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Three years ago, James Gunn thought his filmmaking career was over, but he very quickly began fielding offers all over town, including one from Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. Emmerich — who works out at the same gym as Gunn’s manager and producer, Peter Safran — would half-jokingly say to Safran, “James Gunn’s Superman,” before offering Gunn whatever he wanted to do, including a follow-up to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016). Gunn, as a longtime fan of the Suicide Squad comics, soon gravitated toward the idea of putting his own spin on the material, especially when Warners granted him creative freedom. And now, five years to the day after Ayer’s Suicide Squad was released, Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which boasts a 95 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, arrives in theaters and on HBO Max. And while The Suicide Squad stars several actors from Ayer’s version including Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman and Jai Courtney, the film is a brand new take on Task Force X and the characters involved.
But despite his successful track record, Gunn is well aware that the new regime at Warners offered him creative freedom as a response to the mistakes of a previous regime, one that took away Ayer’s own vision for Suicide Squad.
“No doubt. There’s no doubt. Yeah, that is true,” Gunn tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s always adjusting happening at a studio with individuals and with people making movies. I adjust myself all the time according to lessons I’ve learned, and I think that’s the same for the people at Warner Bros. It is a new regime, as you point out. It’s mostly different people.”
At Monday’s The Suicide Squad premiere, DC Films president Walter Hamada told THR that Gunn and DC have big plans after the filmmaker completes his work on the long-delayed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
“We’re dealing with a lot of different things. There are a lot of different things happening at the same time,” Gunn confirms. “You’ve got the Peacemaker show, obviously, and then there are other projects. So we’ll see what happens. We’re always talking about different things, too, so there’s a lot of dreaming going on, and dreaming is one of the most fun parts of moviemaking. We’re dreaming about the different possibilities, and we’re trying to find the right dream that can actually weave itself into reality in the proper way.”
Gunn also says he’s still making adjustments to the Guardians 3 script he completed more than three years ago.
“I’ve done a thousand drafts, like I’ve had to of everything,” Gunn explains. “But no, there’s nothing that has been changed according to what happened in Marvel, in terms of that timeline. Things have changed because I thought, ‘Well, this will make it a better movie.’ In fact, I’m doing that today; I’ve been working on the script this morning. So I’m always playing around with little things to make the script better, but nothing has changed since I first wrote the script. But I knew the ending of Endgame, so it wasn’t like that was a mystery to me.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Gunn also discusses why Margot Robbie is one of his favorite actors and why writing Harley Quinn came so naturally to him. Then he looks ahead to Peacemaker, the HBO Max spinoff series about John Cena’s Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith.
I typically don’t ask “how does it feel?”-type questions, but since you’ve just received the best reviews of your career, you must be on cloud nine after the whirlwind of the past few years, right?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think that feels good. I mean, I think that stuff feels more like a relief. But honestly, what feels the best is I’m just really proud of the film. I really like the movie. I loved the process of making it. I loved the people around me, and it’s just a different way for me to look at my career than I’m used to. I’m just so proud with the process and the film itself, and that’s a big difference for me to be focusing on that instead of focusing on what’s outside. So I’m really happy because of that.
So once you became available, numerous studios lined up to let you do whatever you wanted, and you ended up choosing The Suicide Squad, which included the highly coveted creative freedom. As free as you were, did you still get the sense that Warners was a little anxious over concepts like Starro, Polka-Dot Man and a rat whisperer?
No, I really felt like they were incredibly excited by all that stuff. I mean, that was my original pitch to Walt [Hamada] and Toby [Emmerich] over at Warner Bros. I brought in pictures of all those guys because I knew it would be hard to keep track of. So I brought in all these photos from the comics of all the different characters that are on team one, team two and Starro. And the pitch was almost exactly what the movie was. There’s actually a little bit of a darker ending to the pitch that changed, but besides that, everything was exactly the same. It was just as edgy as it is in the movie itself. So yeah, they were fully on board and enthusiastic from the beginning. It was pretty similar, actually, when I did Guardians of the Galaxy and I pitched Guardians to Kevin Feige. He was really excited about that Walkman. That was a really different type of thing for Marvel to do at the time, but he was excited by it. I don’t want to be making a movie with a studio where they aren’t excited about making my movie with me. That would really bum me out.
You really struck gold with Daniela Melchior.
