James Gunn’s Guardians: How Chris Pratt and His Marvel Castmates Rescued Their Director’s Career
From secret meetings to teary goodbyes, the untold behind-the-scenes drama of Gunn’s dismissal from 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' and the epic comeback that led to his appointment as co-head of DC Studios.
No matter what else he felt, no matter what else was going on, above all Chris Pratt needed to keep a level head. He was Star-Lord, after all. The leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy. And James Gunn was going to need him.
The week before, on July 20, 2018, Pratt and the rest of the cast were thrown into despair when Gunn, his close friend and filmmaker of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, had been fired as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 after conservative personalities, rankled by his outspoken liberal views on Twitter, resurfaced decade-old tweets in which he joked about rape and pedophilia.
Now Pratt was at church, looking for solace. The sermon that day involved the story of the Israelites circling the walls of Jericho for seven days. On the seventh day, the Israelites shouted, and the walls crumbled down — a tale of perseverance. Listening to the preacher, Pratt was struck with a sense of clarity for the first time since Gunn’s dismissal.
“In that moment, I was like, ‘This is about James. James is going to get this. This is going to be OK,’ ” says the actor.
A few days earlier, Pratt had taken the lead in organizing an open letter to Disney asking for Gunn to be reinstated. He turned to Kennedy family scion (and his future mother-in-law) Maria Shriver for guidance, producing drafts with the input of the rest of the cast to make sure they all contributed and signed it. “If one person didn’t sign it, then that becomes the story,” says Sean Gunn, the filmmaker’s brother and another member of the Guardians cast.
All the while, Pratt texted Gunn verses from the Bible, including one from the Book of James: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
While Pratt and others worked behind the scenes — he and Zoe Saldaña trekked to Marvel headquarters to privately meet with president and chief creative officer Kevin Feige, co-president Louis D’Esposito and then-head of production Victoria Alonso — fellow castmember Dave Bautista took a less subtle route, calling out Disney on Twitter: “Nauseating to work for someone who’d empower a smear campaign by fascists.”
“Dave and Chris are so different in their approaches,” notes James Gunn. “Chris is like, ‘How do we do this methodically and take it one step at a time?’ Dave is like, ‘Fuck you.’ “
But all of them dropped everything to help the director who had created the Guardians onscreen, giving some a prominence in Hollywood they’d only dreamed about.
“This was a man who took chances on us, and it just made sense for us to have his back when he needed it the most,” says Saldaña.
Nearly five years later, Gunn, 56, is in the midst of his own epic Hollywood comeback, in no small part thanks to the efforts of his cast.
Not only was he rehired to direct the film he was fired from, Guardians 3, but while in postproduction he landed the coveted job of co-head of DC Studios, Marvel’s chief rival. By hiring him, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav clearly hopes Gunn will bring some of the Marvel magic with him. Gunn’s new gig also includes writing and directing a Superman movie. All of this makes him poised to be the most important figure in the comic book space since Feige, not to mention one of the busiest.
Gunn’s journey from schlock filmmaker on the fringes of Hollywood to A-list filmmaker, losing it all and then getting it back (and then some), is enough to give anyone an identity crisis, and it’s one that he’s already mining for his next project. “I completely relate to Superman because he’s everything I am,” says Gunn. “He’s somebody who is an outsider who feels like an alien, but also the ultimate insider, because he’s fucking Superman. And that’s kind of like what I feel like.”
On this mid-April day on a soundstage in West Hollywood for a Hollywood Reporter cover shoot, Gunn is with Pratt as well as fellow Guardians castmembers Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff and Sean Gunn.
The mood is as bright and colorful as the outfits in which they’ve been styled. Super Mario Bros., whose Mario is voiced by Pratt, has just shattered box office records, and Gunn ribs Pratt about his success, joking that he used to be like Ethan Hawke’s bohemian character in the cult ’90s movie Reality Bites but is now more like the square, establishment guy played in the film by Ben Stiller.
