Suicide Squad: Interview with Writer-Director David Ayer

Approach to Actors

David Ayer: You know if you’re a violinist your instrument is a violin. And you have to understand how to use that instrument. And it’s the same with an actor. Their instrument is their body and their soul, their heart, their life. Their experiences, so the more I can understand their emotional life, their history, their personal history, and the more they can learn about each others lives, not only the more honest will they become with each other on the screen and the acting, when they’re acting on set, but it gives me a roadmap to sort of target certain emotions if I want to grab it. Plus like a lot of times actors come on the set and they have a plan, in their acting. And I want them, I want as much truth and honesty in the performance as possible. So you know, if you can surprise them, if you can shake them up, give them something unusual to do I think it just helps performance.

Anything they say to me is private. You know, anything I know about them stays private. Nothing gets shared. And it’s just more in the sense of, knowing these things about them, knowing their secrets basically, and then on the set, yeah maybe I’ll whisper in their ear. Hey, you remember that one time where, and that’ll sort of put them back into that moment and give me a little moment of honesty for the camera.I

Inspirations and Influences

It’s hard to point to one source of inspiration. I mean, it’s lightly modeled on the Dirty Dozen. But in the sense that these are prisoners brought together for a mission. But it’s, it’s just, you know what I’ve learned as a filmmaker, what I’ve learned as a writer, what I’ve learned as a director, standing on all my old movies and my lessons, um, but I wanted it to be, different isn’t’ the word. I just wanted to do it in my style. I wanted to make a comic book in my voice in my style with my vision. And you know, thankfully, the studio was willing to uh, really let me pursue my vision and not dictate to me how it should be done. Um, which I know is the case with other comic book movies. Um, you know the directors are handed look books and battle plans and handed scripts and given marching orders. And then they rip the movie away from them in post. I mean that’s kind of normal these days. Which is why they hire these kids to direct these movies. But in this case, you know, I was blessed to really bring everything I know as a director to the table here.

Kurosowa’s Yojimbo was an influence. Apocalypse Now, a little bit, it’s a bit of a journey movie. The Warriors. You know, we looked at seventies movies. Tarkovsky’s always an influence. You know the Russian cinematographer. We talk a lot about Tarkovsky and soviet style cinema, Russian cinema, uh, is very important to us. Um, and it’s interesting because I feel like the secret’s out. More and more movies are starting to reflect the Russian cinema sensibilities. Um, but I think, you know you have to draw from all sources. But mostly older sources. A lot of modern filmmaking or a lot of modern comic book movies often feel very, um, they’re very stiff. And, and, and, we wanted a world that was a little more fluid and liquid and more visual and more sort of colorful.

Challenges of Working with such Ensemble

t really starts with the rehearsal phase. And I think I had them, you know, six weeks out, which is a good amount of time these days. You know unfortunately in this business often actors come in, uh, only two weeks out. They do a table read and maybe a rehearsal and that’s it. And they shoot the movie. And I don’t work like that. So part of it was, again this process of rehearsal. And a rehearsal isn’t necessarily reading scenes. It could be just talking about your childhood. And everybody talks about themselves. You know, sometimes we just pick one person and just, just drill down on them. And study, you know, one actor. Especially when they show up for the first time and everyone there is sort of a veteran. But, it, through that process you build trust. Through the trust you build, you know, it’s almost like a little family. And so that chemistry then translates to the screen. I mean part of being a director is, you know look, I have four children, you know. It’s, it’s, you never, you can’t let them gang up on you. So, uh, you know once you lose control, once you lose respect it’s gone. You can’t rebuild it. It’s absolutely gone. So, uh, for me, uh, I never really had any problems, kinda managing them. You know and maybe you know, cause I’m from the military I have a little bit of that mindset.

Will Smith

When I started talking to Will about this movie I didn’t have a script written yet. You know I pitched, pitched the movie to Warner Bros. and they basically green lit the movie. And we started designing sets and preparing the film. I had no script. I had an outline. And, so I began these conversations with Will. And I knew I needed an actor because, um, such a diverse cast, such an ensemble cast, um, and actors of different levels. You know people like Karen have never done a film before. You know, Margot who, is now this huge star and will become only bigger, you know, have, Jai Courtney who is in a very different space than he normally acts in. everyone was sort of challenged in doing new things. And these characters are insane. So I needed somebody to be sort of the father of the group, both on and off camera. And Will you know, Will’s a veteran, he’s been in this business since he was seventeen years old. I think he’s looking at thirty years in the business now, which is incredible. And an incredible career. But he’s also a good guy. He’s a charismatic guy. And he draws people in. and you know, I have a very young cast, and, and they’re wild. They’re wild. And so it was good to have somebody to be the father, to be the leader. And I could also use him as an ally to get them in line. But I think their energy also helped Will and Will sort of helped them. And, you know, casting a movie sometimes is like curating a cocktail party. You want the right mix of personalities. And I feel like, like we really got the balance right.

