When a film and its accompanying soundtrack both rise to global success, it’s considered one of the rarest feats in cinema. Well, at least that was once the case… until James Gunn entered the conversation.

The auteur writer/director stepped into the superhero realm with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and its charming storyline drew heavily on the “awesome mix” cassette tape  that protagonist Peter Quill holds onto from his time growing up on Earth.

The 200 million dollar Marvel film came with a healthy budget for music licensing, allowing Gunn to cultivate an incredible playlist for his character’s journey. Gunn’s work on the 2017 Guardians sequel surpassed Volume one’s impressive benchmark with hits from Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, Cheap Trick, Glen Campbell, and George Harrison.

When Gunn relaunched Warner Brothers and DC’s The Suicide Squad in 2021, he cemented himself as Quentin Tarantino’s heir when it comes to marrying music to moving images. Understanding the power of tying songs and musical cues to characters is something Gunn excels at, and its not surprise that he finds music powerful in his own life.

When Gunn spoke to Awards Focus, he shared a touching story about Peacemaker star John Cena playing piano in a hotel lobby while shooting The Suicide Squad. Gunn was waiting on an ride that would take him to back to the US to see a longtime friend’s passing and it was a moment that stuck with him.

“John was with me while I was waiting in the hotel bar,” says Gunn. “He got up behind this grand piano in the bar and started playing “Where Is My Mind?” It touched my heart, it was beautiful.”

Gunn held onto that memory and when he became enthralled with the idea of creating a Peacemaker spinoff series, he made sure to include a Peacemaker piano scene that emotionally impacts the audience in a beautiful way.

“I thought that was very interesting, this tender side to a guy who I was only getting to know at that point,” Gunn says of Cena. “I took that element from John’s character and put it into Peacemaker’s character. It isn’t the bluster, the bravado, the bright costumes, it is this sensitive artist.”

Gunn is possibly the most trusted name in cinema when it comes to adapting well-known characters into modern complex human beings with fears, desires, courage, insecurity, trauma, and humor.

Gunn’s work on Peacemaker is centered around building a non-conventional family that has to combat a global alien invasion. “I come from a family of six kids,” says Gunn. “My entire childhood was in a pack of human beings with a bunch of different voices happening at once. It comes really naturally to me.”

Already writing scripts for Peacemaker season two, Gunn took time ahead of Emmy voting to talk with Awards Focus about developing Christopher Smith identity and tragic backstory, the recurring”dye-beard” joke and his take on bullying, and the seeing the first cut of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Awards Focus: First of all, congratulations. Coming into the project a lot of fans were not in love with Peacemaker and you turned everyones opinion around and now this is a beloved DC character. Could you talk to us about your writing process developing that character?

James Gunn: It’s funny that you ask, I was actually trying to remember my exact process because I am working on season two right now. And I was like, “Did I outline the whole thing or what did I do?” Basically, each episode took a week to write with season one. So, I wrote the whole series in eight weeks. 

Before I start writing, I first write down scenes and ideas, it could be whole stretches of dialogue. Eagly (the pet Bald Eagle) dropping off the helmet, that was a stretch of dialogue I wrote early on. I have the basic outline for everything and then I allow myself to find surprises. I went back and forth with a lot of things, like what Peacemaker’s choice was going to be at the end of the show. 

AF: There is this great thread throughout the show of heartfelt humanity and grisly dark humor. Was that a difficult tone to strike?

Gunn: The whole show is a balancing act. And I guess I am known for that because Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot like that. But Peacemaker really takes things to the extreme and you get room for a lot more heart because you have eight episodes to tell this story between the characters. 

The relationships in a series are more nuanced than the ones in filmsbecause a movie is just two hours long. For me, having that extra time and getting to create those nuances was a really rewarding part of the process.

AF: Underneath the action and the humor, there are quite a few heartfelt messages in Peacemaker. Could you expand on this idea of bullying and why was it an important theme for you to tackle?

Gunn: John Cena’s character of Peacemaker/Christopher Smith is calling Steve Agee’s John Economos “dye-beard” all the time. Just endlessly. After he directly asks him not to call him that, so he is getting ruthlessly picked on by Peacemaker. And the audience is laughing along with the “dye-beard” joke and then we see this very human moment when Steve’s character has no choice but to tell the truth. At that point the only thing that can save him is the truth and he tells the truth.

Both actors were spectacular in that heartfelt scene. Peacemaker finally sees he is really hurting him. The show is about understanding that bullying is a problem and not only because of the person who is getting bullied but also for the person who is the bully, who usually has his own set of issues that have led him to doing that. 

There’s an emptiness in Christopher’s life that leads him to bullying in the first place. That’s a problem. I see it from his point of view as well. I know what that’s like. I believe most of us have experienced both being bullied and doing the bullying at one point or another in our lives.

AF: John Cena talked to Awards Focus about that piano scene where he plays Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crew. Apparently, you heard him play it in Panama while shooting The Suicide Squad and thats how that whole scene came about. Could you give us your side of this?

Gunn: John played “Where Is My Mind?” by Pixies when we were in Panama shooting The Suicide Squad and my dog was about to die. The dog was seventeen years old and had been my companion for a number of years. I had been in and out of relationships and the one constant in my life was my dog, Wesley. 

Warner Brothers was kind enough to let me take a day off from shooting to fly to be with my dog and John was with me while I was waiting in the hotel bar. He got up behind this grand piano in the bar and started playing “Where Is My Mind?” It touched my heart, it was beautiful. 

And I thought that was very interesting, this tender side to a guy who I was only getting to know at that point. I took that element from John’s character and put it into Peacemaker’s character – that’s who he really is. 

At the end of episode six, that’s when we see who Christopher Smith really is. It isn’t the bluster, the bravado, the bright costumes, it is this sensitive artist. 

AF: You have a particular skill to create a group of characters, a sort of an odd-ball family, where everyone feels equally important. You spread the love around as it were. Is that something you are conscious of while working on a project?

Gunn: I am obviously attracted to ensemble pieces, the only thing I haven’t done as an ensemble was Super with Rainn Wilson. I come from a family of six kids. My entire childhood was in a pack of human beings with a bunch of different voices happening all at once. That has allowed me to tune into different voices and the subtle ways in which people are different from each other and the ways conflict can grow not from just one person to the next but within a group of people. So, it comes really naturally to me. 

Peacemaker really is an ensemble show and that was really something I was stern with HBO Max from the beginning. This is an ensemble show. Peacemaker is really about team Peacemaker.

AF: The biggest news for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was the announced casting of Will Poulter as Adam Warlock, who was teased in the post credits of Vol. 2.  

Poulter is a real talent whose resume includes the Oscar nominated The Revenant and HuluDopesick. Can you talk about what won you over in the casting process.

Gunn: This character is probably the most difficult character I’ve ever written, so finding the right person to play Adam Warlock was a long process and Will Poulter is that person. I just watched the first assembly of the film and Will Poulter is fantastic in it, I can’t wait for people to see him… and he looks cool too (laughs).