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Nathan FillionNathan Fillion - "Slither" Movie - James Gunn Suicidegirls.com Interview
Daniel Robert Epstein
Thursday 9 November 2006, by Webmaster
Life comes full circle. I first met James Gunn when I became a PA during preproduction on Tromeo & Juliet. I even got to read of a couple of drafts of Tromeo & Juliet before they locked their shooting script. Even though it was obvious that [Troma co-founder] Lloyd Kaufman had Tromaed up the script, Gunn’s witty, gross and often disturbing work showed through. I even got a chance to be directed by Gunn in many scenes in Tromeo & Juliet (THAT GOT CUT) and later played a homeless man looking up a woman’s skirt in a sketch directed by Gunn for Tromaville Café.
Since Gunn left Troma and moved to Hollywood he has been quite prolific. He first got noticed in Hollywood for the low budget superhero film The Specials, which led him to write both films in the Scooby-Doo franchise and the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake. Finally Gunn directed his first feature on his own, the horror comedy Slither. While the film did poorly at the box office, it got excellent reviews and firmly established Gunn as a man who knows how to meld special effects, gore and humor. Slither is the story of the richest man in town who finds a weird meteorite which turns him into a monster. Then he creates thousands of slugs which when they enter the human body turn people into flesh eating zombies. Slither will undoubtedly become a cult classic. The DVD has recently been released and is packed full with awesome extras. I got a chance to talk with Gunn about his body of work and a little bit on his relationship and marriage to the inimitable Jenna Fischer.
Daniel Robert Epstein: We haven’t spoken in ten years!
James Gunn: Yeah, but I’ve spoken to you through the Tromeo & Juliet DVD extras.
DRE: Right, you did the thing with Joe Lynch on the DVD.
Gunn: Yeah and I saw your thing. Your thing was great on the extras.
DRE: Of course, because I talked all about you. Honestly, I don’t know what other legacy the movie will have.
What are you up to today?
Gunn: I’m working on my new screenplay trying to get it done before the holidays.
DRE: Is that the devil one?
Gunn: No it’s not the devil one. That’s a movie called Scratch and it is now something totally different. It’s not really about the devil anymore, it’s about a bunch of other sick stuff and I think somebody else might direct that. It wasn’t what I want to spend a year and a half of my life doing. So I am writing something that is probably a little more suited to my life at this moment.
DRE: Can you talk about it yet?
Gunn: I can’t really talk about it. It’s a horror movie but it’s got elements of a thriller and an action movie to it. I would say it has a little bit more of a wider audience appeal than something like Slither.
DRE: Was it a conscious decision to make something with a wider appeal?
Gunn: Well, it’s always harder for me to figure out when it’s a conscious decision. But I don’t really think it is. I’ve been offered a whole lot of movies since Slither, but what people want out of me is not Slither. They want something else. They want me to move into making bigger budget pop movies or more mainstream horror movies. In terms of what I can get made, I want to get a bigger budget than I had on Slither so I do have to choose something that has a little bit of a wider appeal.
DRE: As for the marketing with Slither, why didn’t they just market it as a horror movie?
Gunn: That’s what people think they should have done at this point. But who knows. I never made Slither to be a big huge money maker. I didn’t think of it in that way. I just wanted to make a fun movie like the movies that I grew up with. Traditionally horror films with a lot of comedy in them have not made money and that includes everything from [An] American Werewolf [in London] to Tremors. Those movies did not make money in their original box office runs. So I think it has that against it and on top of that, Slither is even a little bit more subversive and darker than those films. It’s a very black comedy which made it difficult. There was discussion early on of whether Universal should try to pass this off as a straight horror film. No one really wanted to do that because that isn’t what it is. On the one hand you want to make as much money as you can and we probably would have made more money on opening weekend if we passed it off as a straight horror film. But when we showed the film to test audiences, it scored extremely high with people who knew the kind of movie they were going to see and it scored lower with people who went in expecting a straight horror film.
DRE: It seems like the people who drive the opening weekends of horror movies is the urban audience, not black people, you can’t say black people.
