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James Gunn knows how to keep a good thing going. After breaking out with Super, the writer-director-fanboy auteur was brought up from the indies for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, GOTG Vol. 2. During a brief estrangement from the MCU in 2018, Gunn crossed the aisle to DC to helm a different superhero team-up flick,The Suicide Squad.
Or supervillain team-up, as it were. Gunn's The Suicide Squad brings back some familiar faces from its predecessor (though his movie is neither a sequel nor a reboot, technically, of 2016's Suicide Squad) along with plenty of deep cut characters (like Polka-Dot Man, The Detachable Kid and Weasel) for a blood-soaked, hilarious, totally bonkers mission to stop... a giant, mind-controlling intergalactic starfish. Come for Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, stay for a friendly little rat named Sebastian.
With The Suicide Squad now hitting theaters, Gunn already has the first season of an HBO Max series in the can focused on John Cena's breakout villain, Peacemaker, and will now return to Marvel to direct not only Guardians Vol. 3 but a Guardians of the Galaxy holiday special. In conversation with ET's Ash Crossan, Gunn discussed it all.
ET: I want take it from the top of how you went about assembling your Suicide Squad, because there are so many characters to choose from. How did you pare them down?
James Gunn: I just had to really follow my instinct. But I did start with a giant file of all of these potential supervillians that I found from different places -- from the DC Wiki or comic book characters I actually knew -- and then I [printed] pictures of these characters from the comics and I put them all over my walls and started figuring out who fit together. Unlike a lot of groups where you want everybody to look like they belong together, this was almost about making a group of disparate individuals who look like they didn't belong together. Peacemaker looks like he's from some crappy 1970s TV show and Ratcatcher looks like she's out of a Saw movie and Bloodsport is out of some grim, dark thing and Polka-Dot Man's out of an Alan Moore tale. So, they're all from these different places and wanted to put them together and have this very disparate team of individuals that all look like they had had their own history behind them.
Were you given any parameters of people you had to use? Or was there anyone you wanted to that you weren't able to for whatever reason?
Nope. No parameters at all. At the beginning, when I first talked to Walt [Hamada] about doing the movie, I said, "What's the deal? What do I have to keep from the first movie?" And he said, "Nothing." And I said, "Do I have to keep that team?" And he said, "Nope. You can use none of them or all of them." He's like, "Listen, we love Margot and Harley. She's great. She'd be great if she were in the movie, but you don't have to use her. You don't have to use anybody. It can be a whole new team. It can be the same exact team. It can be whatever you want." And this is where I ended up, obviously.
They're coming to you saying, "Hey, we want to do a Suicide Squad movie," and you're like, "Like a sequel? Reboot? What?" So, what kind of conversations did you have there? And did you have any chances to talk to David Ayer or anybody about those characters?
David and I didn't talk until after it was known that I was doing the movie and since then, David and I have talked a lot about different things. But when they first came to me, it was really about what DC project I wanted to do. The first thing they brought up was Superman and the second thing they brought up was Suicide Squad. And then I had another project that they never brought up, never thought of, a couple of other ones that we talked about a little bit -- I brought up Krypto [the Superdog] at one point -- and I took some time and started sketching out what the different stories could be with these different characters. And it was obvious from the very beginning that Suicide Squad just captured my imagination the most. It was the most fun. And people are like, "Well, why didn't you do Superman or Justice League or whatever?!" And I just really found this to be the most creatively fulfilling story. I know someone's going to do a Superman movie again. I don't know that Polka-Dot Man is ever going to get his story told if I don't tell it. So, I need to tell his story. I need to tell Ratcatcher's story. I've sort of made my career off characters that people don't think are going to have their stories told but have something magical to me about them.
How did you approach the idea of using those characters from the first movie? Because you have to break them down and reassemble them as new. What kind of conversations did you have to have with Joel and Margot and Jai about, "This is the same guy but not the same guy"?
And Viola! Always remember Viola!
And of course Viola! She's a little meaner this time around, I think!
She is! Really, Viola is the antagonist. She's pretty hardcore. But if you talk to Viola [about] how she looked at Amanda Waller, it is very much what she is like in this movie. She is pretty hardcore. And Harley's pretty nuts. Margot and I talked a lot about Harley and how I saw her and she saw her. I actually saw Harley as a little bit sweeter in some ways, I think, than she saw her. Like, a little bit more tenderness to her that hasn't quite been seen.
Joel's [character] changes the most. Rick Flag is definitely different in this movie, and that was a choice on the part of me and on the part of Joel to give him a bit more humor, give him a bit more of a center. I think at the beginning of this movie, there are two characters that have some compassion and emotion. It's him and Ratcatcher. So, I think that he really becomes a part of the heart of this film. But he is also incredibly idealistic. He believes in what he's doing. He is America's hero. And being able to, as he goes through the movies, have some of his ideals confronted in certain ways and having to deal with that, I think that he really changed the most. I think Joel even used a little bit more of the accent in this movie than he did in the first movie.
