‘Suicide Squad’: David Ayer on Shooting on Film, Directing The Joker, and Working in the DC Universe

     July 11, 2016

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Suicide Squad is, in many ways, the most exciting film of the DC Extended Universe thus far. What makes the picture unique is that this will be the first movie in this interconnected series of DC Comics adaptations that is not directed by Zack Snyder, therefore allowing audiences to see for the first time what a different director’s vision looks like within this same universe. And from the moment it was announced that David Ayer would be at the helm of Suicide Squad, it was clear that Warner Bros. would be enlisting some serious talent to direct its own slate of superhero movies.

Ayer’s career thus far has delved into the unflinching grittiness of the real world, be it South Central Los Angeles gangs in his directorial debut Harsh Times, the day-to-day of a pair of L.A. cops in End of Watch, or the ugliness of the tail end of World War II in Fury. With Suicide Squad, Ayer’s penchant for hardened stories meets the realm of the supernatural, and that mix thus far looks to be quite excellent.

Last summer I got the opportunity to visit the Toronto set of Suicide Squad along with a small group of reporters, and during our time there we were able to speak with Ayer as he was in between takes of shooting a scene involving Killer Croc’s dwellings in the Belle Reve prison facility. As both writer and director of Suicide Squad, the film is unmistakably Ayer’s, and so it was a joy to dive deep in our conversation, covering everything from his decision to shoot on film, how 70s movies like Serpico influenced his approach, the female characters’ costumes versus the men’s, working within an established universe, and why he wanted to put Batman in the movie. The conversation also, of course, touched heavily on Ayer’s relationship with Jared Leto in forming this new iteration of The Joker, and how he went about directing an actor who was in character the entire time.


If you’re at all interested in Suicide Squad from a filmmaking standpoint as well as story and character, I think you’ll find this interview worthwhile.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Question: This is your third film with [cinematographer] Roman Vasyanov. I was curious what kind of early aesthetic conversations there were about Suicide Squad. It looks pretty striking. I saw you’re shooting on film, which is great.

DAVID AYER: Film. The big decision is film. Once you commit to film, it kind of drives a lot of things about the visual in the movie. I think you can do more with film, and film has a more real organic quality than digital. It’s a lot kinder to faces, that’s for sure. When you’re doing something where people are made up, and you have so many constructed sets and everything, I think film sort of melts things together and makes everything feel very natural. Whereas, digital, you can see every pore, every detail. Sometimes you feel the makeup, you can see the makeup.

Part of what we’re doing, our references are ’70s movies, like Prince of the City, Serpico. We’re using an older series of anamorphic lenses. We’re after an old-school look, which I think … You’re taking a subject matter which is exceptional unto itself, and then photographing in a way that’s very naturalistic and real. I think it has the effect of bringing them into our world.

When you were writing this, how important was it to stay faithful to the comics?

AYER: It’s interesting, it’s … What I did is sort of an amalgamation, because I love the Ostrander series, and there’s some fantastic situations and the concept of it is very solidly there. This idea of this team of bad guys run by Amanda Waller doing dirty work for the government. But in The New ’52, it’s also—I mean there’s the craziness of it in the New ’52, and obviously Diablo’s out of the New ’52 world. There just really hasn’t been too many opportunities for like a Hispanic kind of villain, superhero comic book character, and he plays a pretty important role in this. That’s something that’s important to me so I kind of cherry picked him to pull him into this. Obviously Croc, he doesn’t feature in the original Ostrander series but the situations—I’m not going to tell you which one I pulled the plot out of, but pretty much everything that happens is true to the source material, whether it’s Ostrander’s work in New ’52 or from the Joker comics or other source material.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Talking about diversity, when we first got up into the concept art room there’s this wonderful wall with all of the characters on it but all of the men, well not all of the men but the majority of the men are in armor or, you know, military grade and then all of the girls are either mostly naked or bare mid-drifts and it’s a little disheartening. What was the thought process behind putting Katana into a two piece rather than a cat suit? Or making Enchantress as naked as humanly possible for a PG-13 movie?

