Suicide Squad: Script Soup
By Jacob Krueger
Suicide Squad: Script Soup
What’s interesting about Suicide Squad is that this is a very bad script by a very good writer (David Ayer also wrote Training Day). So instead of looking at the script like most critics have done and simply bashing it, I want to look at it as I would if I was working with a student.
It’s really interesting to see that even some of the greatest writers go through exactly the same problems, and can bump up against exactly the same causes of problems, that many new and emerging and student writers deal with.
The biggest problem with Suicide Squad is not Jared Leto’s method acting antics. It’s not the egos of all the many stars that were involved. It’s not even the many places where the logic of the script just doesn’t make sense.
The real problem with Suicide Squad is the problem of too many good ideas.
This is actually one of the most common things that we see in screenplays: too many good ideas. And when you get attached to having too many good ideas what ends up happening is that all the ideas end up suffering.
In Improv, there’s a concept called “Yes, and…” which is a way of building scenes in a way that speak to each other.
On the simplest level, “Yes, and…” means looking at what has come before, agreeing, accepting it, allowing it to land in you and then adding something to it that drives it deeper.
In a screenplay, “Yes, and…” can happen at many different levels, inside of a scene, inside of the overall structure, or inside a relationship between two characters.
So, a character says something or does something in your screenplay, and you can almost think of it like a tennis match: you want to allow that ball to cross the net, and you want to feel the shiver of it as it hits the racket of the other character. You want to feel how that shiver changes the return.
And then you want to step into the other character, and allow the way that the ball was returned to shiver through that character and affect their return. That’s what “Yes, and…” looks like inside a scene: “Yes, I accept what just occurred, and I’m now going to react to it, take it deeper, stronger, bigger, faster, cooler.”
“Yes, and…” can also happen structurally for us as writers, when we allow the scene that we’ve just written, or the idea that we’ve just come up with, to fully land. When we accept it, and then allow it to influence whatever comes next. We want it to drive us deeper into one thing, allowing us to build upon and outdo what’s come before. This is an organic, natural, simple way to think about structure.
Unfortunately what happens in Suicide Squad is the same thing that often happens with young improvers: Rather than “Yes, and…” we simply end up “And-ing.”
And oftentimes that “And-ing” comes from a place of insecurity in us. We’re afraid that maybe our idea isn’t good enough. Maybe we don’t have enough to take the story where it needs to go. Maybe we don’t have enough of a story here, or enough of a character here. Maybe we’re afraid we don’t have enough for our character to do. It’s not going to sustain us. It’s not going to be exciting enough for the audience.
So, we get to that place of anxiety. Instead of “Yes, and…” we start just “And-ing.” Just saying, “Well, maybe it’s also this, maybe also this, maybe it’s also this, maybe it’s also this, maybe it’s also this…”
We get attached to all those “And” ideas, even if they don’t have very much in common with the idea that came before.
And when that ends up happening, instead of getting structure, we get script soup.
Instead of getting characters going on profound journeys, we get mush. Instead of getting a unified experience that feels like one really beautiful thing, we get an unclear, messy experience that feels like a lot of good things. Instead of getting to go very deep in one place, we stay on the surface of a lot of places.
Now, before we go on, let’s acknowledge this: writing one of these multiple main character movies is hard! And the reason it’s hard is that every character (and, for that matter every idea that you have in your script), is going to take pages. And we only have a certain number of pages to tell the story.
If you’re a young writer, you’ve got 105 pages to tell your story. Maybe, if you’re David Ayers, you get 120 pages to tell your story. That’s not a lot of pages. So, when you have multiple main characters what happens is that your structure has to become infinitely more complicated, in order to fit all those journeys into the same number of pages.
If you only have one main character we go on a very simple journey. We can look only at that one character. What do they need? What is their problem? What’s the theme of their story? What do they want?
We can take them on a simple journey in relation to what they want. And as long as we stick with them in every scene, we’ve got about 105 pages to take them on a very profound journey of change in relation to the theme of the movie, in relation to what they want, in relation to who they are, in relation to their problem.
If you add one more main character, what you actually end up with is half the number of pages.
If we’re cutting point of view away from the main character to a second character, now, instead of having 105 pages to tell the story, we have maybe 52.5 pages to tell the story. Or maybe, if there’s some overlap, we have 70 pages to tell each character’s story.
