Actor and comedian Rainn Wilson is primarily known for his role as Dwight, the paper salesman on the American version of “The Office.” for which he was an Emmy nominee twice. After years of working in TV and film, his breakout role was on HBO’s successful series “Six Feet Under” where he played Arthur, the intern at the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home, who was in love with the much older Ruth Fisher, played by Frances Conroy.
His latest film is “Super” in which he plays Frank D’Arbo, a pathetic loser whose ex-addict wife (Liv Tyler) takes off with a slimy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Overcome with sadness and frustration with the world around him, he decides to fight back under the guise of a superhero called Crimson Bolt and with a tacky costume and a wrench. He also teams up with Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes his psychotic sidekick, Boltie.
Director James Gunn was the first screenwriter in cinema history to write back-to-back weekend box office topper hits with “Dawn of the Dead” and “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.” He made his directing debut in the well-received horror film, “Slither.”
The following text was culled from interviews with Rainn Wilson and James Gunn and has been edited for print purposes.
Before we talk about “Super” with James Gunn, what was the cast’s reaction to Steve Carell’s departure from “The Office?”
Wilson: We were all heartbroken and there were a lot of tears shed. He’s a sweet guy to work with – a kind, sensitive dude. We’re taking a big hit because we lost one of the funniest comedic actors who ever lived as our lead guy, but we have a great writing staff, a brilliant group of folks, and we’ll get to see what the show becomes without Steve Carell. It’s a little scary moving forward. You know, the show could crash and burn without him.
How are things going?
Wilson: Will Ferrell has joined us for the last four episodes and that’s been really fun. He’s absolutely a comic genius. We have a couple of episodes left for this season and I’m going to contract for another season, along with the rest of the cast, and we’ll see what happens.
Are you tweeting a lot about “Super” on your Twitter account or is that too self-serving?
Wilson: Hell, yes. I’ve been tweeting a lot about “Super.” That’s what social networking is for. Also, it’s been very valuable for people to get to know me apart from my character on “The Office.” I’m different from that character and I like the fact that they get to know Rainn Wilson, the guy. I use Twitter to promote my websites and SoulPancake, as well as my other movies and causes that I support.
When is “Hesher” coming out?
Wilson: It’s coming out next month and is very much like “Super” in that it’s a dark comedy and very violent. I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic and gives the performance of his career. I play a very difficult, challenging role as the father of a 13-year-old boy. I’m a pill-popping dad who spends most of his life sleeping on the couch after the death of his wife. Piper Laurie plays my mom and she’s wonderful.
Now let’s talk about “Super.” The characters morph into super heroes, but wind up being as corrupt and violent as the people they are trying to remove from the planet. What is your point of view?
Gunn: That is one of the questions about “Super.” We have known Batman for a long time. Batman is basically just a guy who puts on a cape and decides he knows what’s right or wrong and we sort of take for granted that he knows who’s bad and who deserves to get beaten up and who doesn’t deserve to get beaten up. We all assume that a superhero is a good guy. In “Super,” we’re playing with the idea of what’s good or bad. Are they good guys or bad guys or are they just a shade of gray? I think people will have to decide for themselves as far as what they think of The Crimson Bolt and Boltie. That said, Libby (Boltie) is definitely a sociopath. She’s got issues.
What was unique about your collaboration with Rainn?
Gunn: I tried to cast this movie for a long time. We were originally going to make it back in 2004, but I couldn’t agree with the financiers about who was right for the lead role. I needed someone who could not only do the comedic parts, but also had the dramatic chops and he had to be physically powerful enough so that we could imagine him kicking butt.
How did you decide on Rainn?
Gunn: I’ve known Rainn for about five years, and two years ago my ex-wife called me and asked what I was doing with “Super.” I told her that it was hard to raise the money and I also couldn’t think of anyone for the lead role. She asked me if I ever thought of Rainn and immediately I thought wow, Rainn is perfect for the role. I sent him the script and an hour-and-half later he texted me saying, “I’m 22 pages in, my hands are shaking. I’m in.”
