Over the past few decades, Warner Brothers and their animated DC output has regularly won plaudits and praise from fans and critics alike. One of the key figures of such work is Sam Liu, who’s previously directed a whole bunch of movies, such as Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, All-Star Superman, Batman: Year One, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Batman: The Killing Joke, Teen Titans: Judas Contract, and Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, and has been involved in a whole lot more of Warners’ iconic animated DC outings in some capacity. We were lucky enough to grab some time with Sam to discuss his latest directing gig, the impending Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay.
STARBURST: The whole world of DC animated movies is always ever-expanding, but when did you first hear about Hell to Pay coming together?
Sam Liu: It’s strange, because I feel like I’m more of a studio director working for Warner Brothers. It was just the next script I had. I’d known for a little while than Alan [Burnett – legendary wrtier/producer] was to retire, that this was to be his last one. So I’d heard about it, and I was pretty excited to do it, and I wanted to do it justice because it was his last one.
Given how the whole cast – bar Doctor Fate – is made up of villains, did you find it hard to try and find a figure for the audience to sympathise with or root for?
I think there are certain emotional things that are in place. In the story they had enough history; with Deadshot it’s his daughter, with Bronze Tiger it’s his code. So I think that just in the story, I think they gave enough for each character – well most of them, anyway – for you to empathise with them because you can understand where they come from.
There’s definitely a case to be made for sympathetic villains across comic books, but how hard is to get that balance in distinguishing between ‘bad’ bad guys and those bad guys who have a more sympathetic edge. Is it hard to establish those two distinct sides who are also kind of similar in so many ways?
I think it’s fun actually, to be honest. The production on this movie was more one of entitlement. There were some things that I wanted to do with it, like music-wise I wanted more variety, but the cycle was so short, and I was also working on another film at the time, that there was this other texture I wanted to bring to it. While we were filming it, I would refer to it as like a Quentin Tarantino film. As it got towards the end, it was more like a Robert Rodriguez film. There was a certain amount of artistry or poetry that I wanted to get in, but we didn’t really have enough time for that, so we went ‘basically it’s this, so let’s go with what we’ve got’. But again, for me it was a little bit more of the heart of it. Going back to your question, the whole thing of making a movie and trying to guide an audience through it, there’s this thing that, you know, how do you make an interesting journey? And a lot of it is who are these people and does this journey change them somehow, or does this journey change their nature somehow. This is great because, yes, they’re these homicidal killers, but if you get a shot at redemption would you take it? I think that’s a very powerful motivator. At the beginning, they are who they are, they’re these nasty characters, but at the end the ‘good ones’ help each other out, which is kind of against their nature. Like Copperhead, he gives his life to help them out. I think it’s harder with villains because they’re never going to say exactly how they’re feeling. They’re hardened criminals, y’know? So you have to do it through the visuals. I think it’s fun and it’s different.
At times, the film does certainly have a grindhouse-esque vibe while also feeling like a road movie. And it’s in those ‘road movie’ moments where the interaction between the characters shines. Was it hard to make sure that none of the key players were left feeling short-changed, though?
Given the time limit that we had, I think it was important to showcase the characters but without sacrificing the story. We tried to get everybody, but the story is really about two or three people. Harley [Quinn] is probably the most famous of the characters but she has a very, very small part, and Boomerang is maybe the second smallest. Harley is the least important in terms of story. I kind of feel, for the story, you still get a sense of who all of the characters are.
The opening five minutes of the film sets the tone, being pretty brutal. In terms of the violence involved in the movie, was there anything that you wanted to do but was ruled off limits?
No. The producers I worked with, the creative ones, most of them were all story people. We didn’t want to be excessive just for the sake of being excessive. We wanted it to be appropriate, in our eyes at least [laughs]. My mindset now, I want to make sure that I try to set the tone of the movie and what it’s about. When you make a movie and when you don’t do that, the audience just thinks it’s just a regular movie. In this one in particular, for sure, a lot of the beginning cycle was concoctive. Because of the location and the script, there was too many people and too many locations, so we wanted to keep it as an espionage mission. We wanted to show them being total badasses, being experts at what they do, which at times can be killing people.
You’ve been working on similar projects – be it DC or Marvel – for nearly two decades now, and we know it’s like asking you to choose a favourite child, but is there one project that stands out as your favourite to date?
That’s tough! On the one hand they’re all my children, but on the other hand – and this is gonna make me sound like a bad parent – there’s problems with all of them. It’s funny because I’ve spoken to some of the editors, but there are certain things… the highest profile one is The Killing Joke. That’s so short, and that was so problematic. I feel like I’ve never had one like that before, where the writing is just such a great plot. I think [Batman: Under the] Red Hood, the way structurally the story is. It’s almost a guaranteed hit for a fan. It had everything a fan would want. It’s raw, it’s heartfelt, it shows you a different side of that relationship. If I’m being sentimental though, I think it’s All-Star Superman. I love the psychology of that. There’s some things I wished we had more time for, but story-wise my sentimental favourite is All-Star Superman.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 16th.