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The indie-film inclined have been up on James Gunn for years now, thanks to his darkly-comic genre bending cult classics like Slither or Super. But these days he's most famous for being the auteur that not only successfully pulled off a Guardians of the Galaxy film but made it one of the MCU's best films to date. Naturally, his filmmaking duties have been tied up in the GOTG sequel, but before we're blessed with Vol. 2 in May, we're getting an appetizer of Gunn's pen game with The Belko Experiment. Australian director Greg McLean is behind the camera but the script—in which employees at a seemingly banal corporate office are forced to kill or be killed, Battle Royale-style—is peak-Gunn, a tight thriller that deftly balances very, (very) black comedy with deeply unsettling graphic violence.
With Belko dropping this weekend, Complex hopped on the phone with Gunn to talk corporate distrust, GOTG Vol. 2 and Marvel Phase Four, and who he'd kill first on the Belko cast.
Light spoilers ahead
I read that you have been sitting on the script for Belko for close to what, a decade now?
Yes, I think it's been exactly 10 years since I first wrote the script.
Why wait on it? Is that just how your career turned out or did you kind of shelve it for a little bit and move on to other things?
A little bit of that, but I originally was going to direct the movie back in 2007. I was set to fly down to Brazil and shoot all these people killing each other...and then I got divorced and I was like, God, I really want to be around my friends and family right now. So, I backed out of it and went on to do something else which I hated even more [laughs].
It's come up occasionally since then. Finally [MGM President] John Glickman called me a few years ago and said, "If you produce it and we get somebody else to direct it for a few million bucks, would you be open to that?" And I said, "As long as I can pick the director I want, and do the movie in exactly the way that I want to do, then sure."
In that time did the script evolve?
Not really. I mean, occasionally I'd make little permutations to it. There were a couple of endings that we went back and forth and with and settled with the one that's in the movie, but for the most part the screenplay stayed the same.
Even though the delay happened by chance, do you think a movie like this makes more sense now than it would have back in 2007?
I do. I think people are more paranoid, I think people are more conscious of being watched. I also think there's more distrust of corporate America in general than there was 10 years ago and people's fears of that are expressed in The Belko Experiment.
Where did the inspiration come from in terms of film influences? There's Battle Royale obviously, but also a little, 9 to 5?
[Laughs] 9 to 5? The Dolly Parton movie?
Yeah, there's that one fantasy sequence where she kills people in her office. It's a similar vibe.
Oh my god! I haven't seen 9 to 5 for 20-something years. But yeah, I love saying 9 to 5 is an influence. Definitely Battle Royale. There's a lot of influence that comes from the stuff that isn't the horror stuff, it's more in the style of shooting and [director] Paul Greengrass was a big influence somebody had brought up a lot when I was first talking with Greg [McLean, the director]. That was some of the marching orders from the beginning of this movie was to keep everybody real. That makes it a lot more harrowing. There are some people that are very horrified by the film and a lot of it has to do with that. A lot of horror movies have these cartoon characters as their main characters and then when they get their heads cut off or whatever it's funny. It's not really scary. And I think that the actors in Belko are what really bring life to the movie.
Right. The Tony Goldwyn lobby sequence is chilling.
Yeah, it's horrifying. And so much of that is played in terms of space. The majority of that scene is on Tony's face, it's not on violence. That character, who sometimes comes off as bad, is incredibly torn and in a lot of pain over what's happening.
What's the statement you're trying to make with a script like this, especially one that has so many of these characters take these really dark, self-preserving choices?
Well, I don't think of it as a statement so much as I think of it as a conversation. I think it's not only a conversation between the points of view in the movie but also the conversation with the audience, how we perceive it and how we are culpable in what we're watching and why are we watching it. Because in a way, we're the experimenters, right? As a filmmaker I'm particularly culpable because I am the one that put those characters in those situations. But I think that there's a conversation, just from different moral points of view about the way we feel with human life and how you have to make practical choices surrounding human life and the differences from the very sort of idealistic way that John Gallagher Jr.'s character looks at it to incredibly utilitarian in the way that Owain Yeoman's character looks at it. I also think there's a lot of fun to have in the movie just because people go to see it, then they get to go to work and talk about "I'm going with you first, I'm going to kill..." Because God knows we all had this conversation a lot on set and we all decided that Michael Rooker would be the first to go [laughs].
If you found yourself in this situation would you be like John Gallagher Jr. or more of a Tony Goldwyn?
Well, I honestly think that I'm a John Gallagher. First of all, I would see the whole thing as pretty futile. I don't think that I would kill anyone. I can't see where that is going to lead me down a road that is going to end well. I wouldn't want to live with myself knowing that I killed 30 people [in my place]. However, I could also be like Melonie Diaz's character and hide in the elevator shaft.
Are you open to a sequel?
Absolutely. I have a very good idea about where Belko goes from here and how the experiment would continue and if we're lucky enough to make a few bucks and the audience would like to see a sequel, then I think that would be something that we'd be very willing to give them.
Awesome. Switching gears to your other film that's coming out this year, Guardians 2. Kurt Russell's playing Ego, how is that going to be portrayed on screen?
Ego is a living planet who is able to manifest himself in different ways he's been alone for millions of years and he's learned how to control the molecules around him in such a way as to create avatars of themselves, such as Kurt Russell. I think Ego was a very lonely character out there by himself and went off in search of love and perhaps found it in Quill's mother.
All of the Marvel films are their own things—the first Guardians especially is hailed as something that's managed to be very distinct even while fitting into the larger universe, but how will the sequels fit in Phase Four?
It's a very self-enclosed story, so I deal with the Marvel guys every day on where we're going forward, but basically the story GOTG Vol. 2 is about the Guardians and it has no connection to the rest of the Marvel universe and none were ever mandated. So where it ends up is what anybody would have to deal with after that. I think people in general probably overestimate the amount of overall planning there is with the Marvel universe. At the end of the day, we're telling a longform story that has many different moving parts and within those stories there's a lot of freedom to do what you want. And I've been lucky in that the most creatively fulfilling freeing experience I've ever had making a film has been on Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Without a doubt.
Really? In what way?
Because at the end of the day any choice was mine, if there's ever a disagreement we go in my direction. The entire story was written by me alone in a room back in August 2014, and it stayed that way from the very beginning. I have the budget to do everything I want to do creatively. It's an incredibly personal film for me. It feels strange when it's a movie about a talking raccoon and a bunch of aliens and space battles, but to me it's a personal story, which seems to be something so far that the audiences have seemed to understand immediately.
What are any plans regarding a Guardians 3?
There will be a Guardians 3, that's for sure. We're trying to figure it out. I'm trying to figure out what I want to do really, that's all it is. I got to figure out where I want to be, what I want to spend the next three years of my life doing. You know, I'm going to make another big movie; is it the Guardians or something else? I'm just going to figure it out over the next couple of weeks.
Is there anything you can tease about the Guardians' involvement in Infinity War?
You know listen, I don't think we should overstate things that it is an Avengers movie, but the Guardians are a part of the cosmic universe, they're a part of Thanos' stories, so, they are in there, and they have, not the biggest, but, an integral part to that.