The Write Stuff

Master Storyteller Values Creative Process, Catch-22 and Glenn Brummer

Hollywood screenwriter Mark Gunn '89 is known for his work on Brightburn (2019), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), Bring It On Again (2004) and 2gether (2000). After SLUH, he attended College of the Holy Cross and USC, and was elected to the Writers Guild of America West Board of Directors in 2006. He is the cousin of screenwriter/director James Gunn '84, actor and political writer Matt Gunn '90, former Senior Vice President of Artisan Entertainment Patrick Gunn '86, actor Sean Gunn '92 and writer Brian Gunn '88.

In the following Q&A, Gunn talks about the creative process, his experience as a screenwriter and much more.

Can you describe your process as a writer?

I write with my cousin Brian Gunn ‘88. We have an office in Pasadena and get together weekdays from around 10 until 5 and talk. Some days we’re figuring out a story, some days we’re cracking a tough scene, some days we’re writing dialogue. But we like to be in the same room, talking it through. Right now, due to Covid, we’re each in our home offices and work over the phone. We don’t Zoom because we can’t stand looking at each other for that long.

You and Brian wrote and executive produced the recent horror movie Brightburn. Your cousin James Gunn ‘84 produced it. How did that movie come about?

Brian came into the office one day and asked what kind of person would find a baby in a meteor in their yard and decide to raise it as their own. Ma and Pa Kent got lucky – the kid turned out to be Superman! But what if the super kid wasn’t wired that way? What if he was a nightmare? Felt like the start of a horror movie to us. We wrote the script then mentioned it to James, who loved the idea. So we all went off together and made this crazy evil kid horror movie. We had a lot of fun.

What screenplay or film inspired you most? What about it spoke to you and how has it influenced your writing style?

So many. I’ll skip the usual suspects and say Escape from New York. My brothers and I watched it about 500 times when we were kids. I think what drew me to it was the mixture of humor and action and just the outrageousness of the concept. And the plot has all kinds of fun turns – something all movies should aspire to. Almost every scene is a blast. Not many movies pull that off. That said, I also love the French New Wave and four-hour documentaries about libraries, so who knows.

How did you break into the industry?

After college, I moved to L.A. to go to USC Film School. I directed a short film there that led to a fantastic job making shows at MTV. But I wanted to make movies. So Brian and I pitched MTV a movie idea that was basically Spinal Tap about boy bands. They hired us to write it, then they made it, and it even became a TV series that we were in charge of. That got us agents and other jobs and we were off to the races.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a creative? How do you overcome it?

Rejection. External and internal. We’ve written a bunch of scripts that died somewhere along the line – because a movie star changed his mind, or a studio changed its focus, or because our script just wasn’t special enough. It’s heartbreaking every time. And I’ve had lots of ideas that I thought were first rate but didn’t survive contact with execution – plots, scenes, characters. Often they seem great at first then you realize they just don’t work and you have to kill them. That hurts.

How did SLUH play a role in fostering your creativity? Was there a particular teacher or class that inspired you to think differently?

My junior year at SLUH, I took an English class with Mr. Bill George that has stayed with me. He taught us Catch-22 and Grapes of Wrath, which I loved, but the class culminated in Macbeth. It blew me away. It was the first time I felt like I understood not just Shakespeare, but literature. It showed me what storytelling could do, how it could change the way you see the world around you.

Has your St. Louis or SLUH background found its way consciously or unconsciously into any of your screenplays?

What I remember most about SLUH is the swaggering, sarcastic, brainy sense of humor. When I write a joke somewhere deep inside me I’m still trying to make my classmates laugh. I also did a lot of theater at SLUH, both stage crew and acting. The swashbuckling fun of putting on a show infected me. As for St. Louis, Brian and I get a kick out of naming characters after former Cardinals players. Glenn Brummer and Tom Lawless forever.

Do you have any advice for current SLUH students who are interested in pursuing a career as a screenwriter or filmmaker?

Write. Then rewrite. And finish what you start. I remember writing my first screenplay after college and thinking once I typed “The End” that was it, it was ready to become a movie that would play at the Des Peres 14 Cine. So wrong. It was terrible. So write and rewrite a lot. And write a lot of different things. Don’t settle on one idea as THE idea that’s going to change everything for you. You can’t know that. Just continue writing new stuff. You’ll keep getting better, I promise. Applies to directing, too.

Do you have any upcoming projects you could talk about?

We’re in the early stages of a streaming series with Orlando Bloom. It’s an adventure story full of puzzles and secret codes and undead pirates. And we’re about to start a movie based on a comic book where a group of thieves execute a heist during a giant monster attack on Miami. Kinda like Ocean’s Eleven with Godzilla. It’s going to be fun to write. Plus other stuff I can’t talk about.

Outside of your profession, what are some of your favorite hobbies and interests?

I spend too much time playing MLB The Show on my son’s PS4. Always as the Cardinals. And, well, I spend too much time obsessing over the Cardinals. But my number one hobby – and my greatest skill, not to brag – is embarrassing myself in front of my children.

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