Gunn: [laughs] I think it’s everybody. The teens, the urban audience and I think it’s just your regular white guy suburban date movie night. The actual horror crowd, those people who are true horror fans, is not made up of very many people.
DRE: That’s what people are finding out this year for sure.
Gunn: Yeah, they definitely are finding that out. I know a lot of horror fans and all of them I know have seen Slither or at least as many that have seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.
DRE: Would it have been smarter if you had a WB actor in the main role?
Gunn: I would be really unhappy to have the same movie with Tom Welling as opposed to Nathan Fillion. For me, the movie worked out perfectly. The whole thing could not have worked out any better for me because what I wanted to do was make a movie that I felt good about seeing and I wanted to make a movie that would allow me to direct another movie. For that Slither has been fantastic. Unfortunately my producer doesn’t see it the same way, although I have to say that it will make its money back on DVD.
DRE: Oh good. I saw that on Amazon it’s just a little over 100 on the DVD chart, which is pretty good.
Gunn: Yeah and it was down to 30 for a while.
Gunn: Yeah and it sold out 25 five percent of all copies in Wal-Mart the first day. So we’re going to be fine with making the money back. So I don’t really regret anything.
DRE: Slither is very much like an 80’s horror film.
Gunn: Oh yeah, 100 percent.
DRE: Were those your first horror films?
Gunn: I went through grade school and high school in the 80’s. The first R rated movie I ever saw was Alien but I was quite young. I think Bonnie and Clyde was the first R rated movie I ever saw on TV. That freaked me out even though it was cut for TV. For me to see that when I was like six or seven really affected my mind, in a good way.
DRE: So films that you seem to have emulated like Re-Animator and Shivers [also known as They Came From Within] weren’t big hits but then became very big on home video. It seems that you even were able to emulate the kind of business they had.
Gunn: Yeah I did in some ways. I had a really disappointing conversation with [Sam Raimi’s producing partner] Rob Tapert. He told me that to this day Evil Dead has sold way more copies than Evil Dead 2. Even when they re-released those films, Evil Dead does way better than Evil Dead 2, which is a shock to me because Evil Dead 2 is a classic fucking horror film. But Evil Dead is a much straighter horror film. Even to this day Evil Dead 2 hasn’t made tons of money.
DRE: Yeah. I just talked to Roy Frumkes and he told me that when he brought Street Trash to [Evil Dead 2 producer] Dino De Laurentiis. Dino said “I just had a complete failure with Evil Dead 2.”
Gunn: Yes, that’s exactly it. Isn’t that crazy? Evil Dead 2 is a classic movie but that’s just that’s how it is.
DRE: You have so many elements in Slither like the monster, the slugs and the zombies, was it difficult to meld them all together?
Gunn: It wasn’t because I wanted to have a menace in the film that continued to mutate and change. To me, a lot of horror movies get boring because the menace is just a single monster and they show all the ways it kills people. Also I was really influenced by this Manga by Junji Ito called Uzumaki which was really the thing that set me off in writing Slither. It’s a great and very funny horror Manga. It’s about a spiral that invades a town and all these crazy things that happen with it. Slither was simply the organic version of the spiral.
DRE: I saw They Came From Within for the first time in 1992. I’m a monstrous David Cronenberg fan and I never knew that Cronenberg did the first slug movie. I love slug movies. I figured the first slug movie was like Brain Damage or something like that.
Gunn: Right but I do think that all of them are to some degree affected by [Robert Heinlein’s] The Puppet Masters.
DRE: Where did the idea of the slugs come from for Slither?
Gunn: Years ago I had the idea for that image of the girl on the bathroom floor with the slug in her mouth as it’s burrowing through the back of her throat into her brain. Then I just kept it in my pocket for a long time. Also They Came From Within is one of my favorite Cronenberg films.
DRE: We discovered our mutual love for Cronenberg back on Tromeo & Juliet when I was wearing my homemade The Brood shirt.
Gunn: That’s cool. The Brood is one of my favorites.
But the worms aren’t that violent in They Came from Within. They’re mellow and a lot of that is due to the effects they had available to them at that time. Our worms are a lot more violent and I think that it’s an interesting update on that concept.
DRE: Were the worms all CGI?
