Gunn-ing for Peace: James Gunn on ‘Peacemaker’

Genius. Gonzo. Hilarious. Surreal. All four adjectives typically go hand-in-hand when speaking about the work of Peacemaker and The Suicide Squad mastermind, James Gunn. Indeed, the master filmmaker has been putting his unique, identifiable stamp on every project he’s shepherded since the first film he wrote — 1997’s Tromeo and Juliet. And from there, Gunn’s star has only grown brighter, serving as a testament to how sometimes, Hollywood gets it right, and rightfully rewards the talented.

It’s now been 25 years since that first film, and the entertainment landscape has completely changed since the Tromeo and Juliet days. Filmmakers are no longer necessarily bound by the conventions of two-hour theatrical experiences, and are now able to share their stories in bingeable streaming formats, and, in this case, continue stories that may not have otherwise gotten a chance to thrive on the big screen. But thankfully, no matter how much technology may alter the distribution and delivery of a TV show or film, the one thing that will remain evergreen is the incomparable heart and hilarity that accompanies the works of James friggin Gunn!

We were incredibly lucky to sit down with Gunn, along with other members of the press to watch a few clips from his latest project, the Suicide Squad spin-off, Peacemaker and get live director’s commentary about each clip. We were also able to hear from the maestro himself about the making of the show, answering our burning questions about the cast, DC, and all of the chaos in the hilarious, insane new series.

The first clip they showed was an awkwardly hilarious scene of Peacemaker walking into a restaurant to meet the rest of his teammates in his full costume, before saying some incredibly off color sexist remarks, and needing to be reprimanded by the rest of his crew. The barbs fly fast and furious between Cena, Holland, and Agee. Gunn had this to say about the clip:

“In the first episode I felt like that was an important scene because we wanted to set the tone for what the show was. It’s very grounded. Very real. Each character has their own different way of looking at the situation and there’s no clear alpha… We see Economos and Harcourt picking on Peacemaker. We see Peacemaker picking on Economos. And we have this team of people in this incredibly mundane situation [in a] restaurant called Fennel Fields, in a place that we don’t normally see a DC superhero or any superhero in this mundane situation. And also just allowing yourselves to take the time with the scene. Let it drag out a little bit. Let it be real and slow with pauses between stuff. Because in just a short amount of time things are about to go haywire with Peacemaker and the action sequences.”

Gunn was then asked, the first two questions.

Since Peacemaker is a show that holds up a mirror to America, and asks our country to look at its faults today, what do you hope the country would see in this reflection?

It’s easy to point out faults. What I think is, for me, the center of the story of this season of Peacemaker — the central love story of Peacemaker — is between Peacemaker and Adebayo. It’s not a romantic love story. It’s not a sexual love story. It’s an actual love story between two characters who come from completely different belief systems. They couldn’t be more different. Their parents are quite similar in some ways, although also very different. And I think that you have these two people who start to initiate change in each other, because of being kind to one another, and of liking each other, and seeing past the things they disagree on to what makes them tick. In the very first episode we see Leota talking about how Peacemaker is sad. And that is a thing she sees in him that other characters don’t see. And two scenes after this one, we see the two of them talking for the first time and she’s the first person to be nice to him, and the first person to laugh with him instead of just at him. Not only in the show but in the movie (The Suicide Squad) as well. So I think it’s more about, if it’s anything, I think it’s seeing what a relationship could be like from people who disagree adamantly about all sorts of things. The way to maybe initiate change is not by screaming at each other, which only further radicalizes people.”

Being the first TV iteration of the DCEU what was the creative process like with the studio in terms of getting notes, since this process was kind of new?