AYER: I just wanted to see Waller in a bikini. I mean really that drove everything for me (laughs). For me it’s, if you look at the aesthetic of comic books and you look at how the imagery of it and sort of what it means and what it drives, you have these hyper-masculine men and you have these very feminine women. I don’t think that it’s a contradiction to say that a woman can be traditionally attractive and feminine and very strong and a very tight dame, very aggressive. So I think that’s something you build into the characters and I think it’s also just, I think it’s a trope of the genre.


Did you feel any need to poke at it at all? Will there be any kind of in-universe acknowledgement that, “Hey, Harley Quinn’s fighting in 5″ stiletto heels?”

AYER: She’s freaking scary. I’m kind of glad she’s in stiletto heels because if she was in anything else she would be even more scary. It’s interesting because when I see Margot out of wardrobe now I literally don’t recognize her. I don’t know who she is. She’s an example of somebody who has totally become the character and transformed herself and embraced this. I think that’s part of the fun. I’m just speaking about Harley Quinn specifically, there’s a sexuality, there’s an attractiveness, there’s a pinch of attractiveness to the character but when you understand how that character thinks, she almost uses that as a weapon to disarm people and kind of as a visual judo to get what she wants. That’s a big part of how Margot is playing the role. I think it’s, there’s an intrinsic sort of wank and awareness that that’s part of her game.

You’re saying you wrote the role of Deadshot for Will Smith and I was wondering, did you guys have some kind of relationship before that? How did you guys come together?

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

AYER: I think for Will, he wanted to play in this world and this just seemed like a fantastic opportunity. Deadshot’s a great character. What’s great about these characters is that they’re pretty well known. To the fans they’re very well known. But there’s a vast audience that doesn’t know these characters so it’s also an opportunity to sort of visually reinvent them and also to tell these stories of who they are. Deadshot, all these characters in the Suicide Squad world have this complexity about them. My pitch when I went to the studio about this was, they’re villains that don’t know they’re bad guys. They don’t know they’re bad guys. They’re just people who have made some really bad decisions in life and ended up in a bad place and are trying to do everything we want to do which is live, love, be happy.

A guy like Will, who typically plays these very positive characters, to put him in a role with a little grey and a little complexity is perfect because he’s so sympathetic and he’s got such a good heart as a person, it comes across the screen. It just made sense.

Can you talk about how you direct Jared as he’s method acting? How do you direct someone who is in the character of The Joker?

AYER: It’s interesting because Jared is one of the first people I cast in this, and so those conversations and the character development, how to build this character have a lot of history between us. I understand how he’s built the character. I understand what he’s doing. It’s a little bit of like I know the magic trick. I know how the rabbit is hidden in the hat before you pull it out. He’s very professional and we’ve had a lot of discussions about his journey and his mindset in what are the pieces that become this character. As far as our on-set work it’s fantastic because, a little more of this, a little less of that, a little more of this secret ingredient here and a little less of that secret ingredient.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Plus the guy’s a rock star. He’s a bona fide rock star and so he has this incredible sense of presence, innate performance but also an incredible musicality about what he’s doing. He’s really found the voice of this character and I think people are going to be surprised because even though there’s some new visual elements to the Joker, when you see him on screen in aggregate as the character, I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to ever imagine anyone else as the Joker.


Can you talk about the decision to tackle Joker, coming off of the Heath Ledger performance? Was that always your intention with this project to do that? And can you talk a little bit about coming up with the look for him? I mean, obviously you’re online and you see that it’s getting a divisive response from the tattoos.

AYER: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s definitely, the Joker’s sort of the third rail of the DC Comics world, right? And Heath and his work is in the Pantheon. That shouldn’t preclude reinvention. It’s the most iconic bad guy in any medium. For me, what an incredible opportunity to reinvent, to have some fun with the character, and to use him in the role of Suicide Squad, and that’s what’s so fun about what Warners is doing with the DC universe now is cross-connecting these films so that different characters can enter and leave and go through these doors and have these worlds link up.

