Squad Goals with ‘The Suicide Squad’ Director James Gunn

Man, I love this gig!

It’s not every day you’re afforded the opportunity to chat with one of your favorite filmmakers. And this past week, I got that chance! The Nerds of Color, along with other media outlets, was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with the one and only James Gunn — Director of Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming The Suicide Squad!

Personally I can listen to that man talk all day about movies and comics over a bite and a brew. And though we didn’t get all day, in the time we were officially allotted, we managed to learn so much about the highly anticipated upcoming DC film. Here’s what James had to say.

The first question for Gunn was what inspired him to use and dive deep into the character of Polka Dot Man.

“I think from the beginning, I was just trying to figure out who was going to be in The Suicide Squad. I wanted it to be a really deep mix of characters; some of them we know, some of them we don’t. Some who were very well known to comic book fans but not to general audiences. And Polka Dot Man? Seriously I would look up ‘who are considered the dumbest supervillains of all time’ on Google. And on the top of every list was Polka Dot Man. And so I wanted to take this character and give him a soul. And a lot of that was what drove me with this movie. This character who we think is the dumbest character of all time, is made fun of by the other dumb villains in the movie who think he’s dumb, and yet he has this incredibly dark dark dark backstory. Which of course was just a cinematic invention. But it’s just about giving us this guy who is just a typical loser, and we get to see him on this journey. And I think a lot of us in this world relate more to Polka Dot Man than we do Captain America.”

Gunn was then asked how he went about balancing the tragedy and comedy in the death scenes in the film.

“Wow. That’s a great question. I think really the movie is a balancing act of tones no matter what. I’m very drawn to a lot of– especially Asian cinema, old Hong Kong movies, Japanese cinema, modern South Korean Cinema — that balance a lot of different tones in those films, and aren’t as restricted as American films where usually it’s one genre. ‘You’re an Action movie’ or ‘you’re a comedy,’ or ‘you’re a romantic comedy’ or ‘you’re a war film’ or whatever. And try to be able to make available to myself any tool there is to make the most entertaining experience that I possibly could. And to me it was just about trying to make things grounded, but at the same time allowing it to be as outrageous as it possibly could be. So I think it sort of just comes naturally. There were things that were very sad and then things that were very funny. And as the movie goes on the deaths become more tragic because we start to fall in love with these characters. And the characters we lose very early on, it’s not as sad because we only know them a little bit. But then we get to really see these characters, see who they are, get to know them, get to love them, and then we lose them and it’s very difficult. But this is Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad, and she’s ruthless… I just wanted to be true to that main through-line and story and not balk with anybody. Not balk and not kill someone, even if it made me sad. There’s a couple of deaths in the movie, two in particular, every time they happen I well up a little bit to this day. And it’s just about making it all balanced and keeping it grounded and real while still being outrageous.”

Next, the question came up regarding how Gunn decides who lives and who dies in a movie like this.

“Well there were obviously a certain amount of characters I knew were going to die from the time I created them in the movie. When I first pitched this idea to Warner Bros. I went into Toby Emmerich’s office with photos of each member [of the Squad] from my favorite iteration of them in the comics. And I had them all on the wall. And I put them up. And I said ‘This guy happens to this…’ because there’s a lot of characters. To throw Mongal at Toby Emmerich can be very confusing. And so going through them in that way, I knew certain characters were going to die early. And then other characters sort of died as I told the story. The way I write is that I do have a basic structure of what the movie is. But in a way the structure of this movie was about the group as a whole, and what happened throughout it. So there were deaths that took me by surprise… and so somethings happened very organically. It was really about what does the story need at this point. How does it work. How do we take a turn here that’s unexpected that’s not where the audience expected to go. And just hope and pray the audience is able to stay with it. And to build a story that is first and foremost about characters above all else. It is about spectacle. It is about action. It is about comedy. But first and foremost it’s about this group of ne’er-do-wells who aren’t good at connecting with other human beings, and find through this tragic experience for them, ways at connecting, which is bittersweet. Because some of them go to a better life and some just don’t go on at all.”

One of the questions that was then asked was about what it was like working with an established franchise character like Harley Quinn, and the idea of the DCEU becoming the Harley Quinn Universe.