“You know, people tend to think there’s a masterplan for Marvel, but the truth is Marvel never asked me to do anything other than, in the first Guardians, to put Thanos in there, and to come up with what the Infinity Stones were. Other than that Marvel has never, ever asked me to do anything. And the same thing has basically been true of DC. There was maybe one thing that I pushed a little too far in the original scripts of Peacemaker, which I pulled back on *this much* (making a “small” gesture). But other than that they let me go hog wild. I think they had a lot of questions. Now Bat-Mite is in the DCEU. I think it’s hilarious. Who knows. But that’s the way it is. So I think we’re very very cool with everything. HBO Max in particular was a fantastic partner in backing me up anytime we came against a little — ‘I don’t know, should we really call Batman this?’ — or you know. Every once in a while there were questions about that kind of stuff. but for the most part these guys have been fantastic partners. But especially HBO Max.”

The panel then played a second scene featuring Peacemaker trying to escape the authorities by jumping off an apartment balcony to the balcony below it, injuring himself several times each time he tries, as Harcourt and Adebayo watch.

GUNN: “That was a really incredibly complex scene to shoot, because it was a combination of — that pink building is a real place — but we had to make it taller in post VFX than it actually was. So it was a combination of shooting this actual real place, with real balconies. And then we built the side of the wall on a soundstage. That was another piece of it. And then another piece of it was the apartment we built on a soundstage that had a balcony on the back of it. Where we had to shoot that as well. And that combination of shooting just made it really complicated and crazy to shoot. And we planned it out ahead of time and it worked out really well. And the other thing I loved about it was that those stunts, or gags, that Spencer was doing (John Cena’s stunt double) are probably the best stunts I’ve seen in my life. And they’re deceptively simple, but he was really jumping down all those things, and it was incredible to see. It’s so painful. And Spence was a real member of the team throughout shooting and just did a fantastic job. And I also like to see a little bit of Evan and Amber, who are two of my favorite recurring cast members, who are unique in and of themselves. Trying to take this show and take out these small guest stars, and give them a way to shine, as opposed to being there to spotlight our main cast members.”

Gunn then took two more questions.

Can you talk about Peacemaker’s dad, and how he came about, and whether it was part of the result of the conversation about Bloodsport’s dad in The Suicide Squad?

“John and I talked about it on set. We talked about who his dad was. At that point I didn’t know he was The White Dragon, but I knew the basics of who the character was. So you can see him in the scene with Bloodsport, you can see John nod and smiling as he’s talking about his own dad and what his dad did. And you see him empathizing with Bloodsport in that moment. There’s two different characters from the comics. There’s Peacemaker’s actual father in the comics… the old Nazi from World War II. And then there’s the White Dragon character, who is a completely separate character. And I just melded those characters together to create a truly awful supervillain with very little chance of redemption. I also think that we come into this knowing that Peacemaker is a kind of bad guy, and then we see who his father is, and we go, ‘well generationally, he’s a step up.’ Certainly a better person than his father is. And gives us a little bit more understanding for who he is.”

Can you talk about the choice of having both the White Dragons and The Butterflies be the villains? Why do you think they pair together for this story?

“Well I think I’d say there’s three antagonists, because the third antagonist is really Sophie Song and Larry. And they provide really a lot of forward momentum in the story, because they’re the ones really on the trail of Peacemaker and they’re getting somewhere. And we see things from their points of view. And I think Annie [Chang] in particular should be pointed out because one of the best performances in the whole show is from her. She’s amazing. And getting to see her in episode 8 is just incredible. But yeah I think there’s that over arching plot and then sort of the character plot. The A story and B story. And the character plot — the relationship with the father — is tied much more into who Peacemaker is. And Peacemaker is being trapped in the bondage of his own ideals and the bondage of his own belief system which has gotten him into a pretty rotten place at the beginning of the series. Not even sure if he’s in prison or out of prison. Feeling tremendous guilt about what he did to Rick Flag. And just wondering about who he is as a human being, and doubting the faith he’s built his life around all these years.”

The final clip was played, which was about Peacemaker getting briefed about Project: Butterfly, and questioning the idea of having to potentially kill children that may actually be dangerous enemies.