So what we’ve just done is cut the number of pages we have to tell the story to somewhere between 30% to 50% of what we started with.
At the same time, we’ve actually added another level of complication to the story. Because now, instead of having to tell the structure of one character going on one journey, we now have to tell the story of two characters going on two journeys in relation to the theme.
And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s a whole other level of structure. Because, when we have two main characters, what we’re actually doing is we’re telling three movies.
The first is the main character’s movie: Main Character #1. The second is the second character’s movie, Main Character #2. But if we want there to be unity, there’s a third story we have to tell, which is the story of Character #1 and Character #2 together: the story of these two characters and how their two journeys relate to one another.
Think about Suicide Squad. If you look at the poster alone, it features ten main characters!
At the center of this movie we have two fairly well developed characters. We have Deadshot and we have Harley Quinn.
So we already know that there are three stories that we need to tell. We need to tell Deadshot’s story, and we need to tell Harley Quinn’s story. And we know that we have to tell the story of the two characters together. And we know that that means that we have only 105 pages to do it, or maybe 120 if we’re a big writer like David Ayer. So we know that by doing it like this, we probably cut down the number of pages we have to serve each story by about 30%.
Now, let’s start thinking about all the other characters: We have the Joker, we have June Moone/the Enchantress, we have Rick Flag, we have Diablo, we have Katana, we have Killer Croc, we have Boomerang, we have Slipknot. We even have Amanda Waller, the Viola Davis character, and cameos by a half dozen other superheroes.
For an example of “Yes-ing” without “And-ing,” we can look at the way that these characters were introduced in this film.
We start off with some really great introductions. The introduction of Deadshot and the introduction of Harley Quinn are very visually spectacular. They’re super fun. They give us a strong sense of who the characters are, how dangerous they are, what their problems are. They make us want to go on a journey with these characters.
And who cares if there are some things that don’t make sense? Who cares if, for some strange reason, they’ve given Harley Quinn the chain to play on in her cage? It’s exciting to watch her! She’s captivating, she’s crazy, she’s dangerous and we are drawn to her.
This is an example of what in Improv is called an offering, what, in my screenwriting classes, I would call a vignette: A lovely little moment that captures who the character is and what they’re doing when we first meet them. A moment that captures how they are.
And what we really want to do as we build a story is this: we want to begin with our first vignette and we want to let it land in us. We want to allow the next scene that happens with that character to be a reaction to that initial vignette that accepts what happened there and then builds upon it, takes it one step further, takes it one step, more importantly, forward.
We want to “Yes” it and we want to “And” it.
What happens instead in this film, after introducing these characters with these fabulous vignettes, we then cut to Amanda Waller and her team of very boring government officials. And Amanda Waller goes through the files of each of these characters. So what we actually get is a second introduction to the same characters.
And these introductions are also awesome. They’re also super fun. But instead of driving the story forward, instead of “Yes-ing” what happened and then “And-ing” to drive it forward, what they do instead is keep the story static.
Instead of writing two introductions and choosing the better one, as every screenwriter has had to do, David Ayer writes two introductions and chooses both of them.
The result not only causes the movie to stand still, rather than moving forward, but also it costs David Ayer valuable, precious pages. With each little redundancy, he’s getting that many fewer pages to tell a story which already has to be told in way fewer pages than the average film.
Think about how long that introductory sequence took. It’s about half an hour of screen time! All before we even begin to approach the heart of the story. Think about those numbers, and immediately you will see that David Ayer has a huge problem. He’s used up about a third of his script! He has to service the journeys of 10 characters, and an 11th story tying them all together, and he’s wasted 30% of his pages before he’s even gotten into the main structure of the story.
Screenwriting is about efficiency and efficiency is about choices.
It’s about making really hard choices. And there is nothing wrong with choosing to write a movie about 10 main characters. After all, the film is called Suicide Squad. There has to be a squad!
There’s nothing wrong with making that choice, but when you make that choice, you need to recognize that your writing is going to have to be super efficient. You need to be able to drive the story forward with tiny little vignettes, so that you can serve all of these stories, and take each of these characters on a really profound journey.
So, we understand the problem of “Yes-ing” without “And-ing.”
