By Philip Berk & Erin Free

“When we made Iron Man, it was this tiny movie starring Robert Downey Jr., who at the time wasn’t a big movie star,” executive producer, Jeremy Latcham, told FilmInk in 2013. “He was, ‘Robert Downey Jr., you know, that guy…’ People would say to us, ‘I can’t believe that you cast him.’ And we said, ‘At the end of the day, our only strategy is to make a good film.’ And audiences showed up.”

The chat with Latcham happened during our visit to the set of Marvel Studios’ Guardians Of The Galaxy, at Shepperton Studios, just outside of London. Back then, it was Marvel’s greatest gamble. Since the comic book giant had grabbed its destiny with both hands and set itself up as an actual movie studio – producing films based on its huge stable of superhero characters – they had worked with instantly recognisable characters. 2008’s Iron Man was indeed a huge risk, but it paid equally huge dividends, ram-raiding the box office, and setting up the cinematic bedrock for the fleet of interconnected superhero movies that would follow it.

A scene from Guardians Of The Galaxy

Films featuring Iron Man, Captain America and Thor were monster hits, and the 2012 film that pulled them all together, The Avengers, literally shifted the axis of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Based on a lesser known property, Guardians Of The Galaxy was far from a sure thing. “We started talking of it as a movie maybe six years ago,” says Jeremy Latcham, who has served as producer on Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. “At the time, Marvel had this one plan, which was to connect all the films that we were making. It was a crazy experiment in cinema, but it worked. But now we needed another plan, which was to do something different. Guardians Of The Galaxy was on the top of that list. We went ahead with this project because it’s so different, and it’s so out there.”

Unlike Iron Man and Thor, Guardians Of The Galaxy is a property that even comic book geeks have to think about for a few minutes before placing it exactly. “We liked the challenge that no one’s heard of it,” says Jeremy Latcham. “So now we have to educate audiences everywhere in the world, just like we did with Iron Man, when we did something totally new and different. Here we are, and it’s like a dream come true.” So, just who are these new characters? “They’re not the best people in the world,” the producer offers. “And I say people very loosely, because one of them is a talking tree, one is a talking raccoon, and the third is a big, green, scarified alien. They’re all pretty bad guys to begin with.”

Marvel’s original Guardians Of The Galaxy

Created by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, Guardians Of The Galaxy debuted as a team in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 in 1969, and went through a number of iterations (often crossing over with other Marvel characters such as Thor and The Avengers) before being rebooted completely in 2008. Set off-world, the title spins around the character of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, a child from Earth who has been shot off into the furthest reaches of space, where he grows into a man who is constantly out of time and place. He eventually teams up with a disparate band of hard-as-nails alien anti-heroes (lethal she-assassin, Gamora; the volatile, volcanic, hulking bruiser, Drax The Destroyer; Rocket Raccoon, a diminutive, machine gun-toting critter with a snappy line in wisecracks; and the sagely Groot, who is essentially, well, a talking tree), all of whom have an uneasy relationship with the intergalactic powers-that-be.

Taking place in a wholly different setting to the previous Marvel films, Guardians Of The Galaxy cut deeply against the grain of what the studio had done so far. Their choice of director for the project, however, was typically left-of-field. Continuing its brand practice of eschewing top-tier filmmakers like, say, Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, in favour of less obvious talents like Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2), Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Anthony & Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and even Joss Whedon (The Avengers), Marvel again picked a less bank-breaking helmer. “We wanted to do a quirky sci-fi movie, so we needed to hire somebody who could help us do that,” Marvel Studios’ producer and president of production, Kevin Feige, told FilmInk while doing press for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. “You have to give the filmmaker a certain amount of autonomy to deliver a vision. And with writer/director, James Gunn, it’s the same thing.”

