Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 writer/director James Gunn spent most of his Saturday working on his upcoming film, due in theaters May 5. There are still visual effects shots and 3D to work on before the film will be ready for its date with critics and fans, but Gunn took a break yesterday afternoon for a conversation with Elvis Mitchell of KCRW’s The Treatment about filmmaking at the Writers Guild Festival in Hollywood.
During the 75-minute interview, Gunn discussed a wide variety of topics. There were moments that he and Mitchell hilariously agreed felt more like therapy than an interview, but they all set up some terrific insight into Gunn’s work, including his first and second Guardians of the Galaxy films. The process for each film was very different, as Gunn compared the two.
“Here’s the thing. On the first Guardians I came along in like September  and we had to shoot in [June 2013]. I had a screenplay, I rewrote it, and so I had to do it really quickly. I had to back into the date on the first one. I was still writing during the movie on the first one. I was doing all the those things that I hate. I was very planned out on those things that were written, but there was a lot of stuff.
“And there’s this group of people called the Creative Committee at Marvel at the time who had a lot of ideas about things and that’s not a part of [GotG Vol. 2]. Right now it’s basically me doing my thing. On the second movie I had a lot more freedom because it was like I came in and the first movie did well and they’re like, ‘What do you want to do?,’ and I’m like, ‘This,’ and they said ‘Okay.’ And I did it! I went in my room. I wrote the story. I took notes. If I agreed with them, I changed things. If I didn’t [agree with the notes], I didn’t change them. It was just a much different experience.”
Gunn gave himself more time to write the script (and the 70-page treatment that preceded it), by famously getting to work on the day Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters, August 1, 2014. With GotG quickly becoming a massive hit, expectations were always going to be high for the sequel, but rather than focus on the pressure that comes with those elevated expectations, Gunn saw a couple of key advantages as he approached the sequel.
“A—not having to explain to an audience the five major characters in the first half hour, so we just go straight into story. And B—knowing that an audience was going to go see the movie. And for me, I’m a show business person, that’s who I am, and I like knowing that I have an audience that’s going to see me.
The thing I’ve said a thousand times is that on the first movie, I would wake up in cold sweats at 3:00am thinking, ‘I might be making Pluto Nash 2.’ I’m such a dick for saying that because I’ve never seen Pluto Nash. Sometimes those movies are awesome. I just know how people reacted to it. And so it wasn’t even about whether it was good or not. It was about how people were going to react to Guardians of the Galaxy because I thought it was strange.”
Gunn also discussed why some sequels fail to reach the bar set by their predecessors and the traps he had to avoid.
“I think so many sequels fall short because people are trying to catch up to the magic that created the first one. And there was a fire in the story in the first one. My fortunate thing with the Guardians is that I fell in love with the characters. I didn’t fall in love with the story of Guardians 1. I’m in love with the characters, so I was excited to see where they go and what they do next, deepen who they were as people or as aliens, whatever the case may be.
“So I think that some stories lend themselves to sequels and some don’t. And I could see myself like, you know, ‘Oh! What’s our dance off moment in this movie? Well that’s this. What’s our We are Groot moment? That’s this.’ And really trying to just completely deny that part of myself and say, ‘This has to be its own thing and you can’t start making it a shitty Xerox of the first film.’”
As tempting as it might have been to look for new versions of those instant classic moments from 2014, Gunn saw the audience’s familiarity with his characters as a creative asset. With most of the film’s main characters already introduced, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 got to be all about story. That and the ability to start from scratch instead of joining a work already in progress made Gunn even more enthusiastic about the sequel than the first film.
“I was more excited about this plot of the second movie than I was with the first. The first one, there’s this villain plot that kind of goes along and then there’s the Guardians, which I was having to react to [what had already been done]. They were already designing sets and it was difficult, so I had to kind of stick within this framework. I never felt like everything was as organic as I wanted it to be and I knew in the second movie I could tell as story [where] the plot was the same as the emotional center of the film and that I could just tell a richer story that I was more excited about.”
Gunn’s voice can be heard throughout Guardians of the Galaxy, just as it can in all of his films. Still, building GotG Vol. 2 from the ground up afforded Gunn the opportunity to make the story even more personal this time.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as an autobiographical film. It’s definitely the most personal. Super is definitely that way as well. Super and Vol. 2 are probably the two most personal movies I’ve ever made by far. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’m able to do this thing in this very weird tentpole film environment, but that somehow it seems to lend itself to that.”
James Gunn will show the world his very personal film when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters May 5.