Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS DAN JOLIN ILLUSTRATION JUSTIN METZ

How do you top the sur­prise smash hit of the first one? You don’t try, says James Gunn.

JAMES GUNN RE­MEM­BERS the ex­act day he started writ­ing Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. It’s not re­ally too hard. Be­cause that day was 1 Au­gust 2014: the day Guardians Of The Galaxy (or ‘Vol. 1’, as it’s now also known) was re­leased in the United States.

That he wasn’t just kick­ing back and sip­ping piña co­ladas af­ter months of hard graft might sug­gest an im­pres­sive level of dili­gence on Gunn’s part. And ea­ger­ness, too — af­ter all, Vol. 1 was the St. Louis-born film­maker’s first stu­dio directing gig, and its reck­less gang of space-rogues couldn’t be closer to his heart. It may even smack of worka­holism; Sean Gunn (aka num­bertwo Rav­ager Kraglin and the phys­i­cal ac­tor for Rocket Rac­coon) says his brother dived back in so early “’cause he’s a ma­niac”. But Gunn him­self, speak­ing to Empire two-and-a-half years later dur­ing “a mad rush to com­plete” Vol. 2, in­sists it was for a dif­fer­ent rea­son en­tirely. “It was the only way,” he chuck­les, “that I could dis­tract my­self from box-of­fice num­bers.”

It’s an un­der­stand­able re­ac­tion. Es­pe­cially as many ar­ti­cles at the time were pre­dict­ing this would be Marvel’s first flop. “I didn’t to­tally buy into that,” says Gunn. “I felt pretty good about what we were cre­at­ing. But we had a lot of hand­i­caps. Chris Pratt wasn’t a movie star at the time. Even comic-book fans didn’t know who the Guardians Of The Galaxy were. There were nights where I woke up, sweat­ing and shiv­er­ing. It was very scary.”

Pratt re­mem­bers 1 Au­gust well, too. “Some­body sent me an email with a

long list of press ar­ti­cles, many of which had ti­tles like, ‘Has Marvel Got­ten Too Cocky?’” he tells us. “We were made to feel like a lower-class group of su­per­heroes, with no reach, no fa­mil­iar­ity.”

We all know what hap­pened next. The big­gest Au­gust re­lease ever in the States. A world­wide haul of $773 mil­lion. A Rot­ten Toma­toes score of 91 per cent fresh. Pratt sud­denly one of the world’s big­gest stars. And the world go­ing from, “What’s with the talk­ing tree-guy?” to chant­ing, “We are Groot!”

Pratt re­calls a fam­ily ner­vously ap­proach­ing him on a golf course last year, while he was tak­ing a day off from shoot­ing Vol.2 at Pinewood At­lanta Stu­dios. “A dad, a mom, two sis­ters, their lit­tle brother. And they all just knew ev­ery­thing about Guardians Of The Galaxy.”

There’s your reach. There’s your fa­mil­iar­ity. And, more to the point, there are your strato­spher­i­cally height­ened ex­pec­ta­tions for Vol. 2.


James Gunn on the At­lanta set in June 2015, the im­mense pres­sure isn’t show­ing. Though that may be be­cause we’re a lit­tle dis­tracted by his T-shirt, on which a car­toon zom­bie face squirts a nasty foun­tain of pus out of its left eye socket. It’s the 80th day of prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy, so he’s tired. But, he in­sists, he’s feel­ing “pretty good about the re­sults we’ve been get­ting”.

Gunn doesn’t for a mo­ment ac­tu­ally think his mas­sive, dark-horse achieve­ment with Guardians Of The Galaxy makes Vol. 2 a tougher task. “No lie, this movie has been a lot less stress­ful,” he de­clares. “I’ve had a lot longer to do it. I now know there’s an au­di­ence out there that wants to see it. And I don’t need to set ev­ery­body up like I did in the first film, so we’ve gained a half-hour of sto­ry­telling.”

Vol. 2 picks up just two months af­ter the Guardians de­feated Ro­nan The Ac­cuser on the planet Xan­dar. Peter ‘Star-lord’ Quill (Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Sal­dana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are cap­i­tal­is­ing on their new-found fame by work­ing as pre­mi­um­rate mer­ce­nar­ies, while liv­ing to­gether cheek by jowl on a space­ship, The Mi­lano, built for two. Plus, they have an all-new Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) to deal with — a mis­chievous “young jerk tree” as pro­ducer Jonathan Schwartz puts it, who might be Groot re­born or Groot’s kid.

