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James Gunn on ‘The Suicide Squad’s’ Politics, Getting ‘Fired’ by Disney and Why He Doesn’t Care About Streaming

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read if you have not seen “The Suicide Squad,” currently playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

For anyone familiar with James Gunn’s career, his DC comics adaptation “The Suicide Squad” is arguably the most James Gunn movie he’s ever made. Like his Marvel Studios’ films — 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” — “The Suicide Squad” is a massive comic book spectacular, about scrappy crew of headstrong ne’er-do-wells who struggle, hilariously, to figure out how to work together as a team as they face off against a giant alien monster (in this case, a brain-sucking starfish called Starro). Like Gunn’s earlier, smaller films — the 2006 R-rated horror comedy “Slither” and the 2010 R-rated costume vigilante dramedy “Super” — “The Suicide Squad” is exuberantly violent and profane, reveling in blood, gore, and nudity (male and female) that reflect its characters’ total lack of decorum or pretension.

It is also, to date, the best reviewed film of Gunn’s career, certifying his status as one of the industry’s most unique — and successful — filmmaking voices.

Just three years ago, however, it looked like Gunn would never work again. In June 2018, alt-right activists on Twitter resurfaced old, intentionally provocative tweets by Gunn that attempted, badly, to make light of just about every taboo topic imaginable, including the Holocaust, pedophilia and rape. Gunn’s darker creative impulses were no secret when Disney and Marvel hired him to make the “Guardians” movies — his first script was for the 1997 schlockterpiece “Tromeo and Juliet,” which included many jokes about rape and pedophilia — but the alt-right successfully weaponized the tweets into a viral controversy, and Disney summarily fired Gunn from directing “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

Gunn swiftly and unreservedly apologized for the tweets, saying in a statement that “regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today.” His career implosion was short-lived; almost as quickly, Warner Bros. swooped in and gave Gunn carte blanche to tackle any DC Comics property he wanted. Gunn ultimately landed on “Suicide Squad,” about a team of captured DC villains who are forced by their morally flexible prison warden Amanda Waller to go on a series of highly dangerous missions for the greater (American) good. If they succeed, their prison sentence is reduced. If they flee, Waller ignites a chip in their skull, killing them — and who cares about one less bad guy in the world?

The disreputable, free-wheeling premise appealed to Gunn’s sensibilities, as did the notion of telling a story about characters trying to make good for bad choices they’ve made in their past. Warner Bros. infamously tried in 2016 to make a “Suicide Squad” film with director David Ayer, but while it was a financial success, it is nearly universally regarded as a creative failure. Gunn’s film takes several elements from Ayer’s film — especially actors Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Viola Davis as Waller, Joel Kinnaman as Waller’s right-hand man Col. Rick Flag, and Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang — but otherwise spins off in its own, outré creative directions. For one, Gunn leans hard into the promise of the title, killing off six Suicide Squad characters before the opening credits as they invade the fictional island nation of Corto Maltese. For another, it has a talking shark-man named Nanaue (and voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

(Ayer recently repudiated the theatrical cut of the 2016 “Suicide Squad,” saying it is “not my movie,” while also making clear he will never publicly discuss “my side of the story” — and praising Gunn’s “brilliant” film.)

Disney, by the way, re-hired Gunn to make “Guardians Vol. 3” less than a year after firing him, following a public campaign by the franchise’s stars to have him reinstated. That will be Gunn’s next feature, which is set to premiere in May 2023. It also may be why Gunn, typically unafraid to speak his mind, chose his words far more carefully when asked by Variety to comment on Scarlett Johansson’s headlinegenerating lawsuit against Disney.

“I haven’t really been fully up on it,” Gunn said. “I’ve only met Scarlett in passing. I think she’s a great person. And I really think she’s, uh, you know — I trust Scarlett.”

In the rest of the wide-ranging conversation, Gunn talked about his approach to several of the film’s most memorable — and surprisingly political — sequences; which character he just couldn’t bring himself to kill off; his approach to the upcoming HBO Max spin-off TV series “Peacemaker,” starring John Cena as a vigilante who loves freedom so much he doesn’t care who he has to kill to protect it; and how the fall-out from Disney firing him in 2018 forever changed his creative outlook — for the better.

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Idris Elba and director James Gunn on set of “The Suicide Squad.” Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Warner Bros/Everett Collection

You start the movie off by killing off pretty much every character we get introduced to. Was that always your conception?

Yeah, from the beginning when I pitched it to the Warner Bros. guys. They don’t know who Blackguard is, right? So I brought in all these pictures from the comics. I laid them down, and I told them the story in the same way. So they all thought that was the Suicide Squad as well. They thought that was gonna be the whole movie, and then they got to see them all killed. So they had the same experience.

