Last year, we headed to Shepperton Studios to watch James Gunn film Marvel's first real space adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. And we did not expect to get quite as excited as we did. Here's what we saw, and why it's good for our new batch of space scoundrels.
Marvel knew what they were getting when they hired Gunn. The first glimpse of GOTG ever shown had Chris Pratt flicking off the audience (which Gunn attests was ultimately Disney's decision to use in the sizzle reel). This was a good sign.
And it was endlessly refreshing to see that Gunn's weird moviemaking style and sense of humor hadn't been lost in the production. When we spoke with Gunn (along with a small group of reporters) on the set of his film, we asked him how the initial meetings for the movie went, and Gunn shared this story of what Joss Whedon thought after he read his first draft:
"Joss was happy, but he wasn't as happy as everybody else and I was like, "Whoa, man!" And he's like, "Well, I really loved this and this is great, and the story's been cracked. But you know, I just really want there to be more James Gunn in the script. There's things that are too conventional and I want more James Gunn in it. And I was kinda sitting there and then Kevin and Lou were like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." And I was like, "Alright, your funeral." Then I went home and I swear to God, I went home and I wrote a 7-page scene where the guys are in the spaceship arguing about something and it's all dialogue, and we're about to shoot it on Friday. And they were really happy. That was a cool thing and I think it's been a unique situation where Marvel—this group of characters is ready for somebody who sees things in the way I see things. And frankly, I think people are ready to see the movie like that. So, it feels good."
Yes. More Gunn! That says so much about the banter that we've all been gleaning from trailers and footage and clips. And it's probably the one thing that really makes GOTG standout.
And yes, it's still going to have all the fun trappings of a Gunn film, including cameos from the usual band of actors he likes to pull from. Michael Rooker is playing Yondu with Sean Gunn as his sidekick (Sean was also the stand-in for Rocket, as you can see in the above picture). Plus, Nathan Fillion has a role in this picture, which had not been confirmed on this set visit.
When probed about the PG-13 rating, something Gunn hasn't really been restrained by before in Super and Slither, it seemed apparent that this didn't bother him. He was focused less on the action (although there's plenty of action) and more on the drama.
"Yeah I found that strangely it's—I haven't found any difficulty in myself going from R-rated to PG-13. Occasionally, I get a little too violent but for the most part I haven't been, and the person who censored me has been myself. I think that it is a real delicate balance. I think first and foremost, we're making an action adventure film—that's what this is. At its core it's an action adventure film. But there's also a lot of comedic elements and there's a lot of dramatic elements, which I think people are gonna be surprised to see frankly, because it really is dramatic. I think that was something that was important to me from the beginning and I think it's something that helps to ground the movie in a way."
"I think a big part of making this film is, we're making something that's so outlandish and out there with so many crazy situations, and characters and settings, that to sort of keep it anchored in the drama and the reality of these characters' emotional lives is the most important thing in the film. It's been a balance but it feels pretty comfortable. That said, it's still a pretty different movie. And think it's a really different movie for a tent pole, big, huge film to have as much comedy and drama as it has. I think it's very unusual."
And backing off of that "really different tent pole movie idea," the number one thing I took from my visit to the GOTG set was the focus on a new space setting. Or rather, an old space setting.
The costume department and art department all had deep hues of blues and yellow. The walls were decorated with 1970s space suits and cheeky space ads. It was channeling the space race excitement of yesteryear, but then twisting it with a bit of modern-day fun (Gamora's hair, for example, is pink ombred). This was all intended by Gunn. It's still a dark, dangerous world, but it has hits of color. And when we asked about the colors and the abandonment of the stereotypical modern-day space future, his answer was fantastic.
[On the visuals of the movie] "When Blade Runner came out and especially, even actually when Alien came out, it kind of changed how all science fiction movies were designed after that. And that was a really great thing. Now we're watching a lot of movies that are xeroxes of xeroxes of xeroxes of xeroxes of Blade Runner. The way that you can be a serious science fiction movie is by being dark and then sometimes kind of Japanese. It's just been too much stuff like that and then there's a certain sort of white look that's like the utopian science fiction, that's a completely different thing. That's gotten equally boring. "
"I really wanted to keep the grittiness of those movies because I like that. I like the—especially in Alien, how these guys were working in outer space and what they're doing in their daily working lives. I like keeping the grittiness of it but I wanted to bring back some of the color of the 1950's and 60's. You know, pulp science fiction movies and inject a little bit more of that pulp feel into things. So, that's where I think that comes from. There's the pulp mixed with the grittiness and that's been throughout the whole movie—the beauty mixed with the ugliness."
