Want to write anarchic adventures like Guardians Of The Galaxy’s James Gunn? The trick is introducing a little anarchy to your writing process. “One of the ways I keep my interest in writing is by changing my writing process all the time. I get bored too easily!” the writer-director told me this week on my podcast, Script Apart, where brilliant screenwriters revisit their first drafts of great movies.
Sometimes James sits down and dives straight into writing scenes, letting characters and comedy flow onto the page unrestricted. “Other times I treatment it to death. I think as time has gone on I’ve thought that maybe there’s a balance there: ‘treatment with freedom.’ That’s the best,” he says.
For the Missouri-born blockbuster giant, mixing up your methods when it comes to approaching new projects keeps your creativity firing and leads to surprises on the page. Here are a few other writing tips to be learned from his appearance on Script Apart.
Colliding Genres is a Great Path to Originality
Stuck with a scene or a story? Try taking two things that on paper feel like they’re utterly incompatible and colliding them on the page. It worked for James on The Suicide Squad, whose cast of characters represents a glorious genre mishmash.
“I wanted it to be like each of these characters was from a different movie or TV show,” he laughs. “Bloodsport (Idris Elba) comes from some sort of grim, dark type of movie. Peacemaker (John Cena) comes from some crappy 1970s TV show. Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) comes from the saddest version that ever existed of the Batman show in the 60s, and there’s some sort of Saw movie that Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) is from.”
Experiment with Oddball Characters Who Have Hidden Painful Pasts
“If I have an obsessive theme, this is it,” says James, whose movie-writing career is full of iconic characters who seem on the surface to be wacky and outlandish, but have backstories rooted in trauma. When he came to write Guardians of the Galaxy, “I thought this is going to be silly – it’s Bugs Bunny with the Avengers,” he recalls, describing the origins of that film’s breakout character, Rocket Raccoon. “Then one day I was stuck in traffic on the way home from Marvel, and I thought, if I did do this movie and if there was a talking raccoon, how did that talking raccoon come to be? What came to my mind was the saddest story of all time.”
He repeats the trick in The Suicide Squad with the characters Polka Dot Man and King Shark. “I love giving depth to that goofy stuff,” he says – and audiences love watching them.
Action Needs Escalation
“There’s a lot of action movies you see where it’s a guy running around a corner who shoots a few people, goes around another corner, shoots some more people. It’s like, “Oh better stab this guy! Now let’s stab another guy!” It can be really well shot and really well done, but who cares if there’s no story?” groans James.
Action scenes need to move and develop. Take the fight sequence in The Suicide Squad in which Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) mounts a daring escape. “We see her killing these guys. We see her go into this Umbrellas of Cherbourg moment using an umbrella. Then the scene explodes into life with all these flowers and machine guns,” says James.
Variation, different weapons, highs, lows, and stakes – these are all ingredients that make up a great action sequence, before the scene culminates with a memorable moment. “It can’t be the same type of action over and over again. It’s gotta have escalation. It has to go somewhere.”
The Suicide Squad is now streaming on HBO Max
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.