In Firing James Gunn, Disney Hurts All of Hollywood

James Gunn at London Premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy - Getty - H 2018
Jeff Spicer/Getty
A creative industry requires artists like the 'Guardians' director who push boundaries, make (offensive) mistakes and evolve, writes Hollywood Reporter columnist Marc Bernardin: "To demand that every artist who works for you to have never had a past … is asking for people who will make boring art."

James Gunn got his start writing for Troma, the Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., schlocksploitation outfit that proudly released films like The Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die and Tromeo and Juliet. They were gross and offensive and sweet, and they understood that the only way those movies would get any attention was if they blasted through a bland marketplace with transgression.

It was punk. It was about shock and volume. As was Gunn. Clearly, looking back at the tweets that surfaced over the past week — “jokes” he made as far back as 10 years ago about topics like rape and pedophilia — the writer-director was feeling things and saying things that embraced that sense of transgression. As Gunn tweeted July 19, a day before the Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director was fired by Disney, “Many people who have followed my career know, when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I've developed as a person, so has my work and my humor.”

The very things that make Gunn so interesting as a filmmaker came from that place. The reason why you rope him in to write the reboot of Dawn of the Dead is because he’ll write in a zombie infant. The reason why you let him draft your live-action Scooby-Doo flick is because he’ll make it a horror picture. The reason why you hire him to write and direct your giant superhero movie is because he’ll infect it with an irreverence of tone that’ll make it stand out among a crowded field of giant superhero movies.

Is the content of those past tweets revolting? Absolutely. Undeniably. And Gunn, now 51, was in his 40s when he sent them, hardly a kid. But so long as there has been no actual criminal activity, there has to be a difference between who a person was and who a person is. And we have to allow for the fact that people can change.

Roseanne Barr is the kind of person who dresses up in a Hitler costume and threatens to bake Jews in an oven. She is the kind of person who fires off racist tweets and conspiracy theories. Jeffrey Tambor is someone who creates a hostile work environment on the sets of his television shows. You fire that person today for something she or he did yesterday. 

By most accounts, from his collaborators and peers, Gunn is the kind of person who is committed to equality and representation, who conducts himself on his sets in a fair and respectful manner, and who speaks out against injustice when he sees it in the world. He was, it seems, an asshole. Do I want assholes? No. But I’ll take assholes who realized they were assholes and changed for the better all by themselves — before we noticed they were assholes.

Sometimes, artists’ lives are messy. They are people full of contradictions. They are compelled to push boundaries, to make noise, to get noticed. Sometimes the urge to do that is driven by some deep-seated mania. Other times because they are processing past traumas, both physical and psychological. But none of them is a static being … they are always evolving, trying to find the version of themselves that makes creation possible.

To demand that every artist who works for you to have never had a past, to have never had jagged edges that have been sanded down over time, is asking for people who will make boring art. I want people who challenged the world around them. I want people who were misfits and outcasts. I want people who raised hell. I want David Bowie and Tim Burton and John Waters and Sarah Silverman and Mel Brooks and Patton Oswalt and Eddie Murphy.

I want the voices that carry — and many of those voices didn’t always say things we want to hear.

Marc Bernardin is a former Hollywood Reporter editor and a comic book and television writer whose credits include Hulu's Castle Rock. He also co-hosts the Fatman on Batman podcast with Kevin Smith.