I feel like what you do so well is you have all of these individual people and Bloodsport seems like the main protagonist -- antagonist, whatever you want to call him -- but you give everyone time for us to become invested in them. Now, you're doing the Peacemaker show. What was it about Peacemaker that made you think, There's a story here and I want to do it episodically with him?
It's a number of things. In the movie, Harley gets a really complete story about herself. She gets a complete arc. Bloodsport gets a complete story. Rick Flag gets a complete story. Ratcatcher II gets a complete story. Like, they all learned something about themselves -- sometimes good things, sometimes bad things -- but Peacemaker is a douche and he stays a douche and he is an a**hole in the movie. But I think there's something below that. We see a lot in the flashbacks of where Ratcatcher came from and where Bloodsport came from. We don't get that with Peacemaker.
John and I talked a lot about that character. You think that Polka-Dot Man is the outsider, but Polka-Dot Man starts to feel a part of the group. Peacemaker has a harder time with that. He's actually the most disconnected of all of those characters. We only scratch the surface of John's ability to act dramatically in this movie -- it's mostly comedy and silly stuff -- and I saw that ability in him and I wanted to explore that further, and the comedic stuff, and to give him a full forum. Also, I think Peacemaker has a lot to do with where we are politically in this country right now, and that's part of what this show is about. We have Danielle Brooks, who in this show is very, very different from Peacemaker and a lot of the show is about their friendship or lack of a friendship. So, there's a lot of things that made Peacemaker work as a TV show.
Is there a plan in place to do multiple seasons of this show?
You know, there's not a big plan in place, but it's something that I would love to do and I know that the cast would love to do. We haven't been picked up yet, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens from HBO Max.
Of course, you are the fabulous writer-director of Guardians of the Galaxy. We love those movies. What would you say is the biggest difference between approaching a Marvel project versus a DC project?
I don't think there's much difference. I think it's really Guardians versus Suicide Squad are very different. But I didn't go into Guardians making a Marvel movie, first and foremost. I went into Guardians making a James Gunn movie first and foremost. And I went into The Suicide Squad not making a DC movie but making a James Gunn movie first and foremost. They are first and foremost my movies, and they're the same in that way. However, Guardians of the Galaxy has a family film element to it, so I'm telling that story to a lot of different people. When Rocket says to Drax in the first movie, "I'm going to shoot you in the face and kill you," we as an audience don't think in two seconds, he's going to pull out his gun and we're going see Drax's face disappear. In this movie, The Suicide Squad, they say they're going to shoot each other in the face and they actually do it. Even more so than them doing it or not doing it, we know that can happen at any time. There is a much bigger sense of danger for all of our characters in The Suicide Squad, because we know all of them could die. Whereas in Guardians, yes, obviously I killed Yondu. I killed the original Groot. And that type of thing happens but it isn't the same thing. We know most of them are going to make it out alive -- at least for two movies. [Laughs] It's different in that respect.
Uh, what's happening in Guardians 3?!
You'll have to wait and see!
Could you even ballpark how many people die in The Suicide Squad?
Overall people? I don't know, but I think just in the Harley scene, she kills, like, 42 people that we see. That's in the one scene. [Laughs] So, there's a lot.
Question: Those little cute murder sea creatures, what do we call them? I love them.
Oh, the Clyrax! King Shark's friends. Those are some sort of alien life that obviously they picked up somewhere that they've been keeping alive in their aquarium. Another fact about them is that they were designed by my assistant at the time, Megan Stapleton. I saw her design and thought they were cool and was like, "Can I put those in the movie?"
So, Guardians 3 is coming up, everybody might die, who knows. Do you see that as your final swan song Guardians film and maybe last Marvel project?
Yeah. Last Marvel project, who knows, but I see it as my last Guardians movie. I'm a guy who never says never because I've seen too many people say never and be pulled back into the fray, so I won't say that. But I see it as being my last Guardians movie. I know Dave [Bautista] sees it as being his last Guardians movie. And Dave and I are pretty much attached at the hip on those projects, so I don't see me going on and doing any more after that.
Well, they're exploring the heck out of those TV shows. I feel like they're going to float one to you at some point.
Yeah, it's just I'm doing Peacemaker and I direct five of the eight episodes and next season I hope to direct all of the episodes. And as you'll see, Peacemaker is a very, very different show from anything that's ever been done in the superhero realm. It is about a guy, first and foremost, and very, very much secondarily a superhero. But it's still a big science fiction movie with more action scenes than any superhero show ever. So, totally just its own thing.
Do you think we could get another Suicide Squad movie?
Yeah. I think it's possible. You know, Suicide Squad or even taking somebody from The Suicide Squad and doing something with them individually or a couple of them or whatever. I have all sorts of ideas, and we talk about it all the time. I don't feel like I'm done with this villain-verse yet.
The Suicide Squad is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Aug. 6.