5:30am PT by Kim Masters
'Suicide Squad's' Secret Drama: Rushed Production, Competing Cuts, High Anxiety
"Better late than never." That was one Warner Bros. executive's reaction to the excitement at Suicide Squad's splashy Aug. 1 premiere in New York. Tracking indicates the film could open to more than $140 million domestically and potentially hand the studio its first unequivocal megahit since American Sniper's $547.4 million in December 2014. With March's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice grossing $873 million worldwide but failing to impress audiences or reach the hoped-for $1 billion mark, Warners still urgently needs to jump-start its critical DC Comics universe, raising the stakes for Suicide Squad, which cost at least $175 million to make.
Yet if the villain team-up ultimately works — and it has drawn some harsh early reviews — it will be in spite of the kind of behind-the-scenes drama that is becoming typical for giant franchise movies that now are the main focus of the studio business: a production schedule engineered to meet an ambitious release date; a director, David Ayer (Fury), untested in making tentpole movies; and studio executives, brimming with anxiety, who are ready to intercede forcefully as they attempt to protect a branded asset. Often, efforts to fix perceived problems ratchet up costs, which drive anxiety ever higher. In extreme cases, such as Fox's troubled Fantastic Four, the intervention is so aggressive that it becomes unclear what it means to be the director. (In each such case, studios are careful to stress that the credited director is on-scene and in charge, which is essential to avoid DGA issues. And the wise director plays along.)
So despite grueling moments, multiple editors and competing cuts, the production of Suicide Squad barely stands out in today's landscape. In a joint statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Ayer and Warner Bros. production president Greg Silverman say: "This was an amazing experience. We did a lot of experimentation and collaboration along the way. But we are both very proud of the result. This is a David Ayer film, and Warners is proud to present it."
Warners chief Kevin Tsujihara announced the project in October 2014 as part of a slate of 10 DC films stretching into 2020. Though the studio believed there was enough time to get the movie done, a source with ties to the project says it was a sprint from the start. "[Ayer] wrote the script in like, six weeks, and they just went," he says, arguing that the whole process would have benefited if Ayer, 48, had been given more time to work. But another source closely involved with the film says once it was dated, pushing back the release was not an option: "It's not just that you've told the public the movie is coming, you've made huge deals around the world with huge branding partners, with merchandise partners. It's a really big deal to move a tentpole date."
In Ayer, Warner Bros. enlisted a director who had never made a giant, effects-packed action movie. Hiring filmmakers who lack such experience is the trend, and it's often out of necessity. "There are a lot of people who don't want to direct those movies and that's a huge problem," says one producer with franchise experience. "A lot of the proven guys are back-to-back with their stuff, or they want to develop it for five years, and there's a machine that has to be fed. And there's the economics." Seasoned directors are expensive, meaning studios turn to those with less experience, relying on instinct that they will be up to the job. Sometimes it works (Colin Trevorrow on Jurassic World), and sometimes it doesn't (James Bobin on Alice Through the Looking Glass).
A source with knowledge of events says Warners executives, nervous from the start, grew more anxious after they were blindsided and deeply rattled by the tepid response to BvS. "Kevin was really pissed about damage to the brand," says one executive close to the studio. A key concern for Warners executives was that Suicide Squad didn't deliver on the fun, edgy tone promised in the strong teaser trailer for the film. So while Ayer pursued his original vision, Warners set about working on a different cut, with an assist from Trailer Park, the company that had made the teaser.
By the time the film was done, multiple editors had been brought into the process, though only John Gilroy is credited. (A source says he left by the end of the process and that the final editor was Michael Tronick.) "When you have big tentpoles and time pressure, you pull in resources from every which way you can," says this source. "You can't do it the way it used to be, with one editor and one assistant editor."
In May, Ayer's more somber version and a lighter, studio-favored version were tested with audiences in Northern California. "If there are multiple opinions that aren't in sync, you go down multiple tracks — two tracks at least," says an insider. "That was the case here for a period of time, always trying to get to a place where you have consensus." Those associated with the film insist Ayer agreed to and participated in the process. Once feedback on the two versions was analyzed, it became clear it was possible to get to "a very common-ground place." (The studio-favored version with more characters introduced early in the film and jazzed-up graphics won.) Getting to that place of consensus, however, required millions of dollars' worth of additional photography.
Other sources describe a fraught process — one cites "a lot of panic and ego instead of calmly addressing the tonal issue." Clearly all wasn't sitting right with Ayer, who in June suddenly dropped his longtime agent at CAA and defected to WME, though the agency won him back in a day. "He was under a lot — a lot — of pressure," says one person with knowledge of the situation, arguing that Ayer was exhausted and needed time to process conflicting ideas.
And there may have been other strains. Just weeks before the two versions were tested, Warner Bros. declined to ante up for Ayer's next project, Bright, which will reunite him with Suicide Squad star Will Smith. He ended up at Netflix, which made a staggering $90 million deal. Nonetheless, a day or two after Ayer fired and rehired CAA, another cut of the film was screened for a test audience, and sources say the results were strong enough that there was an upbeat plane ride back to Los Angeles.
Now the question is whether the film will deliver for an industry thirsty for something, anything, that will work in a summer bereft of live-action hits. Though reviews suggest the competing visions for the movie may have taken a toll (THR's critic calls the film "puzzlingly confused"), BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield says, "I've learned long ago there is not always a connection between reviews and box office and financial success." At the same time, it is imperative for Warners to build DC movies fans love like they do the Marvel pics.
Even on the day of the premiere, one insider fretted about whether Suicide Squad would mirror BvS' huge opening and weak legs. Another veteran says the goal is survival: "The movie's got to do $750 million, $800 million to break even. If they get anywhere close to that, they'll consider it a win."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.