Director, James Gunn

The writer of Zack Snyder’s 2004 zombie flick, Dawn Of The Dead, and the director of the highly inventive, in-your-face gross-out 2006 horror flick, Slither, and the 2010 indie, Super, in which Rainn Wilson’s deranged, cuckolded everyman reinvents himself as a psychopathic superhero, James Gunn is hardly the first person that you’d expect to see calling the shots on a big budget sci-fi actioner. But, in what could be a contemporary take on B-movie maestro, Roger Corman’s fostering of future A-players like Ron Howard, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and many others, Gunn got his start with Troma, the notorious indie company behind scabrous cult faves like The Toxic Avenger and The Class Of Nuke ‘Em High. “I started making really independent low budget B-movies, which essentially was my education in learning how to make films,” the director told FilmInk on the Guardians Of The Galaxy set. Like Roger Corman’s protégés before him, Gunn’s beginnings in the cinematic gutter may have served him well for the world of blockbusters.

He might look like a film student in his mid-twenties, but the 43-year-old filmmaker eventually turned out to be one of Marvel’s greatest off-screen superheroes. “Marvel believed that I could make a big tentpole movie with a lot of heart and a lot of uniqueness about it,” Gunn says. “I’ve actually known the guys at Marvel for a few years. My name has come up on other things, and they’ve talked to me about other projects. But for me to do something, I need to feel it with my heart. So when they came to me with Guardians Of The Galaxy, I went home and thought about it, and realised that I could really be of use to this movie. This was a movie that I could make, maybe not better than anybody else, but differently than anybody else. So I pursued it pretty heavily. I storyboarded the whole opening sequence, and did a lot of different things, and then they hired me.”

James Gunn on the set of Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Producer, Jeremy Latcham, was quick to support Marvel’s latest directorial casting decision. “James Gunn is the perfect director for this film,” he told FilmInk on the set. “We met a lot of guys, but right away, James just clicked as if he was genetically engineered in a lab to make this film. It’s really crazy how he just fit in. It helped that he loves our movies, and that he loves our universe. He came in with this full breadth of knowledge of characters that he had followed over the years. It was really exciting.”

A comic book fan since his youth, Gunn is like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to Guardians Of The Galaxy. “Working with Marvel has been great,” the director says. “I learned to read by reading comic books. I’ve read Marvel comic books since I was five-years-old, and I continue to read them to this day. When I came on this movie, I had heard that Marvel could be pretty tough, but because I plan things out ahead of time and know what I’m doing every step of the way, they’ve given me tons of freedom. When they read my first draft, they said, ‘We really like it. The only thing that it needs is more James Gunn in there.’”

James Gunn on the set of Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Taking what appeared to be such a big risk on James Gunn came at a time when Marvel was itself at a crossroads. While it rode wildly but with laser-focus precision on its “new kid on the block” status, boldly taking the game to studios with far greater experience in the making and marketing of event movies, Marvel is now a part of the firmament. And when you’re part of the firmament, that’s when the cracks start to show. The studio had a very public falling out – over issues of money and creative control – with actor, Edward Norton, who starred in their 2008 film, The Incredible Hulk, and but was eventually replaced by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers. Iron Man 2 star, Mickey Rourke, meanwhile, accused Marvel of riding roughshod over its directors. “At the end of the day, you’ve got some nerd with a pocketful of money calling the shots,” the actor told Crave Online. “[Director] Jon Favreau didn’t call the shots. I wish that he would have.” And Thor: The Dark World director, Alan Taylor, publicly voiced his dissatisfaction when a post-credits, Guardians Of The Galaxy-prompting scene was spliced into his film without his knowledge.

All of these minor flash-fires were hosed down by Marvel, but the studio continued to feel the flames licking at its heels. The studio’s TV series, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – which also locks in narratively with its big screen movies – was met with a lukewarm response from fans and critics upon its initial broadcast. Though the show has now picked up an appreciative and enduring audience into its fourth season, questions are constantly raised (even by its own cast and crew) about its inclusion within The Marvel Cinematic Universe, and why its characters and plotlines are never referenced in the big screen movies.