We came at it with an incredible respect for the history of the Joker, and I’ve read every freaking comic. If you look at—I grew up on the Batman TV show, the Adam West TV show. Look at the incarnation of the Joker in that, look at how the Joker has evolved. So I don’t think we should freeze him in ice and never let him evolve with us as we evolve as an audience. As far as visual development of Joker, I wanted a guy who felt like he had history and he wears his history. This is a guy with some prowess and presence in the criminal world and I want him to feel like a modern day criminal. I want him to feel like someone that you believe could emerge from today’s underworld.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

How does the fact that this movie exists in a larger cinematic universe affect your take on it or how you direct it, or does it?

AYER: It’s interesting. I’m sharing some assets with other movies and some things I’m doing will be established and then sort of handed—there will be a baton passed to other directors and other projects. But it’s like no one handed me a style guide. Nobody handed me a manual and said, “These are the numbers you’ve got to hit.” I’ve had really an open hand to develop this world, but I’ve worked with Zack. I’ve talked with Zack. I know what Zack’s doing on his movies and how this will interface. So it’s being respectful of his work and as I say, I’m just standing at the shoulders of giants here. So many people have come before me in the genre, I really feel blessed to be able to play in this world and then to be able to spin off the bad kids version is just a lot of fun for me.

Is A.R.G.U.S. a factor here?

AYER: (Hesitates)…Yes A.R.G.U.S. is a factor. There’s A.R.G.U.S. Assets and it plays in and has a shadow and a footprint. I don’t think I should say more than that.

What can you say about the casting of Viola Davis as Amanda Waller?

AYER: She’s like a no-brainer. If you think about Amanda Waller, she has to be scarier than the supervillains that she manages, and Viola is incredible. It’s like, for me, I think I have the best time when she’s on the set because she’s so Machiavellian and so devious and yet, you know, we’ve worked on this incredibly realistic, plausible character history. Where does she come from? Why is she like the person she’s become? In the source material, she escaped Cabrini-Green and lost her kids to street violence. I’ve always imagined her as a person who’s boot-strapped themself through the Federal Government, and just simply out of force of will and ability and capabilities, has risen up to this incredible position of power. She’s a character who demands and commands respect, but again is incredibly grounded. What I’m trying to do is have each character have their own trajectory and their own history and their own heart and their own need.


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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

What can you tell us about the purpose of Batman in the film? Was that something that you always wanted I there or was that a studio mandate? What’s your spin on Batman?

AYER: Look, you apply at a job for a DC Comic movie and it’s like, “Come on, let me get the toys, please. Let me get the cool stuff.” I begged for that. That was really, really something I wanted. There’s a lot of information out there, a lot of false information about how these characters play into the A plot. It’s an incredibly complex story with flashbacks and different convergent storylines and things like that. I will say this at the same time, and I probably shouldn’t is, all the Batman movies have been from Batman’s point of view. He’s the good guy. He’s the hero of his own movie in all the movies we’ve seen. If you look at what Bruce Wayne has done in creating the Batman persona, his idea was to terrorize criminals. It’s sort of psychological warfare against criminals. This wraith that comes in the night and attacks and pulls criminals from society. For the first time, we’re seeing Batman from the point of view of the criminals and he’s freaking scary.

Were there any characters from this world that were maybe right on the paths for making it into the film but you didn’t get a chance to play with this time? Or some that you might be interested in following up with in any potential sequels?

AYER: I’m scared to answer that because this is anticipated to be sort of the cornerstone of more things to come, and there’s other folks that we’re going to see come and go in and out of these films. So yes, the short answer.

Can you talk some more about Enchantress? The costume design and everybody, they’ve tried to explain a little bit about what culture we’re dealing with here. It’s been very vague and if she’s possessed or what exactly is going on with her and how?

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

AYER: Enchantress… I will keep it also intentionally vague. She leaves a large shadow across the scope of this film. Shots to the balls over the course of it. I always imagined her as, if you look at her origin, she emerges from this cavern, this cave. I imagine her as like this, almost like this Paleolithic Goddess who was at one point sort of worshipped by primitive man. Again, it’s another character who has her own past and her own history. Her storyline and her evolution as a character figures very importantly into this construct. I don’t want to get more into her.

Your previous movies were really raw and visceral and kind of on the ground. How are you balancing that with the comic book aspect here?

