It’s shaping up to be a historic weekend in Gotham City (and in Burbank) that starts with the splashy release of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn and likely ends with Oscar-night magic for Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips’ Joker.
Yan’s Birds of Prey, much like Joker, puts a premium on over-the-top transformation, although Yan’s movie is about a breakup, not a breakdown. The brash and fizzy underworld adventure stars Margot Robbie as the subversive DC fan-favorite named Harley Quinn, who was introduced on the big screen by Robbie in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016) as the daft but dangerous girlfriend of the Joker (as played by Jared Leto with leering menace).
Robbie stole every scene as Harley and the film did robust business ($747 million worldwide gross) despite sour reviews so Warner Bros. gave the go-ahead for a spinoff showcase with an $81 million production budget. The studio also signed-off on an R-rating (taking encouragement, surely, from the record-breaking success of Fox’s proudly lurid Deadpool franchise).
The transformation themes of Birds of Prey are spread among the core characters: a fading cop, a seething Mafia princess, a caged songbird, and a heartsick psychotic who looks like a mosh-pit Tinkerbell. Robbie, as you may have guessed, plays the punk-rock pixie, who struggles throughout the film to reinvent herself while also staying alive.
The movie’s transformation themes don’t end at the edges of the screen. Two years ago last month, Yan was a first-time indie filmmaker celebrating her Sundance Film Festival award for Dead Pigs, a spirited and trenchant comedy filmed in China with Mandarin dialogue and a production budget smaller than Birds of Prey’s catering costs. Dead Pigs was Yan’s first film out of New York University’s film program and now, with Birds of Prey, she’s got one hell of a follow-up effort.
Tracking projections at mid-week had Birds of Prey pulling in $110 to $125 million in its opening weekend but with early reviews embracing the cheeky story, the uncorked charisma of Robbie’s wild-child romp, and Yan’s offbeat Gotham City aesthetic. (Who knew Bruce Wayne’s glum hometown had so much glitter and neon?) For Yan, born in China but raised outside Washington, D.C., the project became an ode to popcorn movies of her youth and a fast-pass opportunity to jump aboard the thrill ride known as Hollywood studio moviemaking.
The success of Joker and the positive early reaction to Birds of Prey show Warner Bros is going in a different direction than Disney’s Marvel Studios, which is Hollywood’s most successful superhero factory and the industry’s hottest hitmaker. The Marvel method sticks to PG-13 fare and connects all of its movies with a shared latticework mythology that buoys each new franchise with a familiar backstory and shared brand appeal. Warners tried an overly accelerated version of that approach (see: Justice League) but now is open to edgy R-rated projects (once considered verboten for superhero brands) and stand-alone series that exist in their own worlds (as is the case with Joker).
I asked Yan if she thought the more-liberated approach of Warner’s DC adaptations could be a boon to the studio’s efforts to attract auteur talents in the future. “Definitely. I guess it’s a different strategy. As a filmmaker, it’s definitely quite liberating to not feel so bound by every movie before and every movie after… it was great to create our own Gotham and create our version of these beloved characters. It was really nice to be able to do that.”
Yan’s recruitment to the project came after a post-Sundance 2018 coffee meeting with screenwriter Christina Hodson, who was at work on a script that would suit Robbie’s expressed interest to draft off the Suicide Squad success with a spinoff that showcased Harley Quinn as the reckless outlier persona in a female ensemble. (Robbie also produced, together with Bryan Unkeless and Sue Kroll.)
“I knew that I definitely wasn’t ready to stop playing her,”Robbie says of her Suicide Squad duty. “There was still so much yet to be discovered and explored on screen.”
Birds of Prey is among a wave of major live-action comic book adaptations with female directors which began with Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019) and will soon include Black Widow, The Eternals, Wonder Woman: 1984, The New Gods, and Captain Marvel 2.
For context: In the three decades before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman there were only three major live-action feature adaptations based on comic books and directed by women: Tank Girl (1995), American Splendor (2003), and Punisher: War Zone (2008). Yan’s version of Harley Quinn is a sort of Holly Golightly reimagined for Fight Club membership. She would be Deadpool’s dream girl but she doesn’t date Marvel guys, not even the R-rated ones from Fox movies.