"One of the big things that when I was Magritte's Empire of Light paintings. You know that painting where it's nighttime on the ground and day time in the air? That was one of my big guiding forces in the design of the movie, to be able to create these contrasting looks with things. The other stuff is really, it's our tie to this world, and this isn't an outer space film that takes place completely disconnected from this earth or what we've experienced ourselves. It's about a guy who came from here and the only thing he has to attach him to his home is this cassette of music and that's a really important part of the movie. I also think it's something that grounds us a little bit in our own lives, through the use of music in the movie.
Oh dear god, there are so many gorgeous spaceships on this movie. If you didn't already know, legendary science fiction artist Chris Foss helped design some of ships in this movie—as you can clearly see here in this early concept art. Production designer Charles Wood also had a huge hand in building what may be our new favorite hero ship, the Milano.
The Milano is Peter Quill's ride, and as Quill is a stunted space child of the '80s, just about everything in his ship is either channeling some sort of childhood nostalgia (troll dolls, a rubik's cube, ALF stickers). It also has this amazing '80s muscle car vibe to it. In the props department, we got to take a good look at a massive Milano chair that needed to be refurbished as Drax's tattoos kept coming off on the leather. According to props master Barry Gibbs, the leatherwork and detailing goes throughout the ship. The ship has an '80s retro feel. The cockpit is situated on top, with living quarters underneath. And while I did not get to see the Milano together as a whole, the crew did shoot with the Milano almost fully realized on the inside to highlight the design and layout of this ship, which means we may get a few great walking and talking through the ship sequences.
And as you may guessed, the Milano is also the ship with the tape deck.
The villains' ship is the Dark Astor. This is what Ronan the Accuser and Nebula cruise around in. It's about three miles long and Guardians of the Galaxy will spend a lot of time on (and around) this massive structure. Lots of action sequences take place aboard the Dark Astor, and this was a ship I actually got to see in real life. Stepping aboard the Dark Astor "flight deck," an overwhelming sense of "Holy shit, Stargate" almost knocked me over. It's a giant, floating, silver temple. This is a good thing.
Where the Milano has a human sensibility to it (because Peter Quill is a human), Ronan's ship is totally alien. Right smack dab in the middle of cold, silver temple is a massive throne. And when Ronan sits atop his throne, he stares down two giant silver towers. One to his right and one to the left, these structures (and their ancient alien hieroglyphics) are allegedly for steering the ship, somehow. It's oppressive and menacing and works for the people who are living inside of it.
In addition to the Dark Astor, Ronan also has a fleet of thousands of Necrocrafts. So yeah, when he wants to destroy an alien city, he destroys an alien city.
Guardians of the Galaxy's tech heralds the return to janky space gadgetry. The whole host of GOTG props looked like it was cobbled together from space parts, and some of it actually was (sort of). I was most taken by Peter Quill's blasters. They just have that old vintage space wars look, with a fun twist. It felt (almost) like seeing Han Solo's blasters up close, even though they look entirely different. While clunky, Quill's weapons have a real presence. The top barrel has a lethal charge, and the bottom barrel is a taser. The crew had to make around 16 different models of these blasters, all for different purposes. There was a model for stunt work, a model for close-up shots (with all sorts of wizardry buzzers, spinning pieces and lights), a durable model for everyday use, and a slimmer, sleeker set that wouldn't make Peter Quill look fat in his profile shots. Slimming guns!
Quill also travels around with a holographic map projector, plasma balls (which would count as a light ball), and a pair of lock pick kits. This is the Goonies kind of stuff that gets me excited.
Then of course there's the low-end stuff floating in space, a relic mixed among the space coolness. In order to give Quill a real, Sony Walkman, the props department ordered 16 different kinds from eBay (and other sites around the internet) and only 3 out of the 16 worked. They had to make their own headphones because they couldn't find any original headphones anywhere.