Similarly, Marvel’s other television deal – with streaming service, Netflix – has also had fans scratching their heads. Four of the Marvel’s grittier, more street-level properties – Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones – have enjoyed success as TV series for Netflix, with a team-up series, The Defenders, set for this year. Also tied in with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, these shows have also been ignored within the larger narrative. Then there was Marvel Studios’ infamous parting of the ways with director, Edgar Wright, who was originally in place to direct 2015’s Ant-Man. Though released after Guardians Of The Galaxy, the controversy surrounding the film certainly cast a cloud over James Gunn’s intergalactic roll of the dice.

James Gunn on the set of Guardians Of The Galaxy.

When FilmInk asked James Gunn on the set of Guardians Of The Galaxy if he was feeling any pressure from his bosses at Marvel, the director answered in the negative. “Listen, I’ve been making movies for a while now,” Gunn responds. “It’s been seventeen years, and that’s all that I’ve done for seventeen years. My mental health has been a big part of that. I’ve learned how to balance myself. I don’t allow the ups and downs of the everyday to affect my emotions. I do my best, and I put my heart into everything that I do. I expend every single ounce of my energy. I know what I’m capable of doing. And my happiness is not dependent on what somebody else thinks of me.”

How is he handling the pressure? “I’m very fortunate,” Gunn replies. “I just don’t experience things in that way. For me, it’s about making the most powerful film that I possibly can. I believe I’m right for this movie. Theoretically, it’s a bigger deal than my other movies, but at the same time, to be completely frank, it’s a lot easier. With my other movies – I made my last movie for $3 million in 24 days – I was doing fifty set-ups a day with one camera. I had talented people around me, but a lot of them were inexperienced. On this movie, I have the best professionals. I’m getting a lot of set-ups a day, and yet I’m able to take my time, composing a shot in my head, drawing it, and then turning it into something real in a way that I couldn’t have done on my other movies simply because I didn’t have the budget to create everything that was in my head. On my other movies, I couldn’t afford a crane. I’m able to breathe more now than I have in the past. It’s really nice.”

Behind the scenes on the set of Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Despite his seventeen years in the industry, FilmInk remains surprised and impressed by Gunn’s level of self-confidence. Where does it come from? “I don’t know,” he replies. “I don’t think of myself as fearless. I feel fear every day. I just don’t put a lot of stock in anything other than what I can do. And I focus on that. Here’s the thing. I’m the oldest of six kids. I was also the oldest kid in my neighbourhood. I had a bunch of little kids around me all the time, so I was a director from the first time that I can remember. I love my parents and my parents love me, and that gives you confidence, but they didn’t pay much attention to me because they had five other kids to take care of. But I had this little universe to play in as a child in which I created scenarios and stories. Directing has just been a part of my life since I was that age. The circumstances were right in my upbringing to make me who I am. I’m not the most well rounded person in the world. There are certain deficits that I have. But in terms of directing, it was a healthy upbringing.”

Despite Gunn’s undeniable confidence and passion for the project, Guardians Of The Galaxy remained a high stakes gamble, with the connections to the existing Marvel Universe extremely minimal. But according to Marvel boss, Kevin Feige, that dosed Guardians Of The Galaxy with a sense of freshness, rather than giving it a whiff of impending disaster. “Part of protecting the brand is not letting it get stale, and not letting it become a cookie-cutter, predictable thing,” he told FilmInk in 2013. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier couldn’t be more different than Thor: The Dark World, and that couldn’t be more different than Guardians Of The Galaxy. Part of protecting the brand is to be willing to take chances, and to continue to evolve.”

Marvel’s Star-Lord

Producer, Jeremy Latcham, agrees. “Part of the fun of the film, unlike other Marvel films, is that it’s set in a contemporary timeline,” he says. “Peter Quill is a kid who grew up on Earth in the eighties. He has a Walkman. He has an old JanSport backpack full of stuff which you’ll get to see through the course of the film. He’s got a real connection to Earth, and that’s the thing that we liked about the movie, grounding it to Earth in a contemporary way.”