“Yes-ing without And-ing increases redundancy. And redundancy is one of our greatest enemies as screenwriters. Redundancy robs us of the pages that we need to tell our stories, deprives us of the pages that we need to drive our stories forward.
And how do you fix redundancy? Well, you look for the places where you’re “Yes-ing” without “And-ing,” you pick the better version and you cut the other one.
Or you find a moment where you’re “Yes-ing” without “And-ing,” you figure out how to turn the “Yes” into a “Yes, and…”, how you could drive the story one step forward.
In the first 30 pages of Suicide Squad, the real problem is “Yes-ing” without “And-ing.” We’re getting really wonderful introductions, and then we’re getting really wonderful introductions again. But none of these introductions drive the story forward, and none of them relate to the stories around them.
So, not only are these stories not “Yes, and-ing” themselves, they’re also not “Yes, and-ing” the stories around them.
And what I mean by that all those many the stories are not woven around each other with a common theme.
Remember we talked about the idea that if you’re going to build 10 main characters’ journeys, you actually have to build 11 stories, and in order to build an 11th story, the story of all the stories together, effectively, you need a theme to tie it all together.
Now, it’s not that Suicide Squad doesn’t have a theme in mind: there’s a question at the center of “who’s really the bad guy?” and idea that maybe the real bad guys aren’t the people that we think are bad guys.
And there’s something very interesting about that theme. The problem is, it’s just really not fully developed.
To develop around that theme, you’d need to find that one area for each character and keep digging deeper. You’d need to develop each story in relation to their journey of being a bad guy.
We can see this pretty clearly with Deadshot.
Deadshot is really the only character whose arc is fully built around that theme. He is a bad guy who wants to be a good guy to his daughter, and he goes on a journey over the course of the movie of reconciling whether he’s got to be a bad guy or whether he’s going to be a good guy. Whether he’s going to do the wrong thing or whether he’s going to do the right thing. So his character arc, whether you enjoyed it or not, at least is built on that trajectory.
With Harley Quinn, there’s a little bit of that theme as well. Harley starts out as a well-meaning, brilliant therapist, who believes that she is going to heal The Joker. But in the process of treating him, she starts not only to lose her mind, but also to fall in love with the man she’s trying to heal. She’s transformed by the Joker into a psychotic killer, as she starts to identify not with herself as a healer, but with herself as a destroyer, (and he’s transformed as well, falling in love with Harley just as she has fallen in love with him). And that’s really interesting too. And you can see that that’s also related to theme.
The problem is that Harley Quinn’s journey doesn’t “Yes, and…” the brilliant idea that spawned it.
Once Harley Quinn goes bad, to quote Tropic Thunder, she goes “full retard.”
What I mean by that is she goes full crazy. She goes 100% crazy. And even though she’s really sweet, she doesn’t really go on a journey in relation to her identity. She doesn’t go on a journey in relation to her relationship with the Joker. At the lowest point in her journey, when she thinks her beloved Joker is dead, she doesn’t even take a moment to mourn him. She just moves onto the next thing, most likely not for lack of empathy, but for lack of the pages it would have required to explore this moment honestly!
Even more problematically, ultimately her journey doesn’t evolve in relationship to this theme of identity. She neither comes to recognize that a part of her is still that therapist who wants to help people, nor does she remain the total baddy that the Joker turned her into.
Instead, she ends up in this very in-between place, a generalized state of “crazy” which she shares with the Joker, which makes it impossible for either character to truly evolve. Even the nature of her madness, and her violence, starts to change haphazardly as the movie progresses. Instead of “Yes, and-ing” the fascinating problem that set her on the journey, her transformation from well meaning therapist into psychotic killer in love with the madman she is trying to save, the character to devolves into simply a neurotic who’s pretty good with the baseball bat.
And for this reason, we end up losing the theme that could have tied the story together with that of all the other Suicide Squaders: the question of how the way we see ourselves, and the way other see us, affects our actions for good or for evil.
If we really wanted to build this movie right, we would need to build all the characters’ journeys around that theme.
What’s really a shame about this film is that there’s such an opportunity to do so. There’s sweet, innocent June Moone’s relationship with the enchantress that she contains within her. There’s Diablo’s relationship with his abilities, but also with being a gangbanger. Most of these characters are wrestling in some way with issues of identity, being defined by the world or defining themselves.