Yeah, we knew that was an important role, and I always get excited by creating these roles for people that maybe haven’t had an opportunity or just had a small opportunity before. I felt like that with Star-Lord [Chris Pratt] in Guardians. I felt like that with Mantis [Pom Klementieff] in Guardians 2. And then here with Ratcatcher 2, we looked at at least 200, probably more, different people from all around the world. Everywhere. We looked at actors who had almost no experience and then some more well-known actors. So we got all their tapes, and Daniela, she just sent me her reading on an iPhone. And when I saw it, there was just something about it that was so natural, so unforced. And you find a lot of actors who are in their early 20s, they aren’t quite there yet. They’re very forced and very act-y, and act-y is the thing I like the least about some actors. I really want them to feel grounded. So I saw just this little glimpse of what a natural actress she is. And then she came in and screen tested with two other people, and I knew immediately she was the one from her screen test.
Are there elements in The Suicide Squad that you’ve had in your back pocket since Guardians, but couldn’t incorporate into that world and tone?
I don’t think so, really. Everything came up as I was doing the movie, so I think no. The movie just came out as one organic thing. So I don’t think I had any elements that I was considering before that, other than being really jealous when the first Suicide Squad was made. I always loved the idea and the characters, and I loved Dirty Dozen, so I was a little jealous of it.
So I’m really impressed by the way you’ve treated [Suicide Squad filmmaker] David Ayer through all this. You’ve been supportive on Twitter, you thanked him in the credits, and you’ve shut down attempts to pit the two movies against each other. Is having your fellow filmmakers’ backs a lesson you learned early?
Well, I think so. I mean, as people know, when I first got on Twitter, I trash-talked a lot of shit, and there’s just no need for it. But at the same time, David is an extraordinary filmmaker and an extraordinary human being. So I have his back, but he had my back from the beginning. When it was announced that I was making the movie, he came out immediately in support of me. So he’s really been the gracious one, and we’re very similar in that way, I think.
While your track record certainly earned it, is it also fair to say that part of the reason why you received creative freedom is because the new regime recognized the mistakes of the previous regime, which David suffered under?
No doubt. There’s no doubt. Yeah, that is true. There’s always adjusting happening at a studio with individuals and with people making movies. I adjust myself all the time according to lessons I’ve learned, and I think that’s the same for the people at Warner Bros. It is a new regime, as you point out. It’s mostly different people.
You previously said that DC doesn’t spend as much time in the editing room as Kevin Feige, and while there probably isn’t a direct analogue, who served that Feige-like role in regard to Squad?
It would definitely be Peter Safran, Simon Hatt and Chuck Roven. They really were the people that were very, very hands on in terms of always giving their opinions. I’m very needy of other people’s opinions. I need to see what other people think. And even more than that, I need to throw stuff out there all the time and see how I feel as somebody else is watching something I’m doing because somehow it gives me a more objective view of the film. So even if somebody says nothing when I’m showing somebody a sequence, I have whatever this ability is to just sort of see things through their eyes and that helps me to make a better film. Kevin Feige is the producer on the Guardians movies. Peter Safran is the producer on this movie. At Marvel, they serve the role of producer and of studio, really. And at DC, there’s a studio and then there’s a producer, so it’s very different in that respect. And actually, I’ve answered that question before, and now I wish I always answered it like I just said. That’s my regret. (Laughs.) Because that’s really the difference.
Have Feige, Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, etc. seen Squad yet?
They have not. So hopefully, they’ll see it soon. Kevin and Lou were on set, and the day they came to set, we revealed Starro. I was like, “Oh boy.” I mean, I knew I could trust them, and of course, I was able to trust them.
I know WB/DC tried to shed the label several years ago, but is the term DCEU still used internally?
Yeah, it is. It is, sometimes. Yeah, I think that there’s definitely an eye. I got a lot more of it after the movie was made, frankly, because they’re really just trying to make everything fit together much better. And I know a lot of it because of working on Peacemaker and doing that, which is definitely connected to The Suicide Squad and it ends up being connected to other DC properties. So yeah, I think that, more than ever, there’s sort of an eye to connect stuff a little bit more. But also, they’re willing to take those properties like Joker and make them stand-alone DC properties. So I think that’s a good balance.
In terms of actors who were born to play their respective characters, I believe Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is in the same category as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Hugh Jackman’s Logan. She doesn’t just play Harley; she’s possessed by her.