As the central, identifying figure in the wild and woolly world of Guardians Of The Galaxy, the casting of Peter Quill was crunchingly crucial. Perhaps emboldened by their platform-building decision to cast Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Marvel once again trawled comedic waters for their leading man, ultimately coming up with the unlikely figure of Chris Pratt, who was best known for the hilarious TV series, Parks And Recreation, and for his scene-stealing, often comic, work in the likes of Moneyball, Her, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Five-Year Engagement, not to mention voicing the lead character in The LEGO Movie.

Chris Pratt as Star-Lord in Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Director, James Gunn, however, had to be sold on the actor, and it was only due to the persistence of casting director, Sarah Finn, that Chris Pratt was ultimately launched into outer space. “At the time, he was quite chubby, and I only really knew him from Parks And Recreation,” Gunn admits. “Sarah kept bringing up his name, and I was like, ‘There’s no way that he can possibly be Peter Quill! We’re not auditioning him!’ But somehow she tricked me into going in one day when he was there. He came in, and he was still very chubby. He didn’t look like a superhero at all. But then he started to read, and within a minute, I knew that he was the guy. Even if he was chubby, he was going to be perfect. He’s very buff now, of course! I wanted somebody who could bring what Robert Downey Jr. brought to Iron Man, somebody who could go beyond what was written on the page, and who could create an iconic character. We screen tested about twenty people for this role, including a lot of big actors. They were good, but they weren’t quite there. With Chris, it was just fated to be.”

Though Chris Pratt has been in fit, shredded shape before (he’d trained extensively to play a Navy Seal in Zero Dark Thirty), when he first met James Gunn, he’d just finished playing a sad, despondent, overweight loser in the Vince Vaughn comedy, Delivery Man (“If you wear your insides on the outsides, it helps with the character,” Pratt says. “I was almost 300 pounds. I was fat. And it wasn’t good”), and he himself thought that his considerable bulk would prevent him from playing a superhero. “I was depressed and felt like shit,” Pratt candidly told FilmInk on the Guardians Of The Galaxy set. “My new year’s resolution had been to lose weight, and by the time I met the folks at Marvel, I’d lost maybe ten pounds, but I was sure that I was too fat to play the character. I was mulling over all the reasons not to meet them, but then I took the plunge and met with James, and the audition went really well. And through the course of subsequent auditions and test scenarios, I was slowly losing weight. By the time I went to the final screen test, I was about 270 pounds.”

Chris Pratt as Star-Lord in Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Though they loved his auditions, James Gunn and the Marvel top brass were still concerned about Pratt’s weight. Thanks to the internet, however, they were given a taste of what the actor could look like if he put his mind – and body – to it. “They had seen this revealing selfie that I’d taken during Zero Dark Thirty of me in my underwear, which my brother had put out there so people could know what good shape I was in,” Pratt laughs. “And in this age now of Google-searching people instead of looking at an 8 x10 with a resume on the back, that’s what they ended up seeing. And they said, ‘We know that you can do this. How long will it take you to get in shape? You have six months.’ And I was like, ‘Oh man, I know that I can do it in six months!’ It became my job to get in shape.”

And though his character is an intergalactic adventurer, Pratt found that the best way to play him was to bring it close to the bone. “I centered him on my own soul, and my own spirit,” the actor says of Star-Lord. “That was the root note of this character. If I didn’t do that, it would have been out of tune, because I’m not much of an actor. I have to root it on who I am, and try to play it as real as possible in every scene. Obviously, these are situations that I’ve never been in – they’re wild adventures out in space – but I try to root it in some sort of reality for myself. What’s great about this character is that he grew up in the eighties, so he probably watched Star Wars and Indiana Jones. He knows about adventure. So when he’s out in space, and he has nobody there to tell him what he’s not allowed to do, he becomes the hero that he admired as a kid, maybe even Han Solo.”