Gunn: Some of them were and some of them weren’t. Of course when Brenda bursts open and there are 27,000 worms coming out, those were all CGI. To me some of the best CG work in the movie is some of the stuff in the bathroom which is a great mix of practical and CG. I think it is very difficult to tell what is what in a lot of those shots. Oftentimes we’d have worms that are actually part CG and part practical. For instance when she pulls the worm out of her mouth and the thing’s flopping in her hand, one end is CG and the other end is practical because we only had a string on one end of it.
DRE: [laughs] When Cronenberg was promoting Naked Lunch on Late Night with David Letterman, he said that directing special effects is like directing a bowl of shrimp salad because it doesn’t really do anything. How do you like directing the practical special effects?
Gunn: It’s a mixed bag. I really love the puzzle of making a film with heavy special effects. That is part of the fun. The practicality of dealing with it on set can often be a real pain in the ass. Oftentimes they don’t work in the way you want them to and that can distract you from the rest of the director’s job which is dealing with actors and dealing with the camera.
DRE: I know that [your bother] Sean [Gunn] has worked with Joss Whedon a few times, but did you know Nathan Fillion personally?
Gunn: Well, I know Joss very well because he gave me my first job when I moved to Los Angeles. Joss is a big fan of I co-wrote [with Lloyd Kaufman] called All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger. He was trying to put together a sitcom based on a B-movie company for Fox.
DRE: Oh that’s a great idea.
Gunn: I wrote a pilot with Joss executive producing but it never got filmed. That was the first thing I got paid for after leaving Troma.
DRE: Was it any good?
Gunn: No, not really. It was my first crack at a sitcom. I wrote another one that same year for the WB called Mackinnon and shire that is a much better teleplay and every year pretty much one network or another will come back and ask me if I want to revisit it for their network. But I don’t really want to.
DRE: Would you try to do the low budget movie company sitcom again?
Gunn: I do like the idea. If I had to take on one of those projects I’d rather retake on that project and write it in a different way. But I think that there’s a problem on TV with stuff that’s too referential to the entertainment industry. So because of that I’m just not sure that would be the right TV thing to do. On HBO, 50 percent of the shows that come out are self-referential entertainment. It seems a little bit masturbatory.
DRE: [laughs] When I spoke to Rob Zombie for House of a 1000 Corpses, he said that Universal doesn’t give a shit about their old monster movies.
Gunn: They gave me 100 percent freedom so I was totally happy with the production end. I could not have asked for anything else. Do they have respect for old monster characters? Van Helsing would say no. Van Helsing was such a missed opportunity. It’s like if Warner Bros made a crappy Justice League of America film where they just ruin all their good characters in one fell swoop.
DRE: Yeah, Van Helsing was just a complete mess.
Gunn: But Warner Bros would never fucking do that movie.
DRE: It seems that they have a little bit more reverence for their old stuff because they know their old stuff makes money.
Gunn: Exactly, I think it’s a reverence for the dollar. They don’t want to do a movie with the Flash and Green Lantern and Wonder Woman and whoever else because they can make separate movies about them over the next however many years.
DRE: But for you, was it cool adding to the canon of Universal monster movies with Grant Grant?
Gunn: Yeah, completely and at its core Slither really is an old time monster movie. It’s the story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s the monster who loves the woman who can’t love him back, it’s like Creature from the Black Lagoon or Bride of Frankenstein. So doing it at Universal was great for that reason.
DRE: What made you think of Michael Rooker for this?
Gunn: I’ve always wanted to work with him. He’s been one of my favorite actors for many years. I’ve seen him in little roles where he just shines like Sea of Love and The Trigger Effect. I always thought he was this great guy with this great mug who was actually a good actor but I felt he wasn’t always utilized as well as he could be. I’ve always wanted to cast him as the hero but he wasn’t right for the role of Bill Pardy. He came in and he read for Grant Grant and I was laughing hysterically the whole time because he was exactly how I imagined the character and we gave him the role right away.
DRE: How was he with the hours and hours in the makeup chair?
