"Super," the dark comedy opening today, owes its existence to two men with a singular creative vision: actor Rainn Wilson and director James Gunn.
“Rainn was the one person who understood the movie,” Gunn said.
Wilson plays Frank, a man whose unremarkable life is made brighter by his wife, Sarah, played by Liv Tyler. But when Sarah is lured away by drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank gets a message from God that he construes as a call for action: Become a superhero, The Crimson Bolt.
Wilson and Gunn sat down for an interview in Seattle last month during a trip to promote the film.
The two men agreed that the picture – with its frequently changing tones of comedy, pathos and violence – easily could have been derailed without the right director or the right actor in the lead role.
“A lot of times, actors and directors will butt heads, and rightfully so sometimes because a lot of directors don’t know what they are doing,” Wilson said. But in this case Wilson trusted Gunn completely. “I knew James would come in with his very intense vision.”
Gunn’s criteria for Frank was specific. He had to have dramatic chops, comedic abilities and be goofy enough to get picked on but physically big enough to bring retribution.
“Talk about mashups. ‘Super’ really is a mashup. Which is one of the reasons it was so difficult casting Rainn’s role,” Gunn said.
Gunn had a vested interest in the success of the movie from the beginning: He wrote the script.
After some initial movement, it languished for several years. A call from his former wife got things going again.
“My ex, Jenna Fischer, called me up and said, ‘Why haven’t you made “Super”? It’s my favorite script you’ve written.’ ” Fischer also had an idea for who should be cast as Frank: Wilson, her co-star on the NBC sitcom “The Office.”
“Rainn really is Frank. The minute Jenna said it, I was like, ‘Why has that never passed through my mind before?’ ”
“I owe her big time,” Wilson said.
“We both owe her big time.” Gunn added.
Wilson said he didn’t need to be convinced to take the part. “When I started reading it, I was 22 pages in and I texted James and said ‘I’m in.’ My hand was trembling.”
Wilson had just signed on with a new agent and took the script with him to their first meeting. “I threw the script down and I said, ‘This is the next movie I want to make. Help me make this movie.’ ”
This isn’t Gunn’s first foray into superheroes. He wrote and acted in (but did not direct) 2000’s “The Specials.” That satire, centered on the petty and mundane lives of a group of low-ranking superheroes, didn’t turn out the way he intended it, Gunn said. It had a lukewarm reception with critics and audiences.
Frank has no super powers – only a strong sense of right and wrong. Unlike “Ironman” or “Batman,” he doesn’t have high-tech gadgets – only a pipe wrench, a beat-up car and a droll catch phrase: “Shut up, crime!”
“My superhero films are conversations about what it means to be a superhero. Is (Frank) a superhero or not? What makes this a superhero movie is that Rainn’s character wears a costume,” Gunn said.
Wilson credits Gunn for the soul of the film. “This is 100 percent James’ movie from beginning to end. It was his vision,” Wilson said. “With the cast I wanted,” Gunn added.
Key to that cast was Frank’s sidekick, Libby, who dubs herself Boltie. She’s played by Ellen Page, star of “Juno” and “Inception.”
“When we were casting the movie, we were like, ‘We really need an Ellen Page-type for this role,’ ” Wilson said.
After tossing around names, it suddenly dawned on Wilson: Why not ask Page herself? Wilson had a small part in “Juno” where he said the two built a good rapport. “It’s how movie-making should be,” Wilson said. “I know her, I have her email.
Let me send her the script,” Wilson recalled. “I really didn’t want you to give it to her in a lot of ways,” Gunn said to Wilson.Gunn didn’t expect Page to take the role. “She’s so big, she’s so busy,” Gunn recalled thinking. And if she did take it, contract and schedule negotiations could delay the picture for months. But Page loved the script, Gunn said, and everything went smoothly.
Early reviews of “Super” have been mostly positive, but a few critics have lambasted what they characterize as its uneven tone.
“It’s very funny and it’s very sad at the same time.” Gunn said. “It’s a polarizing film.”
The movie also is graphically violent, something most superhero movies gloss over. Gunn said he wanted it to be realistic. “You’re supposed to be uncomfortable.”
Wilson put the body count at 17 – small, he said, compared with a movie such as “Iron Man 2.” But the violence was something new for his career, he said. Getting the girl, he insisted, wasn’t.
“I’m used to that. Dwight (his character on ‘The Office’) gets a lot of action,” Wilson deadpanned. “He’s had a bevy of beauties come through his farm bed. I’m used to it on that front.”
The day before his Seattle trip, Wilson was on the set of “The Office” where Steve Carell filmed his last regular appearance on the long-running show.
“There were a lot of tears shed. He’s a really good man. A good person and one of the most brilliant actors who’s ever lived. It’s a big loss to our show,” Wilson said.
He didn’t know what the future holds for Dwight. “I think I’ll have some fun stuff to do, so I’m looking forward to it. But I don’t know who’s going to be the boss or how that’s going to work,” he said.