HEAT VISION

'Bird of Prey' Filmmaker Cathy Yan Reflects on Box Office and Scene She Fought for

In a wide-ranging interview, the director delves into the Ewan McGregor moment she felt was crucial ("It was risky") and the aftermath of the opening weekend on the female-led film: "What I was most disappointed in was this idea that perhaps it proved that we weren’t ready for this yet."
'Birds of Prey' star Margot Robbie (left) and filmmaker Cathy Yan   |   Claudette Barius
In a wide-ranging interview, the director delves into the Ewan McGregor moment she felt was crucial ("It was risky") and the aftermath of the opening weekend on the female-led film: "What I was most disappointed in was this idea that perhaps it proved that we weren’t ready for this yet."

Few films are held to higher levels of box office scrutiny than comic book movies. That was doubly true for the R-rated Birds of Prey, which stars Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the breakout antihero from 2016's Suicide Squad, which helped propel the character to new heights of popularity. When Birds of Prey opened behind expectations to $33.3 million in early February, it was largely seen as a disappointment, despite earning strong reviews and having a budget of $82 million, a relatively modest figure for a comic book adaptation.

Filmmaker Cathy Yan, who made the jump from independent film to studio filmmaking with Birds of Prey, acknowledges some personal disappointment over the narratives that emerged reguarding its performance.

"I know that the studio had really high expectations for the movie — as we all did. There were also undue expectations on a female-led movie, and what I was most disappointed in was this idea that perhaps it proved that we weren’t ready for this yet," Yan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "That was an extra burden that, as a woman-of-color director, I already had on me anyway. So, yes, I think there were certainly different ways you could interpret the success or lack of success of the movie, and everyone has a right to do that. But, I definitely do feel that everyone was pretty quick to jump on a certain angle."

Yan also opens up about the scene she fought for at Roman Sionis’ (Ewan McGregor) club where he humiliates a female patron out of sheer paranoia.

“I’ll be honest: We had to fight to keep that scene because it was uncomfortable,” the director admits. “It was risky, and we had to fight to keep it at all. There are cuts of the movie without it. I think it’s a huge turning point for Roman; it’s a huge turning point for Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the way that we shot it was hopefully not about the sexual violence upon the woman. It was more about Roman, what he’s capable of and Canary seeing him for who he really is for the first time. Now, she can fully cut herself off from him, and I thought it was a really important scene. So, we fought for it.”

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Birds of Prey is one of a number of studio films that have arrived earlier than expected on home entertainment, so Yan is ready to dive deep into her filmmaking process. In a conversation with THR, the filmmaker also looks back on not making an “exact” sequel to Suicide Squad and suggesting Huntress’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fight down a slide.

How’s everything with you and yours?

I’m okay. It’s definitely a tough time to be in New York — and to be a New Yorker. But, it’s actually made me more proud to be a New Yorker in a way by seeing how this city is trying its damnedest to make it okay.

It sounds strange, but seeing fully stocked shelves at the grocery store in your movie was quite jarring; it felt like science fiction in a way.

(Laughs.) Never mind the Canary Cry. Yeah, I know what you mean. Even when I watch anything right now, I keep being like, “They are standing too close together.” (Laughs.)

So, you put out a tweet on March 16 regarding your hopes for an early VOD release. Did you then get a call saying it was already in the works? How did things unfold from that initial tweet?

So, I heard that Paramount was starting to do it, and I thought that was really wise, especially with the theaters shuttering. People are at home, and I think they’re longing to have entertainment since so much content has been completely shut down. So, the idea that Birds of Prey can just be another option of something to watch in these times just seemed appropriate and really smart. So, I just independently did that, and it seemed to get a lot of responses. Then, I heard from [producer] Sue Kroll and my team that it was already in the works at Warner Bros. So, it worked out really nice.

I’m curious about expectations versus reality. When you think back to your expectations of how this entire experience would go, what differences surprised you the most in retrospect?

Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t even know what my expectations really were because this whole process was something so entirely new to me. I just came from one small indie [Dead Pigs] before this, one that doesn’t even have distribution in the U.S. yet. So, I really have never gone through the process. I guess it’s hard to answer that question because I’m not really sure what I expected. What was definitely beyond expectations was some of the positive stuff, such as the real global reach of the film and getting really wonderful notes from people around the world who felt like they were seen for the first time in a movie like this. They felt like they could identify with the characters on screen, even though they were in a heightened world — a world with stocked grocery stores. (Laughs.) It was still a world that was very aspirational. A lot of people — especially a lot of women and younger people — really felt like their voices, their type of people, they themselves … were represented for the first time on the big screen. When we first set off to make the movie, making some of those choices — whether it’s in casting or even in the way the characters look or dress — was somewhat deliberate, but I didn’t really think about the global impact of those decisions. So, that was really nice.

Was it more labor-intensive than you thought it would be, or was it as labor-intensive as you thought it would be?

(Laughs.) It was probably as labor-intensive as I thought it would be. Moviemaking is always a slog, for sure.

In your estimation, what was the key to your pitch that ultimately landed you the movie?

Hmm, that’s another good question. I think I was able to capture a certain type of spirit — a bit of an anarchic, bold, irreverent spirit through the sizzle reel that I made and the way that I spoke about it. I think Margot and Christina (Hodson) really envisioned that spirit for the movie when they started to write the script. I really related to the material, and I think the movie is very much a story about female representation and the female experience. I felt like I was going through something like that myself and finding confidence in myself as a filmmaker, as a person and as a woman of color in the world. So, those are definitely things that I wanted to make sure were part of the story of this movie, and I think that’s what their intent was as well. 

Did the studio have any requests for you as far as the DC extended universe is concerned? Did they encourage some connectedness, which you ultimately fulfilled by honoring the events of Suicide Squad more than most people probably expected?

Yes and no. They were pretty supportive and hands-off in terms of that specific thing of having it connect to this film, the next film or anything like that. We paid homage where we felt it was appropriate, and it’s such a cheeky, irreverent movie that breaks the fourth wall. So, there’s a certain self-awareness that this movie could have which allowed for us to do it in very cheeky ways. I also thought it would be very jarring to see Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, in a completely different look. So, we kept her tattoos, but then we also doctored them and grounded them in character and what she was going through. The “J” turned into the mermaid, and “pudding” was turned into “pudding cups.” We kept her hair, and we thought, “What if she’s not taking care of it as well? What if it just kinda grows out?” In terms of costumes, it was a very character-based transition from what she would wear when she was with the Joker and then what she would wear when she’s on her own and making these decisions for herself. I really loved the way that the weapons always looked, so we kept the bat and mallet pretty much as is. I think we actually made the mallet a little smaller so it was easier for her to hit people with it. So, we did what we could with it, and there’s obviously that little homage like “Hey, I know that guy!” [to Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang] as well. So, we definitely tried to pepper it in, and it wasn’t just Suicide Squad. It was all the different comics that had come before, and it’s such a long, incredibly interesting history of where these characters came from. There are so many ways that you can draw inspiration from these sources. It was quite fun, actually, to be able to pay homage to various looks or different moments, like Arleen Sorkin playing Harley Quinn, the first inspiration for that, which is on the TV when Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is heading out to the Booby Trap. So, we just tried to pepper it in as much as we could while still building our own world.

While I vastly prefer Harley’s new look, I have to give you a lot of credit because I would’ve been too afraid to change her massively popular Suicide Squad look. Since that look became a pop culture phenomenon in 2016 and beyond, did you have any initial anxiety over this justifiable change?

