Superbad: Empire goes on the set of Suicide Squad

Image for Superbad: Empire goes on the set of Suicide Squad

Some movie sets have a tea trolley. Suicide Squad has a gun trolley. Pushed around Toronto’s Pinewood Studios by a former SWAT officer named Mike, it groans under the weight of enough ordnance to recreate the final reel of Commando. This includes an M320 grenade launcher, equipped with day/night sight for nocturnal use. A Chiappa Rhino revolver, customised with alternating “LOVE”/“HATE” motif on the chamber. And the colossal single-use M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon which Empire has just been handed by David Ayer.

“Never aim at anything you don’t intend to destroy,” chides the Navy submariner-turned-Hollywood director, as we wobbily point the state-of-the-art cannon towards a gaggle of grips. He surveys the mobile armoury. “Do we have enough guns on this show? That one you got’s really comfortable. But this is fucking sick.”

DeadshotWriter/director David Ayer has a word with Will Smith, Suicide Squad's walking gun Deadshot.

The “this” in question is actually a person. In fact, it’s Will Smith. Dressed as super-assassin Deadshot, he’s strolled over to see why an idiot is waving a bazooka around. Among the multiple firearms strapped to his body armour are a pair of wrist-mounted, gripless Glocks. Capable of spewing real bullets, they’re triggered by Smith’s thumbs via an innovative system involving air tubes and a pneumatic actuator. He’s basically part-man, part-gun.

“Hey, we’re going to a bad place where bad things are happening,” Smith grins between sips of a bucket-sized banana smoothie. “We gotta stay ready.”

Steered by Ayer, the man behind the R-rated likes of Fury and End Of Watch, Suicide Squad promises a tougher, fresher take on superpowers. But its roots go back several decades. In 1959, comic book The Brave And The Bold #25, written by Robert Kanigher, first used the phrase “Suicide Squad” to describe a team of adventurers who battle dinosaurs and giants. In 1987, John Ostrander refined the concept: what if a group of supervillains were captured and forced by the government (in that first run, Ronald Reagan himself ) to undertake insanely dangerous black-ops missions?

Since then, DC Comics has run many variations on the theme. Deadshot and the Joker’s shrink-turned-mistreated-girlfriend Harley Quinn have been mainstays of the unit officially known as Task Force X, while such oddities as King Shark (an actual shark), KGBeast (big, Russian) and Count Vertigo (makes people feel dizzy) have rotated in and out. But the notion of a movie didn’t gain serious traction until May 2014.

“We were in Michigan, where we’d just started shooting Batman V Superman,” explains producer Charles Roven. “We were figuring out our path through the expanding DC Justice League universe. Then David Ayer came in and pitched his take on Suicide Squad. It had this darkness and edge, while still tonally in the zone of what we’re trying to do with these movies. And it’s impossible that you could get a big tentpole picture from pitch to start of principle photography any faster than we did.”

Harley QuinnAdewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Killer Croc and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn on the loose.

While simultaneously editing World War II tank epic Fury, Ayer wrote the script at a furious clip. His first challenge: picking which Squaddies to enrol. “Between the old series and (2011 reboot) New 52, there are probably 100 characters,” he says. “I don’t know why, but the first I connected with was Harley. When you follow her story, it’s about her breaking free of the Joker and becoming this fully actualised, independent person. That really is a metaphor for everyone’s journey here.”

His second challenge: reinventing the Joker. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger played the clown as a wild-card loner. Roven, who also produced that film, describes Jared Leto’s new incarnation as “more social... A very successful and smart businessman, besides being a sociopath.” The character remains shrouded in mystery — Empire is politely barred from the set for a scene involving Leto and a huge rotating gimbal — but we do know the following: we’ll see him in Arkham Asylum; his trippy, fancy-dress-clad henchmen include a panda, a weeping baby and a giant eyeball; gonzo director Alejandro Jodorowsky was a design influence; and his costumes/bling were inspired by Mexican cartel bosses. “The Joker is the third rail of comic-book movies,” muses Ayer. “There’s a power to that character, and by some freaking miracle, through the incredible things Jared has done and the photography and all the other millions of things that went into it, we’ve cooked up something transcendent. He’s scary.”

Joker'It was like giving birth through my prick hole' – Jared Leto is reinventing the Clown Prince of Crime. Painfully.