So you can see again this is a good writer. At the core, there is this theme tying everything together. But the problem is, because David Ayer is “Yes-ing without And-ing,” he’s not building the theme deeply enough in the structure of the movie and in the structure of each character’s journey. Because he is running out of pages, he’s not serving the theme deeply enough.
Which leads us to the next problem, the bigger problem, which is “And-ing without Yes-ing.”
In order to take each of these characters on a really beautiful journey in relationship to their identity, in order to really tell a story about how the way we see ourselves defines us, (which I think is what Suicide Squad is supposed to be about), the movie would simply have to have fewer ideas. And there are so many good ideas in this movie.
In fact, I would say that there are probably 10 movies in this movie.
For example, the story of Harley Quinn’s relationship with the Joker is worthy of a whole film. I would love to see how the Joker transforms a well-meaning, intelligent therapist into the Harley Quinn that we meet in this movie. I would love to see the way that love transforms the Joker. And I would love to see the way that love affair pressures the way both of these characters see themselves, and the journey that both Harley and the Joker would need to go on in relation to the kinds of actions they’re taking.
And movies like this have been built. There’s a film called Natural Born Killers, an Oliver Stone movie, that is the story of two psychopaths in love. This is a worthy film, and this is a great idea.
Deadshot’s journey is a worthy film and a great idea. The story of a guy who’s a really bad guy who kills people for money and who wants to be seen differently from his daughter, who develops a friendship with Harley Quinn and ultimately has to decide whether he’s going to shoot her or not in order to get the life he’s always wanted for his daughter.
That’s a really great journey, and that’s a movie worth telling, and to some degree Suicide Squad does manage to tell that piece of the story.
The story of June Moone and the Enchantress is a worthwhile story. The idea of having a witch trapped inside of you, and wanting to be yourself and also wanting to be the witch? The problem of having this thing inside you come out that you cannot control. And also the Enchantress’ journey of going from being a god that’s worshiped, to a villain that’s reviled- this is a worthwhile story. This is a story worthy of a full movie.
Diablo’s journey- a gangbanger who ends up with the ultimate gift, the ability to create fire. And just look at Diablo; the man is covered with gang tattoos, right? The guy has grown up in a culture of violence and murder. And I’d love to see how that person, by getting new powers, starts to change his feelings about being a gangbanger. Because we could tell by his tattoos that this is not a guy who is “dabbling” in gangs on the side. This is a guy who is fully committed.
So how does the journey of developing that power over fire transform him into a person who doesn’t want to be part of a gang? Who doesn’t want to be a bad guy anymore, but who is marked with bad guy lettering all over his body. You can see that this is also a story worth telling and, unfortunately, it’s another story that we don’t fully get to see because we don’t have enough pages.
Instead, it seems that Diablo married some girl from suburban New Jersey- some sweet stay-at-home mom. And you have to wonder, “What’s she doing with him?”
And for reasons that don’t really make any sense, he ends up killing her and his children. Again, we don’t know. We don’t understand. We don’t get to see the journey of what it was like. How he tried to extract himself. Who was this person who became his wife and mother to his children? How did she change? How did she change him? How do his powers change the people around him? We didn’t get to see that, because we ran out of pages.
Even Amanda Waller has a story that’s worth telling.
And this is not the one that we see, but the one that we could have seen. The story demanded by the theme, of an idealistic government official who believes that people are not inherently evil. Who believes that people inherently work towards their own best interest. Who believes that she can transform the members of the Suicide Squad from total evil to good, by using their fear of death, but also perhaps by using her belief in the human spirit.
The story of a woman who, through her interactions with the Suicide Squad, is transformed from her own idealism into cynicism and betrayal and evil, even as they are transformed by her idealism.
That is also a movie worth telling.
And you can see that all of these movies, all of the stories worth telling- are present in the script. That the problem of the script is not too few good ideas, it’s too many. And it’s not even too many good ideas, it’s too many good ideas that don’t speak to each other, that don’t get fully developed, that don’t “Yes, and…” one another.
One of the most misused words in the English language is the word priorities.
The reason that the word priorities is misused is that priorities don’t exist.
Definitionally, a priority is the one thing that comes before all others.
