Making Things Super
James Gunn and Rainn Wilson Go to Extremes Crafting a Superhero Satire
During Emerald City Comicon at the end of March, writer and director James Gunn (Slither) and Seattle’s own Rainn Wilson of “The Office” fame were in town to talk about their real life superhero satire Super. During the roundtable discussion the duo tackled every question thrown their way, showing an affable give and take rapport that was nearly as engaging as the violently entertaining movie itself.
Rainn Wilson as The Crimson Bolt in Super © IFC Films
“James and I had this discussion,” comments Wilson. “[Super] may be a megahit or maybe no one will see it, but we don’t really care because we made the movie that we really wanted to make and we’re thrilled. Eventually people will see it.”
“Yeah, this is the second film I’ve directed and it feels really good because I like [it] a lot,” states Gunn “It’s an in-your-face movie. It’s not 100-percent for everybody, but I feel good about it and I know the other people that helped me create it do, too. So it just feels cool. It’s like being honest with your girlfriend.”
The movie concerns itself with a down on his luck short order cook named Frank (Wilson) whose ex-addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) has left him for a fast-talking drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). After watching a religious television program featuring a divine superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) the devastated everyman is struck with divine inspiration to become a masked crusader for justice, renaming himself The Crimson Bolt. Along the way the pipe wrench wielding hero picks up his own sidekick, a pint-sized comic book store clerk nicknamed Boltie (Ellen Page), the two joining forces to fight crime and reunite Frank with Sarah.
As convoluted as it all sounds, the script itself came together fairly quickly for Gunn, even if actual production took a heck of a lot longer. “I’ve been walking around telling people the wrong date,” the director admits, “but finally I went back into my computer and looked it up. I wrote the whole script in one day, on April 2, 2002. The first draft was only 57 pages long. I wrote 57 pages in one day.”
“Here’s the interesting thing. Some of the scenes, I wish had done this when we did the DVD commentary, but some of the scenes, like the scenes with [Rainn] and Ellen in the garage, that’s exactly the same as the first day I wrote it. Not a single line changed from what’s on screen. It was weird.”
Frank is one of the more complicated characters Wilson has ever been asked to play. Whether he is a hero or he is a psychotic is often up for debate, the everyman a three-dimensional figure who audiences can root for, pity and also be easily offended by. Sometimes actions are unquestionably warranted; others, like when he beats a pair butting in line at a local movie theatre to a bloody pulp, are anything but.
“I think the main thing is that if Frank isn’t grounded,” Rainn tries to explain. “If he’s not a real guy, the movie doesn’t work. So I wanted him to be an everyman, someone that we’ve all seen. This cook in the restaurant, or this barista, or this janitor, or whoever it is doing whatever their job is; James had done such a great job of writing a part that has so many different colors to it.”
Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in Super © IFC Films
“So many roles that you’re offered are just one or two textures. But Frank, he’s sad and he’s lost and he’s also really funny and wry and he’s weird. He’s got two love interests over the course of this film and his brain is touched by the Finger of God. He goes on a mission to fight evil and he becomes a badass ass-kicker, you know, for the whole last part of the movie. So you get that huge range. But the most important thing is that, and it starts with those prayers he has at the beginning when he’s crying, that this is a very sad, grounded, real human being. If you believe in him, then you’ll believe in the adventure that he’s going to take you on.”
“I think for me the character of Frank, I know him,” adds Gunn. “I know sitting here talking to you guys I don’t come off like Frank but inside I often feel like Frank. I often feel like this big lumbering socially awkward person and that really is what Frank is to me. He’s sort of me stripped away. He’s sort of stripped away all the ego and he’s just that sort of insecure id right there. I think my greatest hope for the movie is for people to relate to that. No matter how well-spoken you are and how together you feel you are that they can [still] see themselves in that character.”
“When I was a kid there were certain works of art, films and music, everything from a David Cronenberg film to an album by Alice Cooper that gave me some sense that I wasn’t alone in this world. I think that Super can be that for people. It isn’t something that we made for every single person. This isn’t a mainstream film. It just isn’t. But I think it’s something that speaks to some people in a very real way. And honest to god that’s the thing I can hope for this movie more than anything else, that somebody out there will be affected by the movie in such a way. There is really nothing more touching to me.”
One of the things that sets Super apart from similar pictures, most notably Kick-Ass, is its unflinching take on both the inherent violence involved with becoming a superhero vigilante as well as the deep psychosis Frank is grappling with in regards to his religiously-fueled hallucinations. It’s a fine line, Gunn trying to shock his audience and give them fodder for debate without turning them off completely. While some will find elements offensive, everything remains character-based, making it easier to understand, if not also relate, to what Frank is trying to do and the external forces – both real and imagined – attacking him.
“Frank’s first prayer scene when he’s praying to God,” says the director, “it’s very sad and it’s very funny at the same time. In most movies they try to strip down feelings so it’s only one thing at a time. It’s either just funny or just sad, or just this or just that. I think in Super what we try to do is put those things together at the same time and see how people react to it.”
“[Another example] is when the guy butts in line. In one respect most people are like, I hate when people do that, what a jerk. He comes off as such a jerk and you really want to see him get his, and then Rainn hits him and you’re like, I kind of like him doing that but I also feel bad that I like him doing that. Then he hits the girl and you’re like, oh, wait, now I really don’t know what I think.”
Yet, as extreme as it all can be, Gunn was still conscious of trying to keep things rained in, making sure he never took things so far the audience when be completely turned off by the actions depicted on the screen and start hating Frank in response. “I think from the beginning when Rainn and I first talked about making this movie we were like, this needs to be extreme, and if it’s going to be extreme it’s got to be extreme,” explains the filmmaker. “You don’t start shaving it off here and there. If part of the selling point of what makes the movie the movie is the fact that it’s extreme, you don’t start cutting back on it being extreme. Then it becomes a less milky version of what it’s supposed to be.”
“I think Tarantino does that pretty perfectly where you know, starting from the very beginning, he doesn’t cut the violence back,” adds Wilson. “This is how it needs to be in his vision. If you’re going to scalp Nazis, show the scalp, show the blood, show where it comes off the head. I think the violence works the same way in this movie.”
“But I did cut out one thing,” says Gunn. “In the original script that character that [Crimson Bolt and Boltie] beat up in that house is killed. You know how she has that rodeo thing? She takes it and smashes his head in and that was a place where I pulled back. But I had a very good reason to pull back because the audience at that point might have gone like, wait no, she’s a psychopath. They would have hated her. I do things [in Super] that are shocking and extreme, but I’d like those things to be shocking and extreme for a reason and not just for the sake of being shocking and extreme.”
Ellen Page as Boltie in Super © IFC Films
“At the end of this movie you really are left with the fact that you’re seeing Frank with a tear rolling down his cheek looking at all the memories of this wonderful life that he’s had because he went on this mission and was touched by the Finger of God,” continues Wilson. “But you don’t really know. Was it all a dream? Is he crazy? Is he a psychopath? Is he a hero? You don’t know.”
- Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
- Super Theatrical Review by Sara Michelle Fetters
- Super Theatrical Trailer