Gillan, meanwhile, is shooting video for her social media, and Gunn, given his Twitter history, can’t decide if he should encourage her or tell her to run the other way. He himself remains active, though mostly steers clear of politics. “I got to a place where I was very frustrated with one specific thing that was happening in the world, and I started speaking out and that got me fired, but I also think that I did the right thing [speaking out],” he says. These days, he’s more likely to correct a wild online fan rumor. “When either somebody’s just making stuff up to get clicks or somebody is just lying to somebody to make them look like an idiot, yeah, I’m going to say something,” he says.
Despite the camaraderie and feel-good vibes at the shoot, these are serious times for Marvel, and the pressure surrounding Guardians 3‘s release is high. The film arrives at a critical moment for the studio, which is facing challenges on several fronts. Its most recent title, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, has underperformed and was a dud with critics. It has so far earned $474 million at the global box office (high for most films, alarming for a Marvel sequel). Meanwhile, one of that movie’s stars, Jonathan Majors, who is supposed to anchor the next several years of Marvel films as its chief villain, is facing domestic assault charges in New York. (Majors has denied wrongdoing as he awaits a May 8 court appearance.) That incident occurred right after longtime production executive Alonso was fired for making the feature Argentina, 1985 with another studio.
The film also arrives after years of pundits warning of “superhero fatigue,” and audiences do seem to be growing impatient. The Marvel name may not be enough to carry the day. (Though this fatigue extends beyond Marvel: DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods — produced by Gunn’s new DC Studios partner Peter Safran for New Line — has earned only $131.8 million since its March premiere.) To Gunn, the fatigue is real. And natural. “The entertainment industry has a history of people getting used to the spigot of one thing or another, whether it’s DVD sales or superhero movies,” he says. “I think that there have been just way too many superhero movies lately that don’t have that center to them.”
So yes, Marvel needs Guardians 3 to hit on a galactic level. Early estimates predict it will open to $130 million, but the studio certainly would like a debut closer to the $146.5 million its 2017 predecessor scored. Still, Marvel and Disney are confident tracking will see a notable bump as they unleash the bulk of their marketing blitz.
“If the movie is good, all is forgiven,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore’s chief box office analyst. “If it delivers, any animus, any negative baggage carried forward from the MCU Phase Four or whatever, all gets removed.”
Feige says the pressure is par for the course, though he acknowledges the unusual emotional stakes: “Every release we have means everything to us. We still are the people that remember when we only had one or two movies a year where we just put all our chips in. That’s what every film is for us. And this in particular is extra emotional because of the journey with James.”
When Gunn came in to meet about the first Guardians in 2012, he had already been making movies in Hollywood for two decades, but was still known mostly for schlocky fare at horror house Troma (he co-wrote the sexy, violent Tromeo and Juliet). The St. Louis native had also directed a few midbudget features, including Slither (2006) and the genre-skewering superhero film Super (2010). But Feige and Marvel saw something in his films, both a unique sensibility and an affinity for genre and heroics.
Initially, Gunn didn’t think he was particularly interested in Guardians. But after a rather lackluster meeting with Marvel in Manhattan Beach, as he was driving his Dodge Challenger back to his Studio City home, stuck in traffic on the 405, something clicked. He saw what the movie could be, with Rocket, a little-known talking raccoon from the comics that Marvel wanted to include, at its center.
“Where did that Raccoon come from? How did he come to be? Instead of it being something that made the movie ungrounded, it actually grounded it for me,” he says.
Soon, Gunn was flying to meet Feige for the first time in Wilmington, North Carolina, where the executive was overseeing the production of Iron Man 3. His pitch centering the movie on Rocket “was incredibly emotional, and he was incredibly passionate about it,” recalls Feige.
Marvel made a deal with Gunn to direct, and soon Feige held a treatment in his hands. On the cover was a cut-and-paste picture of an ’80s-style Walkman with orange foam headphones, like the unit worn by Peter Quill in the films.
“Before I read one word, I went, ‘Oh, he did it. He’s cracked it,’ ” Feige recalls of seeing that image, the first time he realized how important music would be to Star-Lord’s journey and the film, which Gunn shared screenwriting credit on with Nicole Perlman, who developed the project prior to his arrival.
