After writing Training Day and directing films like the police procedurals End Of Watch and Harsh Times, and then the Brad Pitt World War II tank drama Fury, David Ayer has taken a decided turn toward anarchy with Suicide Squad. Rather than the signature white-hat heroes of the the DC Comics empire, this one is all about bad people reveling in being bad people and reluctantly being drafted to do good. The director recruited Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto and more, and has rolled out anarchic marketing and visuals sorely missing in past DC Comics films like Batman V Superman and Superman Returns compared with Marvel offerings that includes Fox’s Deadpool. As a result, Suicide Squad is tracking off the charts, with first-blush opening-weekend projections up around $125M when it bows August 5.
In an interview with Deadline ahead of Warner Bros’ Hall H panel at Comic-Con today, Ayer discusses the alchemy that went into giving DC and Warner Bros its first sign of irreverence since Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale bowed out of Gotham City.
DEADLINE: You first carved your path in grounded police procedurals, so this is a departure. What drew you to Suicide Squad?
AYER: I just wanted to play with the genre. That was in a pre-Deadpool world and the movies had been so serious and straightforward up to that point. I wanted to do something where it was much more based on actor performance and character. Those films sometimes feel a little posy, talkey, the actors are very stiff, just kind of delivering the lines and very expositional. I just wanted to do something with more soul and grit and dirt.
DEADLINE: The DC Comics properties have that stoicism. Why did you see this being different?
AYER: The characters drew me in. I met with Greg Silverman and we went what projects they had available. This came up and it just seemed like a no-brainer, once I started investigating. OK, these are all bad guys? Got it. There is an insane, eclectic nature to the characters, and a government black ops component. All this felt like something I could really knock out of the park, playing in a grayer moral world. Rather than the typical comic book hero, good-guy, cookie-cutter morality version. It just seemed like a great fit for me.
DEADLINE: You write most of what you direct, and if it fails, you move on. What kind of adjustment is it when the stakes here are so high, where, if you fail, it will have consequences for the whole motion picture division of Warner Bros, and the future of the DC properties, since you are seeding movies that have characters that have nothing to do with your film?
AYER: Well, what you watched is my movie, the one I wanted to make. I admit at first it was a little overwhelming going into such a large situation and being part of a larger slate, but once I got into the work, you’re still just writing, prepping, designing, directing; the skills are the same. It was interesting to figure out how to help drop easter eggs and set things up for other movies. To do that, I just really familiarized myself with the world of the DC Comics, and Geoff Johns was a fantastic resource to give me that world map. I had a lot of help on this. After a while, I got my sea legs and it became a lot of fun for me.
DEADLINE: You went into production, and then Batman V Superman comes out and the reaction is it was way too serious. Then Deadpool comes out of nowhere to become the biggest R-rated film of all time, fueled by irreverent humor. A lot of work under the hood went into establishing a Suicide Squad tone that is somewhere in between those two films. What impact did the release of those films have on how you ended up?
AYER: This meme started, that we were re-shooting to make the movie funnier. But you saw the film. The tone is wall to wall. It was really, more than anything, about just taking time out of the movie, distilling it down and keeping it alive and kinetic. I don’t want to speak out of school, but I think the institutional lesson of Batman V Superman was, you have to put the film up for a large audience and see how it plays. I got the opportunity to do that a few times. I’m a big believer in audience testing. You have to listen to the audience. I think it really made the film a lot better. We interdicted some issues and then the re-shoots are great because as you slip time, you end up with these raw stumps. It helps you sew them together elegantly. And I also got some more action in there. It’s all a tough process, because in essence, you’re on trial and you have to defend your movie. And the burden of proof is on you to show that it works.
DEADLINE: How did you fare in this creative collision of a hands-on studio with much at stake, and with rumors swirling about every reshoot?
AYER: The hotter the fire, the sharper the sword. I’m a big believer in that. You know my Russian cinematographer Roman [Vasyanov] always says that art must be painful. It must be pain to have art. I think there’s truth in that. As a creative person, you have to have people calling you on your bullshit. There’s been plenty of times where that makes you realize it’s a bad idea, never mind. At the same time, you have to fight for what you know is a good idea. It’s the nature of filmmaking and it’s like that on any project. There’s definitely a lot of pressure that was put upon this film because of the circumstances, that it was never intended to bear. But this movie has broad shoulders and I loved the process. The studio was like, we want to help you do whatever you can to make this movie better because the stakes were so high. That’s the beauty of it. We got the resources and the support that made this achievable.
DEADLINE: What about the reshoot narrative that implies something’s wrong?
AYER: Even the scrutiny is good because it lets you know the world cares about your movie, and there is interest in it. Everybody loves a narrative, but they’re not inside the building; they don’t know what’s really going on. People clutch at straws and come up with their little grassy knoll theories and all that, but there’s fun in that, too.
