From the horribly beautiful mind of writer/director James Gunn comes Warner Bros. Pictures’ superhero action adventure The Suicide Squad, featuring a collection of the most degenerate delinquents in the DC lineup.
Featured in pic above are (L-r) Sean Gunn, Pete Davidson, Mayling Ng, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Nathan Fillion, writer/director James Gunn, Margot Robbie, Flula Borg and Michael Rooker on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure The Suicide Squad, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio/™ & © DC Comics
An outrageously visceral, R-rated wild ride
Directing from his own screenplay, based on characters from DC, Gunn(the “Guardian of the Galaxy” films) takes the criminals of Task Force X on an outrageously visceral, R-rated wild ride that blends balls-to-the-wall action, blood-spattering violence and life-or-death (most likely the latter) situations with irreverent humor and even heartfelt moments, all filtered through Gunn’s singular vision. Main characters will die while, in all likelihood, audiences will die laughing.
With the entire DC canon to choose from for his dream team of Super-Villains, Gunn was the proverbial kid in a candy store—if that store sold comic books. After just a weekend of revisiting legendary writer John Ostrander’s run from the 1980s that reintroduced the Squad, a favorite of Gunn’s as a boy, the auteur’s ideas began to crystalise.
From Harley Quinn to Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Polka-Dot Man, Javelin, Mongal, Thinker and beyond, the lineup Gunn selected for the film was as disparate and seemingly random as could be.
“I’m working for the story. I’m just the servant of the story. So whatever the story says is what I’m going to do, no matter what the repercussions are for anything. And I believe in the truth of the story. I believe that there was a story out there that needed to be told that I don’t have total control over.”
“I have loved the Suicide Squad since I was very young,” Gunn states, “they’re one of my favorite groups of comic book anti-heroes. I’m always interested in people who have not lived their best lives and have an opportunity to become something better—a chance at redemption. Some of them take it, some don’t; it’s humanity in all its various degrees of morality, and I get to put it on screen in a really grand, exciting way, with aliens and monsters and a walking shark.”
Gunn cites early influences like the war films “The Dirty Dozen” and “Kelly’s Heroes” as the impetus not just for the story, per se, but also the style of film he sought to make: gritty and real. Juxtaposed with hyperrealism in certain instances, of course—these are comic book characters, after all. And what truly sets his vision apart is that, in true Squad fashion, no one is ever safe; from the get-go, he determined that every single character, no matter how big the name cast to portray him or her (or it), would be in real danger, with no rules imposed upon who survives and who doesn’t.
Producer Peter Safran knew Gunn would be perfect for the property, and thankfully it didn’t take a lot of convincing. “After I suggested it, he went back to the source material, became inspired, and said to me, ‘I know exactly what I want to do with this movie, so if the studio is interested in that exact vision, let’s do it.’
Producer Charles Roven, well-versed in the DC feature landscape, was eager to work with Gunn again. “James and I had collaborated in the early 2000s on a very successful franchise, the live-action ‘Scooby-Doo.’ We made two of those movies and he wrote both scripts, and we’ve remained close ever since,” Roven relates. “Once I heard he was available, I started talking with James about working with him again. Coincidentally, Peter Safran and Walter Hamada at DC Films were already talking with James about ‘The Suicide Squad.’ Obviously, it then became a very easy conversation.”
“There were a lot of great characters James wanted to have fun with,” says Safran, “but it was always about bringing his own sensibility to the movie—his sense of humor, his style of action, and very specifically he wanted to make a war caper movie that was almost a throwback to the movies of the `70s.”
A Surprising Screenplay
Despite his longstanding familiarity with Gunn’s work, Roven admits that not only was Gunn’s script “a fantastic read, but he did things that completely surprised me in the best sort of way. I never really knew exactly where the story was going to go.”
Still, how does a filmmaker craft a compelling story around a group of misfit baddies—really, truly bad guys and gals—that will not only entertain but also make audiences care who, if anyone, survives? Roven agrees with Safran, stating, “James can take characters with these really terrible qualities and make you really like them, and even root for them.”
