JAMES GUNN
interview by insane wayne chinsang
illustration by debbie

WRITER OF SCOOBY-DOO, THE SPECIALS, AND TROMEO & JULIET.

Wayne: You started your film career with Tromaís Tromeo & Juliet, followed up with your own project, The Specials, and are now doing blockbuster films like Scooby-Doo. Tromeo and Scooby seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum--

James: I think of them as very similar, actually. When youíre writing a movie for Troma you have to fit within a certain format. You have to have a certain amount of gore scenes, a certain amount of lesbian scenes, etc. And itís not so different when youíre writing a studio film. Thereís a certain format to it. But I think there is artistry within both forms. When I was writing The Specials, I was writing more of exactly what I wanted to write. But with both Tromeo and Scooby, I was taking something that wasnít mine and making it my own.

W: Along the lines of that, with the cartoon version of Scooby there were tons of references made: drugs, Velmaís questioned sexuality, etc. And I read that when you were doing the script you definitely wanted to include those elements in the movie. How much leverage did Warner Brothers give you?

J: Initially, they gave us a lot of leverage. I met with the toy people after the very first draft, and they said, ďLetís make it a PG-13 movie.Ē I thought that was great, but it seemed weird that they were letting me do that. So I could do whatever I wanted, initially. But then, little by little, things changed.

W: What is something they said, ďAbsolutely not,Ē to?

J: I remember Velma called Scooby a ďmoronĒ at one point. (laughs) I donít even think of that as being bad, but people flipped out over it.

W: Were you a Scooby fan as a kid?

J: Yeah. I was a huge Scooby fan as a kid.

W: Scooby is such an established character in cartoons. I read on your site that when the first draft of the script came out, die-hard Scooby fans were very upset about it.

J: Oh Christ. (laughs)

W: Were you hesitant going into it that you might fuck it up?

J: I was hesitant because I wasnít sure if it could be an interesting movie. But I talked with my wife, and we came up with the idea that we could make it a real supernatural occurrence that these guys are facing. That was the thing that turned me on and made me want to try it out. Initially, I wanted to make the movie really scary, but I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never written a movie that wasnít rated R. But I wanted the movie to be scary as shit. (laughs) I love the idea of a talking dog facing demons from Hell. And it started off being much more like that. But one of the things that got cut out of the film was any reference to anything spiritual.

W: Really?

J: Yeah. The Christian Right,.. thereís a very small amount of them, but theyíre very vocal. With the test screenings we got a lot of feedback saying we were going to burn in Hell. So we had to go through the whole movie and change things. Like the monsters in the movie are now called ďcreatures,Ē but they were originally called ďdemons.Ē So we had to go back in the movie and dub everybodyís voice over, and change it to ďcreatures.Ē Also, when the souls are coming out of the characterís bodies, we had to change the word ďsoulĒ to something like ďprotoplasmicĒ something or other. All that stuff had to go. A small amount of parents freaked out about that, but a large amount of people freaked out on anything sexual. However, we didnít have a single problem with any drug reference, gore, or violence. We had problems with the MPAA on those issues, but never with parents.

W: Isnít it funny that people have no problem with violence or drugs, but anything religious is out of the question? The Christian Right seems to be around every corner.

J: Oh yeah. That, and the sexuality. I mean, people were freaking out over swimsuits. Daphneís cleavage was a huge issue, so they could only use shots that didnít show Daphneís cleavage.

W: So since Scooby did so well, and with the sequel already underway, do you think that youíll have more freedom with the second one, or will it be the same vibe?

J: Well, itís not so much a freedom issue. I just didnít know what I was getting into. But this time around, I know from the beginning that Iím writing a movie for kids. Iím so much more comfortable this time around. Iíve learned what the strengths and the weaknesses are, so Iím able to incorporate myself into that. I just love this script way more than the first one. Iím really happy the movie did really well, and there are things about the first movie I really like. But, it wasnít my favorite script by a long shot.

W: What was your favorite script?

