Charles Roven’s journey in the DC universe has had plenty of triumphs as well as some unexpected turns along the way. The veteran producer worked with Christopher Nolan on the acclaimed The Dark Knight trilogy and with Zack Snyder on his DC films, including Justice League, which presented some of the most unexpected challenges of Roven’s career. He also teamed with Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman and David Ayer on Suicide Squad. Roven can now count James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad as his latest success, with the film earning strong responses from critics and audiences.
Gunn’s film comes five years after Ayer’s Suicide Squad, which is back in the conversation after Ayer made waves with a lengthy July 29 statement in which he said the theatrical cut was not his movie. Ayer also revealed that Lee Smith, the veteran editor known for working with Christopher Nolan, cut a “fully mature edit,” one with “traditional character arcs, amazing performances, a solid third-act resolution.” Ayer added, “A handful of people have seen it.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Roven says he and producer Richard Suckle introduced Ayer to Smith at a time when Warner Bros. was looking to replace editor John Gilroy. (Gilroy was ultimately credited on the film, and Ayer has been complimentary of his work.) Roven also reveals that test audiences saw an Ayer-preferred version as well as a studio-preferred cut. In an extremely rare situation, both cuts tested the same, so both the studio and the Squad creatives attempted to meld the best of both into a theatrical cut.
Roven likely has more on his DC horizon, as he is attached to projects spinning out of Man of Steel (2013) — which would include more Suicide Squad and more Justice League, should those films happen. It’s an arrangement that dates back to the aftermath of Man of Steel, in which Warners unveiled an ambitious slate of 10 DC films, some of which happened, some of which didn’t. To oversee these properties, Warners enlisted Snyder as the godfather of the DC universe, with Roven and Deborah Snyder acting as the director’s consiglieres. While Roven initially was tasked with also working on the entire line of DC films, the hands-on producer, who likes to be on set, realized traveling between so many films would not physically be possible, so he cut down his number of titles and is not a producer on properties such as Aquaman and Shazam!
In a conversation with THR, Roven further reflects on the Ayer Cut, the challenges of Justice League, shooting Uncharted during the coronavirus pandemic, and whether he thinks Nolan and Snyder would ever return to DC.
Take me back to how your boarded The Suicide Squad. How does it work with you and Warners/DC? Are you automatically attached Suicide Squad sequels? Do you have a set number of DC films you are attached to?
We were working on Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman and David Ayer came up with Suicide Squad, and we were also at that same time developing Flash and Aquaman. We were looking into where we were going to shoot all of these. Suicide Squad was going to shoot in Toronto. Batman v Superman shot in Detroit and Vancouver and Wonder Woman was shooting in the U.K. We were planning on doing Flash in the U.K. Aquaman ultimately was gearing to go in Australia. We always knew Debbie was going to be wherever Zack was. And she would help manage from afar the other movies. For me, it was important that I travel around. But to think about traveling to all of the different movies that could be up at the same time, and particularly the one that was shooting Australia, it just became not possible for me to be on top of that many movies. So we worked out an arrangement that I or myself and my team would try to manage a different number of movies. … whether they were sequels or prequels or had some of the same characters — involving anything that had to do with things that branched off of Man of Steel. So if it was a Superman movie that involved Henry [Cavill], I would be involved, at least for a couple more. If it was a Batman-involved product like Batman v Superman or Justice League, I would be involved in those. Suicide Squad, I would be involved in those, up until a certain amount. And that is kind of where we are. I’m not really affiliated with Aquaman. That’s kind of Peter Safran’s deal. I have nothing to do with Shazam!
But still have an affiliation with some more Suicide Squads, which I’m thrilled about. I hope James will, when he’s got some time, come back and see if he’s going to do another one of these, because he did such an amazing job. I would definitely be a part of that. Probably another Justice League, although I think that’s a number of years away.
Watching The Hamster Factor, the documentary about the making of Twelve Monkeys, taught me a lot about how you worked back then as well as the importance of a producer being on set in person.
That movie taught me a lot too.
We’ve spoken about Twelve Monkeys in the past, and the most challenging moment you faced on that film. Was there an equivalent moment for you and the DC Universe?
It was more than a moment. It was just the entire circumstance that went from Zack leaving the project because of the family issues that he had and everything surrounding that. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s just say it was more than a tip, because when your director leaves a movie that he has shot before the additional photography is being done, I don’t want to call that a tip. Maybe it’s actually what’s below the water, which is a lot bigger than the tip of the iceberg. We weren’t only facing that and how the additional photography was going to reconceive the tone of the movie and some of the story arc of the movie. We also were dealing with the fact that Gal [Gadot] had also just finished a back surgery because she had just hurt her back on Wonder Woman and on some of the principal photography of Justice League. She had just finished her back surgery and couldn’t travel. We wanted to shoot as much of the additional photography in the U.K., but we couldn’t do it all because we needed Gal for it.
