It may seem like it's been years coming (because it has), but the day has finally arrived when David Ayer's Suicide Squad will be leaping from the pages of DC Comics to the big screen - aided by some Oscar winners and up-and-coming stars. A new franchise? How about a new building block in the billion-dollar DC Extended Universe, a brand new take on the Joker, and the first appearance of magic, madness, and countless villains and characters joining the shared comic book sandbox.
The launch won't be a painless one, of course, as the first wave of early critical reviews hinted, if not exclaimed that the sky was falling. And just as quickly, the fans were ready to push back (and had praise from other DC filmmakers and comic book superfans behind them). Mass audiences will have their say soon enough, and judge for themselves whether director David Ayer's future in the DCEU is only beginning, or is over almost as fast as it began.
But in an effort to give fans or moviegoers curious or excited for the film one last lens through which to view it, there's no better time for insights straight from the director's ear. We had the opportunity to speak at length with Ayer during our visit to the film's set near halfway through production, discussing Jared Leto's Joker, the current state of comic book movies, and the potential of the DC Universe. Our entire interview follows below.
Since we are sitting outside of Deadshot's cell, I wanted to ask about casting Will Smith - who has made a career of playing the hero on the big screen – and casting him in this role where he's maybe not such a hero.
He's an antihero and not supervillain? Are we making that distinction?
Well, he's a supervillain. He's a bad guy. They're all bad guys. That's the beauty of this. That's the fun of the genre. I think Will is incredibly versatile and can handle any kind of role you throw at him. It's funny because none of the normal words apply. I wouldn't say "He's the father figure of the team," because it's like herding cats. They don't care.
But he definitely has that leadership quality. It's a great character for him because I think all these characters are conflicted and complex. So many times you feel like in this genre, they're trying to inject complexities into what's a very black and white character. Good guys, who are gonna do the good thing. It's very easy to get ahead of them in plotting because you always know what the good guy's gonna do. These guys can do anything. They're not bound by the normal rules. That's what makes it so fun to play in this space.
If that's the fun of it, what are the challenges of having protagonists that are bad guys?
I mean, you're talking to the guy who wrote Training Day. So for me, it's not going too far. It's very easy to go too far. At the end of the day, they're people with lives. They're people who've made bad decisions. You get into the question of, "Are you your worst day? Are you your worst act that you've ever committed? And should that define you?" And when you are defined in that way, is it immutable? Can you change? Can you learn? Can you grow? So a lot of this is about people that have been defined in an incredibly negative way and have absorbed that, and are maybe discovering that they're not so bad after all.
Your films are in the streets or in the military, very grounded in very contemporary realism or historical realism. What attracted you to finally getting into this world that has magic and super powers?
It's interesting. It was really Fury because that was all about world creation even though it's a depiction of a historical event. You're trying to recreate things that exist and existed. Every asset on camera has to be created, located, sourced, bought, rented, painted... It's not like you can run downtown and swing a camera. So that taught me to think in terms of creating a visual world and creating a layered, visual world. I got excited to then take that level of control of what goes in front of the camera, and apply it to this genre.
Plus, as a storyteller, there's a mythological power in comic books. In a lot of ways, comic book characters are really avatars for gods. They're very much like the Greek or Roman pantheon. There's something about the epic quality of that kind of character, of these characters that are avatars and almost have these superhuman powers, and some do have superhuman powers. And then to reverse engineer that into a psychologically realistic space and execution, it just seems like the perfect assignment for me.
What was some of the comic book material that you looked at that really inspired you? Were you looking at the Ostrander or the new Glass stuff? And obviously taking characters that have never been part of the Suicide Squad comics and putting them in this movie.
All of the above. I think you almost have to go back to the beginnings and look at Kane's Batman, and look at the origins of Superman and start there and work your way through the canon and how it's evolved as society has changed. Certain elements haven't changed and certain elements have. The revolution going into the 90s and then the graphic novel and [Frank] Miller's work – you sort of have to look at all that.
So for me, it was going into the original Suicide Squad, which was very interesting because it's a product of the bipolar world. These guys were fighting the Russians. It was very 80s and I'm a child of the 80s, so I totally understand where they were coming from. Then, you can really see how in today's world, where the government sometimes engages in murky activities to solve problems and make us safe, you could sort of see something like this happening and how it would happen today.
Can you talk about how you narrowed down which characters you were going to use and how they best served the story?
Deadshot's just a no-brainer because he's just a core element of that team. And then I got attracted to Harley through the New 52 version, but then I really started going, "Okay, what's this character? [laughs]" Then you get absorbed in her standalone things and then you get into her origins and her relationship with Joker. It's so defining that... it's salt and pepper. You gotta have one with the other. They go together like a knife and fork.
