How James Gunn embraced Christmas chaos with the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

The Guardians of the Galaxy have faced their fair share of interstellar threats over the years. Since 2014, this crew of cosmic weirdos has faced off against foes like Ronan, Ego, Thanos, and Groot's raging teenage hormones. Their latest entry, the festive Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, is a decidedly lower-stakes adventure — but one that's no less fun.

Writer-director James Gunn has been, well, the guardian of the Guardians since the beginning. Next year, he'll cap off his Marvel trilogy with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a bittersweet finale that he hopes will be both satisfying and emotionally devastating. (He's also got plenty on his plate: Gunn recently signed on as the co-chair of DC Studios, overseeing both film and television.) But before that final goodbye, the director came up with one last festive idea to celebrate his favorite crew. The result is the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (out Nov. 25 on Disney+), a 44-minute tale that follows Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as they search for the perfect Christmas gift for Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt).

Here, Gunn opens up about tapping into the Christmas spirit and why Kevin Bacon is now his new "favorite MCU character."


Jessica Miglio/Marvel Studios Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, and James Gunn on the set of the 'Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you and Kevin Bacon worked together years ago, and you name-dropped him in the first Guardians. But what made you want to cast him as himself in this special?

JAMES GUNN: I just wanted an excuse to work with my buddy Kevin again. Really, I just like working with him. But I thought it was hilarious. I brought the idea of making a holiday special up to Kevin Feige, and he was into it, so I started playing around with it. I don't really remember how I got the [idea of] Kevin Bacon being the present that Mantis and Drax were going to give to Peter Quill, but it happened very early on in the writing process. I wrote it quickly, and then I was just praying that Kevin was going to do it because I knew he would be the perfect person to play Kevin Bacon.

Yeah, if you cast somebody else to play Kevin Bacon, it could be very hit or miss.

That's right. I did not think that, like, Ricky Schroder would play a great Kevin Bacon.

I love the dynamic between Drax and Mantis because they're both such weirdos. What do you love about pairing the two of them?

I think of them as Costello and Costello. Obviously, Drax is the more doofus-y of the two of them, but she's pretty doofus-y herself, so the two of them together are just so fun to write. [Laughs] They're so anarchic. They do not have any of the values that human beings normally have, so they don't have the same boundaries that we have. They're like following an unattended fire hose around. She's so frustrated with him, and he is so frustrating. But he's also willing to apologize, sometimes for times where he did nothing wrong. So, I just love the two of them together, and it was really an opportunity for Drax and Mantis — who have kind of been in the background of the last 27 Marvel movies and have not really been front and center — to get a chance to be the center of this story.

The production and costume designs are like maximum Christmas, and you've got an explosion of ugly Christmas sweaters and inflatable snowmen. What kind of conversations did you have with the department heads?  

It was a lot of Christmas stuff. We were very fortunate because we shot the special at the same time we shot [Vol. 3], so we were going back and forth. We were using really big sets. We had the set of Knowhere, and then we had the set of the Bowie, the spaceship, which is like four stories. It's the greatest set I've ever been on in my life. So, being able to utilize these enormous sets for something that's a television show was a real blessing. But at the same time, we put a lot of money into lights. Somewhere you can read how many lights there were, but there are tens of thousands of lights up. It was incredibly cool looking, and it made you feel so Christmas-y. I got all my Christmas cards with my wife all ready to go because we took pictures in Knowhere with all the Christmas lights. [Laughs]


Jessica Miglio/Marvel Studios Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista' in the 'Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special'

What was that like to press pause on filming Vol. 3 and switch gears to go film the holiday special?

It was great because the shooting schedules were totally intermingled. Vol. 3 has a lot of the fun and the goofy stuff of Guardians, but it's also incredibly emotional. It's the end of the story for this group of Guardians, so there was a lot of emotion around it. It was very serious a lot of the time. The actors were all pushing themselves a lot, especially Chris Pratt. It was heavy. So to be able to take a day off and go shoot this goofy, low-stakes comedy show where nothing was really too serious, that was really a relief, and it was a lot of fun. I really would look forward to those holiday special days on my schedule. It's like, "Oh, it's a holiday special day today. Let's party."

No spoilers, but you've got a pretty great Christmas soundtrack to go with the special. The Old 97's also perform. Do you have a favorite underrated Christmas song?

