David Ayer’s rogues gallery romp Suicide Squad was all set to be a runaway hit, not only rescuing the DC Extended Universe from its wobbly start, but also rescuing the box office from an uneven summer. The trailers were great, the marketing felt like a breath of fresh air, and each new week seemed to bring a bizarre but fascinating new behind-the-scenes anecdote. Between the brightly-colored posters and the fact that the movie’s “heroes” were bad guys, Suicide Squad promised to shake up the busy schedule of superhero movies with something a little different.
Last week, however, the tone changed; the review embargo was lifted to reveal a broad swathe of scathing critiques, and a new report emerged detailing a troubled production with two distinct edits of the movie shown to test audiences (Ayer’s version, and the studio’s version), followed by extensive reshoots that aimed to make the movie’s story and tone more crowd-pleasing. Though that report seemed to tell yet another story of excessive studio interference, Ayer has since stated firmly that the theatrical version of the movie is definitely his cut.
So, does that mean that Warner Bros.’ alleged micro-management of Suicide Squad‘s tone and structure, which some sources say was a panicked response to the poor reception of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, isn’t to blame for its poor reviews? Not exactly. While the tales of competing edits, a stressful and ego-driven post-production stage, and Warner Bros. chief Kevin Tsujihara’s anger over Batman V Superman‘s bad press are certainly attention-grabbing, it seems like most of Suicide Squad‘s problems can be traced back to its true Achilles heel: the cameras started rolling before the script was ready.
Shifting around dates for a tentpole blockbuster isn’t easy and becomes even more difficult as the planned release date approaches, so after being announced in October 2014 Suicide Squad had a deadline to hit that was less than two years away. In THR‘s account of the production problems, one insider claimed that the tight schedule led to an accelerated development and pre-production period, saying that,”[Ayer] wrote the script in like, six weeks, and they just went.”
Reading between the lines of what Ayer himself and the studio have said, it’s clear that a lot of issues that should have been worked out during the script-writing and storyboarding stages were instead worked out on the fly during filming, and after principal photography was already complete. A joint statement by Ayer and Warner Bros. production president Geoff Silverman admitted that “we did a lot of experimentation and collaboration along the way” – experimentation being the operative word there. In the writing stages, experimentation is pretty cheap; it’s a case of changing around words on a page, which is why Hollywood scripts tend to go through so many different drafts before finally settling on a shooting script. Hold off on that experimentation until after filming has already begun (or been completed), and the price tag multiplies dramatically.
Addressing questions about why so many moments from the trailers were absent from the final cut of the movie, Ayer cited the unpredictable nature of movie production, explaining that it’s impossible to prepare for all the curveballs that are thrown along the way:
“I think there’s a misunderstanding about filmmaking where you can somehow have this crystal ball and understand exactly how everything is going to work together and assemble together… when you’re on set you’re dealing with shots and you’re dealing with dailies, and so you have this 7-minute shot and maybe only 10 seconds of that shot is gonna end up in the movie… It’s always a moving target as you try and distill and condense down to the best movie. And this thing was a beast, we had over a million and a half feet of footage, with an ensemble movie, 7 plus major characters that we have to introduce, a very complex story that is not your normal linear story and you’re introducing the audience to a whole new world.”
If we take Ayer’s estimate of a million and a half feet to be true, this means that the director shot at least 227 hours of footage, of which only 2 hours ended up on screen. While a shooting ratio this high is not unheard of in Hollywood, and for a movie with Suicide Squad‘s budget the cost of raw stock would be fairly negligible, the true cost lies in the expense of bringing the entire cast and crew back for the extensive (and expensive) reshoots that were needed to reshape the movie into what test audiences had indicated it needed to be – not to mention the sunk cost of all the scenes that were filmed and then cut from the movie. It’s currently unknown exactly what the film’s final production budget was, but estimates range from $175 million to $250 million.
There may not be a crystal ball for filmmaking, but between Ayer’s description of the editing process for Suicide Squad and the reported behind-the-scenes drama, it’s clear that the movie just did not get the time that it needed in development and pre-production. To make matters worse, around the time that Warner Bros. and Ayer were screening multiple cuts of the movie to test audiences to try and figure out what it should be, Batman V Superman arrived in theaters to resounding scorn from critics and a box office that dropped off sharply after its first weekend. Suddenly, Suicide Squad couldn’t just be a fun end-of-summer supervillain adventure; it needed to prove that the DCEU could produce an undisputed hit. No pressure.
The reports of Warner Bros. cutting the studio’s own version of Suicide Squad using multiple uncredited editors, while Ayer was off piecing together his own version, generated discussion about whether Suicide Squad, like Fantastic Four before it, had been the victim of a conflict between a rebellious director and a meddling studio. The evidence suggests that Ayer agreed to the process and was an active participant in it, and unlike Fantastic Four director Josh Trank, Ayer has fiercely stood by the theatrical cut of the movie. However, getting to a point where both he and the studio were happy with the edit involved a lot of compromise and negotiation, and – once again – that compromise and negotiation took place after the movie had already been shot.
