If you send a feminist to the 'Suicide Squad' set, you're gonna get uncomfortable questions
Set visits are like a blind date. You know a little about them before you show up, but you’re never really sure what you’re going to get until it’s too late to back out.
Which is how I found myself in Toronto in June of 2015 asking director David Ayer just what he was thinking when designing costumes for the women of Suicide Squad. After all, the men are in armor and or at least fully-clothed (even Killer Croc!), but all of the women are baring skin. I asked Ayer what the deal was because it was a little disheartening.
“I just wanted to see Waller in a bikini. I mean really that drove everything for me. [Laughs.] For me it's, if you look at the aesthetic of comic books and you look at how the imagery of it and sort of what it means and what it does and you have these hyper-masculine men and you have these very feminine women. I don't think that it's a contradiction to say that a woman can be traditionally attractive and feminine and very strong and a very Type-A, very aggressive. I think that's something you build into the characters and I think it's also just, I think it's a trope for the genre.
[S]peaking about Harlequin specifically, is there's a sexuality, there's an attractiveness, but when you understand how that character thinks, she almost uses that as a weapon to disarm people. Kind of as a visual judo to get what she wants. That's a big part of how Margot is playing the role. I think it's, there's an intrinsic sort of awareness that that's part of her game.”
Having the director of Suicide Squad refer to scantily-cald women as ‘a trope of the genre’ was merely the end of a very long journey. One that started nearly twelve hours earlier in the War Room.
When you visit a movie or television set, there is always a room full of character designs, concept art, and other assorted detritus to help visualize what the end product will look like. This is called the War Room because humans are a dramatic species. The Suicide Squad war room was covered in bigger-than-life images of each major character. Remember, this was way back in June of 2015 when the only photos fans had seen were the group shot and the screaming Joker. So this was our first look at the level of detail that went into the costuming. Fun fact: Deadshot's gun has ‘I am the light, the way’ engraved on it.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
But having the Squad staring down at the conference table the journalists’ had all gathered around made the stark contrast between the men and the women noticeable. Most off-putting was Cara Delevingne in her Enchantress outfit. Up close, the details are a hodgepodge of cultures: An Egyptian ankh, a pentacle, a plethora of runes covering her sword and shield (which has yet to be seen in any of her character posters). When asked what culture archaeologist June Moon was exploring when Enchantress possessed her, our publicist wasn’t sure but believed Moon was in South America. David Ayer wasn’t much help later on:
“Enchantress? I will keep it vague. She leaves a large shadow across the scope of this film. Shots to the balls over the course of it. I always imagined her as, if you look at her origin, she emerges from this cavern, this cave. I imagine her as like this, almost like this paleolithic Goddess who was at one point sort of worshipped by primitive man.”
As part of the visit, we were supposed to head outside to watch Suicide Squad film a scene in their large city set. The Toronto weather had other plans, messing up both our day and the film’s shooting schedule. To keep us occupied while the plan was reconfigured, producers Charles Roven and Richard Suckle popped into the War Room for a quick interview. When the topic of the arm candy and Bechdel Test came up (because I brought it up), the producers assured us that while on a mission, there will be time to see many facets of each character. Mind you, this was long before the reshoots after the success of the trailers, so character moments are probably even more integral than they were at the time. Suckle added:
“David Ayer [isn’t] the kind of filmmaker who would ever write a character or characters that would just be seemingly arm candy. That’s not who he is. He really digs incredibly deep and gives a lot of different shades and ambiguity and all the great stuff that you’re gonna want to get out of a movie like this.”
With the new itinerary in place, our publicist ushered us out of the War Room and through the winding labyrinth that is a movie studio. At one point, we walked passed a giant green screen blowing in the wind as the weather kicked up. Even Hollywood has to accommodate Mother Nature. We ended up in a giant warehouse with a tiny plywood box in the center of it. One one end, sewer stones covering the entryway indicated it was the cell of Killer Croc. Walking around inside is slightly claustrophobic. And dangerous as half the room is water. Tiny details about Croc’s incarceration include a shelf full of cats made of silverware and an impressive collection of bone art. Croc is an artist.