With actors you’ve worked with a lot, like Nathan Fillion (as T.D.K.) and Michael Rooker (as Savant), or ones you’re working with for the first time, like Pete Davidson (as Blackguard) — how did they respond to the idea that you’re going to kill them off in horrifying ways before the opening credits even roll?

They were all excited. Rooker’s role is a little bit bigger, because he is the protagonist for the beginning of the first part of the film. We’re kind of seeing things through Savant’s eyes. So I think he was excited — you know, he’s now in Marvel and “Fast and Furious” [and DC projects]. He just needs “Star Wars” and he’s got everything covered. Nathan was just stoked. Nathan’s on a TV show [“The Rookie”], so he wouldn’t have been able to do more than that. He’s just a really enthusiastic guy and he’s excited to be a superhero. Pete, he just wanted to be a supervillain, but he was also shooting “Saturday Night Live.” So this was all sold to them as a small role. Not as, “Hey, you’re going to be a star of ‘The Suicide Squad.'”

With Pete, you really seemed to lean into his persona as a mouthy jackass. Was that intentional?

No, that was all written before I knew it was gonna be Pete. I thought I was originally thinking of somebody very different from Pete. I like Pete a lot, both as a person and as an actor. Some things were improvised the moment — where Nathan is showing him how to buckle his seatbelt, showing that he’s probably the dumbest guy in the world. But for the most part, he was just saying the dialogue that was in the script in Pete Davidson’s style, which I think is a real strength. That’s what Robert Downey Jr. did with Iron Man, and that’s what Pete did with Blackguard. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last as long.

Was there was there ever a version of the movie in which Harley Quinn or Bloodsport (Idris Elba) died? Or everyone died?

No, that never happened. But there was a change. The original ending that I pitched, one main character died and one main character did not die. And the main character who died was was Ratcatcher 2. She was so sweet, I just felt like it was just too dark. Not that we don’t love Polka-Dot Man. We do. I just couldn’t [kill Ratcatcher 2]. So I relented.

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Viola Davis and director David Ayer on the set of 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” Courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection

You were very clear very early with Warner Bros. what you wanted to do if you were going to direct this movie, especially that it had to be rated R. Was that in any way driven by the issues that David Ayer experienced directing the first “Suicide Squad” movie?

I really didn’t know that much about that until after I was already in Atlanta starting production. As soon as it was announced that I was making the movie, David was very supportive. I might have been off Twitter at that time still, so I wasn’t really engaged with anything. But when I went to Atlanta, Dave and I, we started conversing about what he had went through, what the process was like. I know the full picture of what happened with David, behind the scenes. I think that I just had people around me who I really trusted. I mean, I trusted [producers] Peter Safran and Chuck Roven a lot. And I trusted [DC Films chief] Walter Hamada. None of those people were really involved with with David’s movie.

Early in the film, the team lead by Bloodsport massacres a guerrilla platoon — largely in competition between Bloodsport and Peacemaker — only to realize that they’ve accidentally killed the good guys. Later, Rick Flag is devastated when he learns that horrific experiments with the alien Starro on hundreds of human subjects by Dr. Gaius Grieves (Peter Capaldi) were sanctioned by the American government. That feels more political to me than these movies often are allowed to get. Did you get pushback on any of that?

Yeah, I did. The the stuff with Bloodsport and Peacemaker, I had a lot of reservations about. I loved the sequence. It’s funny and it goes to the heart of what the movie is about, for me, in terms of Bloodsport’s journey of starting to learn that being a man and being a leader is not synonymous with being a toxic man, and that the path forward to true manhood is through vulnerability. That [sequence] is a big part of that — just a big dick swinging contest between two people. But, man, even watching it the other night in the theater, that’s the one place I go, holy shit, we pushed it far — like, it’s at the edge of where we could go with that. There were some Warner Bros. execs who brought up, “Is this the one place that we go too far?” I think that’s when I added, you know, Amanda Waller explicitly tells them to go into the camp and kill everyone. So they are following her orders, and she is in a way the antagonist in the film. So anyway, yeah, I had reservations about that.

About the political stuff downstairs [in Grieves’ lab], you can see at the end of the movie, there’s a shot with where Amanda Waller is looking at all the footage they have that Bloodsport has sent them [of the Starro experiments], and one of the pieces of the footage is the old president of Corto Maltese and Ronald Reagan together. That used to be a little bit more prominent. I pulled it out simply because it seemed to be unnecessarily distracting to the central story.

In the wake of the events of January 6, Peacemaker feels even more like a potent satire of a specific kind of extreme, toxic patriotism. Was that your thinking with the character?

