'Suicide Squad' Set Visit: The DC Universe Goes Bad (And It Feels So Good)

Warner Bros. expanded its DC cinematic universe in a big way this spring with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but fan reactions were mixed. Many complained the franchise was too dour, too grim, too serious. But Suicide Squad could just be the film to change all that.

When I visited the Toronto set of Suicide Squad last July, it was just days after the very first trailer had killed at Comic-Con — absolutely slaughtered, really. Suddenly, people who'd never even heard of the Suicide Squad a month ago (which is to say, pretty much everyone who doesn't self-identify as a DC nerd) was dying to know more about this playful, colorful group of baddies. Who were these weirdos? What were they going to do in the DC universe? On day 68 of the film's 98-day shoot, I joined a group of other journalists on set to find out. 

Balancing Dark and Gritty With Twisted and Funny

Before the first Suicide Squad trailer hit, we'd heard a whole lot about how gritty and twisted this movie was going to be. The first stories about Jared Leto's full-on method approach to the Joker were just starting to circulate, and we'd heard reports that Suicide Squad was so nasty that director David Ayer had had to bring a therapist on set to keep his cast from going off the deep end. And to top it all off, this film came from the same cinematic universe as Man of Steel, which wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs.

Which is why it felt like such a surprise that the trailer looked so fun — not just energetic and action-packed, but gleeful, with an anarchic smash-it-all-up attitude that had the Hall H crowd laughing and cheering. But, Ayer explained, Suicide Squad's darkness and its humor aren't mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin:

We're out of our freaking minds now. The Greek symbol of drama is happy mask/sad mask. If you have too much of one, it's imbalanced. I think the best movies are the ones that can make you double over in laughter and cry, which I hope this will do for the audience. I think people will be really surprised by how much humor is in the movie. But, at the same time, it's like an honest situational character-based humor versus the low-hanging fruit. You really believe it.

Indeed, that sort of anything-goes unpredictability stems naturally from the characters and core concept of Suicide Squad, which is that it's not about good versus evil but bad versus evil. Ayer explained:

So many times you feel like these genres are trying to inject complexities in what's a very black and white character. Good guys, who are doing the good thing. It's very easy to get ahead of them in plotting because you always know what the good guys are going to do. These guys can do anything. They are not bound by the normal rules. That's what makes it so fun to play in this space.

Throwing another wrench into Suicide Squad's tricky tonal balance is the introduction of magic to the DC universe, as represented by Enchantress. But Ayer seemed confident that the supernatural could sit alongside the gritty in Suicide Squad. "Religion and mythology – magic has been seen throughout human history and the belief in the supernatural and the belief in transformative abilities," he said. "Even today, there's people of faith that believe in miracles and there's a pantheon of world gods, all with these amazing abilities. All the answers are there."


How to Create Sympathy for the Devil

Since Suicide Squad's "heroes" are really villains, that naturally raises the question of how to get the audience to sympathize with a bunch of characters who are, at their core, pretty awful people. One approach? Play up the wish fulfillment aspect.

"They do things that we've always wanted to do and obviously society says we can't, but they do them," said producer Andy Horowitz. "But they do things in a lighthearted way. They're bad guys but they're having a lot of fun."

Or perhaps give the bad-guy protagonists something even worse to stand up against. "[When we meet them] they're in such terrible conditions in the film even though they may deserve to be incarcerated, some of the things that are happening goes beyond what you maybe deem inappropriate so you automatically and inherently get to root for them because of the conditions," explained producer Richard Suckle.

And of course, it's worth making sure the characters are fleshed out and, if not exactly relatable, at least understandable. Some characters get more history than others, but Suckle emphasizes that each of them have their own motivations. "In addition to them being in this dysfunctional ragtag Dirty Dozen-like group that has to come together to go on this mission and hopefully succeed, David's done a great job of giving you backstories and understanding these characters beyond what you would just see on the surface as a gang of guys that are forced to go do something because Amanda Waller's telling them they have to."