The success of the subversive Deadpool movies likely pushed Birds of Prey toward edgier imagery. One scene has a family trussed up by their feet while a knifeman named Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) slices off their faces (albeit, off camera), a grotesque moment of torture that recalls the most infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs. Another sequence (and one that may be even more surprising) shows a stoked Harley inhaling a cloud of contraband cocaine that energizes her into action with a rapturous smile. That never happened in the DC Universe when Christopher Reeve was gliding around Metropolis and politely saving cats from trees.
Yan said the violence in the film was weighed and carefully calibrated, no surprise given contemporary America’s epidemic of mass shootings, and that’s most apparent when Harley marches through a police station gunning down every flat-footed cop in sight — with a gun that fires non-lethal glitter-bomb ammunition. Like the battle scenes in the old A-Team television series, the precinct station rampage concludes with not a drop of blood in sight much less any corpses. Harley isn’t on screen when the face-carving starts or when a mobster’s extended family is riddled with bullets.
“It can get really dark and there are moments, I think, that are quite dark in the movie, but we always just try to keep it kind of fun and lighthearted at the same time,” Yan said. “That’s what’s fun about it and that’s what life is kind of like, too, I think.”
It’s certainly the norm for Gotham City since the days when Tim Burton was putting it on the map in Hollywood. Yan’s film shares a few common story threads with Burton’s Batman Returns, the 1991 sequel that brought back Michael Keaton and co-starred Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, an earlier Gotham City woman who responded to mistreatment and male toxicity with considerable civic mayhem. Yan is a fan of the underrated Burton sequel but you won’t detect that in the new film’s portrayal of Gotham City itself.
Thanks to the gothic gifts of production designer Anton Furst, Burton’s original 1989 film had introduced a Gotham City that felt like Dracula’s Transylvania mashed up with Al Capone’s Chicago and then pumped-up to an intimidating Orwellian scale. Yan’s Gotham, however, is a vivid city with a citizenry that matches it, and all of it is viewed through Harley’s sparkle-framed, rose-colored glasses.
“It was definitely very exciting to feel like we could kind of create a different version of Gotham, something seen through the eyes of Harley herself,” Yan said. “I think we’ve all seen Gotham as the high towers of power, that neo-Gothic or Art Deco version of Gotham. I’m from New York and I’ve lived there a long time so all of that was exciting for me but we wanted to create a different version of Gotham, something that we haven’t quite seen before, something that feels a little more scrappy.”
Birds of Prey doesn’t feature Batman which liberated the movie from the rooftops and airborne action that are practically prerequisites for an urban hero named after a flying mammal. These Birds of Prey are street-level. Yan’s Gotham also doesn’t include the city’s most famous tycoon, Bruce Wayne, reducing the necessity of imposing citadels of civic power and sleek corporate skyscrapers. Yan and production designer K.K. Barrett found their Gotham in downtown Los Angeles and its Arts District which is sprinkled with passable versions of midtown Manhattan architecture.
“We’d talk about how it felt like a neighborhood and it felt on the ground and on the street as opposed to elite high towers,” Yan said. “That was one thing. I was also very inspired by New York in the ’70s and ’80s when it just didn’t work very well. It was a bit of a mess. There was a lot of anarchy. It was crime-ridden and pretty much broken but at the same time it was also this really interesting place to be, a lot of creativity, a lot of wonderful stories, and wonderful characters at the time. That was kind of the Gotham that I wanted to create, which is one that was diametrically opposed [to previous big-screen versions] in that it would be very scrappy and brutal in some ways and gritty but at the same time there’s this heightened element to it. It’s also fun and people are not taking themselves too seriously. There’s still hope and people are just having a good time. People are just having a good time. I think that was kind of the tension that we wanted to create out of it.”
Just as previous Gothams mirrored the intimidating grimness of Batman, Yan’s street-level version reflects Harley’s giddy world view and roller-derby knockabout spirit. “She can be very, very fun and very childlike in many ways,” Yan said. “She’s also very capable of violence and is kind of a bad ways. So that was just really fun to play around with.”
For Robbie, the primary dynamo behind the project, there were no doubts that Yan was the right director for the job. The red-hot star of Bombshell and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood watched Dead Pigs with its mordant humor about modernization and she could see the filmmaker’s gifts for character and ensemble rhythm as clearly as the subtitles.
