GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY SHOT OUT OF NOWHERE TO BECOME ONE OF MARVEL’S BIGGEST HITS: ANARCHIC, HILARIOUS AND WITH THE COOLEST SOUNDTRACK IN YEARS. BUT HOW DO YOU FOLLOW THAT UP? HOW DO YOU STOP VOL. 2 FROM BEING…
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.
WHEN EMPIRE MEETS
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.”
AT FIRST GLANCE,
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.
THERE WERE HINTS
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.”
THE PRODUCTION NAME
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…
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 IS IN CINEMAS FROM 25 APRIL.
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.