The main traps to avoid in making this. Um, I was working with Roman, you know Roman’s a very soulful, thoughtful person. He’s Russian. And, you know he would say, they’re giving you everything. You know, they’re giving you all this equipment. You have, you know, one of the best casts in the world. You have, um, all this money, all this crew, all these resources, if you don’t make an amazing movie, you know, this is your fault. This will be, this will be the death of you as a director. And, so a lot of it was just psychological, of having um, this incredible challenge before me, this incredibly large movie and project to manage. Um, I didn’t want to make anyone else’s movie. I didn’t want make, I didn’t want to make a copy of a copy of a copy of a comic book movie. Um, the main challenge for me, really I think, was, calibrating in my mind because I come from a very verite realistic naturalistic psychologically realistic directing style, was, was tuning that into a world where you have Batman and you have giant monsters and magic and witches and so there’s a lot work to take the fantastic and make the fantastic real. And then, to, develop comic book characters psychologically in script and in performance so that they felt like real people, with real lives, real problems, real hearts, um, real goals.T

Template for this film?

here’s not really any specific film that I could go this is a template. I think as, as a director you look at other movies because, you know, a scene in a kitchen with people talking is, been done hundreds of times. So what have other directors done? Um, you know look at Lawrence of Arabia. You know, David Lean was the master of the moving master shot. And, in our photographic style, be it a camera on a crane and these moving masters in trying to keep, you know, avoid being very cutty and handheld in that sort of high energy modern style. But it’s really, you know, you make movies, you know, you make several movies, after awhile you begin to internalize these things, you know. I’ve been studying movies and, and so, you get exposed to so much and so much technique and so much visual that it becomes hard to grab any one thing. And, it really becomes about methodologies and styles of execution. Um, and this is very much an execution based film. But um, you know you look at you know, a Kurosawa movie, um, you look at his work and how he places the camera and how he lights the scene, camera placement and lighting, uh, can create an emotional tone before anybody says a word. So, yeah, you just study the masters, you learn from the best.

They’re bad guys but they’re not bad hearts. And you know, we’ve all made mistakes in our lives. And at what point do you condemn somebody for their mistakes and, you know, can, us as people, can we transform? Can we better ourselves? You know and unfortunately in American society, if you make a mistake you’re, you know your life is ruined. It destroys your life. And the idea of sort of redemption and change and personal growth are sadly, um, being discarded in our current age. And you know I wanted to make a movie about, you know, a quote unquote worst of us, can be also be capable of the best things.

Casting Japanese

The role of Katana, she’s, a young Japanese housewife whose husband is murdered and then goes on this journey of vengeance through the Tokyo underworld and so it was important to cast you know, a Japanese actor for the role. And, we did a large search. We really met with a lot of people. I met with a lot of people. I auditioned a lot of people. And, you know, Karen, she came in, and you know she’s a martial artist and, and, she did this sword thing, and it took a couple days for me to process it. Cause it was a little scary because she’s, she’s a novice. She hasn’t done a movie before. She really is, uh, very new to the business. But, you know, I respect, because she’s a martial artist and an athlete I can respect that and I can respect that discipline. Uh, she’s also um, she’s very traditional in a lot of respects. And comes from a very traditional family. And I like that. I like that, um, that mindset. So between that and the discipline in her personality, I knew that she could, do these things. And she was a very big surprise for me because, she um, you know, behaved like a veteran on the set. And she understood how the camera worked and lens and lighting and angles when she shouldn’t. She shouldn’t know how to do this yet she did. And I don’t know if it was study. I don’t know if it was instinctual for her. But, uh, I think she’s, she’s a fantastic discovery.

Diversity on Large Scale

It’s our world. And it’s the world I grew up in. and I just want to movie, movies I make to reflect the world I live in. um, so to me it comes natural. It’s not like something that, um, I set out to do. It’s not something that I engineered. It’s just, again, it’s just a cast on the screen should reflect the world that we live in. and, um, you know my wife is from Mexico. You know, and, you know we have four kids. And I know how important it is for kids to see people that look like them on the screen and in the cinema. They need, they need role models. So yeah, it’s very important to me.