(Laughs.) Like I’ve said before, she’s probably my favorite actor I’ve ever worked with. I think there’s a couple of people in her league: Glenn Close and Chukwudi Iwuji, who I just worked with on the Peacemaker show. But what’s so great about Margot is that she’s just so good on so many different fronts. She’s a fantastic actor, she’s a fantastic comedian, and she’s a fantastic athlete. And being able to create Harley with all of those different qualities makes it very easy for me. But there were adjustments, too. This movie is different. It really is more of a naturalistic acting style than what she’s done as Harley in the past. So there were some adjustments to be made to her performance and to the character. It wasn’t like she came in 100 percent ready to go, but it was a balance between what I was doing and what she was doing. So I just love working with her. She’s a great person, who doesn’t have an ego, and this movie was full of those. John Cena is exactly the same way. They’re both these incredibly famous people, who just don’t have a chip on their shoulder, and that’s actually really rare. So it was great, and it was great bringing Daniela into this group of people. She’s a young person who’s starting to achieve this level of fame, and all the mentors around her are people like that, which was a really cool thing to see.
Harley’s twirling guns and screaming flowers shots, did you conceive those visuals pretty early on in the process?
Yeah, those were all written into the script, actually. So they were there from the beginning, and once they were in the script, I drew them all onto the storyboards. So they were just a part of the sequence. It really was a matter of taking the sequence and trying to have it build on itself more and more and more as the sequence went on. And hopefully, you feel like you’re at the peak of it three quarters of the way through, and then it goes up a level beyond where you think it could go.
Margot really did the key business with her feet?
Yeah, the main thing is that she was able to just instantly grab the key with her foot and then twist herself backwards to put the key in the lock from the one shot. And I was like, “Oh my God.” It’s a real bummer because of that thing in front of her face, but if you look closely, you can see it’s Margot.
I loved Idris Elba and Storm Reid’s screaming match as father and daughter.
Those types of prison scenes are often very sentimental, so I appreciated how raw and authentic it was.
Yeah, that was a thing that my brother said to me, and it’s always stuck with me. He said, “What I love about Idris in this movie is you come into this movie and usually these people are pretend assholes.” (Laughs.) And then he said, “But Idris is a real asshole in that scene! He’s very uncool to his daughter.” So it just feels more raw and realistic because of that. And Storm is such a fantastic actor. I said this to her and her mother on the carpet on Monday night; I said, “She really makes the movie because she is so real and so natural, and that’s exactly what we need at that point in the movie.” There’s a lot of broad stuff before that, and she brings us back to the heart of what this movie needs to be, where two human beings interact in a real way that’s very dark, but also funny, real and dramatic. So that really sets the tone for the rest of the movie. And without that scene, the stuff between Bloodsport [Elba] and Ratcatcher 2 doesn’t work. The stuff with Harley and Luna [Juan Diego Botto] doesn’t work. None of that stuff works without that scene because that’s really the scene that grounds the whole rest of the film. So it’s incredibly important and I just love it. Storm is just a fantastic kid.
You’re known for your great taste in needle drops. What song was the toughest to clear on Squad, as well as overall?
On Squad, I don’t think there was anything that was tough. If it was, it was kept from me. I mean, I pretty much came in and said, “I’ve never had a song not clear, so don’t come to me saying that a song won’t clear.” (Laughs.) What you find out a lot is that when a song won’t clear, you just have to go back to people and ask them again. And eventually, you can get it cleared. Usually, there are a couple of artists I’ll have to write a personal letter or email to just to tell them what I think of their music because I don’t choose people unless they are really important to the movie. But the hardest of all was [Electric Light Orchestra] “Mr. Blue Sky.” That was a very difficult clear on Guardians 2. That almost didn’t happen.
What did you learn about your movie in the editing room that wasn’t apparent during writing and shooting?
Well, when you’re filming a movie, it’s always an experiment. The filming is an experiment and the results are born in the lab, which is the editing room. And I think I was just happy that it felt like it was working. It came together very easily, but there were chunks cut out. I did cut down on stuff because the movie was pretty long at first. There were times where we took more twists and turns, and I said, “Oh, we’re pushing it a little bit too far from the audience.” I really let Harley go off on her own mini-story for 10 minutes in the movie, and that plot shift or plot change is one of the weirder things, I think, in the film. So I had a little bit more of that, but I felt like I was pushing audiences away a little bit too much. And I never want to push the audience away. I wanted the movie to be edgy and explosive, but still invite people in as much as possible. And I will say that I was maybe a little surprised by how violent it was. (Laughs.)