AYER: I think you evolve with every movie you do as a director. I’m definitely bringing my sense of reality and characterization and grittiness to the comic genre but at the same time there are expectations—and rightly so—good expectations about what these movies need to be. There needs to be scope and scale and sort of grandeur. You have to be faithful to the source material and respect what these films are. Having said that, it’s world creation. When I did Fury, it was world creation. I couldn’t go down with a camera and film World War II. Every asset on screen had to be developed, painted, designed, engineered, placed and it’s the same thing with this. That really gave me an appetite for world creation. The trick for me is how do you take the tropes and set pieces of a comic book movie and ground them in incredibly believable ways? I want a movie where you feel like you could pass that shot on the street and not know that’s fake.

One of the aspects about the Suicide Squad in general is that it’s never the same team twice because everyone is expendable. Anyone could die any minute. Obviously in the movie as well, they want to do more. How hard is it when you’re developing characters like this is it to say, “Okay, we have this straight back story but he’s got to go?”

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

AYER: It’s a little scary. There’s definitely…I mean that’s the whole point of it, right, is that they are so expendable to a great degree. Because they’re criminals, so what rights do they have? What rights do they have as individuals? Even the right to live seems to be revocable, especially for Amanda Waller where any tactic works. That, exactly, figures importantly into the movie and that’s their journey is, again, you have these people that have been told by society what they are. Put in a box. Put in a cage, literally. Do they have the right to grow? Can they change? Can they be good people? Do they have the same joys, loves, spirits that we have? That’s what I’m really enjoying exploring with them.


Are you trying to get us to apologize for the penal or justice system, which could be a layer there, which might have been in the original comics, too.

AYER: I would not want to do time in Belle Reve. Not a good place.

What would you say has so far has been the biggest action set piece? Have you filmed it yet or is it yet to come?

AYER: There’s several major set pieces. I’m in the middle of one. It’s raining otherwise we’d be out there right now shooting guns, which is heartbreaking because it’s all about inertia, momentum. The set piece we’re in the middle of is probably on paper our biggest crew days, but I have a fantastic crew, incredible support. For me, it’s a pleasure to do a big studio movie because you draw on the experience of the studio, they assemble fantastic people. They put the best people around me. It’s absolutely A+ film making. Yet to get the creative freedom to get to add my spin and my flavor to it, it’s just been a real pleasure.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

We were talking to the producers earlier. They said that you had a really long discussion with Geoff Johns about, you know, who to pull in maybe. Was there anything that you had no intention of using or didn’t even know existed until he brought it up and you were like, “Oh that. That has to go into the film?”

AYER: I think it’s been a great relationship with Geoff. He’s sort of the keeper of the scrolls. He’s the scribe of the DC universe over there at Warners and obviously DC Comics. With his encyclopedic knowledge it’s like, “Hey, I need a thing that can do these four things but not do this one thing.” “Oh, you need this. Da, da, da.” Boom. Okay, it’s going in the script. Having somebody who’s so absolutely literate of the DC world is fantastic and then also just, I’ve done my homework and read everything I can and I really feel like if you look at everything that’s available in the DC fiction universe and the Crisis material and all the potential storylines, the vast amount of characters, the rich villains, it has the best villains and so I feel like it’s so intact. I mean, it’s like get ready. I think it’s going to explode.

With so many characters and the expectations for set pieces as well, how do you go about balancing emotional journeys and emotional parts and servicing all of these characters in a way that feels satisfactory, but also everyone can’t have a full emotional journey.

AYER: Everybody, I think, and I told the actors, it’s an ensemble movie to a degree but everybody has their moment. Everybody has their day. Everybody has their story. And with the work they’ve done, and there’s real specificity to the character in the script, you see one frame of them you know who they are. You can feel them, which is hard to do. They’re very trackable and so much of the movie is about evolution and growth and these individuals who were isolated coming together as a family and as a team and discovering that they can love and they can have a life and that there is this camaraderie and this brotherhood and sisterhood is really powerful and that’s the journey all of them share.

Margot Robbie was telling us that you helped her tap into the character’s evil that’s below the surface? Did you have to do that with a lot of the cast?