Added Ayer:

At the end of the day, they are people with lives. They are people who have made bad decisions. You get into the question of, "Are you your worst day? Are you your worst act that you've ever committed? And should that define you? When you are defined in that way, is it immutable? Can you change? Can you learn? Can you grow?" A lot of this is about people that have been defined in an incredibly negative way and have absorbed and are maybe discovering that they are not so bad after all.

Suicide Squad

This Is One Tight-Knit Skwad

... And if all else fails, it never hurts to get the word out about how adorably tight the "skwad" is. In just about every set visit, press junket, or red carpet interview promoting a movie, cast and crew will fall all over themselves to gush about "honored" and "excited" they were to work with each other. But it's not often you hear of a cast getting their BFF-ship literally tattooed into their skin, as the Suicide Squad cast has done. During our visit, just about everyone we spoke to mentioned, unbidden, how much these stars loved hanging out with each other, both on and off set.

Ayer used words like "shocking" and "scary" to describe the chemistry between his cast. "They are like thick as thieves," he told us. "They are like this little gang now. They are truly like a posse. It's a wonder to behold." Horowitz, speaking separately, said, "We've never seen anything like it where everyone on our cast loves each other and gets along, hangs out when they don't have to."

"It's like this obnoxious little family," actor Jai Courtney, who plays Boomerang, told us. Harley Quinn actress Margot Robbie, standing beside him, concurred. "It's a bizarre family."

While Suicide Squad cast sounds like a big ol' lovefest when the cameras aren't rolling, the dynamics between their characters are a bit more contentious. Which is not a bad thing. "That's what I think makes this movie so fun, is that there is so much antagonism between them all," said Courtney. "Also, at any moment, any one of us will kill each other," said Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in a separate interview. The members of Suicide Squad don't much care for authority figures, either. "It's like herding cats," said Ayer of Deadshot's efforts to lead the gang. "They don't care."

But as in any "getting the team together" movie, these very different, mutually distrustful personalities come to respect and like each other, and even form a family of sorts by the end. "That's her story, and her journey to overcome trust issues as well," said Karen Fukuhara, who plays Katana. "Becoming part of a team and Squad." "He probably wouldn't even eat them," Akinnuoye-Agbaje joked of Croc's warming relationship with his Squad-mates.


David Ayer Gets His Hands Dirty

Of course, the real ringleader of Suicide Squad is David Ayer. In a lot of ways, this feels like a departure for the director who's made his name on gritty, realistic dramas like Fury and End of Watch. But he told us was interested in the psychology and mythology of superheroes (or rather supervillains, this case):

As a storyteller, there's a mythological power in comic books. In a lot of ways, comic book characters are really avatars for gods. They are very much like the Greek or Roman pantheon. There's something about the epic quality of that kind of character, of these characters that are avatars and almost have these superhuman powers. Some do have superhuman powers. To reverse engineer that into a psychological realistic space and execution, it just seems like the perfect assignment for me.

Ayer's involvement, in turn, helped attract top-notch talent. The actors we spoke to frequently cited Ayer as one of the reasons they'd signed on for the project. Robbie enthused:

I thought doing a comic book movie would be a very formulaic process, and so far this has been one of the most organic and spontaneous process that I have been through. Which, this is the sort of process I'd expect to do on a really cool, gritty indie film. And we're doing it on this massive budget film where there are so many people giving their opinions on what we're doing, what we're wearing, blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day, they're kind of standing back and letting David do it the way he wants to do it. Fortunately for us, the way he wants to do it is a very raw, gritty way.

Courtney agreed:

I think it is unfortunate that when you deal with franchise properties that sometimes directors are not always afforded the freedom to take total control and he has been and I think that's what makes the difference and changes the experience for everyone involved. It may be riskier from a studio perspective, but if they are trusting in his vision, and he executes it well, which we have no doubt he will, its going to be amazing and I think it makes for a more enriching experience.

