“I don’t even know how to describe the damn thing,” says director David Ayer, just after wrapping post-production on Suicide Squad, his star-packed, supervillain-centric, DC Comics-based probable blockbuster, hitting theaters on August 5th. “It’s not like anything else. And it’s not trying to be like anything else.” In an interview for our Jared Leto cover story, Ayer discussed creating a new Joker with Leto, as well as the broader goals behind Suicide Squad, which also stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie, among many others.
Jared has mentioned that he has enormous respect for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker [in The Dark Knight]. How did you deal with the challenges of following it?
You have to be both really reverent and respectful, yet fearless — and terrified. But, you know, I mean, it’s a 70-year-old character and the best-known villain in Western fiction, in the world. There’s these giant pair of shoes left by Heath Ledger and what he did. But when you reverse engineer anything, you have an actor, you have makeup, you have wardrobe, you have a script, you have — so, you know, how do you get there? What is the journey? And Jared was, I think, the first actor I started working with, and he had sort of the longest lead of anybody to really start drilling down. It just took a lot of work, a lot of exploration and a lot of research. He just started with baby steps. Like, “What does the laugh sound like? What is the voice? What are the cadences?” And then, just put an incredible amount of work into slowly making these discoveries.
How much input did Jared have on the new look for the character?
The basics for it were always gonna be the pale skin and the green hair. But he was very involved. And, you know, we did the tattoos, which are controversial, but, I mean, we wanted him to be of our world.
Yeah, people were taken aback. Was the idea, “What does a criminal kingpin look like now?”
Exactly. Because then character was always a gangster, you know? He has always been sort of a gang boss and part of the underworld. You look at his origin in the early 1940s, when Hollywood had made these gangster movies … so, just wanted to lean into that idea a little bit and go, “What does a contemporary organized crime leader look like?”
You’ve paired him with his girlfriend, Harley Quinn, who’s never been on film before.
Exactly. And the idea that, you know, he’s always been this lone wolf who has sort of henchmen, but never any real relationship with anyone. So, that was very interesting territory to explore. It was like, what is the nature of that relationship? What does it mean? What does it mean to the Joker? How does she define him and vice versa? So, there’s a lot of really creative fertile ground to explore. He hates that he’s obsessed with her and whether it’s love or obsession, you know, people are gonna have to figure that out. She drives him crazy. And he tries to control her as much as possible, but she’s pretty much uncontrollable.
What specific comic-book sources did you draw upon?
I drew from different sources, and it’s interesting because you get into the situation of like, what’s canon and what’s non-canon? Then you get different continuities and storylines and sometimes these things conflict with each other, then you get retcons — it’s like being a medieval scholar or something sometimes. So which scribe’s works do you believe? But, in general, you take away the core truths of the character and that the character is this powerful archetype that resonates with people.
How do you direct someone who won’t leave the character of the Joker, even when he’s talking to you?
I’d call him Mr. J, and I’d be very respectful. You have to create a safe space for actors. I mean, they kind of have the hardest job on the set. With acting, you’re trying to hit a target. You fire a lot of arrows, and the arrows take different paths; my job as a director is just to help him aim a little bit and let him know when he’s hit the target. In actor-world, Method acting is kind of, like, the macho thing to do. So, the other actors are always very, very conscious of that, like, “Wow, man. He went there.” It’s good for the acting ecology of a movie.
Besides all the pranks he played, what else did you see in Jared’s interactions with the other actors?
He had a henchman in the film, Mr. Frost, who’s played by Jim Parrack. And to sort of cement that relationship, I told Jim, “Look, you’re gonna go work for Mr. J now. And he’s gonna ask you to do all sorts of things, and you need to go do your errands.” So poor Jim was running around Toronto almost on a scavenger hunt, doing God knows what for him. Jared would also go for these long walks and really sort of live it away from set, away from the studio.
Wait, in costume?
No, that would be hardcore. But I know he’d be walking around at night and I was kind of like, worried: “Where is he?” He’s literally walking the earth, you know, and kind of meditating on this character.
Did Jared ever try to make you uncomfortable? Was that ever part of the process?
Uh, he would, but, it was that thing of, like, you know the magic trick. It’s like, “No dude, another rabbit’s under your table, bro.”
What were your larger goals for Suicide Squad?
I wanted to take these comic book characters and make them as psychologically realistic as possible, with a living history, a soul and a real biography, and then ground them in our world as much as possible — while at the same time, keeping it loud and fun, and servicing all of the things a comic book movie needs to do.
How did the negative critical reaction to Batman v Superman affect you, given that you were working on the next story from that universe?
I think everyone just kind of took a beat back and said, “Ok, this is for real.” [Laughs] But I mean, I got to make the movie I wanted to make.
So it’s not lip-service when Warner execs say they want their superhero movies to be more director-driven than the competition?
They’ll normally hire these kids who’ve done like one thing before to make a $6 billion movie, and it’s just like, “Here, go make a movie!” It’s very committee-driven. And I’m not that guy. That’s why I’m still sort of coming out of this going, “Wait, what, they actually let me do that? What were they thinking?”