Gunn: It was awful. The thing was not ergonomically designed so he was in a great deal of pain. Honest to God there’s no actor that I know that would have put up with it. In fact Nathan, who is quite a trooper and put himself through quite a lot for the movie, looked at Rooker in the final Grant monster getup and said “I would be able to take that for about 20 minutes and then I would be out.” Rooker has this ability to go to this Zen-like place where he wasn’t letting the pain affect him. But for a large part of that filming he couldn’t piss for 12 hours. It was like hands on a hard body because he’s holding up like 60 pounds of makeup. He was in that costume with four other actors and anytime those guys would shift their weight they would actually be pulling down on him. There was a machine at the back of his neck that moved his head tentacles which was grinding into his neck and tearing him apart. But he was 100 percent committed and today he’s one of my best friends.
DRE: Do you sketch out what the Grant monster would look like?
Gunn: I didn’t really draw the Grant creature but the Brenda Blob is 100 percent based on my drawings. I tried to do some drawings of the Grant monster and maybe they incorporated some of my stuff but in the end that was basically Todd Masters’ design.
DRE: Todd Masters was the head of the special effects department?
Gunn: Yeah, Todd Masters and Dan Crawley of Masters Effects were our two prosthetic effects guys. I completely directed their design because it started off as looking more like an alien creature and I wanted it to be more of a rotting human. I wanted the creature to have this feeling that he was rotting outward so they just kept going in that direction.
DRE: Many critics said the film felt Troma-esque, do you think they would have said if you hadn’t had that clip of The Toxic Avenger in Slither?
Gunn: Well the critics all get the little book that says what I have done. So they already know I am from Troma. I don’t know how much Troma would have been brought up if it wasn’t for those couple of things.
DRE: Did you audition Elizabeth Banks for the role?
Gunn: Yeah, she auditioned. Everybody auditioned but she was really my number one pick. What impressed me most about Elizabeth was that she had been in both Seabiscuit and Wet Hot American Summer and in one she played this very elegant, sophisticated woman and in the other one she’s this bimbo in this broad comedy. Elizabeth really gets genre acting and she got the humor of the piece right off. I fought tooth and nail to have her in the movie because originally I was told that we couldn’t have her because she was shooting The 40 Year Old Virgin at the same time. I got very mad at her agency, which is my agency, because they sent her over to read. We reorganized the whole schedule so that she could shoot and luckily I was friends with Shauna Robertson who is the producer of 40 Year Old Virgin. Shauna was the one who rearranged their schedule so that Elizabeth could be in both films.
DRE: I watched Slither a couple of weeks ago with a buddy of mine and during the bathtub scene, my friend said, “I see a nipple. Go back!” I said, “Well, why would they show one nipple and not give us the whole thing?” But there it was when we freeze-framed it.
Gunn: The nudity thing is probably not the greatest thing to get into but we knew we could show it so we showed it. It’s not like we were hiding it. But we weren’t showing it just for the sake of showing nudity either.
DRE: I was reading the interview you did with CHUD’s Devin Faraci and I never knew there know there was a “who directed Tromeo & Juliet” controversy.
Gunn: Oh you never heard of that? I get asked about that all the time.
DRE: What do you say?
Gunn: I say Lloyd [Kaufman] directed it and that I directed the actors. On the original DVD commentary Lloyd said I should have gotten a co-director credit on Tromeo & Juliet. It was an unusual situation but Lloyd was the boss. My credit on the movie is associate director. I am probably the only person that’s ever had that credit in the history of cinema.
DRE: When we were doing re-shoots for Tromeo, you guys wanted my car so I was there. We went out for lunch afterwards and you were talking about all these things that you wanted to do with Troma and I’m looking at you thinking, “Is this guy that naïve that he thinks Lloyd is going to lower his profit margins?”
Gunn: Actually Lloyd was very kind and very cool to me.
DRE: I wasn’t saying that but doing something different costs money and I figured Troma wouldn’t be into that.
Gunn: I don’t know. I loved working at Troma. I had a good time and I had a lot of freedom. After Tromeo & Juliet I was able to do whatever I wanted. Lloyd and I were going to direct the next Troma movie together and then at the end of it all I just wanted to go do my own thing 100 percent.