DEADLINE: Do you feel that way while you’re being put through the grinder, or when you’ve delivered a film you know will work?
AYER: There were certainly moments while you’re going through it. Putting a film together is like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle and as the little pieces come together, additional photography or some ADR lines or some VFX shots are needed. Every day, the movie gets better and clearer in the journey. Or, you come up with an idea on changing the edit or someone else does and it’s like “Oh, f**k. That’s actually really brilliant. Let me do that.” So I’ll take it anywhere I can get it.
DEADLINE: Tom Hardy was going to be the leader of this team of bad guys and his schedule on The Revenant got too crazy. He becomes the center of anything he’s in. How did the chemistry change, to where Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn became the film’s centerpieces, along with the Joker?
AYER: I’m one of those big believers that the movie comes together in the way it’s supposed to be and that movies are fated to become what they become. I couldn’t be happier with the cast and how it came together and the dynamics they all have. They became lifelong friends. That doesn’t really happen on a movie set and I’m proud I could facilitate that. The movie people are going to see, it’s my movie and there’s no parallel universe version of it out there.
DEADLINE: Will Smith certainly made a good choice taking Suicide Squad over reprising his starmaking role in the Independence Day sequel. How did you convince him?
AYER: Well, it wasn’t that hard of a sale. He’s a smart guy and a smart business man. He can kind of do the math. The core of the business these days is the really big franchises and these comic book IPs. DC and Marvel are the big names in town. I was happy about his willingness to step up in what at first blush could seem like an ensemble movie. But it is very much his movie; he carries the emotional core of the film and really acts as a leader of this circus and he really becomes the father of the family. We met, and he just saw something in me that he trusted to get him there.
DEADLINE: Did you write the script with him in mind?
AYER: I was talking to him before the script was finished. And Margot jumped in off of a Skype call with no script. Will needed to see the script before he committed. So I wrote it for him, and I really tailored the role to him.
DEADLINE: Jared Leto follows Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. How do you navigate this vision of The Joker when obviously the last two were so iconic?
AYER: The secret is not getting stage fright and just doing the work. Take the baby steps. He was one of the first people cast and he engaged very early in research, trying to understand the role and crafting, figuring out how to model his performance. It always comes down to the work of an actor, the work of a director, and the work of a writer. If you know your craft you can solve the problem. I mean it was a courageous thing for him to tackle and I’m really proud of the result. He’s a transformative actor, and he’s also a legitimate rock star who is able to perform and hold a stadium at rapt attention. That proved a powerful skill to bring to this because at the end of the day, The Joker is a performer. Everything he does is performance art, this psychological warfare and Jared instinctively understood that. He brought power and swagger to the role.
DEADLINE: Margot Robbie, playing the Joker’s wife, is one part sexuality, one part insanity. She could very well have come off chewing the scenery if her character was too cartoon-ey. What goes into finding the right balance?
AYER: Margot is another transformative actor, and she commits fully to whatever she’s doing. That is my favorite kind of actor to work with. Coming at the role itself started with the biography of the character. Here is this young lady who comes from a really broken, troubled family, who bootstraps herself into college and then becomes a psychiatrist. She gets this institutional job and then gets seduced by this insane mind. So much about who was she enabled these new layers on her life to happen. Margot used all this to create not just a character, but a soul, with thoughts and feelings and attitude and a way of looking at the world. It’s an insanely difficult performance. She lives in the skin of that character, effortlessly. I think you avoid caricature by having emotional depth and having an honest emotional life. That’s what she was able to do because she was a strong, strong actor.
DEADLINE: From your Training Day script to now, you make a lot of movies about people with dangerous jobs and the moral lines they draw, good and bad. It grounds your work, even in a superhero genre movie like this. What incidents in your own life or movies that you grew up loving honed your continuing fascination with that theme?
AYER: I don’t know, but I do carry a sense of, there but for the grace of God. I’m really blessed to have the life I have now, but I could have had a very different life. I grew up with people who ended up in some bad places or aren’t here, so the choice between having a great life or wrecking it can come down to a bad Saturday night. That’s what happened to these guys. Does a choice they’ve made at a certain point in their lives define them forever? Because of that choice, can they ever have a family? Can they ever have love? Can they ever be recognized as someone who can achieve good? That’s what this film is about, these guys who have been locked away by society and told what horrible people they are. In spite of all that, they come together, form a family, experience warmth and growth and then do something amazing and positive.
DEADLINE: Was there a crossroads moment for you?
AYER: I was a high school dropout. I was a submarine sonar man. I grew up in South LA. I shouldn’t have the job I have. After the Navy I was working construction jobs and met Wesley Strick, who encouraged me to write. That kind of set me out on the road. I wrote Training Day in ’96 I think, so it took about five or six years to get there.
DEADLINE: You’ve created a strong foundation for the Suicide Squad franchise. How eager are you to return for the sequel?