(Laughs.) Not really. For the entire creative team, if you think about the pressure or expectations on the movie too much, you can succumb to it. For us, it was very much grounded in character; it starts with a breakup. It’s Harley finding herself and being her own hero in a sense. Suicide Squad was very much about her with the Joker, and the way that she looked was part of that. They looked like a couple; she literally had “Puddin” choking her neck with a choker. So, there were obvious and deliberate decisions that I’m sure were made when designing her look for her character and central relationship in that movie. For us, she goes through that, and she goes through a physical transformation as well. So, it was always grounded in the story that we were trying to tell, and in that case, it didn’t really scare me. On top of that, I think our approach to her was to still make her feel confident and fun, and it’s still flattering even if it’s a weird, hideous haircut. Margot can pull so much of that off, and it was fun to take those risks. It was fun, as women, too, to gather around with hair, makeup and costumes and go, “Okay, what do we want to wear? What looks good on her? What’s fun? What feels current, relevant and now?” So, it became just a really fun exercise — one that we felt women would understand and also be excited to see.

When I talked to Christina Hodson, I was surprised to learn that she and Robbie had been working on a version of this film since 2015. When you first teamed up with them, did you feel like you were playing catch-up in a way since they already had three years of rapport and whatnot?

(Laughs.) Yes and no. I think there was a lot of chemistry from the get-go. I feel like we’re more similar than we are different, especially among everyone else in the industry. I think we all got along quite quickly, and certainly our sense of humor aligned in many ways. I slowly appreciated the egg sandwich as soon as I read it, as well as the irreverence of the script. Meeting them — and seeing their own sense of humor — an easy rapport developed quite quickly. It was definitely a very specific situation in which I had a star/producer and a writer that had been working on their own movie for so long. So, I very much felt like making sure I respected that and how long they’d been working in developing this movie before I joined.

One of my favorite moments is when Black Canary quietly debates with herself if she wants to save Harley from an abduction or not. Since we’ve seen this scene so many times with conflicted male heroes who are just trying to mind their own business, I presume you were conscious of the trope you were subverting?

I think so. That was sort of how we treated the whole movie and its subversion. We’re still a superhero movie — and there are still tropes within the movie — but we tried as much as we could to subvert them on purpose. There was a lot of self-awareness. 

Given your past life as a journalist, have you carried anything over from your previous work into your filmmaking?

The journalism doesn't go away; it just manifests itself in filmmaking. I think I learned so much about how to tell a story and articulate it in a way that’s very compelling to people through journalism. I’m always interested in how anything interacts with the world at large and what makes it relevant and newsworthy. And there was that in Birds. What I really gravitated to and what I wanted to make sure happened was showing these women who are flawed. They get to be antiheroes; they get to make mistakes; they get to be annoying sometimes or hesitant. It felt like an appropriate time to hold a mirror up to society in a post-#MeToo world, where we are starting to have more conversations about the way that women are represented on the big screen, the way that they’re not and the role of women. To me, there was a certain relevance to the story being told right now and the symbolism of the way these women work. That’s what really spoke to me.

You worked with 87eleven, who many consider to be the best action design company in the business. I’m sure there are many, but did you pick up a particular technique or trick of the trade from them that you’ll gladly add to your repertoire moving forward?

Oh, so much. The way that they train actors really fit well with what I wanted out of the action in the movie, which is something that is grounded, very creative, incredibly practical and character based. Jonathan Eusebio, our stunt coordinator, and I talked a lot about references from old Jackie Chan movies and the way that he would do stunts. I really wanted to show the women as physically powerful and as technically framed as possible. What I didn’t realize they did so well — only until I started working with them — was they really train them, and of course, if you really think about it, you’re like “duh.” Our actors did the majority of their own stunts, which I think is super impressive, and the way that we shot it made it so that it would be very difficult for them not to. The entirety of the fun house sequence was all done by the actors themselves. That amount of training and investment in the actors themselves — not to belittle stunt people because they’re amazing — but our stunt actors were actually more like trainers in a way. They developed these really close relationships with each actor, and I just really love that. I think that system works exceptionally well. The stunt training, especially for a movie like this, becomes part of the character work, too. We had different action fighting styles for each of our actors that was based on their character and what they’d done before in the past. It was nice to see the women get better and better and stronger and stronger. They became increasingly confident, and they brought that training into their acting as well. It was a way for them to understand their characters, to go into their backstory and to also feel more badass like superheroes, because of the training that they did. That element — beyond just their amazing choreography and the way that they just know how to create these fluid and very creative sequences with camera — was an element that I really appreciated about 87eleven. And I don’t think every action company does that; I think that’s a very, very special thing that they teach. All of our actors walked away with these lifelong skills which is pretty cool.