When you’re writing a script, whether it’s a script like Suicide Squad, or a single main character journey, it is your job to do the messy draft like Suicide Squad. It is your job to explore the edges of what your movie can be, to play around with all the different ideas. And if you’re a good writer like David Ayer, you do try to build those ideas around a theme.
But at some point along the journey you have to decide what your priority is. This is what rewriting is about.
Rewriting is not about priorities. Rewriting is about priority.
Rewriting is about asking yourself some simple questions, “What is the one thing that this movie is about? How do I keep on “Yes, and-ing” that one thing? How can everything in the movie end up serving that one idea?”
That means, in a rewrite, you need to be merciless with your ideas, not just with your bad ones, but also with your good ones. It means you need to be merciless with your scenes. It means you be need to be merciless with your writing. It means you need to be merciless with yourself and with your characters. You have to ask yourself, “is everything in this movie serving the priority?”
There’s a concept called ‘Killing Your Darlings,’ which suggests you should cut the things that you love most from your script. I think that’s a terrible idea. You don’t have to kill your darlings. But you do need to make choices about your darlings.
There are different ways to make those choices. But those decisions need to be made in relation to your priority.
Sometimes our anxiety of running out of ideas leads us to try to put every idea into one screenplay, when the truth is there is enough great material in this terrible script to last David Ayers for his next 10 great movies.
So one answer is simply to make one of the stories the priority. And the truth of the matter is, David Ayer already knows what that priority is.
The movie is really built around the concept of Suicide Squad: around the priority of the idea that somewhere is a prison where the very worst and most dangerous people in history are all kept, and that one woman, in response to a terrible threat, decides to go to that prison and transform these bad guys into good guys.
And the truth is, that this is a great idea! We just need to be there by page 10. We need to be launched into the action of that story.
Here’s where this gets complicated. It gets complicated by a “And-ing without Yes-ing” that doesn’t relate to that priority of the film.
And the sad thing is, that “And-ing without Yes-ing” is also a great idea. It just happens in a way that distracts from the priority of what the movie is really about. It’s the idea of the Enchantress:
So, what if there was a government official, who believed that she could transform the worst of the worst into the best of the best.
But also, (not “Yes, and…”) what if there was an Enchantress? What if there was this archaeologist who had at the same time been looking for an artifact and (for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense) had broken her own artifact and released this Enchantress into herself?
But also, (not “Yes, and…”) what if she happened to be dating Flag, the guy who is, But also, working with Amanda Waller in some unclear kind of capacity, and what if, But also, Amanda Waller somehow had taken control of the Enchantress’s heart, and now the Enchantress is trying to get the heart back?
And what if, But also, part of the plan to get the bad guys out of the prison also involves this Enchantress being part of the team? And what if, But also, then the Enchantress turned into the bad guy? And what if, But also, the bad guys had to kill the Enchantress.
And what if, But Also, the Enchantress needs to get her heart back?
And what if, But Also, the Enchantress wants to make a machine that’s going to punish people for worshiping machines instead of her?
And what if, But also, the Suicide Squad now needs to stop her?
And what if, But also, she makes unlimited numbers of faceless monsters who are very easy to kill?
And what if, But also, ultimately they needed to use a bomb to destroy her.
And in all those “But alsos,” we end up losing what this movie could really have been if it had simply “Yes, and-ed” itself.
Because, the truth of the matter is, if instead of getting additive, instead of But also, David Ayer had simply chosen to “Yes, and…” the best element of his own movie, he would’ve had a simpler, stronger, more coherent and more powerful story that dug deep in one place rather than digging lots of holes in many.
Because, at the heart of the story, we’ve got two really great ideas that could very easily “Yes, and…” each other.
We have the story of the Joker in love.
And we have the story of the Suicide Squad.
And the problem of the Suicide Squad story can be answered through the story of the Joker in love. And the problem of the story of the Joker in love can be answered by the story of the Suicide Squad.
The problem with the Suicide Squad is that there is no threat that requires the Suicide Squad to be created, that it comes internally as a “But also” in Amanda Waller’s mind, rather than rising naturally “Yes, and…” out of the plot of the story.
And to answer that problem the writer creates this “But also” of the enchantress which doesn’t really fit anything else happening in the script.