“I don’t come at any movie I make thinking how I’m going to set it apart from other movies,” Gunn relates. “I just come from the point of view of telling a story I want to tell as well as I possibly can, and ‘The Suicide Squad’ was exceptionally exciting to me. I was emboldened by everyone’s faith in me to take whatever risks, kill whatever characters, tell the story in whatever outlandish way I wanted…total freedom. I was enlivened by the whole process.”
The scale of “The Suicide Squad” was massive on every level, with the studio’s largest constructed set pieces to date and a hugely ambitious approach dictating that everything that could be done practically, in-camera, would be. For that, Gunn assembled what he describes as “by far the best group of production heads I’ve ever had.” That list includes production designer Beth Mickle, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, director of photography Henry Braham, visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain, and second unit director/stunt coordinator Guy Norris, among others.
Soon, dropping from the Atlanta sky onto the fictional island of Gunn’s imagining, Corto Maltese (specifically onto the shore of a beach his crew created), then traipsing through the thick jungle (also courtesy of the crew), was Gunn’s cast of 17 or so leads (further proof that through Gunn, Amanda Waller leaves nothing to chance). Huge stars like Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, with Sylvester Stallone and Viola Davis, to namecheck just a few, comprise the international ensemble.
Gunn’s vision of his Squad was so clear that, though each character is an established Super-Villain in their own right, he manages to imbue them all with a sense of redemption…or at least the possibility of it. And while he went for some of the big-name villains, he primarily opted to include more obscure characters who many readers would consider expendable, cultivating within each of them their most endearing traits, ensuring audiences would root for them anyway. Until, you know, they die one-by-one in some cringeworthy, yet hysterically funny, manner.
So, the first thing that Gunn said to the design team was that all of the characters on the Squad should look like they came from a different place—even another era—and just happened to come together. He also wanted to reference the actual comics much more than he had in previous comics-to-film adaptations. With this in mind and casting well underway under John Papsidera, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, hair department head Janine Thompson and makeup head Heba Thorisdottir not only knew exactly where to look for inspiration but didn’t feel obligated to incorporate subtle recurring themes between the Super-Villains, which was creatively freeing.
Although the costumes did not have to feel like they were connected visually, the design teams did have to take into account that the characters would be in water for a good portion of the film, would be in a wide variety of colors that needed to pop in both day and night light and, with many of the costumes having weapons built into the design, that they needed to work closely from day one with property master Drew Petrotta and his team was imperative.
Gunn and this creative team, including production designer Beth Mickle, had a six-week conception period where it was just them in a room, working out crossover designs. Half of the film was designed in that six-week period alone. The costume build then began in Los Angeles and continued in Atlanta, with the ongoing collaboration continuing between all creative departments.
“Gunn is such a visionary director that I could tell the scope of the project was just going to be massive—which it was,” says Margot Robbie, returns to the role of colorful, cheeky, cheerful psychotic Harley Quinn, re-incarcerated for making a cash withdrawal with her car, and buys her freedom once more by joining the Squad. “He pulls off the bizarre in such a spectacular and cinematic way. I think there’s a particular tone to a James Gunn film, which was evident in the script and it felt evident on set. I think people are going to freak out when they see this film because it’s huge and insane and fun and funny and weird, the music’s incredible and it’s emotional… It’s just such an experience.”
The majority of filming for The Suicide Squad took place at Pinewood Studios (now Trilith) in Fayetteville County, Atlanta, Georgia. The production utilized 11 interior and three exterior sound stages, totaling over 250,000 square feet of space. The cast and crew also traveled to the country of Panama for filming in both Panama City and Colon.
The production’s creative team includes director of photography Henry Braham, production designer Beth Mickle, editors Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner, and visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain. To capture the DC Super-Villains in the desired environment, Gunn envisioned a gritty, war-like magical realism, which meant the team was tasked with finding the extraordinary within the ordinary. In addition to “The Dirty Dozen” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Where Eagles Dare” and “Platoon” were additional inspirations. Gunn knew exactly what he wanted—from set pieces, character design, action—all of which combined to create a visually dazzling spectacle full of drama, comedy and heart. Significantly, the director challenged both cast and crew to rely heavily on practical shots rather than leaning on visual effects.
