This time it's war: How James Gunn took The Suicide Squad over the top
On an outdoor set in Atlanta, Idris Elba is pretending to fire two very large, very futuristic-looking guns as he and castmates Margot Robbie, Daniela Melchior, and David Dastmalchian film one of the final action sequences in The Suicide Squad (in theaters and on HBO Max Aug. 6). Given the spoilery nature of what is being shot on this overcast day in November 2019 for Warner Bros.' latest DC superhero extravaganza, we cannot elaborate much. We can say, however, that there are palm trees. There is abundant rubble. There are military vehicles and dozens of uniformed extras. We can also say that the movie's writer-director, James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), is having an absolute blast as he monitors proceedings in the tented video village with a grin plastered on his face. "I feel like I've been making little independent movies with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, because this film is gigantic," says Gunn.
The idea of Gunn directing this movie, and having fun doing so, would have seemed preposterous not too long ago. David Ayer, director of the first film in the franchise, 2016's Suicide Squad, had a miserable time, with his initial cut being heavily reworked on Warner Bros.' insistence prior to release. While that film — about a group of big bads who go to work for a secret government agency in return for a reduction in their prison sentences — earned $746 million around the globe, it was tepidly received by audiences and excoriated by critics. As for Gunn, the year before starting to shoot The Suicide Squad, the director endured a potentially career-ruining professional fall from his position at the pinnacle of the Hollywood ziggurat to being persona non grata at the company that made him famous. Gunn puts matters more plainly when EW asks him about the route that led him here today. "Yeah," he says. "I got fired by Marvel."
Given all that has occurred over the past three years politically, socially, and virologically, it is easy to forget the brouhaha that erupted after Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn announced on July 20, 2018, that the company had "severed" its business relationship with Gunn. He had enjoyed huge success with 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy and its 2017 sequel, turning a group of obscure comic-book characters and a sitcom actor named Chris Pratt into box office gold for the Disney-owned Marvel Studios. But Gunn was also a vocal critic of Donald Trump, and in the summer of 2018 conservative pundits resurfaced jokes Gunn had tweeted about rape and sexual molestation a decade earlier. Horn swiftly announced that Gunn was being cut loose for "offensive attitudes and statements. "I knew it was happening," says Gunn, who had just completed the first draft of the script for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 at the time. "The night before I got fired, I was sitting there going, 'Oh, f---.' It was a nightmare." Gunn soon apologized for the tweets, posting in a Twitter thread that his days of "saying something just because it's shocking" were over.
Gunn's friends and colleagues rallied, including the Guardians of the Galaxy cast, which issued a statement in support of their director. Behind the scenes, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich and producer Peter Safran (Aquaman) joined forces to facilitate Gunn's swift return to a film set. "The following Tuesday, I saw Toby Emmerich at Warner Bros.," says Safran, a pal of Gunn's and a producer on The Suicide Squad. "Toby said to me, 'Tell James whatever he wants to do, we want to do. We think he was unjustly treated.'"
Although Gunn spoke with Warner Bros. about several DC properties, including Superman, he admits he never seriously considered making a Man of Steel movie. "Things like Superman, Justice League, people have so many ideas about who they are that it seems like less of a fun playground," he says. What did sound like fun was another take on the Suicide Squad, which was on the studio's wish list. "After the financial success of Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. was definitely interested in pursuing a new movie," says Charles Roven, a producer on both the 2016 and 2021 versions.
Gunn envisioned carrying over several characters from Ayer's film (Robbie's Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman's Colonel Rick Flag, Viola Davis' Squad-overseeing Amanda Waller, Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang), adding more villains from the DC comics, and reframing the franchise in the context of a war-caper movie like The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes. Another difference: Where Ayer's film was set in the U.S., Gunn would send his Squad on a mission to the fictional South American island state of Corto Maltese. And while the overstuffed 2016 movie was firmly attached to the DCEU, with appearances by Ben Affleck's Batman, Jared Leto's Joker, and Ezra Miller's Flash, this would be very much a standalone movie concentrating on the members of the Squad. Finally, Gunn wanted to make a risqué and violent film unlike any previous superhero tale (unless there's a scene we missed in Shazam! where a walking shark literally tears a guy in half ). So…definitely not a sequel. "It really is its own thing," says Gunn. After writing the script, he told Warner Bros. he would direct the film only if it were rated R, not PG-13, as the Ayer's film was rated. "The studio definitely balked," he says, but eventually agreed.
