Cousins Brian and Mark Gunn have been writing together for a long time. Thanks to their brother/cousin James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, they’ve been able to bring their latest project Brightburn to the big screen.
A young Kansas couple named Tori and Kyle Breyer, played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, have been trying to have a baby. One night, their dream comes true, and years later, their son Brandon Breyer is having troubles at school, but he’s also acting in mysterious and often disturbing ways. There’s obviously much more to Brandon’s origins as we see him developing superpowers that he could use for good…. But if you’ve seen the trailer, then you already know that he doesn’t.
In some ways, Brightburn is a counterpoint to the recent superhero movie Shazam! even if that movie also got kind of dark at times, too. You should make note that Brightburn is definitely more of a horror movie, one that gets VERY gory if that stuff makes you squeamish. That said, it’s also a nice amalgam of genres, as it takes a different look at tried and true superhero, owing as much to The Omen as it does to Superman.
The Beat spoke to the Gunns yesterday for the following interview where we spoke not only about Brightburn but also some of their other projects, a few that are no longer happening, but they also tease working on adapting a Vertigo comic for New Line. Could it be Sandman?
THE BEAT: I’ve known James for a long time, going back to Slither, and I’ve spoken to him many times. I knew he had a big family but never had a chance to talk to anyone else, so if you have any dirty secrets you want to share…
Mark Gunn: There are so many secrets!
Brian Gunn: How much time do you have?
THE BEAT: Just 15 minutes so we probably should talk about the movie a little bit.
Brian: We’re going to need to set aside a few hours at some point to give you some dish.
THE BEAT: That would be great. How did this come about? It’s a pretty high concept, and I liked it because it reminded me of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, and it’s really really dark take on superheroics. Was this something you two wrote and then went to James with it?
Mark: We wrote it ourselves on spec a couple years ago, and we were at a barbecue at James’ house with David Yarovesky the director, and he asked me what Brian and I were working on, and I told him about this script we were writing about this superhero horror movie that was an origin story about this younger super-villain. He was very interested in it and asked if he could read it. We sent it to him, he showed it to James, and then James called us one day and said, “Let’s go make this movie. The four of us and Simon Hatt, who is sort of James’ right-hand man and one of the executive producers on the movie, we all got together and figured out how to turn what was a spec that we wrote to be made for a very, very, very small budget into a bigger movie.
Brian: To go back a number of months before that to the genesis of the idea itself, it kind of began frankly when I was in the process of adopting a child and just talking to Mark in our office about the anxieties about bringing a child into our family. It was my second child – Mark has three kids – and we start talking more about parenting and realizing that any time you’re a parent, you’re inviting a stranger into your house. We started talking about how that was a good premise for a horror movie, and we started talking about this whole tradition in comic books of people who find children in the wood, and they bring them into their homes and raise them as their own. Typically, in the comic books, it ends up well, these babies, these foundlings end up noble and heroic. We started asking ourselves “What would happen if these children grew up to be something more sinister?” and once we had that idea, we were off to the races.
THE BEAT: So basically you’re undoing all the good will towards adoption Instant Family provided last year.
Brian: (laughs) I’m suddenly thinking, “I don’t know if I want my wife or adopted child or anyone I know to read that.” But anyway, I said it, and you can do with it as you will. (laughs)
Mark: Another sort of idea that interested us that we both liked the movie Carrie and how that is sort of the nightmare version of puberty from the young woman’s point of view. We liked the idea of a nightmare version of puberty from the parents’ point of view. Our interest, as Brian was suggesting, was always at the beginning anyway about the parents, and what would it be like for parents to watch a child go through these horrific changes and not know what to do about it. We were interested in the conflict between the mother and the father where the father, on one hand, feels that his child has something “broken” at his core that’s probably not fixable, where the mother thinks that it is fixable, that nurture can win the day and that her love for her child will save the day. We don’t want to talk about where the movie goes, but you’ve seen it, so you know that one of those points of view prevails over the other.
THE BEAT: Carrie is an interesting touchstone, because you think about when you’re a kid and you’re at school and you’re dealing with bullying and all the things in life you’re trying to get your head around in life, you wonder what happens if you have these powers? Of course, some kids would go, “I want to be a superhero” but then there’s a chance they might want to use their powers for revenge or other bad things. It’s this balancing act to make sure they go the right way. In comics, it’s been like that, too.