Besides Peacemaker, Walter Hamada told THR that the two of you have plans for more DC collaborations down the road. Without specifying, is there a project that’s in the lead right now?
Yes, but remember, we’re dealing with a lot of different things. There are a lot of different things happening at the same time. (Laughs.) You’ve got the Peacemaker show, obviously, and then there are other projects. So we’ll see what happens. We’re always talking about different things, too, so there’s a lot of dreaming going on and dreaming is one of the most fun parts of moviemaking. We’re dreaming about the different possibilities, and we’re trying to find the right dream that can actually weave itself into reality in the proper way.
Well, please add my voice to the choir that wants you to make a Harley Quinn movie because you clearly have a knack for writing that character.
Yeah, I think I do, actually. I really feel that character, and as I’ve said before, I’ve taken a lot of characters from the comic books who either have slightly different personalities or not as clearly defined personalities. I’ve really shied away from the really popular characters because I like creating characters. I don’t generally like interpreting characters that are already fully actualized, but with Harley, that was a different thing. I really do love Paul Dini’s original vision, and I felt like I was able to become Harley while I was writing. And it’s a terrible, wonderful place to be.
Prior to seeing the movie, I thought I knew what the Peacemaker series was going to be, but after seeing the movie, my perception has completely changed.
Now that you’re probably in the editing room for Peacemaker, what is it shaping up to be, genre wise?
There are a lot of similarities to The Suicide Squad in that it’s no holds barred, but there are also a lot of things that are very different, in that it’s quieter in some ways. It’s very specifically about a different group of people, so it’s a little bit more about society. One of the leads is Peacemaker and one of the leads is Danielle Brooks, who plays Leota Adebayo. And she has a very different political view of the world than Peacemaker does. So it’s just a little bit about what’s going on in the world, but also being a TV show, you really do have more time to delve much deeper into these characters and much more deeply into the drama and comedy of them. So it has a lot of similarities, but it’s even more grounded, more natural and more real. But it’s still within a big science-fiction storyline that lasts for one season. The main storyline lasts for that season, so that doesn’t mean there’s only one season of Peacemaker.
By the way, Steve Agee and Jennifer Holland were really great in their “quarterbacking” roles.
Yeah, they’re so good. They become these full-fledged, deep characters in Peacemaker. John Economos and Emilia Harcourt are part of the main six of the Peacemaker show, and it’s been so fun working with those guys. They’re obviously two of the closest people in the world to me. So it’s been just as fun as The Suicide Squad. It probably would’ve been more fun than The Suicide Squad if I didn’t have to wear a mask the whole time, but yeah.
Dave Bautista once told me that he expected an update to the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 script since it’s coming out much later than originally scheduled. So have you made a number of adjustments over the years? How many new drafts have you done to this point?
I’ve done a thousand drafts, like I’ve had to of everything. But no, there’s nothing that has been changed according to what happened in Marvel, in terms of that timeline. Things have changed because I thought, “Well, this will make it a better movie.” In fact, I’m doing that today; I’ve been working on the script this morning. So I’m always playing around with little things to make the script better, but nothing has changed since I first wrote the script. But I knew the ending of Endgame, so it wasn’t like that was a mystery to me.
Have you seen Chadwick Boseman’s take on Star-Lord via What If …? It’s pretty great.
I haven’t, but I read the script and gave notes on the script. So that’s all, but I haven’t watched the final episode yet, no.
Since you probably don’t want to make comic book movies for the rest of your life, do you have an original in a drawer or on a shelf that you’re itching to get made?
I have ideas of things I want to do and that I’m interested in, but it’s not like I don’t want to make comic book movies for the rest of my life. (Laughs.) Even a lot of the things that are original ideas or whatever, they’re still kind of comic book movies, just not from comic books. So I like making big movies. That’s fun to me. I’m not a guy who’s like, “Oh, I have to prove myself to the Academy.” I don’t have any of that desire that other filmmakers have. A lot of the filmmakers that I know have that — like really strongly — and I don’t get it. I just don’t care about that stuff. I really just want to make movies that I love and that speak to an audience. That’s what’s fun for me.
The Suicide Squad premieres Aug. 5 in theaters and on HBO Max. This Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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The Gilded Age