I also got a close look at Rocket's Hadron Enforcer (which Rocket constructs from parts of the Milano). It's almost like an atomic bomb gun, but in a controlled area. They wouldn't let me touch it, but it looked heavy for a raccoon, which is why I think I see Quill wielding it in most of the trailers.
The biggest prop made for this movie was an alien gambling table. The 21-foot table is a cross between a miniature greyhound track and a roulette wheel. Lots of moving parts, interactive lighting, steam and flame effects are firing off when the characters unwind, and I think I spotted it in action in a recent GOTG video—and it is channeling a hard Mos Eisley Cantina feel.
The Avengersmovies are great. But to be perfectly honest, I need a break. I need new people in a new place that isn't being burdened by the yoke of self-referencing the massive world Marvel has built. However, I still love the bright, vivid creatures and characters who live in the Marvel Universe. How can we get more Marvel movies without constantly having to refer to "that thing that happened over two years ago in New York?" The answer is space! This movie completely embraces the space wackiness that is the Guardians of the Galaxy comics, meaning there are SO MANY Marvel Cosmic character stomping around in the background of Knowhere.
Gunn even states that GOTG will probably have the most Marvel comics characters ever in one movie:
"We have just tons of reference to you know Marvel Cosmic throughout the movie. And I'm certain probably the most Marvel comics characters ever in one movie... without a doubt. I would imagine time four, really. If you think about The Avengers, there was a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and then all of the Avengers and then be kinda done. With us, we have—almost every little character is named after somebody in the comics. Some of them are far stretches from what they were in the comics. But we try to keep those little things in there for the fans and they can go and they can look them up and see who they are in the Marvel wiki page and stuff like that. But there's a lot of characters."
But don't get your hopes up for the Badoon, which Gunn had to change to the Sakaaran for this movie because they didn't own the name. Fox owns that name.
But if you're not familiar with the intricate world of Marvel Cosmic, that's totally OK. In fact, that's kind of the reason Gunn wanted to make this movie.
"[One] of the great things about Guardians Of The Galaxy is there aren't as many expectations on what to expect when you have The Avengers. They have 500 plus issues of comics and everybody thinks, 'Oh well this is the definitive story, or this is a definitive story, or Hawkeye's personality in issues 59 through 70 is really where he was defined.' And the truth is Hawkeye changes throughout all those issues of Avengers. I've read them all, so I know. There was a lot of different expectations on what the title should be. With this, there are a lot fewer Guardians Of The Galaxy titles to choose from. And there's a lot fewer fans in general of Guardians Of The Galaxy. Those types of expectations I think are easier with a movie like this.
Whether you're familiar or not, it's still going to be space newness. Plus, a large portion of the aliens on screen are made from practical effects. And it's jaw-dropping work.
The makeup department looked like an interstellar big-game trophy room. All sorts of various alien heads hung on the walls and were mounted on tables, including one prisoner from the Collector's vault that appeared in the end credits of Thor 2. (Edit Note: I totally touched the prosthetic face Rocket Raccoon when no one was looking. It felt like a real Racoon face).
But that wasn't even half of the new faces. I saw a Kylorian, Kree, Millwall, Bonehead, Rainer, Flocks, a "Motted Prisoner" and a Sakaaran sans its mask (which looks like the Predator if you ripped its jaw out). There was an Exolon Monk who has pointy ears and a Voldemort nose; it was overwhelming. There hasn't been filmed entertainment with this many practical alien faces in it since the Farscape series, or maybe the Nightbreed movie. Now rocket that quality up 100%, and you're dealing with what GOTG is throwing out at you.
And on top of the alien people, the audience will get to travel to all sorts of alien locations, including Zandar, which the producer called their "show-off" moment because it's teeming with loads of aliens and colors and wild structures. A lot of the Zandar footage was actually shot on London's Millennium Bridge. GOTG will also be briefly traveling to Knowhere, the space hub located inside the floating decapitated head of an ancient celestial, and the space prison called the Kyln.