Another recurring theme in our interviews was how hands-on Ayer was as a director. "There isn't honesty a detail David Ayer isn't intimately involved with," said Suckle, recalling how Ayer had been the one to cut off Jared Leto's ponytail, shred Harley Quinn's t-shirt, mangle Boomerang's facial hair, and so on. "I mean, he really gets his hands dirty like no other director I'd seen, honestly. I'd never seen a director do that."

That even included sharing his dreams. The Eyes of the Adversary — a bunch of not-quite-human henchmen that costume designer Kate Hawley describes as "voodoo goop dolls," were based on a nightmare Ayer had. They're the ones in the trailer with the big black heads covered in eyes, which should tell you that Ayer has some very messed up imagery floating around in his subconscious.

Suicide Squad Reactions

Scene: Black Hawk Down Over Midway City

We got to see some of that famous Suicide Squad chemistry in action when we were allowed to watch an outdoor scene being filmed. We found ourselves on a Midway City set, with a Black Hawk down in the background. A large group marched forward, with three military men (including Scott Eastwood's military character "GQ") in front. Joel Kinnaman's Rick Flagg and the rest of the Suicide Squad (including Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Boomerang, Katana, El Diablo, and Killer Croc) followed just behind.

Someone — perhaps Will Smith's Deadshot — threw a book toward Rick Flag, expressing his deep distrust and anger and demanding to know what was going on. A heated confrontation ensued between the two.

"I'm telling you what you need to know," argued Flag. "Not everything is relevant."

Harley Quinn came bounding up to the pair, looking chipper as always. "Hey guys, lovers' spat?" She was shoved away, as the fight continued.

"Three days ago, a non-human entity appeared in a subway," explained Flag, adding that the cops and then the military had gone after the creature to no avail. Then, Flag went on, they had sent him in with "a woman with incredible abilities. A witch. No one could get near this thing. The witch could." (The witch mentioned here is Enchantress, played by Cara Delevingne, who was not present the day we visited.)

Meanwhile, Boomerang snarked, "Is no one the slightest bit concerned about going to war with a witch and a giant magic monster over some old duck who'd rather see us dead?"

None of this seemed to make Deadshot less upset. "You can kill me right now, but I need a drink," he said. He began walking away.

"We need you," called Rick Flag.

"You don't need me, you need a miracle," Deadshot shot back. He headed toward the bar, with the rest of the Suicide Squad in tow.

You can see some of the footage surrounding this scene in the "Blitz" trailer released earlier this year:

The Sets Are Crammed With Details (and Easter Eggs)

In addition to the outdoor set described above, which looked more or less like a generic city landscape, we had the chance to explore a few of the interior sets of Suicide Squad. One was Killer Croc's underground lair — all rusty metal and giant pipes and graters placed over water, but with a few surprising homey touches. Small animal sculptures made out of metal trinkets were propped up along the walls, and animal bones and jewelry were strewn about. Hash marks counted the days. It's unclear how much of those odds and ends will be noticeable in the final film, but in person they felt like a poignant reminder of his humanity.

Moving "aboveground," we also got to see a giant indoor station patterned after New York City's Grand Central Station and the old Penn Station. The walls went about 33 feet up; the rest would be done with CG. Again, the details were impressive. A barbershop in the station had reportedly taken weeks to put together, between the construction itself and the effort it took to find the right props. Which made it all the funnier to realize how fake it actually all was: those impressive stone and marble surfaces, it turned out, were just painted tar paper.

More amusing was the indoor office set we saw. An official-looking sign indicated that it was the "John F. Ostrander Federal Building" — a nod to Suicide Squad comic book creator John Ostrander. And strewn about were nameplates for "Grundy," "Haberlin," and "Reeve" — apparent references to the DC character Solomon Grundy, comic book artist Brian Haberlin, and Superman actor Christopher Reeve. DC fans will definitely want to keep their eyes peeled for those background details when Suicide Squad hits theaters.