Drawing comparisons between Warner Bros.’ DC movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is always a breeding ground for tension, but it’s important to do so now that we’ve arrived at the idea of studio interference, and the director’s right to creative control. Earlier this year, Suicide Squad‘s executive producers Zack and Deborah Snyder both used the term “filmmaker-driven” to describe the plan for their cinematic superhero universe. Speaking specifically with regards to Ayer, Deborah Snyder said, “We want to hire directors who still have a point of view and that have latitude, because we don’t want all the movies to feel the same.” Intentionally or not, this was taken by fans as an indication that the DCEU would not be faced with the same accusations of uniformity that continue to dog the MCU.
Of course, the notion of a director having total creative freedom on a major studio movie that represents an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars is absurd – with the exception of maybe a tiny handful of directors on the level of James Cameron or Christopher Nolan. Any production on the scale of these superhero blockbusters will involve some degree of compromise between the director’s vision and the studio’s expectations, and one of Marvel’s greatest strengths is making those compromises before the cameras start rolling.
Marvel’s reputation for keeping careful control of its properties (with studio head Kevin Feige acting as mastermind of the whole operation) has been perpetuated by the fact that numerous directors have either left or turned down Marvel projects. The most infamous example is Edgar Wright, who parted ways with Ant-Man due to “creative differences,” after being attached to direct the movie for eight years. Then there’s Patty Jenkins, who was ousted (or left amicably, depending on who’s telling the story) from Thor: The Dark World in 2011. According to a source in Marvel’s camp (via THR), the decision was made because the studio felt Jenkins showed “a lack of overall clarity in her choices,” while a source from Jenkins’ side said, “there were constraints on what she could do creatively.”
The last-minute handover to director Alan Taylor still arguably had a detrimental effect on the film – Thor: The Dark World is generally considered one of the weakest Marvel entries, though it still achieved a 66% score on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $644 million worldwide – it does offer some valuable insight into how Marvel operates; if the studio is unsure of a director, the movie doesn’t go ahead with that director. Moreover, the reasons directors have given for turning down movies give every indication that Marvel is upfront about its expectations. Ava Duvernay explained that she declined to direct Black Panther because she felt that, with the compromises she’d have to make, it wouldn’t be “an Ava Duvernay film.” Horror director Fede Alvarez has said that he was approached by Marvel (to direct Doctor Strange, if the rumors are to be believed), but lost interest because he felt that “they already figured it out… What would I do?”
It’s certainly true that Marvel seems to have its movies figured out – to a fault, some would argue. Reshoots are standard on Marvel movies but, crucially, they are planned in advance. Describing the studio’s approach to additional photography in 2014, Feige explained:
“We always build in two weeks [of reshoots] because the hardest thing about the additional photography is the actors’ schedules, wrangling the actors. So we just build it in. We’ve done some movies that have three days of reshoots, some that have fifteen days, twenty days if not more… Sometimes it’s to fix something that’s not working, but most of the time on our movies it’s two-fold: sometimes a better or more exciting idea will come along, or more often something will come out of the movie – because it’s too long or the movie is stronger without a particular beat or scene or shot, and you need connective tissue.”
By contrast, inside sources have painted Suicide Squad‘s reshoots as a scramble to make the movie’s narrative structure functional and its tone appealing to audience. One of the elements that ended up largely on the cutting room floor, it seems, was Jared Leto’s much-hyped iteration on the Joker, with Leto recently claiming that he probably filmed enough footage to make a completely separate movie about his character.
Some might argue that Suicide Squad‘s director is most at fault for its messy and expensive production. There is evidence that Ayer was more interested in forging a bond between his actors than addressing his movie’s story structure – in fact, a number of reviewers have said that the strong performances in Suicide Squad are its saving grace. However, it was ultimately Warner Bros. who gave the go-ahead for production to begin before there was a clear roadmap for it, and ultimately it was the studio that decided to address the movie’s issues by throwing money at it. Between Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman, whose production budget was rumored to be as high as $410 million, Warner Bros. seems to already be setting a habit of minimizing potential profit margins for DCEU movies and, despite all that money and effort, failing to release a finished product that impresses critics.
That’s not to say that Suicide Squad is a bad movie. As with Batman V Superman and Man of Steel before it, it’s better described as an extremely divisive movie, with some people loving it and going back for repeat viewings, and others calling it a disaster on the level of Fantastic Four or Green Lantern. Ultimately it should turn a profit, if its strong opening weekend box office is anything to go by. But if there’s a lesson for Warner Bros. going forward, it’s that having a long-term plan for the DCEU as a whole is not enough; the individual movies need to have their own clear vision before the cameras start rolling, because all the expensive CGI in the world can’t match the value of a carefully refined script.
Suicide Squad is in theaters now. Wonder Woman opens on June 2, 2017; Justice League on November 17, 2017; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League 2 on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020. The Flash and Batman solo movie are currently without release dates.