DRE: Also you’re still friends with a lot of people you met there.
Gunn: Yeah Lloyd is still one of my best friends and so is Jane Jensen. I was just the best man at Stephen Blackehart’s wedding. I’ve had two really prime experiences in filmmaking and that was Tromeo & Juliet and then Slither.
DRE: I really liked your book, The Toy Collector. I had an argument with someone once about the ending when the James Gunn character’s eyes open. My friend thought it was a hopeful ending while I thought it was a sad ending. What do you think?
Gunn: I think it’s happy though it is bittersweet. At the end of the book James chooses to do something different than what Gary Bauer did. Gary Bauer is the antagonist of the book and he took himself away from all these people because of what he did which is not a condemnation of that, it is just what he did. In the end James does see glimpses of what he means to someone else. The James in the book has fucked up on every relationship he’s ever had. He’s screwed over everybody and his brother just wrote him off on the phone an hour beforehand. So the idea that he’s going to go on and live a happy life is probably ridiculous but I do think it was a step in a positive direction.
DRE: I know you wrote a screenplay for a Spy vs. Spy movie, what could that possibly be about? Were the guys wearing the suits?
Gunn: I did have a black guy and a white guy but the black guy wore white and the white guy wore black. At the time it was Eddie Murphy with Nicolas Cage. But that was a crazy script. I came from doing Tromeo to doing The Specials, which was a very small comedy to all of a sudden getting hired to do these big spectacle pop films. Spy vs. Spy was the first one and Warner Bros liked it. I did reread it a little while ago because they asked me if I wanted to redevelop it for me to direct but I didn’t like my script at all. I thought it was a fucking mess. They hired me to do Scooby-Doo off that which had a similar learning curve where it was very difficult knowing how to write a spectacle. But, that said, there’s a lot of fun stuff in Spy vs. Spy. The spies were basically created to fight the Cold War and communism but when the Cold War ended they became disillusioned and had nobody to fight but each other. Then somebody starts cloning all the old Soviet premiers like Brezhnev and Khrushchev and Stalin but now each one has a different superpower.
DRE: Was it a parody of 80’s Cold War movies?
Gunn: Sort of, I was doing it for Jay Roach so it was it was very much Austin Powers-y but with more action.
DRE: Did Slither’s failure at the box office slow down your career at all?
Gunn: No, for me it’s much better that I had directed Slither and got the good reviews and didn’t make money than having me direct Stay Alive which made money but got terrible reviews because it makes people see me as a director now. I’m not going to be able to go direct another horror comedy but I don’t want to direct another horror comedy.
DRE: Will your next movie be more serious or is that the wrong word?
Gunn: It is more serious. I like making really entertaining films but the next picture will definitely be darker.
DRE: I really loved the Dawn of the Dead remake a lot. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I didn’t want to kill you over it. But whose choice was it to leave out the majority of the social commentary that was essentially to the original movie?
Gunn: That’s a mixed question. That’s me 100 percent but also there was a different thematic element in the original script that’s missing from the final film. What interested me more was a story of redemption with how human beings who have their whole lives swept away and are basically able to recreate themselves as whoever they want to be in the in the wake of this tragedy. I’m not so interested in the social commentary and I would never be interested in making the Dawn of the Dead with the same theme as the original.
DRE: Right, it wouldn’t be relevant either.
Gunn: That would be very silly. What I wanted to do was tackle a different set of themes and because of the studio over time things just kept getting wiped out and wiped out and wiped out until all of that was gone which was a little disappointing to me. But at the end I really liked the movie. I think it’s a fun popcorn movie.
DRE: So I told a couple people I was talking to you they all wanted to know where they could meet girls like Jenna [Fischer]. They just want to know where they can meet the horror fans that are funny and are girls too.
Gunn: [laughs] Jenna’s her own unique thing. We’ve been together now for seven years.
DRE: So there’s no MySpace group.
Gunn: [laughs] I don’t think there’s any other women like Jenna. She’s one of a kind. The thing that attracted me to Jenna was her sense of humor. We both have a very dark sense of humor and that clicked with us right away. We were still with other people at the time but we just instantly clicked because of our humor. It is still what keeps us going.