GUNN: “I don’t know why I chose that scene! I think it was because it was really hard to shoot and really hard to edit. All that stuff in the back of the van was stuff we shot early, and it was really hard to put together. And I wasn’t happy with it for a long long time. And then eventually I became pleased with how it turned out. But I also think it’s really important because we had to address this thing of Peacemaker and his belief that it’s okay to kill however men, women, and children he needs to to create peace. And we also see that a little bit of it is probably a line that he’s been saying for a long time that he doesn’t really fully believe. That he’s not on board with killing kids, yet at the same time is such a dick as to point out the unattractiveness of one of those children. But I will also say that’s heavy make up on that cute little girl who does not look like that at all. We’d never put an ugly little kid in that scene and make fun of them, so she’s a very cute, sweet little girl who is very excited to see herself in Peacemaker. I don’t know how her parents are going to show this show to her. But yeah. That’s that scene.”

Gunn then took the final questions for the session.

Can you talk about building the character of Vigilante and where that came from?

“I think that we have Peacemaker, who’s a guy who obviously has a conscience. Despite the bad stuff he does, he does have a reasoning behind why he does what he does. And yeah, some of it might be a rationalization for why he’s venting his anger, but he does have a philosophy behind it. And Vigilante is a very different sort of ‘hero.’ I think that I created Vigilante for the show because I thought that if you really are a guy who puts on a costume and goes around and cold-blooded murders people that you think are bad guys, who is this person really? And he’s an interesting character to play with because he is a sociopath, because he doesn’t seem to have a conscience. And more so he doesn’t seem to have emotions. He has a lot of issues… he’s not able to pick up on people’s facial expressions. He’s not very in tune to other human beings. And yet despite all of this there’s, dare I say, a sweetness about him that comes from Freddie’s performance, and comes from the fact that he, in such a vulnerable way, adores Peacemaker. And has since he was a child. Peacemaker was friends with his older brother. And I just wanted to kind of create a different type of character that was not just black and white — he’s a worse person of Peacemaker in many ways. But also not without things that we can like about him.”

How do you approach teams of people that are so diverse in personality and manage to mesh well, but also clash very well?

“Writing for ensembles is the most natural thing for me. And I thought about why this is. And I think it’s because I come from a family of six children that are born within seven years. And that was the society that I had around me my whole life. There wasn’t just me and one other voice around for a conversation. There were constantly many voices. All very strong personalities. And so I just had those many voices going on all the time in my life. And so that’s the music around me. That’s how conversations work. It comes very naturally to create a group dynamic. And I love the domino effect in relationships. I love that how Peacemaker relates to Adebayo, and then changes a little bit the way he reacts to Harcourt, and so on, and get to know these characters. At the end of the day it’s called Peacemaker but it is an ensemble show. And to make John Economos just as an important as a DC character as anyone else is just a blast to me… I like people who are on the outside. I like the disaffected. I like people who don’t feel like they belong. The fact that everyone’s online asking ‘Why Peacemaker?’ It’s because he’s the one you don’t want to see a show from. That’s who I want to make the show for. I want to take the people that you don’t like and see inside of them and see how we can get to somewhere different with them. And I want to take the John Economos of DC and put him on a weird pedestal because he’s so imperfect. And be able to know his story. That story’s just as important as Superman’s story!”

And that’s what it’s all about, and one of the reasons why sites like The Nerds of Color exist too. Gunn’s works and sites like ours are there to remind everyone that the stories of those who feel like they’re outside of society are just as important as everyone else’s. And through works like Guardians of the Galaxy, The Suicide Squad, and Peacemaker, Gunn has crafted popular art forms that have the potential to inspire the world to be more understanding, to listen more, and above all, to try and make peace with ourselves and one another.

Make sure out check out Peacemaker, now available to stream on HBO Max!

Thank you all for joining us on our Countdown to Peacemaker! We hope you enjoyed the ride, and hope you enjoy the show!