David Ayer doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would make a superhero movie. In a way, he hasn’t. The director of “End of Watch,” “Fury” and the writer of “Training Day” — gritty movies about cops and criminals on the edge — wound up helming “Suicide Squad,” a comic book movie, but a comic book movie about a gang of supervillains. The members — including a mega-hitman (Will Smith), a mega-psycho (Margot Robbie), even a croc-person (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) — are forced by a shady government organization to save the day. But even they’re good, they’re bad.
I don’t picture you ever doing a simple movie about good guys doing good things.
I might get bored just doing a superhero movie, because they’re really predictable. They’re going to do the right thing. These guys you don’t know what they’re going to do. They could do anything.
How does someone who’s made dark and gritty movies about the moral gray zones make a comic book movie?
I had a relationship with Greg Silverman, who was instrumental in getting me on “End of the Watch.” I came to his office and was like, “What do you got?” He started going through the projects. They literally have a book — “Here’s All the Movies We Can Make.” And he mentioned “Suicide Squad.” I knew the comic and said, “Let me take a look at that.” Boxes showed up with comic books. I started to go through them and said, “I got this, let’s do this, this makes sense for me.”
Tell me about working with the studio to balance your own interests with something that will be commercial.
I knew I had to make a PG-13 movie. I knew I was going to make this comic book, pop movie. I knew that was the assignment. If I go to them and say, “I want to make it NC-17 and use shadow puppets,” I know that’s not going to fly. If I go in there with an understanding of what they need and they know I’m servicing that, they can relax. Then I can actually do more to pursue my own vision. I have to check the boxes and show them I’m going to be responsible, I’m going to treat their project with respect and I know I’m sharing assets with other movies. It’s sandbox rules, and I’ll hand their stuff back after I’m done. It enabled them to trust me to bring what I bring to the table. I mean, the movie’s insane, it’s nuts. There’s nothing like it. It’s incredible they let me do that.
Warner Brothers seems unusually director-friendly. How hands-on were they?
You go through a process. A lot of it is story mechanics: “How can you make this clearer?” But at the end of the day, they let me make my movie. They came to the set in Toronto twice. It was really up to me to dig my own hole. Then in the postproduction phase, you’re trying to engineer a movie out of a million-and-a-half feet of footage, trying to figure out the music and the special effects. In a lot of ways, that’s the toughest part of the process. But I’m really proud where it got to.
What was the length of the initial cut?
Over three hours. But you go into it knowing that ain’t gonna fly. It shouldn’t be three hours. There’s no indulgence here. The movie became the movie it’s supposed to be. There’s a saying in writing: You’ve got to drown your babies. [Laughs] Your best scene is often the scene that, because of the weird alchemy of storytelling, is holding everything back. And as a director, you’ve not only written it, you’ve shot it, and you’re sitting there remembering the production hangover. You remember how you raced to get this and you begged for the resources to shoot that. The actors suffered through it and everybody did such a noble and valiant effort to take the hill. And then you just throw it on the cutting-room floor. Brutal. [Laughs]
There was a longer cut of “Batman v. Superman” released on home video. Do you see yourself doing that with “Suicide Squad”?
No. I’m one of those guys where there’s no alternate cut. This is the best version of the movie. For historical reference, we’ll throw some scenes on the DVD. But this is the movie. The tone and the pace and everything is bang-on.
I could ask endless questions about the unusual way you worked with the actors: the preparation phase, the rehearsals, the group therapy, the things you asked them to do. But since we have so little time, tell me your reasoning for it.
The sad truth is, especially on a film of this scale, an actor can become a neglected component. But for me, character is the most important thing out there. The actors need to feel they’re best friends because the characters are best friends by the end of the movie. They basically needed a crash course in being best friends in the time we had in prep. They went to some really personal places, some really dark places. But it opened them up to each other. Actors can be very cagey with each other. I wanted them to not just be practicing their craft on each other but be opening their hearts in each scene. Insane as it was, there was a logic to it. You can feel it in their performances and you can see it on the screen.
Some of the things they did — breaking down who they are deep down, getting to the real them — almost sounds like one of those alternative psychology camps from the ’60s that you see in the opening of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
It just works. You beat the s—t out of people and see what’s inside of them. [Laughs]