J: Dawn of the Dead, which is now going to have to face all those same sort of things. And I wrote a script called Pure, which Iíve never had the heart to make. Those are my two favorite scripts thus far.

W: What is Pure about?

J: Pure is a love triangle between a young boy who has some mental problems, a serial killer who kills women because he thinks it helps him write better childrenís books, and a very strange young woman who is a former runaway who lives with the serial killer. Itís about those three characters and their lives.

W: Cool. (laughs) That sounds right up your alley. Letís go back to Troma for a minute. You had such a hand with Tromeo & Juliet because you wrote, directed, acted, etc. And with the bigger projects, like Scooby, you concentrate on only one specific area. First, are you a control freak?

J: Yeah.

W: Do you miss being able to control all those aspects?

J: Well, Iíve got three movies right now: Scooby 2, Dawn of the Dead, and a romantic comedy at Warner Brothers called The Newlyweds. And these are all movies that I like, and Iím finishing my commitment to them. But then Iím going to take time off and make my own movie exactly the way I want to make it. Because doing only one thing wears on you after awhile. Itís fun in the same way, but Iím a social person, so I go a little nuts being locked up all the time. But thatís all the more reason to go out and direct something.

W: Do you like directing more than writing?

J: No. I love writing. I just canít spend all my time writing. I go stir crazy.

W: Do you like acting more than either directing or writing?

J: No. Acting is really fun to me, but I donít think of it as a calling. If I was never able to write or direct anything again, Iíd be pretty bummed out. But if I was never able to act,.. Iíd be sad, but no big deal.

W: I read on your site that there were a ton of problems on the set of The Specials, and that you lost more friends than you gained. Why the bad chemistry?

J: I was very poor at the time. I moved out to L.A. and was living in Jamie Kennedyís guest house. Jamie and I are both very volatile personalities, and there were many a screaming match between the two of us. Basically, the foursome that got The Specials made was me, Jamie, Craig Mazin (director), and my brother Sean. We all had very different ways of looking at everything, and there was a lot of yelling and screaming going on. I rarely talked to Craig throughout the shooting of The Specials. I just didnít agree with the direction for the most part.

W: Did it turn out the way you wanted it to?

J: Absolutely not.

W: What should it have been?

J: It should have been more real; more grounded. There are many things in it that are rather staged to me. And it could have been faster paced. But I never like anything. (laughs) I mean, I like my novel pretty much. And there are scenes in Tromeo & Juliet that I fucking love more than anything. There are moments in Tromeo & Juliet that are 100% successful in terms of what I was trying to do. But The Specials was really my baby on paper. And I loved it being that way. I almost regret ever having made it, to tell you the truth.

W: Is your script still intact?

J: Yes. Rarely would anyone say a word that wasnít from my script. But it wasnít that. It was just that,.. there were things that looked like a sitcom in the movie. I donít hate the movie, and Craig put his heart into it, and thatís great. And there are some really great performances in the film. But I just have some control issues. When Iím writing something for somebody else, itís much different. Like Iím writing Scooby 2 now for Raja (Gosnell) to direct. Itís Rajaís thing. I like Raja a lot, he has a lot of strengths, and Iím playing to those. Itís a much different situation. But The Specials was a little different than that. Anything I have problems with is my own fault. The truth is, I was a pretty big bastard to begin with. I came from Troma, where there was a lot of screaming and craziness going on. I came out to Hollywood and thought thatís the way everybody was out here; but theyíre not. I alienated myself from certain people, and it was rough going.

W: All of your brothers are in entertainment as well, correct?

J: Yep. I have brothers out here, and then my other brother is in entertainment in New York.

W: How is it that all of you ended up in entertainment? Did one person lead the way?

J: I wouldnít really say one person lead the way. I think different people took different steps. I started making movies when I was very young. That affected my brothers. But Sean went to acting school, Matt went into filmmaking in college, Patrick was the first one who was working professionally in the industry on the business end of things, and Brian was writing. So really, someone would take one step, and then someone else would take it a little further. I really think our personalities decided that we would end up in the entertainment industry. You hear about other families that are competitive with athletics or academics. With our family it was always about who could make the other person laugh the hardest.