Shooting began in September 2019. According to Steve Agee, who previously worked with Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and plays, via motion-capture, the half-man, half-fish Squad member King Shark, "James seems happier and less stressed-out on this movie." It probably didn't hurt that by the start of the shoot Gunn knew he'd have another job waiting for him after filming wrapped: In March 2019, he was reinstated as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. With the first two Guardians films earning more than $1.5 billion around the world, it made commercial sense for Disney's Horn to rehire Gunn — and the filmmaker helped his case by not publicly criticizing Disney for his dismissal. But according to Gunn, Horn said he "was doing it 100 percent because of what he personally felt was the right thing to do. I was touched."
Gunn dug deep into his knowledge of DC Comics to come up with new Squad members. He cast frequent collaborator Michael Rooker as the vigilante Savant and recruited his own brother Sean Gunn, who physically portrays Rocket in the Guardians movies, to give another motion-capture performance, as the human-size rodent Weasel. Other Squad newbies include Daniela Melchior as the animals-controlling Ratcatcher 2 (the character's father, the original Ratcatcher, is played by Taika Waititi) and Ant-Man actor Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man, who can kill people with, yes, polka dots. "I've been collecting comics since I was 12 years old," says Dastmalchian. "James said he wanted me to play the Polka-Dot Man, and I was like, 'Wait, who?'" Gunn initially thought of casting Guardians star Dave Bautista as the homicidal Peacemaker character. When the actor opted instead to star in Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead, the director handpicked another former wrestler: John Cena. "I didn't look at myself as a second choice; I just looked at it as a chance to do the best I could," says Cena. In the film, Peacemaker butts heads with Elba's weapons expert Bloodsport. "There is a particular scene where my character and Peacemaker really battle it out," says the Luther actor. "It becomes the biggest cinematic d---swinging competition you've ever seen."
During EW's set visit, Gunn says that his upbeat demeanor during production was fueled by love for his cast, even if he was at times terrified by a certain Oscar winner. "Viola Davis is the sweetest person who turns into this malevolent force as Amanda Waller," says Gunn. "I'm not kidding. She scares the s--- out of me." Gunn's fears notwithstanding, shooting The Suicide Squad seems to have been a fun and bonding experience all around, as EW discovers during a chat between scenes with Elba, Melchior, Agee, and Dastmalchian. While Melchior teases Elba about his dislike for the real-life rats they acted opposite in a recent scene, Dastmalchian recalls the time he left his unlocked phone in Agee's vicinity. "He texted my wife, 'Steve Agee is much cooler than I ever thought and my poo is burning right now,'" says the actor.
Speaking of burning, though most of the movie was shot at Atlanta's Trilith Studios (formerly Pinewood Atlanta Studios), some exterior scenes were filmed in Panama, where high temperatures added a level of down-and-dirtiness to the proceedings. "Everything gets a bit more real onscreen," says Margot Robbie. "Your makeup is running, your hair is genuinely sticking to your face in sweat. Aside from that, on our days off, we got to discover cool rum bars and have a hell-time."
Fans have been having a "hell-time" with the footage that has been released so far. The film's sweary red-band trailer achieved a record-breaking 150 million views in the week after it was released in April. Kinnaman is happy that, this time around, its director's vision is arriving in theaters in an uncompromised form. "When I saw the film completed, I felt, yeah, 'This was [what] we set out to do,'" says the For All Mankind actor. The franchise's corporate overlords had enough confidence in Gunn's vision to back a spin-off Peacemaker show, which Gunn and Cena spent the pandemic making in Vancouver; it will premiere on HBO Max in January.
While we're definitely getting more of Cena's character, Robbie admits she has no plans to reprise Harley Quinn, either in another Squad film or a follow-up to last year's Birds of Prey. "I was like, 'Oof, I need a break from Harley, because she's exhausting,'" says the actress, who is set to play Barbie in Greta Gerwig's upcoming doll-inspired film. "I don't know when we're next going to see her." But Margot, what do you think of the revelation earlier this year, in the future-set scene at the end of Zack Snyder's Justice League, that her character had died? "Whaaat?" says Robbie, genuinely flabbergasted. "I didn't know that." She laughs. "Thank you for telling me!"
Robbie should be less surprised if she finds herself reteaming with Gunn, who is open to the idea of making another Suicide Squad adventure. "I've had ideas, actually," he says. "If I did a sequel, it's not like, 'Hey, let's assemble another team and let's do this!' It would be very different." Sounds like a great Squad goal to us.
Watch the trailer for The Suicide Squad above.