'The Suicide Squad' Producer Charles Roven On How James Gunn Boarded The Supervillain Sequel [Interview]

It was always about that R-rating. James Gunn has proudly touted his no holds barred approach to The Suicide Squad, his highly anticipated follow-up to David Ayer's 2016 film Suicide Squad. But with superhero films expanding their reach across all age demographics, it's easy to think that Warner Bros. might have balked at Gunn letting loose with the gore and cursing.

"It never became an issue," The Suicide Squad producer Charles Roven told me in a phone interview. I spoke with the producer in a follow-up interview to a visit to the set of The Suicide Squad a couple years ago, from which he had been absent that day. Eager to give his two cents on a film that he is "very excited for people to see, particularly on the big screen," Roven gave me the chance to talk about The Suicide Squad, getting Gunn on board for a sequel to a film no one much liked, and why Warner Bros. was dedicated to Gunn's vision from the get-go..

It's been a while since I was on the set visit for The Suicide Squad back in 2019. But we missed you when we visited the set. We did talk to producers that Beth Mickel and Peter Safran, and I know that you were part of the team that produced the first Suicide Squad. Did you have a heavy hand in getting the sequel's production started and choosing James Gunn to direct?

For a certain portion of the period after David Ayer's Suicide Squad until James became available, we had some development of the project, but none of the development that we had up to that point did we feel was ready to be greenlit. And then, all of a sudden, James became available. And my relationship with James had gone back to, at that point, almost 20 years because he wrote the two Scooby-Doo's that I had produced for Atlas [Entertainment]. He wrote both of those, and for the second one, he actually asked if he could hang out on the set because he was interested in big-budget movies, particularly those that had CGI. So we brought him in to just hang out, and he ended up contributing to that. So we had that relationship for all that period of time. I don't think I could say that James' availability was us wanting to jump in and make something work with him, because Peter Safran, who's also got an obviously strong relationship with Warner Brothers, and Walt Hamada, we all sort of had the same idea at the same time: Let's see what James is interested in. While we were all talking to him and coming up with ideas, he offered up the fact that if he was going to do a DC comic, he would like it to be The Suicide Squad. So that's kind of how that hatched.

So I'm curious, do Warner Brothers producers for DC movies watch the Marvel stuff to see what the competition is up to, and is that how you knew to snag Gunn so quickly, or is it because of that personal connection that you guys have?

I think it was a combination of all these things, not because we watch what Marvel's doing, because if you notice from the time that I've been producing DC movies, there's been a number of different directors that I've had the pleasure of working with on many of them. And even on the ones that I might have had some involvement with and ultimately became an executive producer on, but wasn't working on it a day to day, they've also brought in a number of different directors. And I think that's just kind of the way that DC works, is to work with the director that brings some vision to the project. Kevin [Feige] and Marvel work in kind of a different way, as he produces every single one of the Marvel movies, so he's bringing his vision along with whatever vision of the directors directing. But James is a really unique visionary guy. You don't even need to see the "directed by" credit if you watch a James Gunn movie, you kind of know what it is. So he's going to bring a specific vision to it. And he's definitely done that here with The Suicide Squad. It's got enough of it to know that it's got some not only in the canon, but to some of the characters from [the prior movie], but they've evolved, but moved into the "James Gunn universe," if you will. So that's why I'm saying that these things aren't just "A" or "B." They're fluid, filmmaking is fluid, constructing movies are fluid. It's a little bit of all of it.

Speaking of James Gunn's vision, I remember back during the set visit, Peter [Safran] talked about how they started from scratch, and that this film is not a sequel, not a reboot — just James Gunn's Suicide Squad. Can you talk about that and how it particularly uses the characters from the first movie, but it's still not a continuation or sequel in the strict sense of the word?

Yes. Like I said, he's so diligent in the work that he does, he certainly brought into this movie some characters that sprang to the top of the canon, if you will, like Harley Quinn, or Amanda Waller, or Rick Flagg. But he's also brought in characters that are really caked in the canon. That have not have the same popularity, if you will, which is why it's not exactly a sequel and not exactly a reboot. It's James Gunn's vision, exactly as you asked the question. He enjoys doing that, and he enjoys taking things into one direction and then all of a sudden he'll do a big surprise or reverse it. That's part of this genius, he can take things up to the absurd, and then all of a sudden he actually does such an amazing twist on it that there are tears in your eyes. And it's a lot of fun to work with too. That set of ours, was one of the most fun sets I've ever been on. And I've been on fun sets before, but nothing like this. Being on a fun set doesn't ensure making a great movie, but through the post-production process I was feeling really very positive, very excited for people to see it, particularly on the big screen.

Can you describe why it was so fun? Was it the freedom that Gunn had to bring out his vision, was it the freedom that the performers had to improvise or riff, or it was just the atmosphere of the entire place?

It was all of it. He has very focused vision, he knew exactly what he wanted. And what was so great was what he wanted, was what the actors wanted to bring. There was a tremendous amount of synchronicity on the set. It was very clear the tone that he wanted to achieve. And by the way, what's so great about it is, it's not an easy tone to achieve, as I was just saying just before, because the tone goes through such big extremes. And you know you're in that kind of fantasy world when it still grabs your emotion. And what was really so wonderfully rewarding to see was a lot of talent in the movie, the actors and the actresses, had a chance to see the movie like they always do before a junket or an interview, and as much as they talked about how much they loved the shooting experience, to see them come out of the movie theater so overjoyed with seeing the whole movie was really rewarding. It was really a great feeling.

So you spoke about how Warner Brothers emphasizes letting filmmakers have creative control over their projects. This is an R-rated endeavor, and on James Gunn's part he's clearly very proud of that. Was there ever a sense of wanting to hold back on that, or were you just like, "Let the blood rain free!"

James was very specific about the kind of movie that he wanted to make. And quite frankly, when we made the deal with him, he didn't even want to make the directing portion of the deal. He wanted to make sure that he can execute on his vision. So he pitched us on his vision, and the pitch was pretty specific in many areas. And part of that specificity was, "There's going to be a lot of f-bombs in this thing, there's going to be a lot of violence. It's a surreal violence in the sense that it's almost comic book-y violence, but it's still going earn you an R-rating. Now I can't make the movie with my vision without it being R-rated." And he said it was going to be in the script, and he delivered. And once he delivered the script, and I and all the studio read it, we were overjoyed by it. There might be little things here and there, but in terms of the overarching response, it was incredibly positive. And...it made him very happy, and he went, "I can see the movie, I'm ready to commit to directing, but you gotta know, I'm delivering you an R-movie and you need to embrace that." It never became an issue.

So we obviously went to the set of The Suicide Squad about two years ago and James has long finished shooting the film, but he's obviously not left the Suicide Squad universe. There is a Peacemaker HBO Max series coming up soon, that he conceived while in lockdown. Are there any rumblings about another potential The Suicide Squad spin off for HBO Max after Peacemaker?

That spin-off was put together by James and Peter Safran, I'm not really a part of it, I'm just rooting for it from the sidelines. So, if there's talk about spin-offs in the series area or streaming area, I really don't know about that. But I think everybody involved in The Suicide Squad is really overjoyed that he decided after Guardians to refocus himself in this universe again, from a motion picture side.


The Suicide Squad hits theaters and HBO Max on August 6, 2021.