They absolutely embraced it. But more than anything they let me make the movie I wanted to make. So, um, you know I think they were on set twice. I mean, uh, so in a lot of ways this is kind of unprecedented. Um, that, you know they handed me over something so large and let me, uh, run away with it.

You don’t see it that much. And, honestly, I’m a little confused why because again it sort of comes natural to me because it is the world we live in. it is what’s going on today. Um, so, I don’t, I honestly am confused why we do not see it more often. And you know, if you look at comic books, um, you know Wonder Woman’s been around a long time. She’s been you know, fighting and, and, you know, been just as tough as the guys for ages. And you know comic books have always been very progressive that way and very ahead of the time. Um, you know it’s, it’s, it’s we’re obviously in an era where you can have women leaders. You can have strong women. We have many examples of this. You know, and, women don’t have to prove themselves as men anymore. They can be women and they can still be strong. And I just enjoy writing um, strong characters. Gender, race, extraction, these things are less important than just having an amazing strong character.

Impact of Women in the Cast

I have two daughters and I think, you know in this day and age it’s hard for girls growing up to kind of fine their voices and be willing to be aggressive. And speak up and assert themselves. Because I think boys are much more encouraged to do that. And by seeing some strong, strong women on the screen, you know, maybe, maybe that can encourage

Origins as Filmmaker

I got out of the navy and was working in construction. I’m a high school dropout I never went, never finished high school. Never went to college, never went to film school. You know, I was a builder. Tradesman. Electrician. House painter. So, I went to work in a guy’s house who was a screenwriter, Wesley Strick. And he encouraged me to write, and it took awhile. I sold Training Day when I was twenty-six. And that was really the beginning of my career at that point. But, I just wrote a lot, wrote a lot of scripts. And got sick of writing. I got sick of being just the writer. And you know, the writer’s the one person you don’t need on the set.

U571 is really my first studio movie.  It was a rewrite job. Uh, it’s, yeah it’s a little, for me it’s still a little miraculous that I’m even here. I mean I’m not the normal, uh, Hollywood director I guess.

Tattooing Each Other

It is unusual to turn your body into a high school yearbook. Um, but uh, it was, you know, it was, we were well into to the shoot. You know it was a very long shoot. We were in Toronto a long time. And you know they formed, a gang. I mean they form a posse. They had this, they became this true circle of friends.  Margo got a tattoo gun. She’d always been interested in tattooing and practicing. And it just sort of happened organically. Uh, they started tattooing each other. Margo started tattooing people. And I volunteered. Like ok, why not?

Joel, Jai, Karen, Cara, me, Margo. Will abstained. Will’s smart. Yeah. But it was, it’s, it’s hard to explain the environment. I mean they’re so close. And um, no one had seen anything like it. Usually, the normal thing in Hollywood is people are very isolated. Lead these separate lives. It really, it was special. It’s, it is, it was kind of miraculous. And anything was possible. Anything could happen. Yeah. It was pretty crazy.

Superhero Movies

Well it depends how you define recently. You know as, as, as uh, Civil War did pretty, Deadpool, Civil War, those happened this year, that was pretty strong. I look at it like a cowboy movie. You know the cowboy movie was the backbone of Hollywood for seventy years. And uh, there’s an inherent power and mythology in the superhero movies. And, what is changing now is, is you have young adults who have grown up now on the superhero movie. They’ve known this entire thing. They’ve lived with it. It’s, it’s saturating our culture and saturating our world and becoming much more of an international phenomenon now too. Um, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I think they’re going to be the capital ships of the Hollywood studios and the studio system these, these large movies. I think that um, how they’re made will, will evolve, as with anything. Things will change over time. Uh, you know, let’s, let’s see how this does. Um, you know my hope with Suicide Squad is that just the fans connect with it. You know, I made it for the fans. And I hope that people connect with it. Cause it is very different. It’s so different. Um, you know, we’ll see what the audience.

Real and Reel Heroes

Well, I don’t want to, you know, if you’ve seen the movie there definitely is that theme of sacrifice in the film. And that does occur. That exact thing does occur. The real heroes are not in movies. Movies are entertainment.  This is popcorn. This is, go to the theater, have some fun and enjoy yourself. The real heroes are obviously the people that risk their lives to keep us safe and protect our society. Those are the real heroes. And I never confuse my role as an entertainer with those who protect us.