Star-Lord, Groot, Rocket, Drax, and Gamora.

Chris Pratt, however, had plenty of company in his outer space adventures, with James Gunn assembling a fascinatingly unconventional cast around him. “I was very lucky,” says the director, who was heavily involved with all of the casting decisions. “It was pretty easy getting the people that we wanted. At first, they were a little hesitant because it’s not as well-known as, say, The Avengers. After collaborating with Nicole Perlman on the script, it became something that we really felt with our hearts, and it spoke to the actors who read it. All we had to do was read them the script, but, of course, the Marvel brand helped.”

Gunn roped in heavy hitters, Benicio Del Toro (as the enigmatic Collector), Josh Brolin (as the voice of badass, Thanos), Glenn Close (“The sweetest person ever”), and John C. Reilly (“He’s so good in this”), but handed the key role of Ronan – a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe who is on the hunt for Star-Lord, who has stolen a mysterious orb with extraordinary power – to busy actor, Lee Pace, who has appeared in The Hobbit, Lincoln, and The Twilight Saga. “Lee actually auditioned for Star-Lord,” says Gunn. “Even though he obviously didn’t get the part, he was really good. So when we started talking about who was going to be Ronan, we screen-tested people until Lee came in, and he stole it.”

Lee Pace as Ronan The Accuser.

As the rag-tag team of fellow space adventurers that help Star-Lord flee the clutches of Ronan and save the universe, Marvel pulled in action blockbuster sure thing, Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek), to play the deadly Gamora, and WWE superstar, Dave Bautista, to essay the violent, revenge-driven Drax The Destroyer. “He’s a professional wrestler,” says James Gunn. “That’s not the guy that I would have thought of for this role. But he came in and he got the role, not because of his physicality, which is amazing, but because he’s got this accessibility to these raw emotions that’s very rare, and a comedic timing that’s unbelievable.”

The sense of risk that reverberates through the entire project resounded with even greater fervour when it came to two of the film’s most out-there characters. If the Vin Diesel-voiced Groot, a treelike humanoid, wasn’t enough, there’s also Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon boasting Bradley Cooper’s sassy dulcet tones and ripping sense of comic timing. “I love Rocket,” says James Gunn. “Rocket is a raccoon who was once a little animal which people took apart and then put back together. When I first got this movie, I was like, ‘There’s a talking raccoon in it?’ I didn’t want it to be like Bugs Bunny in the middle of The Avengers. How can you make this character real? That was the challenge. We made him a sad little guy who’s very funny, but also very difficult. He’s the only one of his type in the world. And like a lot of us, he feels alone.”

Marvel’s most unusual suspects…The Guardians Of The Galaxy.

It was this kind of thinking, and this unusual sense of focus, that ensured that Marvel’s biggest gamble actually paid off. Like all of their hits, Guardians Of The Galaxy was made by people who wanted to temper the action with an honest-to-god sense of nuance and storytelling. “I really enjoy character stuff,” James Gunn told FilmInk. “I love directing big action sequences and putting those together, but there needs to be character and emotion. That’s the stuff that I care about the most in a movie. That’s what I bring more of, and that’s why they hired me.”

It was a bold but sure-footed move from Marvel Studios. Guardians Of The Galaxy was a smash hit; this week’s highly anticipated Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 has been getting early raves; and James Gunn has now announced that he will return for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, which will be a key part of Marvel’s fourth phase of superhero epics, which will kick off after the (apparently) epoch-ending fourth, as-yet-untitled Avengers movie in 2019. Like all of their big-game gambles (such as last year’s ambitious, psychedelically in-your-face Doctor Strange), Guardians Of The Galaxy proved a gilt-edged winner for Marvel Studios.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is released on April 25.

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