By Iain Blair
With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.
With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.
Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.
I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.
This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now?
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.
Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool
You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!
Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.
Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.
And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.
All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.
What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.
For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.
Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.