AYER: Look, it’s definitely the devil’s candy. I love high-stakes situations and I love the movie family we put together. I love this cast and I really love the world. I think it would be a lot of fun.
DEADLINE: Bright, the Max Landis-scripted cop procedural with fantastical elements, came together with a $90 million Netflix deal and you directing Smith and Joel Edgerton. Explain how that became an outgrowth of your work with Smith on Suicide Squad?
AYER: Max’s script came along and it’s one of those things where I was went through the reasons why I shouldn’t do it and through that, I arrived at the reasons why I should do it.
DEADLINE: What were they?
AYER: It’s back to South LA, and back to the LAPD, but then at the same time I’m such a different filmmaker now. I really loved the fantasy world creation component of the storytelling and I also felt like it was potentially a total genre breaker because when people make these kind of movies, these fantasy/reality fusions, typically they’re PG-13 and tonally cheesy.
DEADLINE: This will be R, like Deadpool. How challenging was it to deliver Suicide Squad with a PG-13?
AYER: It’s what I set out to do, it was engineered to hit that rating and we did it without any problem. The irony is, I found myself being my own traffic cop on set. People would want to say things, do things and I would be the one to say no, we can’t do it. It was weird being the grownup. The thing is, you can’t look at a Deadpool and call that a model for the future. It’s an outlier. I’m sure people are going to target it and model off that again, but I really think it’s an outlier.
DEADLINE: Why do you think Deadpool worked so extraordinarily well, even if its rating isn’t the answer for DC and Marvel movies going forward?
AYER: Because of the novelty of it. I think Ryan Reynolds more than anybody had a grasp on that character and what it could be. I think the marketing was f*cking brilliant and so subversive and absolutely tuned into where people are today and where audiences are today. I also think the date it dropped proved to be a fantastic piece of real estate to play in.
DEADLINE: Talking about disruption, you set Bright at Netflix. The procedural as theatrical seems like an endangered species. What about that Netflix deal made it worth foregoing the benefits of the traditional theatrical release?
AYER: It’s funny. Going in, there’s a psychology. We’re going to get a release, critics are going to love our movie, everybody’s going to win Oscars, it’s going to over-index, and everyone is going to get stinking rich. When does that really happen? So here was the opportunity to have the resources to dig in, hard, and make a fantastic film that can also explore what is a new business. Netflix is disruptive. Look at the streaming model. This is an organization that doesn’t even tell you how many people see the movie. It’s incredible, in an industry that is so obsessed with knowing what their numbers are. They know what people are doing. You can tell by their actions that they’re just spreading their wings farther and farther into production and into being an original content generator. The Venn diagram on a business level to explore this new business and on a creative level to make the kind of movie I love as a director, it is a no-brainer.
DEADLINE: How is their policy of keeping viewing figure proprietary empowering to a filmmaker like yourself?
AYER: It’s more observational on a business level for me. The fact that they’re black box is fascinating. I can say anecdotally as a filmmaker people really see your movie and unless it’s a massive movie like Suicide Squad, people are really going to see your movie in the home markets anyway. That’s where people really see your movies. To lean into that hard from the outset? I mean we’re shooting it on theatrical media, and everything about this will be theatrical. And don’t be surprised if there’s a theatrical release here, but it’s definitely an exploration that is very exciting to be part of.
DEADLINE: It was a groundbreaking deal. What was the reaction in the creative community?
AYER: People got it at first bounce. The film industry has changed, and it is all about leaning in hard into these tent poles and these giant IPs. Maybe 300 get made a year and it’s so hard to rise above the noise and get noticed. It’s like everyone’s hanging out in a dark bar, hoping that they hook up and it doesn’t necessarily happen every time. This took away that pressure, and having to shop the distribution deal and all these other things that at the end of the day don’t have anything to do with the film making. Here, you can focus on pure film making. There’s something nice about that.
DEADLINE: What promises did they make to ensure your movie won’t disappear in a streaming service menu, with no theatrical window?
AYER: It’s a huge priority for them. That’s clear on all levels. The onus is on me. The onus is absolutely on me to deliver an A plus feature to them. That’s why they hired me. I know a lot of people are looking at this situation, looking at this deal. It puts all the pressure back on me to deliver, for Will and for Joel Edgerton.
DEADLINE: Like Suicide Squad, isn’t it engineered to spawn sequels?
DEADLINE: So the David Ayer business might involve one theatrical tentpole franchise, and one streaming service franchise?
AYER: You just went to the core of it, right there. That’s where the real pressure lies. The intent is to deliver a world that’s magnetic enough so that people want to continue spending time in it. That’s why I think I was attracted to the genre-breaking nature of a project because that’s what you have to do. You have to cut through the noise and do something so special and so amazing that you’re going to pull viewers in. That starts in October, but right now it’s about Suicide Squad. I love the cast, and the unique way we bonded. Aside from all the other stuff, the film works because of that chemistry. I can’t wait for audiences to see that onscreen.