Next came what would turn out to be one the biggest challenges in Marvel casting history: finding the Guardians. Though Gunn didn’t fight to get the job as director, he went to battle to secure the cast he wanted, and often he and Marvel didn’t agree.
For the lead role of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, the team saw around 200 actors, including Shazam!‘s Zachary Levi and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Glenn Howerton (ultimately Gunn’s second choice). Casting director Sarah Halley Finn was the one who pushed Gunn to see Pratt, then known mostly as the lovably schlubby Andy Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation (he also had a small, range-pushing performance as the Oakland A’s first baseman in Moneyball). But Gunn just wasn’t interested. The chubby guy from Parks and Rec as Star-Lord? Seemed like a ridiculous notion.
As the story famously goes, seconds into Pratt’s audition, Gunn turned to Finn and declared he was the one. Less well known is how hard it was to get Marvel on board. It didn’t help that Pratt choked during the screen test.
Pratt recalls that Gunn actually stopped him in the middle and walked toward him. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re blowing it,” Pratt remembers him saying. Then Gunn added, “This is the moment right now. You just need to stop doing whatever you’re doing and just be real. Just be you.”
If this were a movie, it would have been the moment when Pratt turns it around and the screen test transitions to the actor playing the part on set. But Pratt just couldn’t get it together. Inside his head, all he heard was “You’re blowing it, you’re blowing it.”
As a Hail Mary, Gunn brought out Dave Bautista, a former wrestler who was not yet cast as a fellow Guardian named Drax, but was in the running. He asked the men to improv. The chemistry popped, and Pratt landed the role. But then Bautista faced resistance from the studio. Ditto for Karen Gillan as Nebula. Known in the U.K. for Doctor Who, she originally auditioned with her native Scottish accent — a no-go for Marvel. Gillan recalls Gunn giving her a note that unlocked the character’s voice. “I was kind of doing a generic villain thing,” she recalls. Gunn told her, “Do Marilyn Monroe/Clint Eastwood.”
Filming began in London in 2013; plenty of press predicted Guardians would be Marvel’s first flop.
Around the time it opened, Pratt was in New Orleans shooting Jurassic World and watched the movie in a local theater with a friend. It was an emotionally fraught time for the actor, who was still grieving the recent death of his father.
He recalls the moment he first appears onscreen. “I saw myself dancing and I immediately got nervous and self-conscious. Like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work at all,’ ” he says. “And then I saw Rocket and Groot and the voices coming together and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this movie’s going to be massive.’ “
On opening weekend, Gunn kept receiving box office updates via his agent. The film ultimately grossed $772.7 million globally, and Pratt became a household name.
A few weeks earlier, Gunn, Pratt and Bautista had been in London recording a promotional podcast at an Apple store, aware their lives could be on the cusp of big change. Backstage, the three men put their arms around one another and made a pact, recalls Gunn: “Let’s promise to each other that we won’t let our egos get the best of us, that we’ll continue being kind to each other, continue being down-to-earth.”
Gunn was definitely not on Earth anymore. With the success of Guardians, Gunn had moved to Malibu and traded his Challenger for a Tesla. He jetted around the globe, attending Brazil’s CCXP, South America’s biggest comic convention, where thousands chanted his name. He was offered millions to make more movies. He read about himself, good and bad, drinking it all up. “This is my own weakness as an entertainer,” says Gunn. “I’m always looking for people to love me.”
As he worked on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn became more and more well known, joining a rare breed of filmmakers whose faces fans know. The film kicked off summer movie season in May 2017 and went on to outgross the original with $863.7 million. Gunn was becoming more indispensable to Marvel: He was working on a script for Vol. 3, and Feige suggested in the press that Gunn could have a larger role at the studio helping shepherd its expanding cinematic universe.