It is a lot of fun to see Boomerang, who is sort of the most villainous of all these characters. It's been a blast creating this absolutely kinetic, out-of-control, force of nature with Jai [Courtney]. You know the character paradigms, he's like 'Evil Chaotic.' It's like building a family and you just look for who's going to be complementary to each other and this is a new venture and it's a lot of characters to introduce. You're looking for that team and that family with interlocking skills that will complement everybody else's.
Building off that, were there any characters that you considered putting in, but had to cut out?
It's crazy how many characters there are-- 'cause they keep killing them all, blowing their heads off. That's the beauty of this too, is no one's safe. No matter who's in the movie, they are not safe. Anything could happen. And yeah, there's definitely early rosters, but I think the core team was always there.
Can you talk about the conception of the Joker this time around, especially coming years after we had that iconic role?
Yeah, I mean, you want to talk about the third rail of comic book movies. You know, when you have someone as talented as Jared, and then I think when you just accept that… Heath happened. Dark Knight happened. And you just move forward. It’s one of the oldest, most well-known villains in modern culture, and to leave him fallow, I think, would be a shame.
I don’t know how to say it, he’s so… we instantly know who he is. We know how he makes us feel. We know how he’s going to behave. Just one little drawn picture of him, and a character that fantastically iconic and powerful almost emerges himself. And once you start touching that character, and playing with that character, he really does reveal himself in a lot of ways. And he’s so defined.
Jared’s done nothing short of just utterly transforming himself and has done an incredible amount of work. The mannerisms, his voice, everything. And when he steps on set, you feel it, you feel the energy. The crew feels it. It’s going to be… I believe, nothing short of a revelation.
Does he talk to you in his Joker voice?
He’s in character. When he shows up here, he’s in character. He’s in his trailer, he’s in character. He emails me, he’s in character, it’s like…'whoa.' He’s a little f***ing scary to be honest. It’d be nice to see Jared again. It’s been a while.”
We've heard a lot today about the Eyes of Adversary. Could you talk a little bit about that concept and maybe put them into context for us in the course of the film?
Yeah… ‘I had a dream.’ Have you guys seen ’em? They’re pretty disturbing… yeah, they’re really disturbing. It’s hard to come up with bad guys, and it’s hard to come up with creatures. I think it's one of the most difficult things. If you look at modern development in film, it's brutal. You want to do something fresh, yet, I also want to do something very specific to this world and unique. And I think we kind of nailed it. It's sort of related to the bad guy stuff, and the bad guy stuff is very much a sealed, locked box.
But, it's an idea, it's a concept that you came up with? It's not from anything in the comic books? It's your own creation and addition to the movie?
Only in the sense that if you look at Joker, he has his henchmen. There's always the henchmen concept in comic books. The specific visuals and what they are and how they work, sure. But, it's very much out of canon that you have these armies of servants.
Obviously, you may have heard that there are a lot of DC Comic movies that are going to be coming out now. How much connective tissue is there into the past and future of this new DC Cinematic Universe? How do you apply that idea that they are building this bigger world?
...Watch this space. Get ready. That's all I'll say. Just get ready.
Just to go on that, can you talk about incorporating Batman? Was that in the original script? Was that something Warner Brothers came to you about or did it stem from conversations with Zack Snyder?
If you're going to do a DC comic book movie, you want Batman. I'm a little bit of a fanboy, you know, I grew up reading Batman comics and there was the old Adam West show and everything. I had the toy car. It's something important to me. I think it's every filmmaker's dream to be able to be given such an iconic asset like that and really to see... when the suit shows up on set, and you have Ben in the suit, it's really like.... "F***!" It's really cool.
Grown men cry.
Yes, grown men cry.
Was Batman in the original script though?
Absolutely. The short answer is, "Yes."
As a filmmaker, do you look at this as a stand-alone picture? "I'm going to make one movie," even though I'm sure the studios and everyone would love a trilogy to come out. Do you just look at one or do you set threads for possible sequels?
Because of the nature of the comic book universe, and the DC Universe, it’s really a fractal. It’s really infinite anyway you could go. Especially the DC Universe, I think is one of the most complex fiction universes, I mean with the Crisis, and pre-Crisis, and the multidimensional nature and all the timelines and everything like that. And each one of these characters could be their own film, you know? The Suicide Squad could be a zillion films.
The backbone of this story is right out of canon and it's one comic book. I'm not going to say which one, eventually people will figure it out, but that's just one out of a two-foot stack. The potential is always there, but as a filmmaker, you have to make the movie work and stand it up on its own two legs and be utterly complete as an experience. Otherwise, you're doing the movie injustice.
