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‘I Am Rocket,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Director James Gunn Tells Chinese Screenwriters

Variety logo Variety 6/22/2017 Patrick Frater
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“The structure of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ comes straight from Hong Kong cinema (where anything can happen at any moment),” “Guardians” director James Gunn said this week.

“Johnnie To, John Woo and Ringo Lam made me fall in love with cinema even more than I had been before.” Other early influences when Gunn was a shy teen growing up in small-town Missouri, were the “Star Wars” films, with their escapism and mythology.

“I was created in giant petri dish to make ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’,” Gunn told an audience of Chinese screenwriters and directors this week at an event within the Shanghai International Film Festival. The event was organized with U.S. screenwriting consultancy Screencraft.

While a trip down memory lane was part of the session, the contrasting approaches to screenwriting of Gunn, “Kong: Skull Island” writer Max Borenstein and Hong Kong’s Peter Chan Ho-sun were the most instructive.

“I figure out everything before I go on stage. I know every shot beforehand,” said Gunn, who also describes himself as a hedgehog capable of doing only one thing at a time. “Guardians” took him more than two and a half years to put together.

Chan, who has made some of China’s most successful contemporary movies, including “Perhaps Love” and “American Dreams in China,” is a different kind of control freak. “I don’t plan, I don’t do story boards, I don’t do special effects. My creative process is working with actors,” said Chan. “And now I’m most enjoying the editing process, working alongside a great creative editor.” Yet Chan extends his creative vision by often doubling up as producer, a detail-obsessed marketer, and as a local distributor as well.

Where the three film makers concurred was on the need to juggle process and passion. “The worst way to make a film is to try to appeal to a mass audience,” said Borenstein.

“Half of film making is about balance. A film is a giant machine that I’m helping to build. Half is very personal, it’s about characters,” said Gunn. “(The whole) is a balance between the emotional and the logical.”

“Without the audience, the film making process is not complete. Even a blockbuster needs to be personal,” said Chan. “There is no secret sauce. You just need to like the characters. In ‘American Dreams’ all the characters were the kind of people I’d grown up with. And when I watched ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2’ recently I saw a personal film, one with a director behind it.”

Gunn went one step further. He described “Guardians” as an autobiography of Rocket, the raccoon character voiced by Bradley Cooper, before adding: “Rocket is me, feeling outcast and forgotten.”

The trip to Shanghai was Gunn’s first to mainland China, but not his first encounter with Chinese audiences. He stays in touch with Chinese fans through his own WeiboChinese social media account. He revealed that he received many complaints from Chinese viewers about the subtitles for the first “Guardians” movie. So for the second picture, which released earlier this year in Chinese theaters, he used social media to work closely with the film’s translator. That was particularly useful in avoiding misinterpretations of idiosyncratic dialog and invented vocabulary.

Gunn was careful to distance himself from Hollywood movies which seek international appeal through calculatedly diverse casting choices. “Chinese people don’t fall for that trick any more,” he said.

The speakers were jointly interviewed by Screencraft’s Emily Dell and Chinese critic and consultant Raymond Zhou.

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