If Ayer has rebooted the Ace Of Knaves, he promises the rest of the film will feel just as fresh. “You know, all these movies are about defeating the evil alien robot from fucking Planet X, before it destroys the world with its ticking clock. And who the fuck cares? But you do a story about struggle and isolation and people who have been shit on, that suddenly get thrown this lifeline... that’s not so bad. I like to think of this as Comic-Book Movie 2.0.”

Now tooled up with kit from the trolley, the entire Suicide Squad have assembled, like an anti-Avengers, for a scene aboard a Chinook helicopter. Strapped into their seats and behaving, for the time being, are the dirty half-dozen: Deadshot (Smith), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Slipknot (Adam Beach), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Count Vertigo, sadly, didn’t get the call.

Eyeing them suspiciously are a small cadre of Navy SEALs, led by straight-arrow commander Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). And as the wind and smoke machines are cranked up, one final figure strides up the ramp. It’s a last-minute addition to the team: the mask-wearing, sword-packing Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Unlike the others, who are being coerced via nanobombs injected into their necks, she’s a volunteer.

“She’s got my back,” Flag informs the Squad. “I’d advise not getting killed by her — her sword traps the souls of its victims.”

Harley extends her hand, perky and smirky. “Harley Quinn, nice to meetcha. Love your perfume. What is that: Stench Of Death?”

Harley QuinnHarley amuses herself in her cage.

The joy of Suicide Squad will lie in the interaction between these disparate reprobates, some of whom are metahumans with amazing abilities, some of whom are just good in a scrap. If a hit with viewers, each could potentially get a solo movie, or take on Batman in one of his forthcoming films (as spoiled by on-set iPhone snaps, the Caped Crusader will make a Caped Cameo). This movie, more even than Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, will open up the DC universe like never before.

“It’s a monumental task just to track each character’s story,” says Ayer. “But the good news is that these guys all leap off the screen.”

Already the source of much obsession from her animated-series, comic-book and video-game appearances — Kevin Smith even named his daughter after her — Harley Quinn is destined to hit big. “She’s the fan fave,” says producer Richard Suckle. “Funny, crazy, scary... You can’t come up with enough adjectives to describe all the different things you see her do. And Margot is just incredible.”

But several others look capable of stealing the show. Not least the taciturn Killer Croc, a brute with the complexion, temperament and diet of a crocodile.

Killer CrocNever smile at a crocodile. Or near one.

Empire watches as Akinnuoye-Agbaje performs one of the character’s big gags (literally), spewing chunks of half-digested goat-meat (actually Fruit Roll-Ups, prunes and juice) onto the floor of the Chinook. He then scoops some of the vomit back into his mouth, causing the hardened Navy SEALs to blanch. For real: Ayer hadn’t given them a heads-up on the puke. “Aw, man, that is nasty!” laughs Will Smith, watching playback. “That one’s for the eight-year-olds...”

Every squad needs goals. But if Ayer is happy to accept the men-on-a-mission-movie comparisons — “It’s The Dirty Dozen, but with comic supervillains” — he’s more circumspect when it comes to the mission itself. What he will share is this intel: “They’re after a high-value target that they have to go in and rescue. When they make the attempt, they realise that’s not the end.”

When asked who or what his expendables are facing, the director quips, “Donald Trump. His hair has magical powers.” Rest assured that there will be a surprising threat, something even more formidable than a Republican comb-over. But of more immediate concern to the Squad is their boss. “Fuck good versus bad,” says Ayer. “Bad versus evil is a lot more interesting. And Amanda Waller is the worst there is.”

Suicide SquadDirector Ayer gives Viola Davis' Amanda Waller a briefing room, well, briefing.

How scary can Amanda be? Plenty scary. Waller is the wetwork specialist who runs Task Force X, and two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis plays the role to the hilt: an iron fist in a titanium glove. “She’s relentless in her villainy,” says the actress. “When you look at her, there’s nothing that seems dangerous. Her only power is her intelligence and her complete lack of guilt. I read a great book called Confessions Of A Sociopath, which was frightening but very helpful. Read it with a glass of wine or two!”

And in case you were wondering, yes, Davis also got to visit Mike and his gun trolley. “I can now shoot, unload, reload and shoot again, all in six seconds,” she beams. “High-powered weapons are very exhilarating.”

Suicide Squad is out on August 5. Read our exhaustive Suicide Squad guide here.

This feature was originally published in Empire Magazine issue #318