It’s been long promised that James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is going to be a “gritty war movie,” and that intent was evident to the press during a visit to the set back in November 2019. Producer Peter Safran and production designer Beth Mickle both cited specific modern war movie classics as their template for The Suicide Squad.
“The opener of our movie, it’s basically Saving Private Ryan,” Safran says during a break in filming. “It’s our team landing on a beach in a big battle and there’s got to be water. There’s got to be sand, a pond. It’s supposed to take place on Corto Maltese. So we built a beach on the backlot here that’s 260 feet across, giant tank, wave machines, thousands of trees. This is what Beth and her team built. And we shot there for the first 10 days of shooting where it was Saving Private Ryan at night, on this beach, explosions and helicopters and the whole thing.”
Some of this sequence was revealed in a behind-the-scenes teaser at last year’s DC FanDome, which showed the cast storming a tropical beach at night as explosions rage around them. Mickle’s team built a giant water tank to serve as the ocean from which the team emerges. It was all part of Gunn’s mandate to make the film, which is undoubtedly outlandish, still, feel as realistic as possible. That meant doing as much of the effects in-camera as possible as well as building massive sets on the Atlanta backlot rather than creating fully CG environments via green screen.
“It’s a very naturalistic film and,” Mickle explains, “it’s a war film, but it feels like Platoon and Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down where you’re literally in the boat with them arriving on the beach from, Saving Private Ryan, with bullets whizzing past you and running through the sand with bullets hitting the sand and jungle leaves hitting your face as they race through. And that’s where the limitations of CGI worlds really do come into play because you just don’t get that same sort of interaction with sand flying back and hitting people, and them coming up from the water. And I really think you can tell when it’s not physically there. So in James’ mandate to try to make this as a naturalistic, gritty, dirty, rough movie that we’re all in the midst of a battle with them, the only way we could really do that with all these sets is to have them standing physically.”
Safran echoes her enthusiasm for the practical sets and effects used in The Suicide Squad: “You could have done it in a pure blue screen environment, frankly, but it just feels so real for the actors to be running through the sand, hide behind big boulders, swimming in from the tank onto the beach, all that stuff. You feel it when you see it. It looks absolutely extraordinary. So it’s been a really big build and Beth and her team have done an extraordinary job creating these looks that James had in his mind.”
The emphasis on the handcrafted is one way in which writer-director Gunn is trying to differentiate The Suicide Squad from his other famous comic book movie franchise. “It’s a much, much, much rougher film than Guardians of the Galaxy. Everything is almost completely practical,” Gunn says during a brief chat in-between scenes. “The biggest sets I’ve run [on] almost any film, ever more visual. I was able to take all of the heads of departments that I’ve used on other films and just do a best of, and Dan Sudek, who’s doing our special effects, what I was saying this morning, he’s doing more special effects, more live special effects in this film than all of the Marvel movies he’s ever done combined, which is every single Marvel movie that was shot in Atlanta. And so it’s just a much more grounded, darker film. Gorier.”
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While filming of the Saving Private Ryan-esque opening sequence was long completed by the time IGN and other media outlets visited the set in late 2019, we did witness part of the filming of the main third act battle: the storming of Jotunheim, a towering fortress on the island nation of Corto Maltese where Task Force X has been sent to make sure the new rebel government doesn’t get control of something dangerous that’s held inside it. While we were not told at the time of the visit what was inside Jotunheim, the movie’s trailers have since revealed it’s Starro, the giant, starfish-like kaiju from outer space which possesses awesome telepathic powers and is hellbent on conquest.
But monster movies were not the topic of discussion on that set visit. It was all about war movies. While producer Safran and production designer Mickle cited modern fare from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott as influences on The Suicide Squad, James Gunn sees the film as more of a throwback to old school “buncha guys on a mission” movies.
“I’m a huge fan of the original John Ostrander run of Suicide Squad, which he created the whole Dirty Dozen as city super-villains team,” Gunn explains. “To me, that’s one of the greatest superhero runs of any comic series. And to keep that sense of it being a caper film, a war caper film, a lot of the film is within the genre of the war caper film, which is not really something that’s existed for a long time. But in the ‘60s, late ‘60s with films like Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare, that was a real vibrant genre and one of the big genres in the world, and you kind of take that engine and then add the fun of Suicide Squad to it.”
The Suicide Squad debuts in theaters and on HBO Max on August 6. For more on The Suicide Squad, discover how James Gunn tricked the press about the identity of Idris Elba’s character, and learn what you need to know about Peacemaker, Polka-Dot Man, Blackguard, and the rest of the team.