Well, those types of characters were pretty prominent when you’re me [laughing] before the storming of the Capitol on January 6. But also, I think that, you know, Peacemaker is also a certain mindset, some of which is noxious and some of which makes logical sense, even if it doesn’t make ethical sense. Rick Flag is horrified by what the government has done, and Peacemaker is also actually horrified. But he says, “It’s not going to help the world to know the truth.” It’s a sort of a philosophical conversation at that point that’s been going on as long as there’s been philosophy.

When the “Peacemaker” TV series was announced, it was initially reported to be an origin story for the character, but then the post credit sequence for “The Suicide Squad” — in which we see he’s survived Corto Maltese, and is needed to go back into service to save the world — strongly suggests that the show will also take place after the events of the movie. Are you doing both?

Well, through the story, you learn where Peacemaker came from. There’s a moment in the movie where Bloodsport talks about his father and what his father was like, and you cut to a shot of Peacemaker, and Peacemaker nods. That’s the seed of the entire “Peacemaker” series. So we get to see Peacemaker with his father, who’s played by Robert Patrick, where he came from, what he’s done, what that means to him, and where he’s going after all of this. Because he’s not an evil person, he’s just a bad guy. He seems sort of irredeemable in the film. But I think that there’s more to him. We didn’t get a chance to know him [in “The Suicide Squad”] in the way we get to know some of the other characters. And so that’s what the whole show is about. I needed eight episodes to do it, at least.

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John Cena, David Dastmalchian, and Joel Kinnaman in “The Suicide Squad.” Courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection

He gets shot through the throat by Bloodsport at the end of the movie — clearly there were consequences to the choices he made, and it sounds like that part of the show is into reckoning with that?

Not the consequences. But Peacemaker feels like he’s on the outside. So that moment in [the bar] La Gatita Amable, when he’s dancing with [the team], and they’re becoming connected to each other for the first time — that is an unusual feeling for him. And then when he goes with his ideals over that sense of connection — his weird ideals, admittedly — he’s making that choice over his own emotions. The show is about that.

You take Harley Quinn on a really interesting journey — she falls head over heels for a gorgeous dictator and then murders him when she realizes he’s cut from the same cloth as Joker, who she broke up with before the events of 2020’s “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).” How did you arrive at that idea?

To be completely honest, I didn’t even know about the Harley movie when I was writing the screenplay. I found out about that awful late in the process. But I knew that, no matter which way you look at it, Harley has a past relationship with the Joker. So I needed her to be coming out of that in a certain way, and I needed her to make a healthy choice — healthy from her perspective — about where she’s going in her life and not being dependent on men.

Later, when Harley goes on a rampage to escape her imprisonment, there’s this moment where the violence explodes into gorgeous technicolor cartoon flowers and animals. How’d you arrive at that magical realism aesthetic for the film?

Well, it came from a lot of different places. But that sequence was built in such a way where Harley is escaping, and there’s four sequences and each one gets a little bit more outlandish and bigger. I wanted a way where it kind of feels like it’s almost the end, and then go, No, that’s not the end, we’re going to go way further. She just takes it in some ways too far, almost, but to combine that with this sort of postmodern, cartoon Mary Poppins–esque moment — it was just a way of elevating it.

That style is really carried throughout the movie.

We never break the fourth wall with the characters. They’re always grounded and always in the story. There’s never anybody looking at the camera and saying a joke. But the cinematic envelope around all of that does do that. We have these postmodern elements where we see Polka-Dot Man’s mother through his eyes. We have the title cards in between that are built into the sets. So having that sort of postmodern aspect of the movie was something that I built into it from the beginning. I was never hesitant about it. I rode the horse all the way across the stream. But I was afraid of how it would be perceived and I’m happy to see those things are things that people enjoy.

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Margot Robbie in “The Suicide Squad.” Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Now that you’ve made three massive tentpole movies for two studios, what have you learned that you didn’t know before, that you really take to heart?

So many things, I don’t even know where to start. Um, at the end of the day, I’ve just become more of myself on set. People made a lot of the fact that I say I enjoyed making “The Suicide Squad” more than any other movie. And I really did. It’s for a lot of reasons, but the main reason is because of where I am, personally, and always being able to say what I think. I’m not a shy person, and never have been by any stretch of the imagination, at least not since I’ve been 12. But to just confidently walk forward with what I want, in terms of the way I shoot something [and] in terms of pushing the actors really hard — which I do, I really push actors hard, not in any sort of forceful way, just in doing it again and again and again and again and again ’til we get things exactly right. I just can’t balk on that stuff. I can’t let up, and that’s what so much of making a good movie is about. It’s one of the reasons why I do feel more comfortable at the end of the day with “Suicide Squad” than I do with some of my other movies, because maybe [before] I would let my foot off the gas a little bit — not for the whole movie, but in moments. I really never did that on this movie at any time, and I’m happier with the result because of that.

