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How James Gunn brought his violent, heartwarming vision for THE SUICIDE SQUAD to life

Warner Brothers finally stopped tinkering and the result is one of the best reviewed superhero movies yet.

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The Suicide Squad opens on Friday, and whether you catch it on IMAX (recommended) or on HBO Max, you’re in for a superhero movie that resets the game in many ways. It’s full of brain splattering, limb shattering violence…and yet at its core a movie about damaged people finding healing and maybe a little bit of redemption. Director James Gunn mixes the heartwarming team comedy of his Guardians of the Galaxy with the startling shock comedy of his earlier works for something that seems fresh, even after superhero movies have become the dominant form of blockbuster for the last 20 years.

It’s a reboot for The Suicide Squad franchise and maybe even the DCEU, which has labored under studio tinkering and waffling over vision for a long time. Whereas Suicide Squad (no The) director David Ayer has complained long and publicly about the huge changes from his vision for the first movie, and Zack Snyder had those legendary Justice League troubles, Gunn was given complete carte blanche to make The Suicide Squad his way.

The comradery among the characters spills over to the cast and was much on display in an often chaotic zoom press conference held for the film, with 20 of the film’s sprawling cast on hand to talk about how Gunn made one big happy family out of the crew. It’s a line-up as oddball as the film’s mix of third- or fourth-rate supervillains, ranging from superstars like John Cena, Margot Robbie and Idris Elba to regular Gunn repertory players Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion to comedians Flula Borg and Pete Davidson. Plus: Sylvester Stallone playing a giant manchild shark.

The call included so many highlights: Pete Davidson’s joking around about the size of John Cena’s package (a reasonable question, given one scene in the film), Sylvester Stallone’s telling stories about his teenaged dating years, Michael Rooker being Michael Rooker…really, if only they could release this Zoom call on YouTube. It was, honestly, the most fun Zoom call I’ve been on in this whole pandemic.

But the result of all that tomfoolery is a film that actually does what it sets out to do — and reviews so far recognize that, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating in the 90s as we write. But it also made it clear that if this movie succeeds it will be due to Gunn’s overall vision for the film: one that stayed strong from concept to finished product and gave the cast the room to have fun.

Producer Peter Safran confirmed that Gunn had come in with a uniquely clear idea of the movie he wanted to make. “It was actually pretty easy, because James came in with a real, just unbelievable clarity of vision in terms of what he wanted to accomplish,” Safran told the press conference. “What he pitched to us that very first time is exactly what you see on the screen today. And it never changed. There was no waffling. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. So for Chuck [Roven] and myself, it was simply about giving them the tools to do it.”

This included casting freedom. “Whoever he wanted, you know, shoot in whatever way that he wanted,” Safran continued. “The studio gave complete carte blanche, and the movie you see is the result of that. And I think it’s pretty evident, we made the right choice and trusting him 100% to make this film.”

Producer Charles Roven, who has had a hand in almost every DCEU film, adds that this still made for a very loose set. “Even though James really did come in with a very specific vision, it was still very collaborative. James somehow did have everybody pulling together but you were still allowed to do things that just kept elevating the experience. As much as we thought so much of it was daunting, it really wasn’t. It was just really easy and fun. And one of the most pleasurable experiences that I’ve ever had.”

Gunn has said many times that his vision stayed the same from start to finish. “I went in with an idea that stayed stable from the first time I pitched it to the guys at Warner’s,” he said. “I knew that I was being entrusted with this enormous amount of freedom. On such a big budget movie, I really did feel a huge responsibility to people to do it the best I could. But also because I was being given so much freedom, I felt the responsibility to take risks.”

It’s part of the very survival of the endangered species known as “a theatrical release,” Gunn feels. A movie this size is the best way to lure movie goers back to theaters, but it can’t be the same old, same old. “If they don’t continue to take risks, and change and try new things, then people aren’t going to want to be coming to the theaters,” he said. “If it’s the same three act structure every time people are going to get bored. So I really I felt grateful — I felt the sense of magic.”

Of the film’s wacky cast, Gunn had to balance the characters that had to be there — like Harley Quinn — with new ones, such as Polka Dot Man, whom no one will ever view in the same way again. “I really wanted to use a character who was thought of as a lame supervillain,’ Gunn explains of picking the obscure character. “I literally put into Google ‘who is the dumbest super villain of all time’ and Polka Dot Man always came up near the top. Being able to take a character like that and then give him heart was fun for me.”

Playing Polka Dot Man had its ups and downs according to David Dastmalchian, who is actually a huge comics fan — he even wrote a comic, Count Crowley, which is coming back for a second volume from Dark Horse. “When he told me he wanted me to be in this film, first, I freaked out. I couldn’t believe I was going to get to be in a film that James is going to make, let alone the Suicide Squad.” But Gunn’s vast comics knowledge also stumped Dastmalchian. “I was so embarrassed because James knows how much I love comic books. And I spent my life collecting comic books. And I had no freaking clue who Polka Dot Man was. And James is like, don’t worry, read the script. And when I read the script I couldn’t believe it.”