W: Is working with relatives nice?

J: With Sean, itís always been great. Our talents are very different. And Iíve worked with Brian on something, but it ended up not happening. And Iím always talking to my other brothers about doing something else. I think it would be hardest with Patrick, because heís on the financial end of things.

W: You have a large comic book influence, and youíve stated that you are really into The Watchmen by Alan Moore.

J: Yeah. I couldnít have written The Specials and not admit that it was because of Alan Moore. The Specials is really just the comedic version.

W: The Watchmen has been considered the bible of comics.

J: It is the bible. It starts off seeming like a gimmick, but in the end it is an amazing story. It doesnít get any better. Alan Moore is amazing; League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, and Top 10, which is over now, but it was one of the best series in a long time.

W: What other titles do you read?

J: I pretty much read any underground comics that come out. And then I read most of the more mainstream books, like 100 Bullets; anything by Brian Azzarello I like a lot. But I have a big thing in my heart for a lot of the underground comic artists, like Renee French.

W: Yeah. We interviewed Renee a while back.

J: Oh, man, sheís fucking amazing. I wish she would do more, but everything she does is perfect.

W: What is your opinion on this second birth of comic movies?

J: I think itís great. Truth is, I think itís purely a special effects thing. Ten years ago you couldnít have put out a superhero movie and have it look real, because there is always such a fantasy element to it. When you read a comic book, a guy wearing a mask isnít literally a guy wearing a mask. Heís more like the symbol of a guy wearing a mask. But with a movie like Spider-Man, theyíre able to do it now. And I think thatís great. I think Spider-Man is a great movie, and Iím excited about The Hulk. But Iím really interested to see if any of these other movies make it. Historically itís always been the same thing: If you put out a superhero movie with a superhero who everyone knows, itís usually a big hit. Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk,.. theyíre all going to be big hits. But when the second-string guys come around, like Daredevil, itís going to be interesting to see what happens.

W: I heard about a Silver Surfer script.

J: Yeah. When I first wrote The Specials I was offered every single fucking superhero movie you could imagine. From Silver Surfer to Fantastic Four, which got handed to me five times. And that was funny to me because The Specials wasnít truly about superheroes. Someone even wanted me to create an Aquaman TV series. I was just like, ďI donít know, man.Ē (laughs)

W: (laughs) Yeah. Thatís when it turns scary. Tell me a little bit about your novel, The Toy Collector.

J: I was writing at Columbia University, and I wanted to write a novel just to do it. I would get a few chapters done, really love them, and then they would just die. Iíd hit a wall; nothing was grabbing me. So I started to write little stories. They were essentially just prose poems. They would start out being 12 to 15 sentences, and they were about me and my friends, for the most part. And they just started growing. It was like a disease. They kept getting bigger and longer, and I would write them more and more. Eventually they became The Toy Collector. It was not intended to be a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was just all these different moments. At one point I started getting into the toy stuff, and it really started to grab me. So I just kept going in that direction.

W: With that novel it was different. But would you approach another novel differently than you would a screenplay?

J: To me itís different, because thereís more math to writing a screenplay. And I find that quite reassuring, because it is something that takes a lot more logic. A novel seems a little more dependent on inspiration.

W: You seem obsessive compulsive.

J: Iím definitely obsessive compulsive.

W: Me too. I can spot my own. (laughs) So do you like doing screenplays because there is form and a path?

J: Yeah. Thatís probably true. But I am a binge writer, too. Iíll write for 15 hours a day for a few weeks at a time, and then not do anything for a couple weeks. But Iím changing. I notice that as I get older, the business part of it takes a little bit more of a hold. Iíve started to live a little bit more of a normal life. Iím working more regular hours.

W: Does your work encompass you?

