come in and have their expectations defied?” asked Pratt. “To come in expecting one thing, not knowing what they want but getting what they want, you know?”

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“I think there’s a trap a lot of sequels fall in,” continued Gunn, “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 is our [new] ‘We are Groot’ moment?’ And then I’m like, screw all of that. This is its own thing... 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. And mostly just in terms of the story, the characters hopefully being something that’s a little deeper than the first one movie.”

At least we can all expect the Guardians to eventually battle Thanos, the most evil entity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe... eventually. “All in due time, my friend,” promised Pratt.

* Correction: We screwed up the name of the song played on set a few times. But James Gunn himself confirmed on Facebook it was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” That change has been made.


Note: Disney paid for io9/Gizmodo’s travel to Atlanta to report this piece.