There was a time when the impression of Hollywood movie studios – at least to fans – was clear: it was the writers and directors who spawned the true creativity and ‘art’ that wound up lasting decades or reshaping the medium… and the producers who beat the drum of profitability and star power. That was, until the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – when producer Kevin Feige became the fans’ favorite player and ‘the man with the plan,’ meaning the writers and directors actually making the film were simply bringing the studio’s broad story to life.
Obviously that’s not an entirely accurate description, as numerous writers and directors have claimed the productions themselves felt as fun as an indie movie. But it’s the studio’s decision that rules – a fact learned by both Edgar Wright and Alan Taylor, whose visions for their films were vetoed – and considering the studio’s track record, the fans tend to argue it’s for the best.
It’s not just Marvel, since nearly every major franchise blockbuster sees rumors or reports of studio meddling at some point – which is why so many heads were turned (or eyebrows raised) when the first claims arrived that with the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros. was favoring a “filmmaker-driven approach.” In short, let the writers and directors tell their own stories, and figure out the bigger vision/plan as they went. In the eyes of those who believe Marvel is the formula everyone else should just copy, it seems like folly. But for the cast of Suicide Squad, it’s changing their entire idea of where the comic book movie genre can go.
We had the opportunity to visit the set of director David Ayer’s unorthodox story of ‘bad vs. evil,’ sending the baddest killers and criminals of the DC Universe on a mission to do some good… or die trying. It was a refreshing premise since the project was first announced: Warner Bros. handing one of the first entries in the larger DCEU, featuring some of the most in-demand and fan-favorite characters, to the mind behind Training Day, End of Watch, and Fury. And when David Ayer took the stage at San Diego Comic-Con after three months of shooting, he made it clear that the film would carry as much attitude, as much unapologetic swagger, and as raw a style as any of his past work.
Overnight, the movie stole the spotlight from Batman V Superman (let that one sink in) and it seemed to be for one reason: Warner Bros. had found a unique talent to craft their comic into a movie, and let them loose. Since then, the claims that the studio really was giving creative control to their directors have shifted aside for juicier topics.
But when we spoke to Jai Courtney and Margot Robbie on the film’s set, they didn’t just reveal how little presence the studio 'bigwigs' seemed to have, but how the production was changing their opinions of what a ‘comic book film’ could be:
Jai Courtney: I don’t know if I came in with expectations. I was kind of opposed to the idea before it was ever… before this was ever conceptualized. It was David Ayer that really was the draw card, I mean that was the only reason I was interested in the first place. And I think that that and the property we’re working with has meant that it’s… I mean, I don’t really see comic book films, I didn’t grow up reading them. So I guess I’m not really sort of part of that fan [base]. It’s not the world I’m necessarily interested in as an audience member. And it’s probably changed my perspective on that a little, and I was probably guilty of having some ideas about where those sorts of films were headed. And I think what we’re doing is really exciting, and I think we’re really lucky to be a part of this one.
Margot Robbie: I thought doing a comic book movie would be a very formulated process, and so far this has been one of the most organic and spontaneous processes I’ve been through. This is the sort of process I would expect to do on a cool, gritty indie film, and we’re doing it on this massive budget film where there’s so many people giving their opinion on what we’re wearing, what we’re doing, blah blah blah… But at the end of the day, everyone’s standing back and letting David do it the way he wants to do it. And fortunately for us, the way he wants to do it is a very raw, gritty way.
Courtney is no stranger to the massive, studio-controlled franchises in recent years. Having appeared in series like Die Hard, Terminator, and Divergent, the Aussie actor has seen the methods – and results – by which a studio will hope to protect their investment, appeal to a broad audience, and find success (or failure).
It’s hard to say that Ayer has ever fit that bill: films like Harsh Times, Street Kings, End of Watch, and even Fury have never broken out into mainstream ‘blockbuster’ territory, but they were never really intended to, either. Certainly not with such adult, ugly, and violent realities the main pursuit.
But it’s worth remembering, too, that those smaller budget, less ‘broadly appealing’ films are usually the ones which find a devoted audience, or critical acclaim. On the one hand, it makes sense for major studios like Disney and Universal to seek out the directors responsible for small, intimate, yet promising character pieces, hand them a bigger budget and property and ask them to “just do the same.” But on the other, fans are now regularly confused when seeing those same directors micro-managed, or given properties or universe-launching sequels almost impossible to leave their mark upon.
Courtney has likely seen that experience firsthand, and knows why studios make the choices they do. But in this case, it’s Warner Bros. handing the reins to Ayer (and according to him, offering more reshoots to complete his vision) that may be the reason things are looking so bright for Squad:
JC: Just to elaborate on that, I think it’s unfortunate that when you deal with sort of franchise properties, you know, directors aren’t always afforded the freedom to take total control. And he has been and I think that’s what makes the difference.
MR: It makes such a difference. For sure.
JC: And changes the experience for everyone involved. It may be riskier from a studio perspective, but if they’re trusting in his vision - and he executes it well, which we have no doubt he will, it’s going to be amazing – then I think it just makes for a much more enriching experience.
There’s no guarantee that giving “total control” to a director will result in success; delivering critical flops like Batman V Superman are just as likely as hits like Guardians of the Galaxy. But as the current slate of comic book movies climbs into the dozens, there’s a case to be made that different movies may be the path best pursued, instead of a reliable, yet formulaic universe.
And considering that not only David Ayer’s vision, but the studio’s decision to respect it has converted one non-believer, and seems to have the entire cast eager to make as many sequels as they’re allowed, this “filmmaker-driven approach” may be worth the risk when all is said and done.
Suicide Squad is scheduled to arrive in theaters on August 5, 2016; Wonder Woman is slated for release on June 2, 2017; followed by 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 is currently without release date.