Also the fact that we were dealing with very complicated scenes. They were so complicated in terms of their structure and the additional shooting issues, and of course we also had the fact that we were hoping for Henry to shave his beard. [Editor’s note: Paramount famously did not grant Henry Cavill permission to shave his Mission: Impossible – Fallout facial hair during reshoots for Justice League, resulting in Justice League digitally removing his mustache in post-production.] We were very worried that we weren’t going to be able to accomplish that in a way that wasn’t visible. And in fact we were right to be worried about that. To open a movie with your Superman and have his face look funny – I wouldn’t say that was one of the great decisions that were made. But it was a decision that was made because of many other things, as opposed to protecting the movie. It was a decision that was made to protect a release date, all of the promotional partners who were tied into that release date, all of the theaters that had booked things around that release date. The fact that Imax was tied into that, that it was Christmas, that it would mean a lot of revenue for Warner Bros. at that particular time. They had no big, huge Christmas blockbuster to replace it with.
It’s kind of like situations that we have right now. You sort of are having to deal with, “What is the best of a terrible situation no matter what the decision that you make?” Now we are dealing with, “Oh, OK, Suicide Squad is coming out and we’re doing a simultaneous release. We’ve watched simultaneous releases. We know simultaneous releases hurt the theatrical box office, but what’s the theatrical box office going to be because the delta variant is out there? So the whole situation is not great. And of course simultaneous release increases the piracy probability, that’s not a great thing.” What is it they call it, the Devil and the deep blue sea?
This is making Twelve Monkeys look easy in comparison.
Every movie that you do, every piece of content that you create, even if it’s a TV series, is a unique experience and you find yourself, no matter how many times that you’ve done it, finding these problems that you’ve never faced before. I produced a film with Alex Gartner and Avi Arad called Uncharted for Sony. It was a great experience and we originally shut down for awhile because of COVID. We were supposed to start shooting on March 13  and on March 11 we completely shut down. We worked to come up with COVID protocols both with Germany and Spain and the guilds. We actually started the movie in July, finished it in the end of October, including the move from Germany to Spain, and we lost only one day to COVID.
That’s surprising that you only lost one day.
We just came back from Madrid where we did a little over a week’s worth of additional photography. I’m excited about that movie coming out in February. I’m proud we were able to accomplish that in a very stressful time during the height of COVID. The dynamic between Mark [Wahlberg] and Tom [Holland], Tom playing a young Nathan Drake and Mark playing a young Sully, is really, really fun.
David Ayer dropped an interesting tidbit, which is that Lee Smith has an edited cut of his Suicide Squad. Have you seen the Lee Smith cut? From your experience, how much can a different cut change a movie?
Richard Suckle and I produced Suicide Squad. When the studio was hoping to replace John [Gilroy], the original editor, we suggested Lee. I had worked with Lee on Chris’ movies, The Dark Knight trilogy. He’s one of the truly great editors. He was charged with trying to take a slightly different approach, but not totally change the tone of the movie with his work. Clearly, from what David is saying, that was the version that he liked the best of all the versions. There was a tremendous amount of different feelings between what the studio wanted and what David wanted at that time. It was a negotiation, for sure, of what the ultimate cut was going to be.
The interesting thing was, when we tested the Ayer version — to be honest, I can’t sit here and remember how we got to that edited version, who was editing that edited version — but it wasn’t Lee. It was somebody else that came in. The studio version was also different editors as well. We tested both versions. They tested exactly the same. Because they tested exactly the same, David and the studio and ourselves, meaning Rich and I and the heads of DC at that time — Jon Berg and Geoff Johns — we all sat in a room and tried to come up with what would be the best of both versions. Obviously, the movie made a really nice piece of change. Audiences liked it enough for us to want to do a sequel. But it definitely wasn’t the exact vision of David, and it definitely wasn’t the exact vision of the studio.
That’s surprising that they tested the same.
That testing process, or what we call bake-off, that is not an unusual process. That happens, more than you might think. But most of the time, there is a clear winner. And usually, everybody agrees, “Well if we are going to do the bake-off, we should really go with the clear winner. Let the audience decide.” In this case, there wasn’t a clear winner. It literally came to the exact same place. They just liked different parts of the movie. Different audiences commented on different parts of the movie they liked better or not. That doesn’t always work to create the best movie, to be honest, it’s an imprecise process. There’s a great line in Twelve Monkeys where somebody says “science is not an exact science.” (Laughs.) Well, making movies is not an exact science either.
You had great experiences with Snyder and Nolan. Do you see a reality in which either of those two come back and make a DC movie? Snyder has more left to do, but it may not be in the cards. And Nolan seems like he isn’t interested in doing a DC or a Warners movie. What do you sense?
I’m going to give you a Terry Gilliam quote. Terry Gilliam and my first wife [late studio executive Dawn Steel] fought bitterly about the Baron Munchausen cut. And he was sure he would never, ever be involved with anything having to do with Dawn Steel. And then I offered him Twelve Monkeys and he laughed and he said, “Well you really can’t ever burn a bridge in Hollywood, can you?” The fact of the matter is, I would never say never about anything when it comes to entertainment, different ideas, ways of coming back around.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.