“I think Margot would be upset to find out she’s in every single DC movie,” Gunn joked. “The truth is that one of the reasons people loved and were so attracted to Margot in this role from the beginning is because she so perfectly embodies the character who is just one of the most well written characters in superhero comics that’s ever existed, from the time she existed in the Animated show with Paul Dini. So it really is about Paul Dini’s initial character and really staying true to that. And the truth is I came in to Margot, and we talked about the script after she read it, and she was really happy to do it. And when we said something about Harley she’d say ‘yeah, but you’d know more about her than I do,’ because I’ve read every single comic book Harley Quinn has been in and seen every animated movie Harley Quinn has been in. So she has no ego. It’s one of the reasons why she’s probably the greatest actor I’ve ever worked with. Not because she says ‘I know more than she does,’ but because she comes into it in such a way that she’s willing to go as far as she possibly can with the character. She’s incredibly prepared, incredibly disciplined, able to do the action stuff. Able to do the action stuff. Able to do the drama. She’s an incredibly well-rounded character. But I also felt like there were things we could bring out in this movie that we didn’t see as much in the other two movies. She is the chaotic trickster. And to me Harley belongs on the wall next to Batman and Spider-Man and Wonder Woman, and Superman, and the Hulk. And when you’re talking about the all time greatest comic book characters she’s up there. And she deserves to be up there. And to give her her full chaotic life on screen was a big goal of mine. And usually when I’m writing most of the characters I’ve written, I’m sort of recreating them for the screen. It’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to characters who have been in few comic books, or characters like Star Lord who never had a really well defined personality in the comic books who kept changing from iteration to iteration. Where you can recreate him for the screen. I mean Bloodsport isn’t especially well drawn or well known. And so when I take him to the screen he became this sort of [William] Munny Unforgiven character. And with Harley, she is really well drawn in the comics. And so I just wanted to be true to that.”

Gunn was then asked if there were any characters he had to cut from the film that he didn’t want to.

“So many. I have a file folder full of all the characters I initially considered. And they’re everyone from Gunhawk to Man-Bat, to Bane to Deathstroke. In some ways Man-Bat is one of my favorite characters, and so I really wanted to do Man-Bat, but I think I chose Weasel instead, and King Shark instead. Man-Bat is the first one that comes to mind, but there are A LOT of characters who I love in the DC Universe. The DC Universe is such an incredibly rich trove of characters. It’s just wonderful. And to be able to choose was very difficult. Some of them were just random. Like why did I do Javelin? I still can’t remember why I chose Javelin. I think I just thought it was so stupid that it was Javelin. He seemed useless you know? And there were some that I picked because they were just useless. And it didn’t seem as helpful. But then taking a character like Polka Dot Man who has a reputation for being useless but ends up being probably the most powerful character in the movie… and taking a character like that who’s thought of as a joke and taking a look behind the curtain, seeing he’s so sad. He’s Polka Dot Man for a really sad and tragic reason, and giving depth to [him].”

The final question (from yours truly) was how he decided on Ratcatcher 2 being the heart of the movie, and how Daniela Melchior got involved.

“Well I love rats. I grew up with pet rats. And when I did Guardians a lot of people started having pet racoons, which is not something I’d suggest as a pet. It’s a terrible pet. I love them. I’ve been around them a lot. And I love playing with them and everything. But they’re terrible, terrible pets who tear your house apart. But rats actually are the best small animal pets in the world… rats are so smart, so affectionate. They almost never bite. So if i’m going to make people have a pet, let’s make it something that’s a really great pet. That’s not the whole reason. But I love the idea of rats. I love the idea of Ratcatcher. I really wanted to create within the team people who seemed like they were from completely different movies. As if this is coming after 10 years of a dumb Peacemaker TV show. And a scary Saw-like show with Ratcatcher. And the cooler, grimmer Bloodsport movie. And put them together, and see people who, in and of themselves, are of a different genre. And Ratcatcher came naturally from that. I liked that her name was Ratcatcher 2. It makes it even a sillier thing because we’ve never met Ratcatcher naturally. And in terms of finding Daniela, she was the one who we put the most work into finding. She was an unknown amongst the world. And I knew that I wanted someone who was a Latin actor. And we did a search all over the whole world with literally hundreds of auditions from everywhere. Some actors who were sort of well known, and some actors who were not known at all. People from Spain, and Mexico, and Argentina, from Brazil, and Portugal, where she’s from. And Daniela sent in her tape, and it was really mellow. But she was so natural, and so grounded. But in some ways I actually told the casting director I didn’t want someone who was so beautiful; I didn’t want someone who was on a CW show. Nothing against CW, but they have a lot of pretty people on those shows, who seem to be chosen for that. And I wanted to have somebody who was very real. And it was shocking because Daniela was gorgeous. And they didn’t pick her to go on. But then I saw the tape, one day when I was looking at 50 tapes, and there was something about her that was so natural and grounded, and she reminded me of the old French New Wave movie stars. She has that shine and natural ability about her. And she screen tested along with two other actors. And I just knew immediately. It was the same as with Chris Pratt when he auditioned for the first time. After screen testing 10 actors and auditioning hundreds, Chris came in and I knew he was Star-Lord within 40 seconds of him doing his reading. And Daniela did her screentest and I knew immediately she was the one. And that’s where she came from. From this enormous, enormous search for somebody who was special. And she’s also one of the most genuinely lovely human beings you’ll ever meet. And at the end of her screen testing, I said ‘Please make me one promise, which is that you will remain a good person. Because there is a lot of people in this industry who start out really good, and don’t stay that way. So please promise me that you’ll remain good.’ And she promised me that she would and then she thought that was me telling her she did not have the role. And of course I called her the next day and she had the role. But that was where we found her and I love her to death. She’s the greatest!”

And frankly, we can’t wait for the world to see her and this movie!

The Suicide Squad hits theaters and HBO Max on August 6!