The scene at the club where Roman stops the presses to demean and humiliate a woman named Erika (Bojana Novakovic) was very hard to watch, even though that’s the point being made. During postproduction, was there a lot of discussion and debate over this scene between you, your producers and the studio?

I’ll be honest: We had to fight to keep that scene because it was uncomfortable. It was risky, and we had to fight to keep it at all. There are cuts of the movie without it. I’m really glad that we kept it because I think it’s important. I think that a lot of people have been very impacted by that scene. I think it’s a huge turning point for Roman; it’s a huge turning point for Canary, and the way that we shot it was hopefully not about the sexual violence upon the woman. It was more about Roman, what he’s capable of and Canary seeing him for who he really is for the first time. Now, she can fully cut herself off from him, and I thought it was a really important scene. So, we fought for it.

There was a shot in the trailers that I loved, but it didn’t make the final cut. It’s when Harley appears to headbutt the camera while saying “Boo!” Was that a tough moment to slice?

(Laughs.) Yeah, that was; I really loved it. We added to a lot of the police station sequences because we didn’t have much time to shoot during principal. So, we added a lot more to the police station sequences in the reshoots, which was great. So, some things just didn’t really make sense anymore.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure reshoots added Harley’s roller-skate chase to the pier. While the moment fits Harley to a T, are reshoots the reason why she suddenly had roller skates on during the Booby Trap fight? That way, she could transition to the new chase scene with the roller skates on already?

(Laughs.) Well, actually, you’re right and wrong because we didn’t just shoot the roller-chase sequence in reshoots, either. That was always a fun joke, and we wanted to make sure that she showed off the roller skates. There’s the callback to “whip me” from the beginning at the end — and the whole idea that she’s found a team — when she didn’t really have a team with her roller derby team. It’s such an obviously cool element of who Harley Quinn is, and the idea of getting to see her fight on roller skates was something that was super exciting and compelling. So, yeah, we definitely wanted to get her on roller skates just so we could show her do crazy shit on roller skates, not only for that chase sequence, but even earlier when she’s fighting on the carousel. That’s all Margot on roller skates, fighting a bunch of dudes on a moving carousel.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s slide kill was brilliant, even if your DP, Matty Libatique, suffered dearly for it. Were people actually doubting that scene, something you hinted at in a tweet?

(Laughs.) Yeah, I think it was just “How do we do it?” Originally, it was not a funhouse. Originally, the location was a hotel, and they were supposed to fight down a bunch of different floors. Early on in the prep process, I spoke to Matty and K.K. Barrett, our main production designer, and we felt like we could just make it a little more interesting and like an explosion in Harley’s mind, something that felt right for the movie. So, we turned it into a funhouse. Once it became a funhouse, it was also a way to challenge the potential redundancy of fight sequences, and adding different elements at play. Once you have a funhouse, you have all these different sections, props and set pieces, obviously, that will give you different layers, different levels and different ways to shoot action sequences. So, that’s kind of where that came from, and then, from there, I thought of the idea of having a tunnel or a chute down into a slide. But, it was mostly, “How the hell do we do this?” because so much of what we did was practical, and we weren’t really relying on VFX at all. So, it was more like, “What can we actually do? How do we build a slide within the stage or somewhere else? How do we connect the chute from a different location, which was the top of the fun house, into the rest of it?” It was definitely a challenge to figure out how to shoot it, how to light it and what equipment to use. Originally, there was a track at the top of the slide that the camera could slide down, but it just wasn’t compelling and it really didn’t work. It would get stuck a lot, hence Matty going down the slide. So, it was less of anyone being outright like “No, never” — but it was more like, “This is a crazy idea. How can we do it and do it safely?”