“Cathy’s ability to give each character in an ensemble his or her moment on the screen was one of the main reasons I loved her film Dead Pigs, but also why I felt she was the right person to direct this film. When she came in, it was clear she understood the story and the characters and had so many wonderful additional thoughts. Sue and Bryan and I just looked at each other and knew it just felt right.”
Fans of Christopher Nolan’s morosely majestic Gotham City or the Travis Bickle edition of Gotham in Joker might view Yan’s interpretation as Grand Theft Auto: The Hot Topic Edition — a place where abrupt violence comes and goes with little consequence but haute couture choices can really haunt you. But for me Yan’s Gotham reminded of the asphalt ecosystem of Spike Lee’s Brooklyn neighborhood in Do the Right Thing (1989), a movie that came out when Yan was a toddler growing up by the Beltway.
“That was a reference, yes, and, obviously, once you also have Rosie Perez in the movie you have to pay homage to it,” Yan said, noting the strong presence of Do the Right Thing co-star Perez in Birds of Prey as the embittered Gotham PD detective Renee Montoya. “That’s very funny you say that, too, because originally I had this idea that because so much of the movie happens over the course of a single day that perhaps it was a really hot day as well. But then it turned out to be the coldest winter and L.A. so it was a little difficult to pull off…I felt bad about trying to spray all the actors with sweat when it was 40 degrees outside or 50 degrees outside.”
That explains why a prominent (and glamorously filmed) egg sandwich in Birds of Prey can hit the sidewalk and not cook. For Harley, the tragic tumble of her coveted short-order treasure is a reminder that fate is fickle in this Gotham. It’s also a nod to the fact that while the perils are big in Birds of Prey the payoffs are slim pickings in a “strange character kind of story,” as Yan describes it. Even the movie’s big heavy, Ewan McGregor’s bizarre Roman Sionis, a preening sadist with anger management issues , has relatively modest underworld ambitions compared to Gotham’s tradition of megalomaniacal weirdos.
“I like that it was not about saving the world or the universe or even Gotham really,” Yan said. “It was about saving a child and in a way saving Harley’s soul. I think that intimacy and this idea that even Roman Sionis, he aspired to be the big kahuna, the main bad guy, but he’s not quite there yet either. He’s trying to be and that’s why he’s consolidating the power and doing what he’s doing, but he’s not quite there, and he still lives under the shadow of others including his own parents and his family and that kind of wealth and power. I think it created the sort of chip on the shoulder for everybody involved in all the characters in the movie and everyone really embraced that. We talked a lot about it feeling like it was more in the boroughs as well. It’s not Manhattan, it’s Queens or Brooklyn or somewhere out where you can see the centers of power from afar but are not there.”
The chaos of life swats randomly at every character, as it does at Quentin Tarantino’s usual citizenry. Take the beset Montoya, who is drinking her way toward lunch on most shifts. When a foot pursuit leaves her covered in a foul stench she spends the rest of the movie wearing clothes she pinched from the Evidence Room. The motto on the front of her borrowed T-shirt? “I Shaved My Balls For This?” It’s the most effective wardrobe sight-gag since Vincent Vega donned a University of Santa Cruz Banana Slugs T-shirt in Pulp Fiction.
I mentioned to Yan that the characters in her Gotham City are trying to figure out the world, not take it over.”That’s right! Exactly. For me, I come from an indie world and I think that’s what I really loved about the movie was that it was very grounded and very much grounded in character and very much grounded in each of these women’s stories and almost internal conflict within them as much as these big sort of battles between good and evil.”
Harley Quinn has a heritage that makes her unique among the thousands of costumed characters who have fought the good fight in the pages of DC Comics. The irrepressible Harley was introduced in September 1992 but it wasn’t in comics it was in an episode of television’s highly acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. I asked Yan if that heritage made it a natural choice to sprinkle a cartoonish brand of slapstick into fight scenes,
“Totally,” Yan said. “I love Harley in the animated series. ,,that was how she was introduced. She was introduced as purely Joker’s girlfriend and sidekick. I think over the course of that series people just started to really love her, and she became an interesting character in her own right. The animated series actually depicts this very interesting and dark relationship that she has with the Joker quite well. Then she became increasingly a fan favorite from there. Then you see her develop into her own person basically with the New 52 series [published by DC in 2011] and all of that. She becomes a bit more of an anti-hero as well when she separates herself from the Joker. That’s kind of where we pick up in the movie as well. We pay a lot of homage, I think, to her character in the New 52 because like her character there, she’s no longer with the Joker. She’s a bit more of an anti-hero than she is a villain. That was definitely a deliberate choice to pay homage to the comic books in that way and to that world and that sort of almost tactile, organic, and analog quality of the comic.”