I think there's a few of them on here. That Strokes song is a great Christmas song that people don't really know that much, and the Smashing Pumpkins song is a great song. They're all greats. Probably the most well-known one is the Waitresses tune. But in real life, I'm really into Christmas, and I love getting together with my family at Christmas. It's one of the few times of the year that I actually relax. I don't work for a few days, which is very unusual for me. But one of the things I do is I make these elaborate lists of unknown Christmas songs that I play on my Sonos during Christmas time for my family. Almost all of these songs are from that actual list for my family, so it was fun giving them a little bit of a spotlight.

Your brother Sean Gunn has been a part of the Guardians movies since the beginning, but his character Kraglin has really taken on an expanded role. What's been the most rewarding part of having him on set?

Well, one of the great things in the Christmas special is you start to see how some of our characters have really changed over the years. You see how Nebula has taken on a leadership role. You see how Mantis is more willing to speak up for herself. And you see how Kraglin has taken on this completely different role. He's one of the Guardians, and he's part of that family now. He's a major part of the support system. So just being with my brother and being able to bring that character to life has been great. But also, I've got to admit that my brother's just the best actor in the world. So when I'm doing a scene with him and Kevin Bacon, I never have to give them a single note on that scene. Honestly, I'm just letting the two of them — who've known each other for a long time — come in and act out that scene, and I give them no notes because they're both perfect. Man, it's nice. It was really just like watching TV on those days.

You've said for a long time that Vol. 3 will be the end of your Guardians trilogy, and you see it as the conclusion of the story you set out to tell. How are you feeling, knowing that you'll soon be closing this chapter and saying goodbye to these characters?

I think I felt a lot of pressure before because it really matters to me that we end this story well. I'll be honest, I started looking at all the trilogies that have existed throughout time, and in most trilogies, the third movie is awful. There's a couple of exceptions, but when I say a couple, I mean like two or three. It's very rare that the third movie in a franchise is good. So, it was important to me that we really ended this story in a good way. A lot of Vol. 3 is going back to the beginning so that we can really see the end. We see the importance of Rocket's character and who he is. It was just important to me that it worked and that I did everything I possibly could for the sake of these characters and for the fans. So, I put my all into it.

It was really hard. This Christmas special was the easiest thing of all time. The movie was the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm starting to feel pretty good because I'm starting to see it come together. I'm starting to see how people react to it, and I'm seeing what works. Most of the work now is on VFX and dealing with the score with John Murphy, who did such a spectacular job with the holiday special. But I've started to feel pretty comfortable with it because I just want to honor these characters and honor the fans that have supported us this whole way.

The first Guardians came out in 2014, and you've now made three movies and a Christmas special, as well as a dozen other projects across different franchises. What's the biggest thing you've learned from making Guardians?

You know, I think I've learned that you [have to] really focus on character, which I've tried to do from the beginning. The reason I took on the Guardians in the first place was because I started to understand who Rocket was. I've told this story a lot of times before, but to me, he was the saddest character in the universe. He was utterly alone. He was an innocent animal that was turned into something other than what he was quote-unquote "meant" to be. It all started with that. It started with a real honest character, as silly as that character might be because he is named Rocket Raccoon. So, starting with that honesty and that authenticity then gives you a lot of freedom to go to a lot of different places.

Knowing what the basic overall story was going to be from the beginning, I think, has worked incredibly well for the Guardians. I [wanted to] know where they were going, what was going to happen to them, how they were going to change. I remember talking to Karen Gillan when she first came into the office, and I showed her some of Andy Park's designs for Nebula. I said, "In this movie, she's a bad guy. She's a minor character, but she's going to go on to become a Guardian of the Galaxy. She's going to be a major character, and she's going to actually be a really good character who we're going to love." In some ways, I try not to tell actors things like that because things change, but it's all come to fruition. Everything we planned for Nebula is there. And honestly, being very frank with you, she's one of people's favorite characters in Vol. 3. She's so good in that movie, and it's because she's developed and changed. She hasn't stayed the same.

So many franchises rely on characters who they pretend are changing or having arcs, but they don't, and that's not true of the Guardians of the Galaxy. These characters have all completely and utterly changed who they are and what's important to them over the course of three movies. So I think that's really the thing: allowing the characters to change.

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