Thanks to the internet, the audience knows more about big movies in production than at any other point in Hollywood history. Thus, extreme lengths are taken to protect a big film’s secrets. When a reporter or fan discovers something about your movie via a leak or paparazzi photo, does that cause more inner turmoil than we might realize?

Yes and no, but not really in our case. We tried to get ahead of it. We had our camera test which turned into our sizzle reel. So, we showed that to the world early on, and there was really no point in getting paparazzi photos of costumes that you’ve seen already. We shot in downtown L.A. in bright daylight with Harley and Cass (Ella Jay Basco) just sitting in an open-top convertible, and people were just waving at us and taking video. Of course, you don’t want the entire story leaking, but I didn’t mind because I think there’s something really lovely and charming about how much people cared about this movie. They were excited to see any glimpses of the movie, and we tried to give our fans a little bit of what they were hoping to see.

So, when the reports regarding reshoots came out, were you guys expecting this, especially since you planned to shoot some of them in public?

Yeah! Additional photography is built into the original budget of a movie, especially a movie of this size. I think for everyone in the industry or anyone actually on the team, it was like, “Well, duh.” This is just standard practice. Frankly, it’s up to the reporters and the journalists to make it clear to their readers that it is not anything unusual. It is, in fact, just standard industry practice. That’s where the mixup is.

Your film made 2.4 times its production budget, while a film like Ford v Ferrari made 2.3 times its budget. However, because Ford v Ferrari is an original studio film, its Monday morning headlines were a lot kinder than Birds of Prey’s — even though Birds made more money in its $33 million opening weekend and cost $16 million less. Birds is also a two-quadrant movie that’s R-rated and very specific; it wasn’t designed for mass appeal like Avengers. Were you frustrated by this double standard since the entirety of the comic book movie genre is held to such high expectations?

Yeah, I think that if you actually look at the details of the budget breakdown … I know that the studio had really high expectations for the movie — as we all did. There were also undue expectations on a female-led movie, and what I was most disappointed in was this idea that perhaps it proved that we weren’t ready for this yet. That was an extra burden that, as a woman-of-color director, I already had on me anyway. So, yes, I think there were certainly different ways you could interpret the success or lack of success of the movie, and everyone has a right to do that. But, I definitely do feel that everyone was pretty quick to jump on a certain angle.

The hair tie moment was a personal touch that Hodson added for her sister and their conversations about superheroes’ perfect hair. Did you have your own version of this, whether it was a prop, action beat, line, etc.?

Yes, a ton! There were so many little things, and Christina was great about being super flexible and open to me, as well as all the actors, in finding moments and lines on set. It was a really, really fun set in that way. One meaningful thing that is completely random but meant a lot to me was that I wanted to make sure that the vinegar in Harley’s apartment was a specific Chinese vinegar that I grew up with. Obviously, it’s on top of Doc’s Place, and there are so many times where, as a Chinese American or Chinese person, you watch a movie, and they’re completely butchering the Mandarin or the signs don’t actually say anything since they’re not real Chinese or Japanese. So, I just wanted to bring that level of thoughtfulness and authenticity to it. A lot of the production value of this movie is actually in the little details, as opposed to big, giant battle scenes or anything like that. We had a really amazing crew that was incredibly thoughtful every step of the way, whether it’s the very authentic Chinese vinegar, which somebody on Twitter called out because it meant something to them. ... Those little things brought just a real “touchability” to the movie. Yes, it’s a heightened world, and we’re talking about these crazy comic book characters, but I wanted it to feel very tangible and relatable in some ways. I think a lot of that came down to these little moments, whether it’s the hair tie or this thoughtful little detail in the background of a scene. There are just a ton of those, and everything that you see onscreen was really a deliberate conversation I would have with the cast and crew. Everyone put a lot of thought and a lot of work into the movie.