Within this spectacle, Braham was tasked with putting the audience inside the action with a free-flowing intuitive approach to shooting, but in a way that makes “The Suicide Squad” a definite big screen and IMAX experience. “In many ways a documentary approach with strong, rich imagery designed for the big screen is contradictory, but that is the whole point of James’s intent, to set the extraordinary in reality,” Braham says. “Both his characters and the visual language, however fantastic, are based in truth. That is what makes his storytelling so compelling.
“A movie to me is two things,” Gunn says, “picture and sound. It’s how you put those two things together that help tell a story and hopefully move an audience. So, music is incredibly important, and not only the songs I choose but also the music that I built with my composer, John Murphy, which is absolutely beautiful for this film. A lot of John’s score was written beforehand and we play it on set, too, and that guides the scenes, the way the cameras are moving, and really informs the actors.”
Every note, every frame of “The Suicide Squad” speaks to Gunn’s passion. “I love comics and I love movies, and I think that DC fans already know how much I love so many of these characters and take such pride in bringing their stories to the screen—even if they’re only on screen for a few minutes,” he says. “I think in this film, fans and audiences alike are going to see all of the magic and all of the wackiness of these Super-Villains brought to the big screen in a way that’s never been done before. I mean, that’s why we go, right? You’ll believe a man can fly—but now you’ll believe a man has a polka-dotted interdimensional disease that’s eating him alive.”
Writer-director James Gunn is the prolific filmmaker behind some of pop culture’s most notable feature films.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Gunn began his career at the age of 12 by making a zombie movie with an eight-millimeter camera and an actor, his brother Sean. Thirty years later, Gunn brought to life what is now one of the most memorable franchises in the Marvel Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn wrote and directed both Guardians of the Galaxy and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which have earned a combined $1.5 billion at the global box office.
Gunn got his start in the industry while attending Columbia University. He applied for a part-time job filing papers at famed B-movie studios Troma Entertainment and was paid $150 to write the screenplay for the feature “Tromeo & Juliet” instead. In 1997, “Tromeo” became a cult hit, playing in theaters around the world, including over a year of midnight screenings in Los Angeles.
Gunn left Troma to write and star in (along with Rob Lowe, Thomas Haden-Church, and Jamie Kennedy) the 2000 feature film The Specials, about a group of superheroes on their day off. In the same year, Bloomsbury Press released Gunn’s critically acclaimed novel The Toy Collector, the story of a hospital orderly who sells drugs to finance his escalating toy collecting addiction. He also wrote, with Lloyd Kaufman, the non-fiction book All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger, currently in its fifth printing.
In 2004, Gunn wrote the live action Scooby-Doo movie, which grossed over $300 million worldwide. He became the first screenwriter in history to write back-to-back hits standing at #1 at the weekend box office, with the critically-acclaimed and re-imagined Dawn of the Dead on March 19, 2004, and “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” on March 26, 2004.
Gunn’s love for the comedy and horror genres coalesced in his feature film directorial debut, “Slither,” which he also wrote. The film was released in 2006 and stars Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks. “Slither” is featured on Rotten Tomatoes as one of the “Top Ten All-Time Best Reviewed Horror Films,” was named “The Best Horror film of 2006” by Rue Morgue Magazine, and garnered Gunn a Saturn Award and a Fangoria Chainsaw Award for his work on the film.
Additionally, in 2010, Gunn directed the independent feature film Super, the dark and comedic tale of a disturbed man who dresses up as a superhero to save his ex-wife from her drug-dealing new boyfriend.
Gunn’s additional credits include hosting the reality show “Scream Queens” for VH1 and writing and directing the comedy web series “PG Porn,” which has received over 70 million hits online, has been remade by Canal+ in France, and is one of the most profitable web series of all time. Recently, Gunn produced the 2019 drama/thriller, Brightburn and produced the horror feature The Belko Expirement.
He will next go into production on the third installment in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, which he is writing and directing and is writing, directing and producing the upcoming television series “Peacemaker” for HBO Max.