You said Joker was the third rail when it comes to comic book fans, but Harley Quinn is a character that people have been demanding more and more of. When you touched on it earlier, you implied it might not have been "I've got to put Harley in this movie. That's my reason for doing it." It just came out naturally.
I wanted Harley. She’s freaking cool, and she represents so many dichotomies in today’s world where everything is sensitive, and you can’t talk about anything, and you can’t represent anything, and you can’t do anything… she doesn’t care. She transcends everything. And that’s what’s so fascinating about her, you know? She’s so many things, and such a powerful woman who’s living life on her own terms, and so honestly in the moment, and a person of this incredible joy in the moment. It’s great to be able to work with that character, and Margot is knocking her out of the park. She's doing her own stunts, too. I've never seen that. Incredible.
You have about a month left of shooting. Is there something, or someone, that really took you by surprise once you got into the shooting process and started putting stuff on film?
It's such a huge animal that it's almost hard to break it up that way. The good news is everything came together. Everything worked because when you prep a movie, it's guess work. Will this work? Will the wardrobe work? Will the costumes work? Will this characterization that the actors are doing work? The special effects. The methodology. The techniques. Everything is so in camera and realistic and practical. And sure, there's CG, but we don't want to lean on it. All these guesses somehow came together.
But it's less about any one thing and more about how shocking the chemistry between the actors has become. They’re thick as thieves, it’s like… they’re scary together [laughs]. They’re like this little gang now. They’re truly like a posse, it’s a wonder to behold and that’s not normal in this business, sadly, because I think it’s a very isolated business. You have actors and they go from show to show, and travel, live out of suitcases. It’s a very isolated lifestyle. And I think people understand that so to see people who willingly hang out on set when they’re not working, and they’re always together, even when they don’t have to be is kind of… it’s rare. It’s very rare.
How would you describe the tone of the movie? The early buzz is it's very dark. There were reports that you had therapists on set for the actors. Today we've been getting a lot about how funny it is. I wanted to get your perspective on it.
It’s both. I think it’s both. Drama – you know, the Greek symbol for drama is happy mask, sad mask. If you have too much of one, it’s imbalanced. And I think the best movies are the ones that can make you double over in laughter and cry. Which I hope this will do for the audience. I think people will be really surprised by how much humor is in the movie. But at the same time, it’s honest, situational, character-based humor versus like, the low hanging fruit, You know? You really believe it, it’s really germane to these characters.
You want Suicide Squad to be real and gritty, but you also have the Enchantress, who is a magical character. What was the thought process behind introducing the supernatural element?
Think of it this way: religion, mythology, magic is something that’s been through human history, throughout human history. The belief in the supernatural, belief in transformative abilities and everything. So if you look to the past, how did people understand and think of things, and even today there’s people of incredible faith who believe in miracles, and there’s a pantheon of world gods, all with these amazing inspired abilities. So all the answers are there.
We have to ask about a PG-13 Rating. Not saying you can't make a film like this without gore or bullets, but the subject matter of these characters seem to be so adult. What's that like from a filmmaker's perspective and trying to tell a story with that?
What are we saying about rating? ...It's NC-17. I'm weirdly not worried about it. It's like, it's going to be what it's going to be. I think it's going to be a lot more accessible than people think. I really believe that. I got kids, I want my kids to see this.
Outside of the comic books, were there any other movies that you assigned to your cast and crew as reference points for the movie?
It's character specific. With Joel, he’s playing like a Tier-1 crew military officer, you know, in the special forces community so I really loaded him up with material that could kind of give an understanding of the mindset and lifestyle… There’s this book by Charlie Beckwith about Delta Force, a great, great book and really inspirational… about the constitution of this sort of person.
With Margot, you know, it was books about psychopathology. She’s supposed to be a psychiatrist, she’s a trained person. Harley is this kid who grew up in Brooklyn, poor family, her dad was in and out of prison, and all this stuff. So these are all layers to research, and what is the core of this character, and then how do you build up from there? So she should understand all these things. I mean she went to hospitals and things like that, everybody got really deep into their work.
Jared, once all is said and done, I think it'll be fantastic to share the work he's done and the layers and research. He's one of the first guys I worked with and cast in this. Everybody's done their real world work, again, because we all want these characters to feel as realistic as possible, which I think is what we're doing a little bit different here.
As a filmmaker, how are you dealing with the fan anticipation and the fan scrutiny on a movie like this? What's that like dealing with the DC world?
It's impetus to not f*** it up. Look, I'm a fan, too. So I believe in canon, and I believe in being respectful to how storylines and characters interlock, and understanding how not to break things I think is the number one thing. How not to break a character, how not to do something that encroaches in the storylines and histories that have come before.
I think you have to be really... yeah, it's like archaeology.
Suicide Squad is scheduled to arrive in theaters on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman 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.