Other cast members echoed that Gunn’s vision still gave them room to develop their own characters. Daniela Melchior plays Ratcatcher 2, one of the film’s breakout characters. (The moment from the trailer where she and Elba’s Bloodsport trade “I’m going to save you” lines is really the heart of the film.) But as a relative newcomer she was in awe of the cast. “I just had to pretend that I’m not their biggest fan. I just had to pretend ‘Oh yes. Like another day in the office.’ I was really happy that I had the freedom from James so I didn’t have to stick to an already existing character from the movie or the comics.” Ratcatcher 2 is new on the scene and that gave Melchior a lot of room. “She is just starting and she doesn’t know how to how to kill or to fight or how to do anything at all, because she has this huge arc. It was really her first mission, And I hope not the last. I really lucky to be with so many good people.”

Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag is one of the more normal characters in the film – as well as a returnee from (No The) Suicide Squad – but he still found a way to stand out. “We had a good script. So I was just so happy to get to do this new version of Flag that James wrote, and I got to spread some comedic wings. It’s the second time, but I felt like I was doing it for the first time. James and I had a couple of conversations early on were we decided that I was not going to be bound by what we did in the first film and just let this be a new experience.”

He also said that despite the size of the film (which included building a huge exploding beach at Pinewood Studios and a $150 million budget) it was still surprisingly clean shoot. “Out of the biggest films I’ve done, for some reason, they always seem to be the most chaotic and you’re always doing weeks of reshoots. And overtime. I don’t think we did an hour of overtime or had any reshoots. Everyone felt that there was this clarity of vision, everyone knew that they were doing exactly the same film together. You just got to focus on what’s important.”

Alice Braga plays Sol Soria, a freedom fighter who although not gifted with superpowers, is still a key character as the Suicide Squad carries out their mission on Corto Maltese. A veteran of many productions, Braga also responded to the Gunn approach — he came to the character with a lot of reference to real life female freedom fighters — and even within the gaudy world of superheroes, Braga says they have powers of their own: surviving. “I took from the reference that they’re amazing fighters and deeply believe in what they [fight for]. I think that’s a superpower.”

She also had the same kind of praise for the unified goal the cast had — even while there was always a lot of laughter. “It was really wonderful, like everybody said, because he had such a specific idea and vision. When I jumped [into filming], they were already filming a lot. And the energy is exactly this energy [on this call]. I remember coming in and just saying like, this is a beautiful dysfunctional family, because everybody is having so much fun – but at the same time really doing the work. I literally saw a bunch of pictures from set and there’s not one that everybody’s not laughing. Everybody’s cracking all the time. So it was really, really special.”

Nathan Fillion, who plays T.D.K., is a regular in Gunn’s ensemble theater and agreed that there was an uncommon degree of trust between the cast and the filmmaker. “I’ve never seen someone like James get handed a property like this and they just say ‘whatever you want. We trust you.’ And then James turns around and says, ‘I’ve got all these solid performing workhorses. I’ve got these solid performing thoroughbreds, I’ve got new talent,’ and they all trust implicitly what James is going to do. There’s a lot of trust going around here. But it’s so easy when someone has a singular vision that you can all get on board.”

But as you might expect, Gunn also had to contend with the hijinks of a cast well known for japery — luckily they had some built in time to laugh. “We just really scheduled the movie very well. And sometimes we goofed around for an hour, but it was worth it. One of the things I wanted to do with this film was to keep it moving. I didn’t want it to be shot over the shoulder, over the shoulder, master. I wanted to keep things alive. And that meant with the camera work and with the actors, when they’re working together to keep it natural.”

Although the adlibbing on set led to a constant danger of breaking up (see the Beat’s upcoming interview with Mayling Ng who plays Mongal for some examples), there is surprisingly little improv in the final film. “We definitely don’t have much improv in the movie,” Gunn said. “But doing that improv helps to make all of the other dialogue way more natural so it feels as if everything is improv.”

Dastmalchian had perhaps the highest compliment for Gunn giving the actor the time he needed, even with the huge cast and production. “There was a moment when we were all wandering through the jungle and I had to deliver one of the hardest moments of the entire film for me where I’m talking about why my character is who he is,” he recalled. “And I’m standing there looking at almost everybody that’s in this zoom right now, except they’re off camera. And if you don’t know this, a lot of times when people are off camera, they just wander off, or they don’t give you 1000%. And all of them are giving me everything that I could ask for with each of their characters. And I still was kind of lost — I didn’t know how to get there. James came down and put his arm around me and gave me some direction.

“And to me that summed up the whole movie for me,” Dastmalchian continued. “We’re on this incredible studio stage, a giant jungle set with all of these incredible actors, and yet it was still this about the intimate relationship between these people and this director with this incredible vision, having the willingness to come down and take a moment to just breathe with me and let me connect.

“I think that’s James. That’s why it’s a James Gunn film,” he concluded, with a quote that is a marketer’s dream. “That’s all that spectacle and all that amazing shit is so cool to look at. But there’s a beating heart underneath this film, which is going to shock and really move people in ways that they don’t see coming.”

The very real affection between cast and Gunn was part of his creative process, the director agreed. “I love each of these guys and gals as people, very, very honestly. And as a director, what I really loved about them is they were also incredibly good and incredibly professional the whole time and so prepared coming to set. Then we created these great characters that that’s where some of the magic came from. They’re all my collaborator. We made this movie together.”


The Suicide Squad opens on August 8 in theaters and on HBO Max.

Check back at the Beat all week for more interviews with the cast and crew of The Suicide Squad.

 

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