James Gunn Tells Us Why He Was Allowed To Kill Any Character He Wanted In ‘The Suicide Squad’

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It’s interesting to hear James Gunn get just a little cocky. After the much-documented career whirlwind he’s had over the last couple of years, you know, it’s kind of nice to see him in a place where he can get a little cocky. After all, for a little bit there he thought is career was over after Marvel fired him for some unfortunate, but very old tweets. But then a sort of bidding war broke out between Warner Bros. with their DC properties, and then Marvel who, quickly, regretted their decision. And the reason it was “sort of” a bidding war is because Gunn decided he’d just do both. And now he’s in the very rare position of being a director who is allowed to do both. And, yes, that brings us to (the very good) The Suicide Squad.

And this brings us to why Gunn can be a little cocky. You see, Warner Bros. really wanted him to do this movie. The first movie, Suicide Squad (sans the “the”) was, well, pretty much a disaster. It’s incoherent. Once Gunn decided he wanted to make a Suicide Squad movie (Superman and another DC property were on the table, Gunn won’t say what it was), Warner Bros. was so eager for this to happen they gave him full control. Now, does that mean he could Harley Quinn if he wanted to? One of DC’s most popular characters? According to Gunn, “1000 percent.”

Ahead, Gunn takes us through his decision-making process and how he wound up with The Suicide Squad, and he tells us what it was like to call Sylvester Stallone to ask him if he wanted to play a walking, talking shark.

In the interview you did with The New York Times you said Superman was on the table from Warner Bros., but then you decided to do Suicide Squad. How long did you actually contemplate Superman?

Well, it was a little bit different than that. Toby Emmerich came to me through Peter Safran and he kept coming – they work out together, and Peter’s my manager and also the producer of this film.

Right.

And Toby came in every morning and said, “James Gunn’s Superman. James Gunn’s Superman,” and basically trying to get me to do Superman. And Toby said, “But you know, listen, we’ll be happy with whatever James wants to do. You know, what we’d really love him to do is The Suicide Squad.” So it was part of that conversation very early on. In terms of my decision-making process, I went off and I played with it. I didn’t want to commit … one of my problems I’ve had, sometimes, is I commit myself to stuff too quickly. And a lot of times ideas turn me on, but when I turn those ideas into stories, it becomes not as good as the idea was. Like, the story of that idea isn’t as good.

I see…

So I wanted to make sure I was going to commit myself for two years to something that was worthwhile. So, I took a few different things over about a period of a month. And wrote different ideas every day. And I kind of, then, whittled that down to three different projects: two DC projects and one that was something totally different. And I was writing those. And The Suicide Squad was just the one that began to sing.

What was the other DC project?

[Laughs] I can’t tell you!

Oh?

But it was something different. But, yeah…

I guess that’s why I wanted to get in your head a little bit, because I don’t personally think Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad are that much alike. They’re very different things…

They are very different.

But I could see, also, how people hear that and go oh, yeah, that tracks. In other words, the idea of Superman, from you, would have been a curveball for those people who think Suicide Squad and Guardians are similar.

To those people, yeah. But I think to the general audience, it might not have been. But I don’t know, I don’t care what they … what interests me is what is the story that’s going to keep me interested for that long, and invested in passion. And that’s not in everything. And it was really the story of Suicide Squad. The truth is, when it was announced they were making the first Suicide Squad, I was jealous. There’s only been a couple of projects that have been like that. You know, I mean I love The Suicide Squad from the comic books. There aren’t a lot of things that I really would be excited about making, but that was one of them. And when I heard it was being made, I was like, ohhhhhhh, goddammit! So this was sort of my chance to do what I would have done in the first place anyway.

It feels like there’s a lot of carnage and chaos in this movie that you weren’t maybe allowed to do in Guardians. It feels like, frankly, you got the freedom to just get rid of whoever you wanted to, other than probably a couple of characters…

No, I was given full freedom.

Because I didn’t know who was going to live or die through the whole movie which is rare for a superhero movie…

I was given freedom to get rid of anyone I wanted to.

Really? If you were like, “I’m killing off Harley Quinn,” they would have let you?

One thousand percent.

How would they have let you do that? She’s one of their big stars.

There are no rules right now.

Okay.

And they wanted me to do the movie. You know, they didn’t really want to do an R-rated movie, either. I came in, I said, “Well, if I’m going to do it, it’s got to be R rated.” It’s a war movie! Like, I can’t be killing people and having this boom, boom, boom, and not having any blood. So, it’s like they trusted me to do what I wanted to do and they let me have full rein in terms of the story. And that was the conditions I came in on.

Sylvester Stallone was in Guardians 2 but I don’t know what your relationship is…

Yeah, we’re buddies.

I keep trying to imagine that phone call to him. “Hey, I’ve got a role for you in The Suicide Squad,” and he’s like, “Oh, is he a tough guy? Like Ray Tango?”…

Well, I called and told him it was a voice role. So I said, “I’ve got a voice role for you. I won’t take that much or that long to do. I wrote it for you. I thought about you. It’s a big, dumb, walking shark.” And he laughed and he’s like, “Anything for you!” And that was really the end of it, you know. And the truth is I wrote the role for Sly. I thought of Sly from the beginning. Today we did our big press junket with Sly as a part of it, and I hear that booming voice, and I go, “That’s why I wanted you for this role.”

But I was afraid at first. You know, I didn’t want to hire him and have it not work out. And so we actually had other voice actors come in and do the role. They did the whole movie and it just never came together. It just didn’t work. And I was looking for that “Groot experience.” I don’t know what else to call it, where Vin came in and did Groot’s voice for the first time and I was like, oh, now he’s filled up. The tank is full. And it was the same exact experience when Sly came in and started doing King Shark. But he was also, he’s so animated, he’s jumping around and doing all this stuff, it was just like amazing to see this guy doing it.

Will we see you guys together again? Because he’s already part of the Guardians universe. I want to see that Guardians character back.

Me and Sly?

Yeah, I want to see Sly back in Guardians 3.

Oh, well, we’ll have to see about that.

During quarantine we watched and rewatched so many Stallone movies. We watched Rhinestone last week, that’s how far into Sly movies we are.

Yeah! I love those movies. I love those movies. But I’m a big Rocky fan. Nighthawks, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it…

I just watched Nighthawks last week. Yes, that movie is awesome.

It’s a great movie.

Sly does that stunt on the Roosevelt Island tram…

Yep. I watched it not that long ago. It’s just one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid, you know. But I mean I’ve watched it in the past couple years.

I am curious, during this movie, how many times can a director pull the rug out from the audience? It felt like you did that maybe five times and you probably could have kept doing it.

Yeah, well, I think that’s the fun, though, really. You know? I mean I think that really all plots are composed of plot twists, just having something happen that you don’t quite see coming or you don’t see coming when it comes. And in this movie it was really they’re big plot twists where things really change. And I think that it’s a delicate balance, because you’ve got to have the grounding of the story there, but I also think the plot twists are different types of things. There’s emotional plot twists, physical plot twists, plot twist with deaths. And to be able to go on this journey where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next? And it’s not just about some big reveal at the end that’s like your shock ending? It really is about all of these little fun things throughout the movie. That was what I wanted to do with the screenplay anyway: to create fun twists and turns that we don’t see coming. We don’t necessarily know who the protagonist is at the beginning of the movie. We don’t necessarily know who’s going to have a big part. We’re allowed to go off on Harley’s private journey for 15 minutes. We’re allowed to do anything we want! There are no rules except keep it fun.

‘The Suicide Squad’ will be released on August 5th in theaters and stream via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.