Looking at his filmography to date—which has included everything from the big-budget remake of Dawn of the Dead to the live-action Scooby Doo, to the bloody superhero satire Super—it was a no-brainer for publisher WB Interactive to tap writer-director James Gunn to provide the script for the zombie-filled hack-n-slash Lollipop Chainsaw. To hear Gunn tell it, he didn't think twice about hooking up with Grasshopper and punk rock gaming auteur Suda51—even if there was a bit of smoke and mirrors involved in getting him onto the game.
Warner Brothers took me into a room and said 'We have this project that we're working on and thought you might want to be involved.' And they showed me a bit of test footage from the game, and it was basically just the character that would become Juliet Starling jumping around in a cheerleader uniform, using a chainsaw to cut up all of these zombies, and then blood gushes out them, mixed with rainbows and little pink, sparkly hearts. It blew my mind.
Gunn says that he's often pitched a lot of projects by would-be collaborators, but the game that would ultimately become Lollipop Chainsaw was one of the few to get him excited to work on, thanks to a mix of the innocent and the profane.
"The guys from Warner Brothers and Suda, the reason they had come to me was because they thought that my work jibed with that." Gunn was speaking of the mix of splatter-horror and comedy elements that make up Lollipop Chainsaw, whose story follows high school student Juliet Starling who becomes an unexpected zombie slayer when a jilted goth unleashes an apocalypse of the living dead.
Gunn was impressed that both WB and Suda saw his body of work as more than just strictly comedies or horror titles, but a collection of movies that seemed to work across multiple genres. Consider last year's Super, the unorthodox superhero movie starring Rainn Wilson as a wage slave who retreats into a costumed identity after his girlfriend leaves him for drug dealer Kevin Bacon. Super had everything from hallucinogenic fantasies featuring Jesus entreating the Wilson's character to fight crime, to scenes of gruesome violence, to a heart-wrenching scene of grief late in the film. "You see the kind of things I'm interested in, with the mixture of the innocent and the profane," Gunn tells me about his filmography. Gunn attributes this mixing of styles to the influence of Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong fare, which could bounce around between slapstick, action, and drama in the same film.
Gunn says that in a similar way, Suda has a love and appreciation for American culture that has informed his work. When I asked to what degree he and Suda51 share a similar temperament, Gunn tells me "completely," saying that the two of them worked so well together because Suda is so Japanese and Gunn is so quintessentially American. This allowed Suda to appreciate and collaborate on some of the cultural cherry picking Gunn did for Lollipop Chainsaw, such as references to horror icons of the past (Juliet attends San Romero High School)
"I think that it was just a very easy partnership," Gunn explains. He continues, "To be completely honest, most of mine and Suda's conversations, we'd have these very simple conversations about life. And we'd have them through an interpreter because I speak zero Japanese and Suda's grasp of English is extremely small. It's more of a brotherhood or a kinship that we enjoy."
Developing Lollipop Chainsaw was something of a cultural education for Gunn, who would often participate in trans-national video meetings between the U.S. Warner Brothers executives and Suda and the Grasshopper devs in Japan.
In those discussions, Gunn says that he observed his Japanese counterparts' penchant for what he describes as a more "poetic" style of storytelling—the how and why of storytelling is sometimes less important than effect, like why a high school in a zombie hack-n-slash game is adjacent to an amusement park. "Westerners are much more 'one scene pushes forward to the next, pushing to the next.'" This contrast meant taking the story elements put forward by Grasshopper and working them into something that Western audience could appreciate, while still staying true to the core ideas put forth by Suda and company.
Humor was also a tricky area when Gunn was crafting the story for Lollipop Chainsaw thanks to the gulf between what Japanese and Western audiences might find funny. "There's a lot of jokes in the game, a lot. And sort of getting the Japanese guys to understand that was a difficult situation from the beginning. But also, we had to have a guy over in Japan with them when they were sound cutting everything because the rhythm of humor is such a specific thing that needed to be understood."
Gunn says that nevertheless, it was for him an enlightening experience, in spite of the obstacles to getting the story told. "It was definitely a challenge to craft the story in a way that we were all happy [with]." Coming off the the challenge of getting the story out there, he says he got the chance to learn how Japanese developers conduct their business and create their art. When I asked if that poetic style of storytelling might bleed into any of his future work, Gunn wouldn't commit to anything specific, but said that he appreciated that dream-like storytelling quality in some Japanese creators' work.
Super was a passion project for Gunn that took years to get to the screen and he's always dreamed of making a video game. I asked him what were the other unconquered frontiers for him. "I still haven't dealt with comic books and television, which are my other two loves." He says that when he first went out to L.A. he wrote several pilots that didn't really go anywhere, but he's never lost the bug. At the same time, he says that he's been approached by Marvel's Executive Editor Axel Alonso to work on something, but timing and circumstance conspire to keep Gunn from working on what he describes as his first passion in the world.
His experience with Warner Brothers has been really positive so far, so in terms of making another game, he'd be happy to work with them again in the future.
Gunn says he doesn't get to game regularly, devoting his working time strictly to work, but during his down time, he wants to get back to Mass Effect 3 along with the WB-published The Witcher 2. As a gamer, Gunn says he appreciates that games allow themselves to draw on broader genres and styles than film. "You really are less restricted by genre and ideas in video games than you are in the world of film where things need to be really vanilla for them to work on a big level and for studios to get behind you." He says that right now video games and TV are the real bastions of creative freedom right now, citing cultural milestones in the latter from recent memory like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
Lollipop Chainsaw will be available on June 12th for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
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