The Suicide Squad: Everything we learnt from the set of 2021's most exciting superhero movie

The Suicide Squad
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

James Gunn says the sets for The Suicide Squad are the biggest Warner Bros has ever built – and right now, we’ve got no reason to doubt him. It’s November 2019, and we’re standing on a derelict roof in a South American town, corrugated metal, piles of bricks and TV aerials everywhere. In fact, the only giveaway that we’re actually in Pinewood Studios in Atlanta is the giant blue screen covering the walls of this vast soundstage, filling in for a cityscape that’ll be added in later via the magic of CG. As if to emphasise the scale of the movie further, the production even shipped in tons of sand to create an indoor beach.

In short, the Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director is doing his best to keep things grounded now that he’s sending DC’s worst-of-the-worst on a mission behind enemy lines – the sort of caper where everyone’s expendable.

“I love seeing things on set as they happen,” Gunn tells Total Film and GamesRadar+ during a brief pause in shooting. “And I love being able to give something for the actors and the camera folks to deal with practically. By having so many enormous practical sets in this movie, I think it just makes for a richer experience, a more creative one. The Suicide Squad has more practical effects than all of my [previous] movies combined.”

“I always prefer to do everything as practically as possible,” agrees Margot Robbie, who – after the original Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey – is making a third outing as Harley Quinn.

“I’ve done movies before where I didn’t know how big something was going to be because it was done in CGI, and then you see it on screen, and I’m like, ‘Okay, if I knew was going to look like that my reaction would have been very, very different.’ [When it’s done practically] you get an adrenaline rush that you just can’t really replicate, no matter how hard you’re pushing your imagination. One of our first scenes shooting was on a beach, actually coming out of the water running through the sand. I had explosions going on all around me like I was in a warzone, and you really can’t replicate your reactions quite the same way as when something blows up in your face!”

Welcome to Corto Maltese

The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

This unlikely piece of South American soil in the United States is Corto Maltese, a (fictional) island nation off the coast of Argentina. We’re here because government agent Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) has dispatched the inmates of Belle Reve prison on another top-secret mission for Task Force X.

“There’s recently been a military coup,” explains producer Peter Safran, “and on Corto Maltese there’s a prison/medical experiment building called Jotunheim. Amanda Waller is sending the Suicide Squad into Corto Maltese to destroy Jotunheim before the leaders of the military coup discover the secrets that are inside there. That’s the mission.”

At this point in the operation, a small section of the Suicide Squad have set up shop on our Corto Maltese rooftop. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is familiar, of course (though her red dress is a new look), while Joel Kinnaman is back from David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad to lead the group as US military officer Rick Flag. Beyond those two, however, the line-up is decidedly unfamiliar – a reminder that Warner and DC gave Gunn carte blanche to reshape the Squad as he saw fit.

Today’s roll call features aggressively pacifistic Peacemaker (John Cena); top assassin Bloodsport (Idris Elba); friend-of-rodents Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior); the ‘yes, he really is a comic-book character’ Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian); and some random guy collecting rubbish in a bucket (we’re not sure if that counts a superpower…).

The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Actor Steve Agee is also present as the on-set stand-in for aquatic Squad guy King Shark, while former Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi has been given a radical makeover to play Thinker – with his over-sized bald head peppered with electrical components, he looks like a big-budget version of long-standing Time Lord nemesis Davros.

It’s a bunch of people – and fish – that should never be in the same room together, let alone recruited for a high-priority military assignment. That, however, should be a big part of the fun when The Suicide Squad hits the big screen in August.

“Something I noticed about Harley from the start is she’s always going to have more fun when she’s in a group dynamic,” says Robbie. “I’ve always said putting Harley on her own would be like putting a kid on a playground on their own. It’s never going to be as fun as when it’s populated with other kids to play with. [When she’s] in a group you’re always going to see the most come out of her personality because she’s got people to play with and pick apart or fall in love with or backstab or whatever. She’s always decided how she feels about the people around her and then acts accordingly, which is always unpredictable.”

In today’s scene (teased in the first full The Suicide Squad trailer), Harley’s formed an unlikely interrogation team with Flag and Bloodsport – good cop, bad cop, worse cop? – to get information out of Thinker. The general gist? If he fails to help them, he dies. If he gets personalised number plates, he dies. If he coughs without covering his mouth? Uses an apostrophe incorrectly? Yeah, you got it…

Although on paper it looks like a simple scene, line variations – there are several R-rated interjections from Peacemaker – and the fact the actors are having to fit their words around on-screen snacking, mean we get more than two dozen interpretations of the sequence.