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

AYER: Raising bad, I think of it as a possibility. These are people for whom any action is on the table. Any course of action or any thought. They don’t self-censor. They don’t restrict themselves to our world of possibilities and that’s the fun of them is any one of them is capable of anything. There’s a lot of back fighting and in-fighting, but as far as helping the actors, for me it’s specificity to help them tap into their own lives. Help them tap into their own experiences and their own hearts. Their own families, their own traumas, their own pains, their own loves. Any time an actor can do that it’s going to yield a better performance, I think a more honest performance. At the end of the day, like I said, sure this is a movie about supervillains but they’re just people. They’re just people, so as long as the actors are emotionally honest then the characters will feel real to us and we’ll understand because that’s the film.


The nature of the Joker, then are there going to be human elements to him? We heard the word Devil thrown around a little bit or supernatural or something. What can you say about his sort of presence and function and also sort of his bond with Harley?

AYER: Oh, it’s a fantastic relationship. The Joker, the more plausible the Joker can be the more well-rounded as a person, the more accurate his psychology can be, I think the scarier he becomes. As a character, he represents—all these characters are powerful because they represent mythologies. They’re almost like Greek Gods right out of Pantheon. I think that’s what attracts people to superhero movies. It’s like the first Comic-Con was Ancient Greece and people would dress up as their favorite Greek Gods and celebrate and stuff. So there’s something very primal and ancient about that. You simply have to look at what the Joker represents as a force of chaos. Even as a criminal and an organizer in the criminal world, he’s still chaotic which Chris Nolan tapped him to in a great way in The Dark Knight.

But without getting too much into it, their relationship is dysfunctional. It’s very accurate to the source material and that’s something that Harley has to deal with and grow and how does she empower herself? What does he mean to her? What does he mean to us? It’s all rather complex and I think rather honest how we’re dealing with it.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

You said it was mostly an ensemble. Is there a character or characters that are the center that the rest revolve around?

AYER: I think it’s really Will’s movie in a lot of ways. He’s kind of built it around him and his journey. His character journey is a fantastic way to move the audience through this. Part of what I do as a filmmaker is find the film’s viewpoint and he’s a fantastic way to tell a story.

I know there’s a lot of ground to cover in this movie. One of the connections or relationships no one has really mentioned or talked about is that Deadshot’s the Batman villain. Because Deadshot was a Batman villain, he was a Batman villain before Suicide Squad. Do you touch on that in this movie?

AYER: All of the above.

Do they have scenes together?

AYER: I don’t know what I can say. They have a history.

What’s it been like adjusting to this world of secrecy for you?

AYER: I was in the Navy, I had a security clearance, so been there, done that as far as dealing with classified material. There’s mechanisms in place. Nobody gets a hard copy of the script. Everybody works online. Everything’s tracked. Everything’s coordinated. It’s a little rough just from the work-a-day sense because you can’t have a bunch of paper stacked on your desk, but at the same time, I think it’s valuable. We have had some material exposed by virtue of being out on the streets and working out on the streets, but it’s a sliver. It’s a fragment and it’s all out of context. For me it’s a lot of fun just to see how people try and assemble these pieces because in their minds, they’re a much larger piece of the film than they’re actually saying. But it takes days and days to shoot a scene so it’s how does all this fit together? That’s the big surprise.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Are you purposefully secluding Jared Leto from the rest of the cast?

AYER: Absolutely. Yeah. I think any director, for me, there’s always a bit of social engineering that happens. I treat every actor differently sort of according to their needs. With Jared, when he shows up he’s very much kept in isolation and then he shows up and you really feel the energy change. He’s scary. He’s a scary dude. He’s in character. I mean he’s knocking it out of the park. He’ll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. What he’s doing is really powerful.

How much does the fact that Jared Leto is a literal rock star influence his take on the Joker? Because just look at some of his photos. There was the one hanging on the wall and he’s sneering and I’m like, “Oh my God. He’s Billy Idol.”

AYER: I just think it’s a sense of he understands how to drive a crowd and that there’s just something very, very real and very honest about having that ability he’s able to bring to the character. This guy isn’t an introvert. This is an extroverted Joker. This is a Joker who really puts himself out in the world and is very socially adept and uses his presence. Jared is definitely drafting on his own abilities in that regard.


For more on Suicide Squad, peruse the rest of my set visit coverage in the links below:

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