Until Peacemaker, James Gunn had never written any scripted television. In fact, he’s not even sure he’d ever read a TV script prior to writing his own in an effort to keep himself busy during the pandemic’s early days. As a massive TV fan, Gunn decided to take inspiration from some of his favorite television shows and apply those attributes to Peacemaker, the Suicide Squad spinoff centered on John Cena’s Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith. One of the series that Gunn cites as an influence on his HBO Max show is Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Breaking Bad prequel/sequel, Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman.
“It’s the ability to take its time in telling the story,” Gunn tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Both Saul and Chris are kind of sad-sack characters who are really good at one thing and then really bad at a lot of other things. So I think it’s really just taking that incredibly smart dialogue, that relaxed nature of grounded life and then mixing that with the other things that I wanted to do with the show. But I love Better Call Saul. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV, if not the best.”
Gunn also points out the key difference between his feature scripts and his teleplays.
“I took what I know from screenwriting and I just allowed things to play out a little bit more. That’s really the only thing,” Gunn explains. “You could not tell the story of Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Peacemaker in a movie. It’s too weird where they start, where they go and where they end up. So it’s just a much more complicated relationship, and you need things to be more cut and dried in a two-hour movie.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Gunn also discusses the moment in The Suicide Squad where he knew he wanted to dive deeper into Cena’s Peacemaker character. He also updates the status of the long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Once I saw John’s incredible reaction shot to Rick Flag’s (Joel Kinnaman) “Peacemaker, what a joke” line, I knew Flag’s last words would haunt Chris (Cena) and that Peacemaker would explore their ripple effect. So was John’s performance in that moment one of the deciding factors in you wanting to do this show?
I would say yes, but even more so, it was a scene with him and Ratcatcher [Daniela Melchior]. I shot that first. And there’s a moment there where he is about to kill her and we see something in his eyes that is incredible sadness and regret. I don’t even know if Peacemaker was going to kill her in that moment, but seeing John in that moment made me go, “There’s much more to this actor than I knew.” We know he’s a great comedian; we saw him in Trainwreck, Blockers and Squad. But he is also an incredibly talented dramatic actor and I knew there was a vulnerability to John Cena that I would be able to help carve out and present to the world. So that was part of the driving force of telling this story, for sure.
You mentioned on Twitter recently that Better Call Saul was one of Peacemaker’s influences …
And I presume it was more than just Chris’ fondness for Hummel figurines.
So were you attributing Peacemaker‘s complex family stuff to Saul, namely the fraternal relationship?
I think it’s more just in terms of the moments in Peacemaker where we’re sitting in a restaurant, Fennel Fields, with our main characters and they’re talking. It’s the ability to take its time in telling the story. Both Saul and Chris are kind of sad-sack characters who are really good at one thing and then really bad at a lot of other things. So I think it’s really just taking that incredibly smart dialogue, that relaxed nature of grounded life and then mixing that with the other things that I wanted to do with the show. But I love Better Call Saul. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV, if not the best.
There’s a cameo in episode one that I won’t name. Because of the pandemic and the show’s filming location in Vancouver, did that person Zoom in from their own home?
(Laughs.) No, we shot it in Los Angeles.
You haven’t done much scripted television in your career …
So did you reference any shows and their scripts as a guide for structure or anything like that?
No, I just watch a hell of a lot of TV. (Laughs.) I watch more TV than I do movies; that’s how I chill out. I took what I know from screenwriting and I just allowed things to play out a little bit more. That’s really the only thing. I allowed the dramatic moments to play out more. I allowed the comedic moments to play out more. I allowed the action scenes to go on a little bit longer. And I allowed the relationships to be a little bit more complicated. You could not tell the story of Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Peacemaker in a movie. It’s too weird where they start, where they go and where they end up. They’re not really a love relationship — at least not from her point of view. But they’re not not that either. So it’s just a much more complicated relationship, and you need things to be more cut and dried in a two-hour movie. So I didn’t [reference any scripts]. I’ve never read a teleplay in my life — that I remember. (Laughs.)
Despite the fact that King Shark’s CG caused you many sleepless nights during the course of Suicide Squad, you couldn’t resist taking on another CG character in Eagly. Was he less painful to achieve than King Shark?
Yes! (Laughs.) King Shark was very, very difficult to get right, and it went through a lot of different iterations. But Eagly is an eagle, so we went to Weta [Digital], who did a lot of King Shark, and [visual effects supervisor] Guy Williams, who I’ve worked with on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Suicide Squad and now on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. They already had an eagle, so we started there and then built our own eagle out of that.
James Gunn’s Harley Quinn movie and Peacemaker season two. When do we start production?
(Laughs.) Well, we’ll have to see. I think I’m just going to collapse for a while after Guardians 3. I’m getting pretty worn out. I’ve been going pretty hardcore for the last few years so we’ll have to see what’s next. But I want to do Peacemaker season two so we’ll see what happens.
How far along is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3? What percentage?
We’re about 20 percent, maybe. Something like that.
Chris has an elaborate target practice with Vigilante (Freddie Stroma) in the woods, which they’ve probably done many times over the years. With this backstory in mind, was that sequence partially included to show how Peacemaker was able to go toe to toe with Bloodsport (Idris Elba) at the beginning of The Suicide Squad?
I grew up in Missouri, and when I was a little kid, I blew up a lot of stuff, man. We exploded a lot of things. We lit a lot of things on fire. We shot guns. We shot fireworks at each other. We used to start with the bottle rockets and then bring out the bigger bottle rockets. One of us would be on fire and screaming, and then everybody else would be laughing. And then someone would put out the fire and then start laughing, too. And then we’d have to go home to our moms and explain this stuff. So that was purely my superhero representation of what I did as a kid in the woods of Missouri.
The “Dye Beard” gag involving John Economos (Steve Agee) is hilarious, especially its quiet evolution from episode to episode. Is Agee thrilled that you included that bit?
(Laughs.) I think Steve Agee was not totally thrilled about having to have a dyed beard. He had to have dyed beard for all of Suicide Squad. I think it made it a little bit easier that we were doing Peacemaker in the times of Covid, so he couldn’t really go anywhere anyway. But that he had to have a terrible, ugly dyed beard again for a TV show was probably not his favorite thing in the world. And if we do a season two, we’ll have to think about that. But I think Steve was really happy to do this role. It gave him a lot to do, and once you see episode eight, we’ll get to learn a little bit more about Economos and see Steve Agee do things he’s never done before, which is great. He’s one of my best friends, and one of the great things about Peacemaker was being able to do it with him and Jenn [Holland] and John and people that were close to me. And now, Danielle [Brooks] and Chuk[wudi] Iwuji have become equally close. So it’s been a great situation.
Peacemaker‘s first three episodes premiere Jan. 13 on HBO Max.