Was it an asset having Rainn as Executive Producer?
Gunn: From the moment he signed on, we were an unstoppable force. We had a lot of people turn us down, but we really fought for it and eventually we got the film made. Rainn also helped in getting Ellen Page involved. He sent her the script but we never thought in a million years that she would say yes because everyone worked for scale. Nobody got paid more than a few thousand dollars. But she said yes and that was because of Rainn.
When was Liv Tyler cast?
Gunn: Liv came in after Rainn and Ellen. Liv was extremely important because she is considered to be one of the top five female stars in the world. She starred in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and “The Incredible Hulk” – all huge films. We honestly didn’t have our financing when we just had Ellen and Rainn attached. It was Liv who put us over the edge and got us our financing.
How long was the shoot?
Gunn: We shot in 24 days. On a normal movie you do between 12 to 20 set-ups a day. On “Super,” we shot between 45 and 54 camera set ups every day. We moved extremely fast and had a great crew and cast who were willing to jump in.
What was your artistic vision for this film?
Gunn: We set out to create a movie that was not for everybody. So many movies are trying to relate to everyone. “Super” is not that. It’s gory, violent, sweet at times, and about religion at times. What matters to me is not that everyone likes it, not even all comic book fans, but that it touches some people on a certain level.
Do you have a specific technique for working with the actors?
Gunn: Every actor is different. Some actors need a lot of attention and some need to be left alone. My approach with Ellen was to support her in going as crazy as she possibly could. Before we started shooting, she told me she had some things in mind on how to play Boltie and was going to go all the way, but didn’t want to look like an idiot. I told her to let me be in charge of stopping her if she went too far and asked for her trust. So it was about creating a safe environment for Ellen. Same thing applied to Rainn in the scene where he’s praying to God and crying. Although we moved very fast, we took the time for those few scenes where we needed the actors to be emotional.
Did you have to rein in the actors at any point?
Gunn: There were a lot of adjustments. There were times when an actor would go in a different direction and only I had the movie inside my head. Only I knew what every shot is and what the eventual story was going to look like.
You had some pretty famous movie stars working for scale. How did everyone get along and who had the party trailer?
Gunn: (Laughs) Well, the sad thing on “Super” is that there was no party trailer. We were moving at such a rapid pace, it was the most un-fun movie you could ever make. Everyone got along famously and there were no problems either from the actors or the crew. You have to get along because it’s like being in a war together and everyone’s fighting side by side for the same thing.
What were some of the shooting challenges?
Gunn: Louisiana, where we shot, had its coldest winter in 20 years. It was only 14 to 17 degrees every night and we’re outside with poor Ellen in her skimpy spandex costume. But, as luck would have it, it rained when we were shooting inside and cleared up when we were outside. If we had one day when we couldn’t shoot outside, it would have screwed up our whole schedule because we didn’t have the money to go into overtime.
How did the casting of Kevin Bacon come about?
Gunn: I had talked to his agent about the role and he gave him the script. I had checked out the rest of the cast with directors with whom they had worked to make sure they were trustworthy because in a movie like this, you can’t have a diva or someone who’s a pain in the butt. In Kevin’s case, because he came in at the last minute, I didn’t have time to do a background check so I took a risk and he ended up being the best actor I’ve ever worked with. He’s an icon and yet he is always the first one on set and you never have to wait for him. He never complains and doesn’t have one of those actor personalities where he has to be the center of attention. He’s actually very quiet and very serious about his work and you can rely on him 100 percent, so I just got lucky.
What was your vision for this film?
Gunn: One of the things I wanted was to tell the story in such a way that you absolutely don’t know what’s going to happen next. A lot of people like movies where you know what’s going to happen next because it’s comforting to them, but I like to be surprised and wanted to give people something different with a lot of tonal shifts.
Well congratulations. You certainly succeeded in the surprise department.