David Ayer has never been a man of convention. The writer/director best known for his work examining the psyches of damaged men (Fury, End of Watch, and Training Day, to name a few) spent the early years of his life living in South Central Los Angeles before shipping off to the United States Navy for a two-year stint. His movies are always filled with complex, often morally ambiguous characters — characters that feel real.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the 48-year old father of four took on the upcoming Suicide Squad, DC’s cadre of vile creatures — villains for sure, but ones Ayer found worth examining with a sharp scalpel.
“I’ve always dabbled in the murky moral worlds in my filmmaking,” he says. “I’m fascinated by [the questions], what is a bad guy? What is a criminal? What is a good guy? And what separates them? This hits the bull’s-eye.”
In order to explore the murky underworld of bad people, his actors had to go deeper then what was in the script. Ayer’s somewhat notorious protocol for his actors — a process he’s used since his first movie Harsh Times with Christian Bale — is to engage them in an intensive pre-production period, one involving physical training but also a rigorous emotional component, where he spends gobs of time getting to know his cast on a deep level.
“It’s like building a little cult and then the next victim arrives,” he jokes.
Will Smith knew about Ayer’s methods — it was one of the reasons he signed on for the part.
“They were technically rehearsals, but not really. It was much more about David spending time going through everyone’s lives, connecting our life experiences to our character’s life experiences and finding those parallels,” he says. “What we didn’t realize was what he does in the process is he learns our buttons. We are really bonding but David is grabbing all of your deepest emotional issues so he can throw them back in your face on set.”
That may sound malicious but Ayer says he loves actors and considers “midwifing performances” his greatest honor.
“Acting is very lonely,” he adds. “I don’t think people realize how much these people live out of suitcases and just show up. If you can give them a sense of connection and family and build support around them, then you get the trust. I think trust drives performance.”
The cast is now very close. Smith and his family vacationed last month with costar Joel Kinnaman in Sweden and the recent re-shoots were a great excuse for cast barbecues. But getting there was uncomfortable.
“It was a pretty vulnerable place to go,” says Margot Robbie, who plays Harley Quinn. “He wants to know about your personal history and your relationships and your childhood, things like that that you don’t really want to tell a stranger. And then you have to share that with the rest of your squad as well. I really didn’t like that.”
Ayer, though, is okay mining actors’ pasts for performance.
“It can’t be [comfortable.] You’ve got to open up,” he says. “Actors are super cagey. ‘I’m not going to let you see any of my tools until I get to set and then I’m going to surprise you because they are so awesome.’ [My approach is more], ‘No, No. Let’s burn through the tool box now and start making some new tools.’”
For more on Suicide Squad, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, featuring four special covers of the cast, on newsstands Friday, or available at www.ew.com/suicidesquad — and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.