While Gunn was ice-cool, some in the cast felt jit­ters about re­turn­ing. “You would think we’d come back cocky and high-fiv­ing,” says

Zoe Sal­dana on set, slathered in Gamora green from the col­lar­bones up and the el­bows down. “Guardians felt to me like go­ing to Ve­gas: you bet and you win. But the stakes are so much higher now. There’s a fear of los­ing that spe­cialty: be­com­ing cava­lier and com­fort­able and ru­in­ing it. So ev­ery­body’s been on point.”

Dave Bautista, the for­mer pro-wrestler who earned some of the first film’s big­gest laughs as the overly lit­eral war­rior Drax, got over his own fears ear­lier than Sal­dana. While still on the press tour for Vol. 1, he col­lared Gunn in Mex­ico City and asked, “How in the hell are you gonna top this?” Gunn sim­ply replied, “I’m not even gonna try. I’m just gonna make it dif­fer­ent.”

That, says Pratt, is the key to Vol. 2’s suc­cess. If the film was an al­bum, he sug­gests it would be The Bea­tles’ Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, sprawl­ing and trippy. “James wanted to go so out­side of the box that he ex­plodes the box,” Pratt says. “It’s a se­ri­ous de­par­ture. And in a big­ger, bet­ter, more ex­plo­sive way. I re­ally be­lieve that.”


not much has changed. All the trail­ers revel in the same punk­ish, spray-paint colour­ful, ’80s-vibed space-op­er­atic world as the first film. And they tease a new ‘Awe­some Mix’ soundtrack just as fun and savvy as the first (thus far only Fleet­wood Mac’s The Chain and Come A Lit­tle Bit Closer by Jay And The Amer­i­cans have been con­firmed).

There are new vil­lains, of course: The Night Man­ager’s El­iz­a­beth De­bicki, gold-skinned and icily aloof as Aye­sha, “high priest­ess of the Sovereign, a tech­ni­cally ad­vanced race of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied peo­ple”, as the Aussie ac­tor de­scribes her. Aye­sha re­cruits the Guardians to take out an en­emy, but the busi­ness re­la­tion­ship turns sour (we could tell you more specifics, but we’re try­ing to avoid spoil­ers). There’s also Chris Sul­li­van as Taser­face, who leads out­law gang The Rav­agers in mutiny against Yondu (Michael Rooker), out­raged that he hasn’t pun­ished Star-lord for switch­ing that pur­ple in­fin­ity stone for a Troll doll. But there are al­ways new vil­lains. That’s a given in any se­quel. What, re­ally, has Gunn got up his sleeve?

Vol. 2 is, con­firms the di­rec­tor, “big­ger and cra­zier” than the last film, but that was not the goal. “The goal was to cre­ate some­thing more hon­est,” he says. “It’s deeper in a lot of ways. If the first film was about out­siders who fight their ba­sic na­ture to be­come a fam­ily, this movie’s about be­ing a fam­ily.”

The F-word comes up again and again dur­ing Empire’s con­ver­sa­tions with the cast. “It’s about fam­ily, about cho­sen fam­ily,” Bautista says. “It’s such a great topic, it hits a lot of emo­tional

points.” Drax, for ex­am­ple, chooses to take un­der his wing new Guardian Man­tis, an an­ten­naed em­path played by Québé­coise ac­tor Pom Kle­men­ti­eff. “Man­tis has never hung out with peo­ple be­fore,” says Kle­men­ti­eff. “She grew up on this planet al­most on her own, so she dis­cov­ers ev­ery­thing for the first time. She’s wide-eyed and child-like and weird some­times. That’s why she has this con­nec­tion with Drax: they’re both a lit­tle off.”

We are promised fur­ther ex­plo­ration into the back­sto­ries of Rocket (“That process of stay­ing part of a fam­ily unit is more dif­fi­cult for Rocket than any other mem­ber of the Guardians,” ex­plains Sean Gunn, “be­cause his back­ground is so ter­ri­bly lonely”); space-ban­dit Yondu (“Things you do in your past tend to come back to haunt you,” teases Rooker); and Gamora’s twisted sis­ter, Ne­bula.