The truth is, the antagonist he needs is already present. Because who could be a better antagonist than the Joker? Especially knowing that Harley Quinn, the Joker’s love interest, is in this very prison where all the other Suicide Squad members are kept.
On the one hand, you have the story of a government official who believes that she can transform evil into good. And on the other hand, you have the story of a good psychotherapist, whose belief that she can heal the Joker has not only robbed her of her sanity but has also led her to fall in love with this madman, has turned her into a vicious killer just like him.
And wouldn’t it be awesome if, rather than using the Enchantress as the antagonist, David Ayer had simply used the Joker? Had allowed whatever the Joker’s new plan is to rise not out of a random mad evilness, but more like the Heath Ledger Joker, out of a real desire.
In the case of the Heath Ledger Joker, it was the desire to prove to Batman that morality didn’t exist: to rob the Batman of his treasured moral high ground.
But in this Joker’s case, it could simply be the desire to rescue his lost love or to punish those who’d taken her away from him.
And think about the other side: Imagine if Harley Quinn, the woman who once tried to heal the Joker, and has now fallen in love with him, and been transformed into a dark shadow of herself by him, was then forced by Amanda Waller to fight the man she loved in order to stop the havoc he was wreaking on the city. Imagine if Harley, so identified with the evil in herself that she can’t even remember the woman she used to be, had to choose between her selfish desire to preserve her own life, her love for the man who had transformed her in this horrible way, and the part of her that once wished to heal people, and is in love with a man who destroys them..
You can see that that story has clarity and unity and integrity, and most importantly, priority. A simple thematic intention, that would allow you to dig deeper both into the love story between the Joker and Harley Quinn and also the structure of the Suicide Squad’s journey and Harley Quinn’s identity: Is she the brilliant psychotherapist or is she the mad killer? Is she the good healer or is she the violent destroyer? Can her love for the Joker survive in the face of her mission to destroy him, and will she eventually need to look at herself and rediscover who she really is?
And that’s not the only way to make this movie stronger. That’s just one way of looking at this film and asking, “How do we “Yes, and…” what already exists instead of But also-ing a new plot element? How do we dig deep in one place rather than digging shallowly in many?”
But the truth is, as a writer, you can even just choose to “Yes, and…” yourself.
Because there is a way even to “Yes, and…” the completely external subplot of the Enchantress, so that the problem of the Enchantress can grow naturally from Amanda Waller’s story, and force her to make the Suicide Squad decision. Where these different elements can become a “Yes, and…” to each other.
For example, there’s a version of the story where Amanda Waller, an idealistic government official, rather than randomly merging an Enchantress character from another dimension into her unnecessary, and fairly badly thought out, Suicide Squad idea, instead starts the movie when she makes a terrible mistake and sets loose a powerful witch upon the city who wants to be worshiped.
Unable to stop the Enchantress, and afraid that her mistake will be exposed, and her flaws revealed, Amanda Waller creates the Suicide Squad and tries to use them to solve her problem for her.
And in the process of fighting the witch, the Suicide Squad is transformed for good, but Amanda Waller is transformed for evil.
Now, I’m not saying that that’s the only way to make this movie either.
What I am saying is, when things start to “Yes, and…”, when the choice to get the Suicide Squad is a reaction to the Enchantress, or the choice with the Enchantress is a reaction to the Suicide Squad, when one element of your script grows naturally out of the other, the movie starts “Yes, and-ing” itself and it starts to create a feeling of unity. It allows us to move through our scripts more efficiently.
And it allows us to understand the way our characters are changing, in relation to the theme, and in relation to each other.
So, our job as screenwriters is to stop packing our movies with every idea and start drilling deeper into the ideas we already have.
This begins at a place of tremendous trust in yourself.
You need to trust, in order to do this, that your ideas are actually good. And you have to trust that you have time to tell all the other stories you want to tell at some point in the future. That you don’t have to squeeze them all into this one movie.
It means that you have to be gentle with yourself at the beginning, so you can really see the limits of what your movie can be. But in revision it means you need to set a really strong priority: not what somebody else says the movie should be, but what you say the movie should be.
And this is true whether you’re telling a story of one character, or a much more challenging story of 10 characters. It’s our priority that allows us to focus our revision to turn great ideas into beautiful execution.