Brian: We were definitely trafficking in a lot of those superhero tropes. We start off the movie teasing the audience with a story where the good likable kid gets revenge on the bullies. The way we played the story out, your sympathy hopefully turns away from the child and towards the victims. It’s sort of what happens when he takes those impulses of revenge much, much too far.
THE BEAT: When you started working with David on the movie and developing it, did he take it darker and darker? It’s one thing writing that some glass gets into someone’s eye and to do what he did in the movie, which is so disturbing that people were cringing and screaming at my screening.
Mark: I cringe every time I see it, and I also laugh out loud every time I see it. It tickles me.
Brian: That’s a really good thumbnail example of Dave’s contributions to the movie. Our first draft of that was a similar setting, similar scene. We had the fluorescent lights flicker and explode, and all this powdery glass got into the waitress’ eyes, and as she was rubbing the glass out, her eyes started to bleed, she couldn’t really see through the blood, and it was horrific. Dave read our draft and was like, “Why does it have to be powdery glass? Why not have a big old shard that goes deep into her eye?” and that was a.) thoroughly demented and b.) the correct call. Dave definitely made the movie gorier than our draft, but just in general, when Dave and James came aboard, they really helped lean the story into the superhero elements. Our initial draft was definitely a wayward superhero story, but it wasn’t quite as overt. There was no mask. There was no cape. A lot of the iconography of the movie was really their contribution.
THE BEAT: Did you have a lot of conversations about how old Brandon should be and how old the actor who plays him should be? It’s obviously such a fine line whether he’s 13 or 14. As you know, having kids, at a certain point, they change drastically.
Mark: You’re absolutely right. As a father of young teenagers, I know that even a year makes a huge difference at that age. He was always 12. That never really changed. The reason being that I think we all recognized that was the age these physical and emotional changes start to happen to most people. That was always the origin of what initiates his descent in this movie. He was always 12 for the reason you pointed out. That that’s the age of puberty really, for most people.
THE BEAT: James also came from a background of being a writer first and then he started directing. Did he make sure to keep you both involved the whole way through? Often, writers turn in their screenplay then the director goes off and makes the movie and the writers are no longer involved.
Mark: We’ve been involved in those kinds of movies, too, where the writer submits their draft and the movie keeps moving down the track. Sometimes, the writer’s involved, sometimes not. In this movie, we were involved the entire time, from the time we gave him the script until today. We’ve been involved the whole time, and it’s been a real treat with James and Dave, hand in hand, in the development and production of this movie.
THE BEAT: You two have been writing together for a while now but other than Journey 2, this is the first movie that’s coming out there. Since the Gunn family is pretty active in television and movies, how did you two end up gravitating towards writing together?
Brian: We first got together and started writing in college. We were in a comedy troupe, and earlier in our career, when we first broke into the business, we did a comedy series for MTV – it was a boy band spoof. A lot of the early work we did was much sunnier than the stuff that we’ve written over the last few years even up through Journey 2 – that was a very family-friendly movie. Over the last few years, we’ve just written grittier material and now veering all the way into horror. We don’t necessarily plan to stay in horror – not permanently or exclusively anyway – but we do like more teenage and adult material
THE BEAT: Do you have other things you’re working on these days? Is Journey 3 still a possibility or something you’re developing?
Mark: We wrote a draft of Journey 3, but I don’t think that movie is ever going to get made, but we’ll see. It’s one of those projects where you turn in your draft and hope for the best. That was years ago, so we suspect that it isn’t going anywhere. As for right now, among other things we’re working on a DC/Vertigo adaptation for New Line that we can’t totally talk about, but it is not a heavy horror idea. I will say that. And then we’re developing some other things that we’re really excited about.
THE BEAT: Are you working on an adaptation of Mark Millar’s Jupiter’s Legacy, which I guess would be for Netflix?
Mark: No, it’s a long story, but basically, we were involved in the movie version of Jupiter’s Legacy, and we love those comic books and we love Mark, but then when he did his deal with Netflix, it became a TV thing at Netflix, and we left the project. Mark is making it at Netflix with some other people, and we can’t wait to see it.
THE BEAT: It’s a very interesting comic, and in a similarly dark vein as Brightburn. Were you both involved with PG Porn? I loved that series.
Mark: That’s messed up!
Brian: Thank you. It was just I of the two of us that was involved with that. It was mostly me and my brothers James and Sean, and then of course, we had lots of other help putting it together. The idea itself was hatched among the three of us.
Brightburn opens on Friday, May 25 with previews on Thursday night.
Edward Douglas has been writing about movies and other forms of entertainment for over 25 years, so he’s probably older than you.