“We dive right into all the rea­sons she’s such a mean per­son,” Karen Gil­lan says of the last. “It was so much fun play­ing a vil­lain in the first movie, but to un­der­stand why some­one’s a vil­lain is in­fin­itely more in­ter­est­ing.” Like Yondu, Ne­bula be­comes part of the main group. “But it’s par­tic­u­larly re­luc­tant on her part. She doesn’t want to be run­ning around with this group of su­per­heroes do­ing good things. And she has is­sues with her sis­ter [Gamora] that she wants to sort out.”

Empire ex­pe­ri­ences a taste of this sib­ling ri­valry be­tween the two daugh­ters of mad ti­tan Thanos while at Pinewood, At­lanta. A five-foot wide, 100-me­tre long strip of Mars-red scrub­land has been laid across a green­screen-walled sound­stage. A zip-wire is strung above it, along which a nippy ca­ble-cam­era slides as Sal­dana, in full Gamora bat­tle-leather, sprints in a des­per­ate zig-zag from an un­seen ae­rial foe.

“It’s North By North­west on steroids… with two women,” ex­plains James Gunn with a sweep of his arm. “A big, big ac­tion se­quence that is ba­si­cally two sis­ters work­ing out their dif­fer­ences.” Rather than a re­lent­less bi­plane chas­ing Cary Grant, the ae­rial foe is Ne­bula, at the helm of a space­ship, rain­ing fire down on her big sis. “In­stead of pulling each other’s hair we just try to kill each other,” laughs Gil­lan af­ter the scene is wrapped. “Like, ac­tu­ally kill each other.”

And if you think that’s nuts, wait ’til you get a load of the movie’s father-son re­union.


dur­ing the first film that Quill Sr would be some­one other than the ver­sion in the Marvel comics: J’son, Em­peror of the Spar­toi. Gunn, no slav­ish fol­lower of canon, con­fesses he al­ways found that char­ac­ter, a bearded space-tyrant who was voiced in the Guardians Of The Galaxy an­i­mated se­ries by Jonathan Frakes, “rather trite”. His vi­sion had been sketched out vaguely in the first film, de­scribed as “an an­gel” by Peter’s dy­ing mother, “some­thing very an­cient” by Xan­dar boss Nova Prime, and “a jack­ass” by Yondu. Yet, even as Gunn wrote Vol. 1 he hadn’t quite pinned down ex­actly what that en­tity would be.

Then, half­way through shoot­ing that film he re­alised the per­fect can­di­date: one of Marvel’s more out-there char­ac­ters, Ego The Liv­ing Planet. Like Rocket or Groot, it was an­other seem­ingly ridicu­lous idea in which he saw juicy cin­e­matic po­ten­tial.

“If there was a liv­ing planet, how could that ex­ist, and how would that hap­pen?” says Gunn, re­mem­ber­ing the dizzy­ing cos­mo­log­i­cal ques­tions he pon­dered at the time. “And now make it more dif­fi­cult: a liv­ing planet who needs to give birth to a son. This is an an­cient be­ing who has been on the edges of the uni­verse for aeons by him­self.”

As a cast­ing chal­lenge, it’s up there with, say, find­ing a voice for a space-rac­coon or a sen­tient tree. In the end, the man who would play Ego (or at least, his hu­man avatar) was landed upon dur­ing a ca­sual chat be­tween Gunn and Pratt, when the lat­ter made an off­hand sug­ges­tion: “Hey, what about Kurt Rus­sell?” It made per­fect sense: af­ter all, Pratt’s Star-lord has all the swag­ger, bravado and klutzi­ness of Rus­sell’s Jack Bur­ton in Big Trou­ble In

Lit­tle China. Gunn hastily booted up Fi­nal Draft, im­me­di­ately see­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties. “I started writ­ing for Kurt as I was fin­ish­ing the screen­play,” he re­calls. “I would have been re­ally dis­ap­pointed if he’d said no.”

For­tu­nately Rus­sell said yes, af­ter check­ing out the first movie, which he’d missed the first time around. “Fif­teen min­utes in, I said, ‘I think I see why they’re com­ing to me…’” the for­mer Snake Plissken tells Empire. “The bag­gage I bring from some of the movies I’ve done is the right kind of bag­gage to bring into this one.”

