Marvel Studios began its life rolling the dice. Iron Man was the first self-produced feature film Marvel Comics adaptation for Marvel Studios, and it wasn’t like Iron Man was some incredibly famous superhero character or wildly popular toy at the time. Most general audiences were unfamiliar with Iron Man and wary of the film—we’d been through a lot of bad superhero movies at that point. But Marvel’s gamble paid off, and then they rolled the dice again with Marvel’s The Avengers, betting that audiences would turn up to a crossover movie starring characters from other, separate movies. That, too, paid off in a big way, but Marvel decided to take yet another major leap in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy, a space-set superhero movie starring a talking raccoon and a giant sentient tree. The result? One of the most influential films of the 21st century.
While Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t get made until the mid-2010s, it was actually one of the first Marvel Comics adaptations that Marvel Studios began developing. When Marvel Studios set out to make its own films, they created a screenwriting program in which writers would develop comics adaptations that may or may not ever get made. One of these screenplays in the works was Guardians of the Galaxy, which writer Nicole Perlman selected from a hodgepodge of various comics available for adaptation:
“We got to choose from a list of half a dozen properties that they had that were lesser Marvel properties. There was no guarantee that these projects would ever get made. And there were properties on that list that were much better known, things that people had heard of. But I saw Guardians of the Galaxy. … I took it.”
Marvel saw a huge opportunity in Guardians of the Galaxy to expand the post-Avengers Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmic realm, which in turn would offer a gateway towards the eventual Infinity War storyline and introduction of Thanos.
Perlman spent two years developing the screenplay, during which time she was given free reign to explore possibilities relating to Guardians of the Galaxy:
“It’s kind of amazing, looking back on it, how much freedom I was given. Maybe because it was kind of far-fetched, this idea that this project would actually get chosen to be produced, that I really was given an enormous amount of creative freedom, in the way that I don’t think you get a lot from studios. They said, basically, ‘Here are the comics. Come up with a good story. Choose the characters you like, and we’ll just keep playing with it.'”
Perlman settled on the lineup for the Guardians of the Galaxy—Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot—but the main villain for most of her drafts was Thanos. That is, until Marvel decided it wanted to save Thanos for later.
After leaving Guardians for a spell (the writers program was an exclusive contract during which writers weren’t allowed to work on outside projects), Marvel brought Perlman back in 2011 to do a six-month stint as a freelance writer, before the project had a director, but Perlman says she was always under the understanding that her script would be rewritten:
“I always knew they were going to bring in a writer-director. That was always sort of the plan. I’m not primarily a comedy writer, but it needed to be a comedic project. Like, this is a project that has always been irreverent. It’s always been tongue-in-cheek. And so that was always the question.”
That question was answered in early 2012, when Marvel hired James Gunn to rewrite and direct Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn was an unlikely choice, having previously made gross, extremely dark features like Slither and Super, but he did also have more varied experience as a writer on the live-action Scooby Doo as well as Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Also in the running to helm Guardians of the Galaxy at the time was future Ant-Man director Peyton Reed and future Captain Marvel filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and their eventual Marvel hiring is a testament to how the studio likes to conduct business. Just because something doesn’t work out the first time doesn’t mean that filmmaker or actor isn’t still in the mix for a future Marvel project.
So Gunn set about reworking Perlman’s script to his liking, a matter that eventually became somewhat contentious once the movie was a hit. Officially, the screenplay for Guardians of the Galaxy is credited to both Gunn and Perlman, but Gunn somewhat downplayed Perlman’s role in an interview with Buzzfeed:
“She definitely got the ball rolling,” he said. “The original concept was there, that was sort of like what’s in the movie, and then there’s the story and the characters — those were pretty much re-created by me.”
He eventually went further, expressing his displeasure at WGA’s arbitration which seems to suggest he would have preferred Perlman received a “story by” credit instead of a full screenplay credit:
“In Nicole’s script everything is pretty different … the story is different, there’s no Walkman, the character arcs are different, it’s not about the same stuff. But that’s how the WGA works. They like first writers an awful lot.”
It’s worth noting that in August 2012, it was reported that Marvel was hiring Chris McCoy to rewrite Perlman’s script, but McCoy received no credit on the finished film and it’s unclear what contributions he made, if any.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige described the contributions of Perlman and Gunn thusly:
“Much of it had been—at least the bones of it had been in Nicole Perlman’s draft, in some of the additional material that we had after that, that we talked with him about. The character lineup was essentially the same and the overall structure was kind of the same. I can’t remember now exactly what it was. The Walkman certainly was James, all of the story and the dialogue that you see now in the actual movies is James.
I think in the early draft, all the Guardians encounter each other for the first time in the prison as opposed to them encountering each other in the Xandar-Mall which led to them going to the prison, which was a James plus. Thanos and Ronan’s roles were altered somewhat over the course of it, as James did. Yondu was all James, the backstory of Peter having been raised essentially by Yondu and the Ravagers was all James.”
As Gunn set about reworking Perlman’s script, he added the character of Nebula, ditched Thanos as the primary villain in favor of Ronan, and reconceived the character of Yondu as a smuggler and Peter Quill’s father figure. Gunn admitted, however, that writing the Thanos scenes were difficult as they were clearly something more important to Marvel to lay the groundwork for Avengers: Infinity War:
“There’s pressure with Thanos because you’re setting up this gigantic character that, in one way, isn’t really a part of your movie. His presence doesn’t really serve being in Guardians, and having Thanos be in that scene was more helpful to the Marvel universe than it was to Guardians of the Galaxy. I always wanted to have Thanos in there, but from a structural standpoint, you don’t need him. So that’s part of it, and then part of it is the fact that you’re setting up this incredibly powerful character, but you don’t want to belittle the actual antagonist of the film, which is Ronan. You don’t want him to seem like a big wussy. So how do you make that work?”
Guardians of the Galaxy is obviously famous for its excellent soundtrack, but Gunn actually wrote many of the songs into the screenplay. As for how he chose what to include, it was a process of trial and error:
“I started the process by reading the Billboard charts for all of the top hits of the ‘70s. I downloaded a few hundred songs, and from that made an iTunes playlist of about 120 songs, which fit the movie tonally. I would listen to the playlist on my speakers around the house — sometimes I would be inspired to create a scene around a song, and other times I had a scene that needed music and I would listen through the playlist, visualizing various songs, figuring out which would work the best.”
As Gunn continued to hone the screenplay, casting for this very important Marvel movie begun. The role of Peter Quill was highly contested, with the actors that tested for the role including Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Eddie Redmayne, Jim Sturgess, and Lee Pace, who ended up playing Ronan. Other actors considered reportedly included Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Levi, Garrett Hedlund, James Marsden, and Michael Rosenbaum, but ultimately it was Chris Pratt who came away with the role—although he almost didn’t land it. In a situation similar to how Chris Hemsworth landed Thor, Gunn initially balked at the suggestion of Pratt, who at that time was best known for TV work like Everwood and The O.C. and was starring on Parks and Recreation as the schlubby but lovable Andy Dwyer. Indeed, when Pratt went in to audition, he had gained a lot of weight for his role in Delivery Man but promised he could shape up in the time needed to shoot Guardians. He won over Gunn and the film’s producers, and the rest is history.