How much of that mindset was a consequence of the crucible you went through in 2018?

A huge amount. When what happened back then happened, I was not in the best space emotionally or spiritually. I had started to get a little bit, I guess, caught up in things that I didn’t want to be caught up in. In some ways, that was an extension of what I had always been caught up in since I was a child. Most of me making movies has always been about I love to tell stories. I love the creative process. But another part of me wanted to be rich and famous because I wanted to be loved. I didn’t feel that and I never was able to experience that. And the beautiful thing of what happened 2018 is that I got fired and I felt as if every single thing in my life was gone. I had nothing. In that moment, I experienced more love from the people around me than I had ever experienced in my life — and truly experienced the feeling of being loved for the first time in my life. From my girlfriend, my parents, my brothers and my sister and their significant others. You know, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana. My agents and managers. My publicists. They were all completely 100% there for me as a human being. And I felt that from all of them.

It was overwhelming, because I had never known that in my life. It’s not as if all of that stuff hasn’t been difficult to make itself through, but it gave me a grounding that I didn’t have, so then making movies became about what making movies should be about for me — or at least I think is what it should be, maybe I’ll learn something else in another 10 years. But right now, it’s about the creative process, telling the stories the best that I can, so that I love them. It’s much less about a need to fill a hole in myself, because the only way I can feel loved — or think that I’ll feel loved — is if you praise me. It’s just not that important to me [now].

Where do you go after “The Suicide Squad” and “Guardians Vol. 3”? Do you go smaller? Stay big? What is your thinking, as far as you can even pin it down?

I’m ridiculous. Like, I went to sleep last night anxious about what I was gonna do after “Guardians 3,” no kidding. And then I realized that I’m just gonna be anxious about whatever is the next thing beyond. I’ve got a movie that I love and a TV show that I love in the can and done, and then a script that I think is great that I’m about to work on. So, the most fortunate thing is I know exactly where I’m going, because we have eight episodes of “Peacemaker” shot. “Peacemaker” is both smaller and bigger than “The Suicide Squad.” And then I have to get started on “Guardians 3.” That’s a big, big, big, big movie, and now we’re just trying to figure out a way to make it. Hopefully, we can.

With “Peacemaker” and “The Suicide Squad” both on HBO Max, you’re right at the heart of the massive changes the industry is going through with the rise of streaming. People don’t even quite know what a movie is anymore, or where they’re going to get exhibited. How do you see yourself fitting into all that moving forward?

[Long pause] I don’t really care that much. I really just care about whatever the project is in front of me. “The Suicide Squad” is made to be seen first and foremost on a big screen. I think it’s gonna work just fine on television. Listen, movies don’t last because they’re seen on the big screen. Movies last because they’re seen on television. “Jaws” isn’t still a classic because people are watching it in theaters. I’ve never seen “Jaws” in a movie theater. It’s one of my favorite movies.

I think that doing the “Peacemaker” show taught me I can be equally happy there. In fact, in some ways, I’m more comfortable in television, because I get more time to focus on the characters, and I don’t feel so pressured to move to the next scene and the next scene and the next scene. I also don’t want the theatrical experience to die. I don’t know if that is possible, but we also don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve still got COVID, because people won’t get vaccinated, which, you know, they should. Hopefully — hopefully — that will not be a big deal to us in a year. And if that’s the case, what’s going to happen? We don’t know. Nobody knows. I care, because I would rather have people be able to go to the movies. But also, if they don’t, I’m not going to go slit my wrists. I don’t care that much. [Laughs]

Finally, is there anything about “The Suicide Squad” that you have been wanting to talk about that no one has asked you?

Yes, there is. No one, not a single person, has brought up to me the fact that there’s a Guardian of the Galaxy in “The Suicide Squad.”

There is?!

Yes! Prominently! No one sees her, and I don’t know how that’s the case. When they come into La Gatita Amable, there’s a dancing girl at the front of all the dancing girls wearing a macrame outfit who’s doing all the dance moves. It’s Pom Klementieff from “Guardians of the Galaxy [Vol. 2].” Not a single person has brought it up, and I’m like, “What is going on?” She’s in a close up! Like, it’s not subtle! I think I’ve read like two people on Twitter say, “Hey, wait a second, is that Pom Klementieff?!” I talked to Pom the other day — I’m like, have people been asking you? She’s like, yeah, a couple people. But she’s just not being recognized. I’m like, what is going on? I can’t believe it!

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Pom Klementieff (right) in “The Suicide Squad.” Screengrab courtesy of HBO Max

This interview has been edited and condensed.