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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Slither' Director James Gunn

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Slither' Pitch: The sleepy town of Wheelsy could be any small town in America -- somewhat quaint and gentle, peopled with friendly folks who mind their own business. But just beneath the surface charm, something unnamed and evil has arrived -- and is growing. No one seems to notice as telephone poles become clogged with missing pet flyers, or when one of the town's richest citizens, Grant Grant, begins to act strangely. But when farmers' livestock turn up horribly mutilated and a young woman goes missing, Sheriff Bill Pardy and his team, aided by Grant's wife Starla, uncover the dark force laying siege to their town -- and come face-to-face with an older-than-time organism intent on absorbing and devouring all life on Earth.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Fun Gory Goodness.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
This is my first trip to SXSW, but I have a fair amount of film festival experience. I love everything about film festivals – the parties, the girls, the hotels, the press, meeting people from a new place, visiting a new city. I love everything about them except going to see the movies. Those are usually pretty boring. But everything else is awesome!

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
A turtle. For the first few years of my life I insisted I wanted to be a turtle when I grew up. I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that two year olds are idiots.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I got hired to write a B-Movie screenplay – Tromeo & Juliet – for a hundred and fifty dollars. My friends in film school were paying 40,000 dollars a year to take classes, and they thought I was getting gypped. Go figure. And, yes, I know, the term “gypped” is politically incorrect because it’s from “gypsies.” But I’m going to use it anyway, because that’s something that gypsies like to do.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Yes, after screening SLiTHER at festivals, I am reasonably certain it’s going to win the Academy Award™ next year. Strike that. False modesty. I’m absolutely certain.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Fucking Grover! Good question.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Normal people have nightmares about zombies and vampires: I dream of Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News eating through my body. But, in general, no, I don’t think of that stuff too much on set. Just at night when I go home.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
Dude. That’s a long question. In short: I wrote SLiTHER in a couple months, and sold it to Gold Circle, with Universal distributing. We immediately went into pre-production, and I moved up to Vancouver to shoot it. The shoot itself was physically rigorous, because it was a lot of cold and rainy nights with a cast covered in blood and goo. Michael Rooker in particular had a hard go of it, because he’d have to sit in the makeup chair for 7 hours before working 12 hour days on set. But, still, the shoot was fun, mostly because the cast and crew were good, hardworking folks with senses of humor, and because horror movies are the most fun of all movies to make. As gross as a basement full of mutilated pets may look on the screen, in person it’s quite funny. At least to me. Anyway, then we went into post-production where we cut the movie and worked on the CGI for the almost 300 visual effect shots. It’s like making a second movie, working with actors who are a bunch of 1’s and 0’s, and is generally a colder experience than shooting with real humans. But, eventually we finished, and now we’re being released worldwide on March 31st. I’ll have just a little poo in my pants until that day. Nerves.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Never trust a damn puppet, especially when the puppet in question has thirty foot long tentacles. They do whatever they want. They knock over camera equipment and your parents when they visit set. I’m a pretty liberal guy, against genocide and all that – until it comes to puppets. Then I say burn ‘em all.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Carpenter’s The Thing. Basket Case. Shivers, The Brood, Rabid, and The Fly by David Cronenberg. Re-Animator. Tremors. Evil Dead II.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Have you met Perry King? But I’m not sure he could pull off Homer’s intellectual capacity. Are you going to really print this? Fortunately, it’s not libel because Perry King really IS very stupid.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
I am dying for studios to come to me with more projects that AREN’T adaptations, sequels, or remakes. I honestly don’t know why they think the world needs a Magilla Gorilla movie, and my soul isn’t crying out to do one. I really like working from my own dumb skull, because then I don’t have to deal with an audience’s pre-existing framing of something. With Dawn of the Dead and the Scooby movies, I had to deal with it a lot and it’s a pain in the ass.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Nathan Fillion. He’s a young Harrison Ford and Kurt Russell wrapped into one. He’s funny, charming, an action hero with humanity and depth. Now I’m going to email him this so he talks about what a great director I am on The Tony Danza Show.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
On a boat somewhere in Hawaii, living off my wife’s money, instead of in the perpetual Hell I’m in now.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Thanks, but I’m not greedy. Just the act of killing the small dog would be enough for me... That said, Peter Falk was the first person who popped into my mind.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
A lot of therapy might get me there.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
For my type of movie, not so much. For others, I actually think they’re a little more important than they used to be, due to the Internet, Rotten Tomatoes, and so forth.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Pampers. I just wrote a scene with Pampers in them last night. But it’s a movie about Satan, so I got depressed because I know they won’t let me use them. Fucking Pampers. Dawn of the Dead was written with all of the basic mall stores – The Gap, Banana Republic, Successories – and NONE of them would let us use them.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
Honestly, I believe in sticking to the contracts I make. I should have been more careful and not had so much scrotum in the scene. It’s my mistake, so I’ll have to live with the results, and cut the damn thing. At least there’s DVD.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
Tacky. Until my lawyer negotiates it for my next picture. Then I’ll probably think of a million reasons to rationalize it.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
If you liked Terms of Endearment, you’ll love SLiTHER. It’s just like that, only with a enormous human-womb woman who explodes, filling a small town with 27,000 parasites.


SLiTHER, starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, and Gregg Henry, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official SLiTHER website.

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originally posted: 02/18/06 04:32:01
last updated: 03/09/06 01:13:01
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