We also got to see Deadshot's jail cell — as small and sparse as it looks in the trailers, with a security camera tucked away in an upper corner — and, just steps away, the entrance to the ruins where June Moone becomes Enchantress.


Yes, That's (Mostly) Margot Robbie Doing Those Stunts

While we didn't see a ton of action being shot, the cast and crew were more than happy to fill us in on what we were missing. Robbie looked cheerful and energetic when we went up to her, but once we began talking she admitted she was feeling a bit creaky. "I can barely move my neck at the moment. It's pretty physically demanding," she said. And no wonder, considering some of the footage we'd seen of her action scenes. "We shot that for ten hours yesterday," Robbie continued. "That was crazy. At the time you never feel pain and then the next day you wake up and you're like, 'Oh my God.' That's why we have professionals."

Even so, Robbie did "almost all of her own stunts," according to Horowitz. Richard Suckle told us he'd been "blown away" by a stunt Robbie had done recently. "I was watching the monitor and the camera was moving but she was doing something that I could've sworn, for sure, she had to be in a harness and, I kid you not, she was not in a harness." Suckle said she'd even impressed stunt coordinator Guy Norris, who'd recently come off of Mad Max: Fury Road. "He said she is by fair the most compassionate, gifted actor he's ever worked with in her ability to do things," recalled Suckle.

Fukuhara also got a lot of praise for her martial arts know-how. "I don't know how many, but it's not that many times where she hasn't done the stunt herself," said Suckle. "She has a lot of stunts that she actually has to perform as this character and it's been an amazing, amazing journey for her." When we spoke to Fukuhara herself, she teased a certain scene in which Katana gets to slice someone from the groin up. "It was so funny, the stunt guy that I'm slicing... there are times when I'm a little too close distance-wise," she said.

Despite all the physical challenges, all the actors seemed happy to take the demands of their roles in stride. "Look, it's part of making these types of films these days, action movies," said Courtney. "You know, when you are playing superheroes or comic book characters, there is absolutely an expectation to get your actors there as well. It's challenging at times, but it's part and parcel and part of the challenge you take on."


Suicide Squad's Place in the DC Universe

At the time we visited the Suicide Squad set, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was still months away from theaters. Man of Steel was the only DC Extended Universe film we'd seen so far. Still, we were eager to find out how Suicide Squad could tie into the other DC films — and the filmmakers had clearly been giving the question a lot of thought as well. "I can't give you an exact answer because it's something that's continuing to be discussed," said Suckle.

Suckle did confirm to us that Suicide Squad would take place after Batman v Superman, and we knew at that point that Ben Affleck's Batman would be making some sort of appearance in the film. Ayer told us how exciting that moment had been for him:

I'm a little bit of a fanboy. I grew up reading Batman comics and there was the old Adam West show. I had the toy car. It's something important to me. I think it's every filmmaker's dream to be able to be given such an iconic asset like that and really see when the suit shows up on set – you have Ben in the suit – it's really like, "Fuck!" It's really cool.

And although Ayer sounded incredibly excited about the "infinite" possibilities of the DC universe, he stressed that he was aware of the pressures of working within such a beloved comic book universe. Asked how he was dealing with the scrutiny from fans, Ayer told us:

It's impetus to not fuck it up. I'm a fan, too. I believe in canon and I believe in being respectful to how storylines and characters interlock, and understanding how not to break things I think is the number #1 thing. How not to break a character, how not to do something that encroaches in the storylines and histories – it's like archaeology.

And as for the Suicide Squad themselves, they seemed very eager to return. "I could play Harley for a long time," said Robbie. "I don't know how long. I think everyone is committed to a couple of films."

"We're all around for a few more of these should they choose to make them," Courtney chimed in. "And I hope they do because I'm having way too much fun not to make another."


Suicide Squad opens August 5. Stay tuned for much more from our Suicide Squad set visit including a rundown of everything we learned about the characters, and full interviews with Ayer and Courtney and Robbie.