The most amazing thing about Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn as IP may be how supple the characters are in lending themselves to Fisher-Price toddler toys and big-screen epics (and bestselling video games) that can skirt NC-17 material with equal credibility and little if any consumer consequence. I can’t think of any other part of pop culture where that’s a common element.
“Yeah, I agree,” Yan said. “I keep referencing what Chris Messina has been saying. He obviously plays Victor Zsasz in this movie, but he says these characters are our Shakespeare. We don’t get sick of watching Macbeth or Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing, even. It just changes with the times and they always get reinterpreted and there’s always an essence of these characters there but then they change and there’s always a different approach to it. I think that’s really interesting. I never thought about it that way, but I think that’s what people love about comic books is that they develop these characters and hold on to them, too. Audiences actually love to see them evolve in some ways, too, they want to see the latest model.”
Young fans look for pieces of themselves in the characters, of course, even the evil ones. Yan was the same way, too. Her father was a cinephile and she absorbed his passion for cinema while splitting her childhood between Hong Kong the East Coast of the United States. Watching early Chinese independent films, Yan wasn’t fascinated solely by the characters — she was caught up also in the subtle thrill of seeing Asian actors and settings given the same screen opportunities that Hollywood seemed to keep stubbornly reserved for white actors.
“I think that was very confidence-inspiring in a way because to see Chinese people in movies and playing the stars and speaking Chinese,”Yan said. “I mean that was good for me at an early age to be able to see that and see how seriously these incredible movies have been taken within the industry at large and then simultaneously, I’m an only child so I just grew up watching a lot of movies. I had all the Disney movies. I had all the VHS tapes and I’d watch them over and over again to the point that I’d pretty much memorized them. So everything from The Lion King to Beauty and the Beast to all of those classics. Then I love ’90s action films, too. I love Speed, Con Air, The Rock, those are just great. I remember going to the cinema and seeing those incredible features and often going back and watching them again and again.”
The premise of Birds of Prey finds five Gotham females living on the edge: Harley and Montoya plus a nightclub singer name Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); a revenge-driven mystery woman called The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); and ahard-luck pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Their stories intersect and overlap, not unlike the tapestry approach used in varying ways by movies such as After Hours, Crash, Magnolia, Short Cuts, Go! and Pulp Fiction.
Yan said part of her approach was to treat Gotham City as the biggest little town in the DC Universe, the kind of place where Harley runs into old rivals, hired guns, and former victims on every corner.
“It’s this idea that it’s a neighborhood movie in a weird way,” Yan said. “I always reference Raging Bull and the fact that you just understood that they all kind of knew each other. So much of this movie happens like that where people run into each other and they all know the same people. Obviously, at the very end there’s this real sense of everything coming together. So that intimacy again and so definitely I always try to start with character and story and that seems to make sense for that. But then knowing, too, it’s such a fun world to create and so vibrant and trying to take risks in that way but even when we did take those risks I think when we try to shoot certain things as like all of our fluid shots, all of that was again grounded in why. What does that make me feel? Why are we doing that as opposed to just doing that to do it because I can. So I’m always trying to ask myself that question.”
Asking questions is something Yan learned to do during her tenure as a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and a short stint at the Los Angeles Times before that. She said the experiences of her newspaper days add focus to her filmmaking views.
“I really still kind of think of myself as a journalist in many ways,” Yan said. “I still think about every movie or anything I do and go why does it have to be made now. What’s interesting about it? What does it say? Why am I going to devote my time to this even? I really care about trying to portray and continue to portray interesting, complex, female characters on the screen in a way…I think there’s been a long history of male anti-heroes and we’re only just beginning to allow our female characters to not be perfect.”