“This is unusual,” says Gunn. “We just did 27 takes or something, and I think that’s the most we’ve done of anything on this whole movie!”

Bring out the unusual suspects

The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Leaving the rooftop behind, we’re escorted to a room that feels like the nerve centre of The Suicide Squad operation (codenamed El Dorado). It’s a chance to learn more about Corto Maltese, with the walls adorned with pictures of the country’s well-dressed president (he has a thing for lorikeets, apparently), its flag (for the benefit of trivia fiends, it features red, yellow and blue stripes, a sun and a star as part of the design), and architecture.

As production designer Beth Mickle explains, “James wanted it to be that everything outside of Corto Maltese was sort of grey and drab and monotone, and then as soon as we get to Corto Maltese he wanted it to explode with colour, the way that Panama does and Havana does. He just wanted everything that takes place in that in that part of the movie to be really vivid and really vibrant. We took a lot of the colour palette right from Colón in Panama, from the streets, with vivid aqua blues and bright pinks and crazy purples.”

In this de facto intelligence centre, we also get to check out designs for weapons – swords, arrow-shooting gauntlets, Ratcatcher 2’s wand, Captain Boomerang’s, er, boomerang.

Meanwhile, in place of the mugshots you’d usually associate with a group of felons, life-size character standees are dotted around the room. It’s like our we’re staring at our very own remake of The Usual Suspects that just so happens to have a walking great white shark in the line-up – Keyzer Söze, eat your heart out.

Polka Dot Man in The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

“I love the original John Ostrander run on Suicide Squad where the very simple concept is a bunch of B-grade, C-grade, Z-grade supervillains, who are bunched up because they’re considered expendable,” says Gunn. “I think that’s at the centre of what this movie it is. It is a military caper film, which is a genre that was very popular in the ’60s with movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and Kelly’s Heroes, and that has largely disappeared from screens today. To be able to create that type of story with folks wearing goofy costumes has been a blast.”

They don’t get goofier than Polka-Dot Man (aka Abner Krill), a long-standing DC bad guy who made his comic-book debut in the ’60s, and has the ability to throw energy-filled polka dots at his enemies. The multi-million-dollar question is, how does one of the weirdest supervillains in history find his way into a mega-budget Hollywood movie?

“Polka-Dot Man is great, but I did think I needed a character who’s thought of as one of the dumbest ever,” Gunn admits.“So I went and looked online, ‘Who’s the dumbest DC character of all time?’ and it was Polka-Dot Man. We’ve turned that character who’s a sad, pathetic character into a character who’s depressed because people think he’s stupid. He has a very tragic story that you learn about throughout the film – to be able to add depth to characters who are thought of as the silliest is a fun thing for me to do.”

“I can tell you that my character Abner is someone who has lived a lifetime with a lot of pain, a lot of shame, a lot of solitude because of a condition that he has,” explains David Dastmalchian, the Ant-Man star playing Polka-Dot Man on screen. “That condition was something that he decided at a certain point in time would be best suited to hurt other people or at least perform acts of crime, so that he could get some vengeance against a cruel and unfair world. Things haven’t gone great in Abner’s life basically since day one, so as we find him entering this story, he’s somebody that has never been a part of anything, so even in a bunch of really broken misfits and criminals, he’s maybe found one of the first moments in his life where he’s a part of something.”

Back to the cinema!

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And there’s a little more to Polka-Dot Man than simply lobbing spots across a room. On set, we’re treated to some test footage, which shows Abner’s head glowing and swelling to disturbing proportions. It’s a slice of body horror that echoes Gunn’s directorial debut, Slither, and suggests suggests Polka-Dot Man will never be treated as a figure of fun again.

“It’s all I ever dreamed of getting to do as an actor!” says Dastmalchian.“Since I was a little boy watching Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, dreaming about getting to do a fully realised actual performance incorporating an intense practical make-up… Of course, there's going to be amazing digital effects – and we have the best digital effects team in the business on this on this film – but James wants so much gritty, tangible practicality in what the audience is going to experience. I’m just excited for people to experience that.”

The Suicide Squad reaches UK cinemas on July 30 and comes to US theaters and HBO Max on August 6. For more, check out our other set of interviews with James Gunn and the cast.

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.