How does an ac­tor, even one as ex­pe­ri­enced as Rus­sell, start with a char­ac­ter who’s a liv­ing

planet? “You start with the name,” he laughs. “There’s a line where he’s asked by Peter, ‘You mean, like a god?’ And he turns around and says, ‘Well, with a small ‘g’.” He’s the guy who cre­ated his own world. He’s the epit­ome of a self-made en­tity. So you start think­ing about what it would be to be a baby in the jun­gle, bring­ing your­self up. But he cre­ated the jun­gle!”

Ego is, in a very real sense, his biggestever part. “That’s true!” Rus­sell roars. “I’ve never played any­body big­ger! I’ve never played a char­ac­ter with broader pos­si­bil­i­ties, I’ll say that.” In­deed, Ego’s trippy, Man­del­brot-baroque world (cheek­ily named ‘J’son’ in the con­cept art Empire was shown) proved the film’s hugest tech­ni­cal chal­lenge. In­spired by the elab­o­rate frac­tal art of Hal Tenny, who Gunn hired to help de­sign Ego’s en­vi­ron­ment, it’s pushed vis­ual ef­fects past the ex­ist­ing limit.

“We have over a tril­lion poly­gons on Ego’s planet,” says Gunn proudly. “It’s the big­gest vis­ual ef­fect of all time. There’s noth­ing even close to it. Which is cool.”


for the first Guardians movie was, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, ‘Full Tilt’. But the ti­tle Empire finds printed on its Pinewood At­lanta Stu­dios vis­i­tor pass feels even more rel­e­vant: ‘Level Up’.

Not merely be­cause it ap­plies to the scale of the film it­self. It could de­scribe pretty much ev­ery­one who’s re­turned to take the Guardians into even deeper space. “Yes, we’ve all lev­elled up,” agrees Gunn.

The last time Empire speaks with Pratt and his co-stars, nine months af­ter Vol. 2 wraps, they are al­ready in the midst of play­ing the Guardians again — though not for Vol. 3. Gunn doesn’t work that fast. Star-lord, Rocket, Gamora,

Drax and Groot — along with Man­tis, Yondu and Ne­bula — have moved up to the next level to join forces with the Avengers for Joe and Anthony Russo’s In­fin­ity War two-parter. “It’s been amaz­ing,” Pratt tells us. “I think peo­ple are gonna lose their minds over it.”

Gunn says the ac­tors have been call­ing him “every sin­gle day” to ask him ques­tions. Not that he minds. To see them go off on an ad­ven­ture with­out him “is not al­ways the most com­fort­able thing for a con­trol freak like me”, but he can’t com­plain. “I can’t imag­ine Marvel treat­ing me bet­ter than they have. And the truth is, they want me to do Vol. 3 and I’m still try­ing to de­cide whether I want to. So they’re be­ing very kind to give me as much say as they are, con­sid­er­ing I haven’t com­mit­ted to the next film yet.”

Who knows, while the Guardians bat­tle Thanos along­side Steve, Tony, Thor and the gang, Gunn may even al­low him­self to kick back for a bit. Drink a few piña co­ladas. He’ll need the break. Es­pe­cially if he de­cides to start record­ing the dif­fi­cult third al­bum…


Left: Zoe Sal­dana, Chris Pratt and di­rec­tor James Gunn laugh in the face of “dif­fi­cult”. Top: El­iz­a­beth De­becki is solid gold as the vil­lain­ous Aye­sha.

Above: The band back to­gether: Ne­bula (Karen Gil­lan), Gamora (Sal­dana), Star-lord (Pratt), Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — look closely, he’s there at the back — Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista).

Top left: Yondu (Michael Rooker) with Rocket. Did some­one men­tion Trolls?

Left: Drax takes new ad­di­tion Man­tis (Pom Kle­men­ti­eff) un­der his not in­con­sid­er­able wing. Above: Kurt Rus­sell joins the cast as, er, liv­ing planet/star-lord’s dad Ego.

Clock­wise from above: Ne­bula is still se­ri­ously at odds with older sis­ter Gamora; … which she might want to re­think given Gamora’s fire­power; “I am Baby Groot!” — get ready to fall in love all over again.

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