James Gunn '84 Directs Blockbuster Sequel
James Gunn '84 Directs Blockbuster Sequel

The following article by Calvin Wilson was published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 27, 2017.

Not so long ago, writer-director James Gunn was best known for his debut feature, "Slither" (2006). A horror flick more ardently embraced by critics than audiences, it nonetheless marked the St. Louis native as a filmmaker to watch. His follow-up film, "Super" (2010) — a comedy about a costumed, bumbling vigilante — struggled to connect with moviegoers. But its title proved to be prophetic.

With the phenomenally successful 2014 release of "Guardians of the Galaxy," Gunn made the transition from independent filmmaker to mastermind behind a Marvel superhero franchise.

Based on one of the studio's more obscure comic-book properties, the film about a scrappy band of spacefaring outcasts — including an anthropomorphic raccoon named Rocket and a treelike character whose dialogue was comically limited to "I am Groot" — scored big at the box office and to date has grossed more than $773 million worldwide.

"Guardians" also boosted the film career of Chris Pratt, whose most high-profile role had been as the irrepressibly goofy Andy Dwyer on the sitcom "Parks and Recreation," into the stratosphere.

A sequel was inevitable, and fans of the original will be delighted to learn that Gunn is still at the helm. "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" opens Friday in St. Louis.

In addition to Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, the returning cast includes Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Dave Bautista as Drax, with Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel providing the voices of Rocket and Baby Groot respectively. The quirky characters won over moviegoers looking for something different.

Gunn — a St. Louis University High School graduate who studied English and psychology at St. Louis University and earned a master's degree in creative writing from Columbia University in New York — says he began scripting the sequel while shooting its predecessor.

"I came up with what the basics of the plot were and then just started filling it out from there," he says. One of his priorities was coming up with a story that wasn't merely a variation on what had been successful the first time around.

"A lot of sequels make things just slightly different, so that it's sort of a bad Xerox of the first film," Gunn says. "But I allowed the characters to change. I just wanted to be as authentic and true to those characters as possible and get to know them in a more intimate way."

As one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" faces pressure to perform at the box office in a way that the original didn't. Gunn says that although he's well aware of the sizable buzz, he didn't allow commercial considerations to influence his creative process.

"I don't think I'm too affected by people's expectations," he says. But one of the perks of making the sequel was the certainty that it's "going to have an audience."

"With the first movie, there was a fear that no one would see it and that it would be Marvel Studios' first flop," Gunn says. "Not knowing what was going to happen brought a lot of stress.

"I'm a show-business guy," he says. "I like having an audience. So knowing that we were creating a movie for an audience all over the world — who love these characters and want to see what happens to them next — made it a much more pleasant experience."

Marvel has frequently been cited as a studio that impinges on the creative freedom of directors. Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") walked away from "Ant-Man" after spending years on the project. Joss Whedon, who directed "The Avengers," reportedly clashed with Marvel over certain scenes in "The Avengers: Age of Ultron." And Ava DuVernay ("Selma") declined to take the reins of the studio's "Black Panther" flick, which is being directed by Ryan Coogler ("Creed").

But Gunn says that Marvel has been nothing but supportive of his approach to the "Guardians" franchise.

"I've been very fortunate," he says. "The success of the first film, and how unique it was in comparison to a lot of other superhero movies out there, was something that allowed Marvel to have faith in me to take my own path with the second one."

Indeed, Gunn says he enjoyed even more creative freedom on "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" than he had on his independent films — partly because of the financial resources afforded to him. With Marvel behind him, just about anything he conceives can be achieved.

"It's been a strange situation," he says, "being able to fully utilize my imagination."