And then, in July 2018, all that imploded. Gunn was on his way to board a plane to San Diego Comic-Con to promote Brightburn, a superhero horror movie he produced for Sony, when Feige called to tell him he was being fired, a decision made by then-Disney film chair Alan Horn. The exec couldn’t conceive of a world in which Gunn’s tweeted jokes made any sense. (One from 2009 read: “The best thing about being raped is when you’re done being raped and it’s like ‘whew this feels great, not being raped!’ “) It didn’t matter that he had already apologized for them years earlier, taking full responsibility in a statement that was well received at the time. The political climate in America had turned exceedingly divisive, and conservative pundits Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich resurfaced the old tweets to target Gunn, a vocal critic of President Donald Trump. Soon they were all over Fox News and other outlets.
D’Esposito called Pratt to inform him that Gunn’s firing was imminent. “Louis, don’t do it,” Pratt replied. “Jesus fucking Christ, don’t do it.” Horn issued a statement announcing the firing, calling the tweets “indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values.”
Klementieff, who had joined the cast with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and was at San Diego Comic-Con to promote the recently released Avengers: Infinity War, burst into tears upon hearing the news and cut her appearance short. (Watch Gunn and the cast talk about their first auditions and impressions below.)
In the days that followed, the Guardians circled the wagons. Saldaña and her husband, Marco Perego-Saldaña, came over to Gunn’s Malibu home to make dinner for him and his now-wife, Jennifer Holland. The next day, Saldaña made a return visit, this time with Gillan. Others spoke out, too. Ant-Man actor David Dastmalchian and comedian Patton Oswalt voiced support for Gunn on social media. Bobcat Goldthwait, who voiced the character of Pain in 1997’s Hercules, threatened to take away his voice rights from Disney’s theme park ride World of Color: Villainous!
The firing and the support from friends and family caused Gunn to reevaluate his priorities. “My feet weren’t on the ground at that point,” says Gunn. “It really made me go, ‘What matters to me? Adulation and money? Is that really what I care about?’ ” (He has since sold his house in Malibu and returned to living in the Valley.)
Throughout the firing ordeal, the filmmaker maintained close contact with Feige. In fact, Marvel never met with a single director to replace him. “We didn’t even put a preliminary list together just because we couldn’t do it,” recalls Feige, who reported to Horn. “We couldn’t stomach it.”
Feige worked behind the scenes on his end, securing a commitment that the project would still use Gunn’s script. He gave it to the cast in the weeks after the firing. To Pratt, it was a sly move and a sign that cracks were starting to appear.
“I was like, ‘Oh, so we can use the script written by James Gunn, but we just can’t have him direct?’ ” Pratt says. “The script is so good that you’re going to be like, ‘Yeah, we had to get rid of him because we couldn’t associate with that man. But we will make his script.’ “
It came down to a change of heart from Horn, the Disney chairman, who had the growing sensation he’d made the wrong call. Gunn heard he was having trouble sleeping over the firing.
“It’s a hundred percent because Alan Horn felt sick. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do,” says Gunn.
Horn won’t comment on Gunn’s tweets or the decision that saw Gunn rehired. But he says that the filmmaker’s attitude after the firing revealed a strong character. “Everything he did subsequently was first class,” says Horn. “He was such a gentleman about it in the ensuing months that we just brought him back. It felt like the right thing to do. I hold him in absolute high regard.”
That regard extended beyond the Guardians reinstatement. In Horn’s current role as a consultant to Warner Bros. Discovery head Zaslav, he was supportive of Gunn being named co-head of DC Studios last November.
The night Horn offered him his job back, Gunn went over to Feige’s house. The Marvel executive was pleased that his efforts had helped turn the tide. But Gunn had a confession to make: Just one day before he was reinstated, he had quietly committed to direct another movie — The Suicide Squad, for rival DC. Awkward, sure. But it also meant that the next two years of Gunn’s life would be tied up before he could return to Guardians.
Feige’s response? “Just make a good movie.”
Despite the drama preceding Guardians Vol. 3, the shoot itself was chaos-free. Gunn is known for coming in on time and under budget; there were just two days of previously scheduled reshoots, a far cry from the typical Marvel method, in which the key moments are often found in reshoots.
Gunn describes himself as all business on set, so it wasn’t until a month into filming that all the turmoil he’d gone through to get there hit him. He summoned his core Guardians cast to check something out in the monitor.