Not much can be said of a set so small, so we got to peek at another one still in progress. The giant train station that has made an appearance in all the trailers. At the time, it was in a state of disarray with almost a months’ worth of construction left to do. They had wanted to film a set piece — which is integral to the third act climax — on location. Scouts had checked out an abandoned train station in Detroit, but it was somehow more expensive than just building one. My best guess is because of the amount of stunt shots needed over the four weeks of filming that will take place on this set. The publicist told us the ceiling would be a special effect so they could hide all the stunt wires. With the space big enough to house 500 extras, it was probably just too much for a real space to accommodate.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
A break in the weather means we all scurried over to the costume department. On the way, some poor employee is standing in a giant recycling dumpster, jumping up and down to cram more boxes into it. The glamor of Hollywood!
Inside the wardrobe department, we find costume designer Kate Hawley surrounded by rows and rows of fatigues, trauma outfits for nurses, and the barely-there sequined wisps of exotic dancer dresses. The latter is from the club scene with Joker and Harley Quinn. That diamond dress Harley wears for the scene is far more complicated than it looks. Hawley said it was so delicate it would dent when Margot sat in it.
“The chainmail dress of Harley's was entirely hand-enameled by the girls here. Every bit had to be hand-enameled, and it probably took two-and-a-half months for such a little dress.”
Hawley was also more than happy to talk about how many iterations Enchantress went through and where the costume department got their inspiration from. The wardrobe girls played around with a lot of metals and the ‘green crystals’ on the cave wall where June Moon is first possessed. Each gown is kept in a box and looks like a mess of hardware that clatters as Hawley shows off their handiwork. It takes some effort to lift it out, and I can’t even imagine trying to walk in such a heavy rig.
“[Enchantress] represents some of those Mayan cultures -- she's all of those goddesses, fierce and terrible, the All-Seeing Presence in that. I think the way David's played out the relationship between that[Enchantress] and June, her other self, is kind of a wonderful thing. But that came up quite early. I was going, ‘Where is the Enchantress from?’ Of course, David said, ‘I want to link her back to North America and all those cultures and things.’
I didn’t follow-up with why on Earth Enchantress is wearing an ankh then because obviously, cultural accuracy wasn’t a major concern for this character. But it was for Katana. The Suicide Squad was shortly after the debacle in Lucy where it was pointed out the words on the wall were just blown-up Chinese take-out menus. Hawley said they brought in two interpreters to triple-check their work:
“[Katana] is wearing ‘Soultaker’ on the back of her jacket. Every bit of calligraphy means something. ‘A Thousand Years,’ ‘Soultaker,’ ‘For Him I Weep,’ and then we've got the modern thing with, again, David's military entries on the belt. So it's always about the man that's in her sword, and all of her is about bleeding for him. We got it done by two interpreters in different places, because -- that was the first thing. We didn't want it saying, ‘Free Sushi’ or whatever. [Laughs]”
Hawley also confirmed that Katana was — at one point — in a full leather get-up instead of the midriff-baring costume she ended up in.
“[W]hen you read Katana, she's a widow and I thought sort of in her mid to late 30s. Then you get this young 20-year-old coming in, so it's tailoring it for her as well and making her role work. She's more like some of those kids in Tokyo -- we're seeing her from the Yakuza and that heritage that she has. So we kind of found a modern-day equivalent and tapped into that a bit.”
I could’ve stayed in the wardrobe department talking to Hawley all day, but unfortunately, we had to move on. The weather continued to hold, so our publicist brought out folding chairs so we could catch the actors on their way into make-up. We got time with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Margot Robbie before the rain rolled back in, sending us scattering for cover.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje talked about wanting to make his character of Croc more real, something we’d seen allusions to early in Croc’s cell. Instead of a monster, Akinnuoye-Agbaje wanted audiences to see the man beneath the disfigurement. To me, it sounded as if he was playing the character close to his iteration in GOTHAM ACADEMY.
“I discussed with David Ayers the director, we sat down and talked about it, how we wanted to reincarnate the first vision of Croc in the movie. We wanted to ground him, really make him real. You’ll see that with the color of skin-tones that were used, which were blended in with my own, so that it was almost as if it was a disfiguration, a man that inherited a disease that gave him croc like features and looks. We wanted to ground that. One of the reasons they went to a lot of detail in how to craft the mask was so that I could really do as many natural facial contortions as possible. Also, we decided not to use contacts so that you could really get to see the being, the soul, beneath the mask. We found that that really helps draw you into him as a being, as a creature.