The one scene that almost every cast and crew member got the most excited to talk about was set inside the 360-degree, multi-level space prison called the Kyln. At some point, the whole gang is imprisoned inside this gigantic fortress. Just discussing the shoot made Chris Pratt roll up his sleeve to reveal his goosebumps:
"There's something called the Kiln, which is another set, and there's one surreal day when we had a second called Michael. He's a guy who's worked with Stanley Kubrick, I mean he's been around for ages. You can sit and listen to this guy talk about working on movies. He's worked in the business for like 50 years. And he was doing crowd control on a hundred and sixty extras—all of whom had gone through extensive alien makeup. And we're on a set that's maybe as big as this warehouse that we're in right now, but maybe even taller. And there are prison cells all the way around, a giant tower in the middle, and there's this long—I'm getting Goosebumps [points to his arm]—there's this long crane... [It's one long shot] And I'm watching Michael, who's worked with Stanley Kubrick, directing these extras, saying, "Remember, if you can see the camera, the camera can see you! You are in a prison! You are not happy!" And then we're walking through, and there's this long, dollying crane shot that's on our backs and then lifts up and then circles around, you see a fight break out and then it pans down to a second level and you see these ominous prisoners grab someone and drag them into a cell. And then it goes down even further and you're seeing details that I don't want to give, but you'll know this shot. It was so surreal because the shot ends on my face looking around taking it all in. And then it quickly cuts out and that moment…it's been five months of moments like that. It's really, really crazy. I'm like, how much does this cost per second, I wonder?"
But James Gunn loved this place for entirely different reason:
"Oh, there's certain stuff when they were in the prison. There's a scene where Quill is in the prison asleep and he's on the floor. Have you ever watched Locked Up Abroad? Instead of sleeping in single cells, only the protected inmates are in single cells and he's in this cell with a bunch of—he's asleep with people's feet next to him and on the floor with all these people. There's a scene in there where he's just surrounded by these aliens of different types and having to snuggle up with them."
You couldn't pick a better pair to get us geeked out about a potential brawl. Karen Gillan and Zoe Saldana play Nebula and Gamora respectively. Nebula is an all-blue, completely blacked-out-eye, robot-armed killer. And Gamora is a green-skinned assassin. At some point, they will fight and we cannot wait.
Saldana shared a little on her decision to return to another science fiction role, awesomely stating that, "by playing an alien, I avoid playing someone's girlfriend here on Earth, because that's a bit of a canker sore." And she also echoed the "space misfit" theme and "dark comedy" vibe I had been feeling.
"My approach was very different than the one I had with Neytiri. I understood that for Neytiri the dehumanization of myself was absolutely crucial because these creatures, the species came with very specific requirements by James [Cameron]. In this one because it's sort of like a dark comedy, we're kind of like The Rolling Stones of the whole Marvel comics that I find so fucking appealing, we're like the ones who always fail in class but for some reason we can burn the house down, and I like that."
Meanwhile, it was kind of odd to see Karen Gillan in robotic armor with an insane headpiece get giggly off-camera. And no, Nebula won't have Gillan's original accent.
"No, I'm playing it American. We tried it in Scottish, I screen tested in a Scottish accent, but then [director] James Gunn was said 'no, I think you should just do it in American,' and I said okay."
Gillan is already wearing heels in her costume, but allegedly her boss, Ronan the Accuser is even taller.
The only sad news we have is that we didn't really see anything being filmed; it's a massive movie with loads of days for shooting, so that wasn't a real surprise. But I honestly cannot tell you if the human actors could pull off a team made up of two entirely CG creatures. It's got to be difficult, and I think that's where this movie could ultimately fail. It could be downright terrible. However, the glimpses we've seen of just dialogue between Quill and Rocket hit very, very hard.
I did manage to see one of Ronan's guards take a fake space gun shot to the chest a few times; it looked elaborately zoomy. The camera was careening in as he was getting hit. It also looked like this shot was coming from Peter Quill, who was wearing the full face mask that is his character's trademark. But let's hope Pratt doesn't spend too much hiding behind there—yes, because he's pretty. There, I said it!
Overall, this set visit got me pumped up to see the movie—and I went in having no idea what to expect. But the actors and hijinks—both in terms of look and sass—are channeling early Star Wars hard. And I think by now, we've all learned that space scoundrels are the best scoundrels. Fingers crossed for GOTG—it has everything going for it.
Full disclosure: all travel expenses were paid for by the studio.