There’s a spirit of female empowerment and gender exasperation transmitted by the movie. Most of the men in the film are stone-cold killers, sexist knuckleheads, or duplicitous sellouts. The one redeemable male in the entire film is a gangland hitman who saves Winstead’s character during a flashback to her childhood and, if I remember right, he never utters a line in the movie. There are eight or nine instances when a woman kicks a man in the crotch, which may be a nutty record among the many big-screen DC Comics adaptations.
“We should have a nut-shot counter that dings every time,” Yan said with a tone suggesting it might be on her wishlist of Blu-ray special features.
All the testicular mayhem, Yan says, is a bid for a realistic combat scenes, not an exercise in male bashing. The core ensemble of women in the film don’t have superpowers (with the exception of Black Canary, who has a sonic bellow that can level a small house but doesn’t like to flaunt it) which means their hands (and feet) are all they can rely on.
“It’s interesting you should ask because that’s somehow a conversation that I had very early on with Jonathan Eusebio, our stunt coordinator,” Yan said. “I really wanted to keep the action pretty grounded and tactical as opposed to a lot of these bigger, green screen, visual effect-heavy action that we’ve been seeing. I wanted to keep it kind of grounded in that way and more like those ’90s action films that we were talking about and also the Jackie Chan stuff, all of the kung fu stuff. So we went for fight choreography where everything just has to be really well-photographed in that way, a lot more hand-to-hand combat. I really wanted to show off the women’s physicality in a real way as opposed to an over-reliance on gadgets or weaponry or on superpowers. Of course, we do have a big superpower moment in the movie but for the most part Black Canary uses her martial arts and so do all the women. So all the women went through an insane amount of training to be able to do most of their own stunts.”
Why was that important? “I really wanted to show them being that capable,” Yan said. “So then it became a conversation about what can they actually do. If they’re trained in this way and they’re really good at it, how do women beat men in hand-to-hand combat. Of course, we gradually moved toward this heightened thing in much of the movie but that’s where the nut-shots came from because it was like: You can always go for that. It’s a deliberate strategy that can be used and wielded in a way by women if they were ever in a situation like that. So as much as it’s a funny moment, I think the original intent behind it was because we wanted to just do it right. We wanted to count the number of bullets in a gun. We wanted to count the number of arrows that Huntress had. We wanted to keep it somewhat reasonable and somewhat realistic in that way. It’s like women pulling hair in a fight with another woman. Why wouldn’t they do that? The same thing with the hair-tie moment. If you’re going to fight? Put your hair up. It’s in your face.
Yan wanted to chew on the topic a bit more. She said after years of watching action films where sequences with women in combat could be painfully fake-looking, which undermined their presence and prominence.
“I really just wanted to show what women were actually physically capable of as opposed to having people say, ‘That was a camera trick’ or ‘They do that in V effects’ or ‘Don’t worry that was a stunt double in a wig.’ I wanted it to be real and in your face in that way. The way that we shot most of the action was so intimate and subjective that you really couldn’t get away with using stunt doubles. So I’m really proud of what the women could do. Everyone from Margot, who is literally on roller skates the whole time or Rosie Perez, what she was capable of.”
I asked Yan one last question. Was there anything in the finished film that gave her pause? Anything she fretted over because it pushed too far?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think everything can be interpreted in different ways. It’s certainly a very sensitive time right now. So I’m not sure. I think we definitely push it and everything is packed with so much symbolism these days, but I don’t think we shied away from making certain people feel uncomfortable or certain uncomfortable situations. I actually don’t mind. In fact, I think it was an interesting challenge and I’m very proud that we were able to do that because I think it’s okay.”
Yan contemplated the question for another moment and then added a thought about the admirable upsides of audacity: “I think it’s okay to at least have those conversations and not everything has to be so black and white. You mentioned [the Deadpool movies] had a lot of heart. I totally agree and also, in a way, they were just refreshing because they ‘went there.’ Hopefully, we kind of do the same thing. I definitely think we have heart in this movie. I mean that’s certainly was a huge goal of mine to have that and to feel like we have relatable characters, too. You look at Joker, too. I thought it was great and I think, obviously, with all of the awards conversations it just proves that there’s more to these comic book movies than it seems. I think that it’s a good time right now to be continuously innovating that. It’s a good time to try to do different things. Again, like the Shakespeare thing, reinterpret these characters and put your own stamp on it as a filmmaker I think is quite liberating.”
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