Gunn turns to his actors gathered today at the photo shoot as he recalls the moment: “I just got teary because it was like, fuck, I loved all you guys so much and I just realized this journey we had been through together.”
His brother Sean was also moved. In addition to playing the character Kraglin, Sean had always done the motion capture work for Rocket. But given the character’s central role in Guardians Vol. 3, he’s almost the star: The film features flashbacks of Rocket’s childhood, and Sean voices young Rocket for the first time (Bradley Cooper voices the adult version).
“I got very emotional shooting some of that stuff, more than I wanted to,” says Sean Gunn. “Usually, it’s the opposite — we have to manufacture some of the emotion. And in this one, I was struggling to keep it together.”
The Guardians will undoubtedly continue as a property after Gunn completes the transition to DC, and the new film hints at a future, albeit with a different lineup of Guardians. Gunn is enthusiastic about a handoff, though protective. When the characters appeared in the Avengers two-part epic directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Gunn saw disconnects with certain storylines. “They did some things that I wouldn’t have wanted,” says Gunn of the films. (Yes, he says, Star-Lord would have killed Gamora if she asked him to; no, he would not have punched Thanos and doomed the universe.)
The actors are less sure about working for a new director. “I can’t imagine playing Mantis with someone else writing the words,” Klementieff says, hinting that Gunn had a large role in shaping the character in the Avengers films. Gunn says that she and Pratt reached out to him from the Avengers set to make sure the direction was all right. “I was being given directions, and I was like, ‘I think I’m going to call James,’ ” says Klementieff.
Bautista has been vocal about this being the end of the Guardians line for him, and Saldaña feels the same. The actress had expected to play Gamora in only one movie, and Gunn almost killed her off in Vol. 2. “I don’t think this is the end for the Guardians. It is the end for me, for Gamora,” she says.
On her last day of filming, Saldaña gave a speech thanking the crew she had known for almost a decade, many of whom were in tears. “I thanked James for just his time and his patience and his guidance and his friendship,” she says. Pratt said goodbye to the assembled cast and crew by reading aloud early press clips that had predicted that Guardians was going to be Marvel’s first bomb.
Pratt, who has been in other franchises and a long-running TV show, says: “I’ve done jobs where I’ve been so close to people, then the job ends and I just never see them again. And that happens.” Pratt pauses. “I don’t think that’ll happen with us.”
Gunn estimates 60 percent of his waking hours over the past decade have been spent thinking about the Guardians movies. Yet even as Vol. 3 takes its final steps and he and the cast embark on the promotional world tour, he is already sizing up another franchise, arguably the biggest challenge of his career: Superman: Legacy, the first film out of Gunn and Safran’s DC Studios slate. The tone and reception will set the stage for years of movies to follow, coming after Gunn and Safran opted to leave fan-favorite actor Henry Cavill’s iteration of the character behind. And unlike Spider-Man or Batman, Hollywood has had trouble dependably turning out Superman features. There have been only two stand-alone movies starring the hero this century. Gearing up to shoot the superhero movie in January, he is now in the process of casting.
With the Guardians films, he took obscure and tertiary Marvel characters few knew and gave them a new spin.
“It’s easier to take a character nobody knows, like the Guardians, or Peacemaker, and then do whatever you want with them,” says Gunn. “People in every single country in the world know the story of Superman.” It’s one reason he turned down a Superman film in 2018 — he didn’t have a take. Now, he says he does.
“How can I make it different from the Superman movies that have been made so far, but also have it respect all the Superman movies that have been made so far?” he asks. “So it just took me some time to try to figure it out.” The movie won’t be a comedy, he says, and it’s not like he’s going to make Superman one of the quirky characters he is famous for. Gunn is intent on making a sincere superhero movie.
At Marvel, the ever-positive Feige acknowledges that it is sad to see Gunn go. The men still talk often, and as Feige notes: “I’ll be first in line to see anything he does. And Superman is a very important character to me and to the genre.”
Back at the photo shoot, Gunn — always directing — is trying to corral his cast. They’re chatting by craft services, but it’s time to stand on a platform for some more poses.
So he offers up something no Marvel director ever has: “The next person onstage gets to star in Superman!”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.