J: To some degree. There are so many times I miss the freedom of doing something just for its own sake. Itís going to be hard to have that again. Like with my novel. I didnít write it to make money; I wrote it because I had to write. Even when I was at Troma, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to. And still, there will be moments when Iím working for the studios, and Iíll be really depressed about something, and Iíll write Lloyd (Kaufman - Head of Troma) a message saying Iíll take a 99% pay decrease to come back to Troma.

W: Yeah. But the thing that keeps freelance people going is that it could be worse; they could have day jobs.

J: But so much of it ends up being like a day job. But I like my life; I like the opportunity to be able to create stuff no matter what. I try to not complain all the time, because there is a lot of freedom in all of this. I hate the Hollywood writer/actor complaining thing. It gets old. Because I have a choice here. Iím choosing to write the stuff I write, and I can always back out and do something else.

W: Are there a ton of politics and drama in the business?

J: Thereís a lot of drama, and people have a lot of complaints about Hollywood and the way itís run. How itís corrupt, phony, and not artistically supportive.

W: Why donít they get real jobs then?

J: Why did they get in the fucking movie business anyway? Youíre making a movie for millions of dollars. The real artists are out there drawing comic books. You look at someone like Renee French, who is out there spending countless hours drawing these wonderful works of art that very few people see, that donít make much money; thatís art to me. Like Dave Cooper or Bob Fingerman. These guys make awesome stuff.

W: And they make next to nothing.

J: I know. Even the superhero guys donít make anything, comparatively. So, why are you making movies? Movies are a totally different type of art form; itís popular. Even if you go to the truly ďindependentĒ film guys, even they have one eye on how the audience is going to react to their film; if it's going to sell. Itís a financial medium. And thatís part of what it should be. Movies are about enjoying the art with a large group of people; itís a communal experience. Television is the same way. But if people are going to complain about it, they should just do something else. Now, that said, there are a lot of dickhead executives out there who are trying to justify their jobs. And I donít envy those people. Itís an extremely hard job, and quite thankless.

W: There are politics in everything. You canít escape them.

J: People are always complaining about the movie industry because of this, or religion because of that, or whatever business theyíre in because of this. But the truth is, people are political animals. People are, for the most part, very small-minded. People are, for the most part, conformists. People are, for the most part, unwilling to take risks. And thatís just something that has to do with human beings. It doesnít have anything to do with the movie industry or the comic industry or the Catholic church. Thatís just what people are. Thatís the world.

W: What can we expect to see from you in the future?

J: Well, Iím constantly playing around with novels. And Iíve got Dawn of the Dead coming up, and The Newlyweds done, which is the romantic comedy done in a Preston Sturges style. Heís one of my favorite filmmakers. So itís done in a fucked-up Preston Sturges style.

W: No. From you? (laughs)

J: (laughs) Yeah. And then Iím going to decide what I want to direct after those things are through. My wife is directing me in a movie right now called Lollilove. Itís about a young couple who decide they really need to do some charity work and give their many awesome talents to some poor disenfranchised group of people, so they choose the unsuspecting homeless as their victims. The guy I play fancies himself an artist, so he creates these wonderful lollipops, and they decide to give them out on the boardwalk in Santa Monica. My wife has outdone me 20 times over in offensive script. It makes The Toy Collector seem like a Disney movie.

W: (laughs) Alright, hereís the last question: According to your bio on imdb.com you have a dog named Aubrey.

J: Sheís dead. (laughs) She was my total heart, but she died last year after a long struggle with a liver disease. I had to feed her through a syringe six times a day.

W: Iím so sorry. (laughs)

J: No, thatís alright. I think about it all the time.

W: Well, I was going to ask you if Aubrey had lips, but--

J: Absolutely. They have black lips. Thereís no doubt about it.

W: The argument started a while back with friends, and the group was split. So we decided to start asking people we interview.

J: Well, I think I can say as an absolute fact, that anyone that says dogs donít have lips is a total fucking asshole. (laughs)

W: (laughs) And I can say as an absolute fact, that Iím glad I can quote you on that.

VISIT JAMES AT HIS WEBSITE.