He’s somewhat tortured and abused from his childhood. It dictates his reactions, from him wanting to go underground. He’s always been ostracized and ridiculed for how he looks. What he’s done is embrace that. Instead of saying ‘I’m ugly’, he’s says ‘I’m beautiful’. Instead of going underground as if he’s hiding, he says ‘this is my kingdom’. He’s kind of reversed some of his childhood abuse into allowing him to become what he is, which is really the next threat to take over Gotham. That’s really what his ultimate goal is. One of the reasons is probably because obviously power, respect but people liking him. And if you don’t, you’re going to have to if he’s got power. So all of those elements play into it.”
As for Margot Robbie, she took the blame for those stiletto heels.
“Yeah, when the process started we were looking at wearing Docs, you know, flat shoes. Then we did the camera tests, and I think was pretty unanimous, ‘You'll look a lot better looking if you've got a bit height.’ So, that's when the powers that be stepped in and voted on a pair of heels. Once I knew that it had to be a pair of heels, I wanted the most badass looking ones. When I saw the Adidas ones I was like, ‘They are siiiick!’ It all happened quite quickly. [Then] I walked around in them for a day and I was like, that was the worst idea. Ever.”
Despite suffering for her craft — Robbie said she’s quick to tell her co-workers no complaining since she’s doing everything they are but in stilettos — the actress was excited to bring a complex character like Harley Quinn to life. But playing a brass antihero wasn’t always easy. Like most women, Robbie has spent a lot of her life smoothing over conflict, not creating it.
“I found [some of it] really difficult because I find myself in real life, if there's ever tension, I try to diffuse it. That's just a natural reaction for me. Where for Harley it's the complete opposite. Our director's really encouraged me to hone in on that aspect of her, because it's something doesn't come to me naturally. But she feeds off that, so any opportunity in the rehearsal process where we did lots of improvising […] my natural reaction is to kinda like, leave it be or talk over it. But that's not what Harley would do. If Harley saw that they've shown a weak spot, she would get in there. And I felt so awful and so many times we did these scenes and I was just saying awful things.”
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
Jared Leto WAS the Joker. He wouldn’t come out of character. At the time, we had no idea the actor was playing creepy pranks on his co-stars and being a general menace. But interviewing the Joker would’ve been harrowing, so bless the publicists for keeping Leto away from us. Only David Ayer seemed able to penetrate the Joker to find Jared. The director explained.
“It's interesting because Jared is one of the first people I cast in this and so those conversations and the character development, how to build this character have a lot of history between us. I understand how he's build the character. I understand what he's doing. It a little bit of like I know the magic trick. I know how the rabbit is hidden in the hat before you pull it out. He's very professional and we've had a lot of discussions about his journey and his mindset in what are the pieces that become this character. As far as our on-set work it's fantastic.”
By the time the interviews wrap up and we watch Akinnuoye-Agbaje — now in full Croc make-up — grab a goat carcass over and over again during a ‘feeding time at prison’ scene, it is pitch black outside. Even though the rain hasn’t stopped, it’s more of a mist. On a lark, we convince the publicist to drive us out to the set we were originally supposed to see before we leave. She gets permission, and we’re off.
The set is huge. A solid city block has been built, a broken and cracked overpass delineating the end of the set. With no crew members around and all the bright lights turned off, it’s more than a little creepy walking down a rainy abandoned city. We come around the corner to find a military Jeep half melted, green iridescent goop freezing its remains in horizontal icicles as if in mid-explosion. Enchantress has been here. Bullet casings litter the streets. In the shadow of the buildings, a body lies prostrate in the misty rain. A couple of us may or may not have screamed, but it’s only mannequins in military fatigues. Victims. Despite having permission to look around, it feels like we’re doing something mischievous as we peer in empty store windows and read the street signs stapled to fake lamp posts. Whatever is going on on this street, bullets do nothing against Enchantress’ magic if the sheer number of spent casings is any indication.
No wonder Amanda Waller ends up calling in the Suicide Squad.
[UPDATE] - An earlier draft of this article has mistakenly said 'tight dames' instead of 'Type-A.' A product of faulty text-to-talk software and human error.