Margot seems like she becomes possessed by this character. Even Ella Jay Basco told me that she couldn't help but admire her mid-scene. Was her performance even more astonishing when you saw it in person for the very first time?

(Laughs.) Yeah, Margot is such a physical actor. She acts with her entire body in a way, which is really interesting. She changes the way that she moves depending on the character that she’s playing, yet she’s still able to switch it off and on. She could walk off set, immediately ask me a producer question and I’d be like, “Whoa, what’s going on?” She’s really incredible in that way. When she’s in character, she’s so fully in that character. Harley is a character that’s very close to her heart, and this movie is so personal to her as well. It’s hard for me, sometimes, to really be able to see the border between Margot and Harley because she brings so much of herself to the character as well.

So, I have to admit that I was a little aggravated by the reductive Deadpool comparisons that were made, especially when Robbie has been a part of numerous projects that broke the fourth wall and had VO before Deadpool, such as The Big Short, I, Tonya and The Wolf of Wall Street. Plus, Hodson included these conventions in the earliest versions of the script since 2015, well before Deadpool was even released, and if there was ever a character who was meant to break the fourth wall and have VO, it’s Harley Quinn and the famous voices in her head. Did these Deadpool comments bother you at all?

(Laughs.) All of that comes from the comic books in a way — her irreverent voice. The entire concept of the movie was very much like, “This is Harley Quinn’s story, and this is the way she’s telling the story. It’s going to be wacky, crazy and jump around in time, and it’s not going to make sense until it does.” All of that was this wonderful concept that I fell in love with in the script because it was like, “Oh, wow, you’re actually playing with form in a way that is grounded in character.” It’s so exciting to be able to tell a story and make a movie through Harley Quinn’s eyes. So, breaking the fourth wall was just an element of that. It just felt right for her character; it felt right for the story we were trying to tell including the cheekiness, subversiveness and self-awareness of the tone we were trying to achieve. It didn’t disgust me that people were comparing us to Deadpool. (Laughs.) I love Deadpool; I think it’s a great movie, but we were very much trying to do our own thing. I can’t underline enough how it was a risk. I do have to thank the studio for supporting a movie that was never going to be four-quadrant. It was R-rated the entire time, and we never talked about changing the rating to get more people into the theater. It was a risk in many ways, and it was not an exact sequel to Suicide Squad, which would’ve probably been the less-risky version of how we could’ve worked with the Harley Quinn character. It was something that came from a real place of intent and what Margot and Christina wanted to do with the movie. And then, subsequently, what I was able to shepherd through. In that way, I’m very proud of how the movie performed and the way that it could speak to the people who really responded to it. It was always going to be this weird, quirky movie — by design — just like Harley Quinn.

Huntress just might be the first socially awkward superhero. Although, there’s a little Beatrix Kiddo in her, too. Was that the goal for the most part?

(Laughs.) Yeah, absolutely. Again, it just came from character. What I wanted to avoid was just “a badass.” By casting someone like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, that was very clear that we were not going to just get another cool, badass assassin, because there is so much more to Huntress than that. Her backstory is probably the most obvious in the movie, and it’s so clearly one of trauma. We had to keep adding these layers to these characters. They’re not perfect; they’re not just one-word describable. Mary was able to bring such awkward charm to the role, and we talked a lot about that. Huntress has clearly never gone to prom; she’s never had a first date; and she’s probably never been kissed by a boy. She was raised by assassins in Sicily, and she watched her entire family get murdered. If you take that at face value, who does she become? That was much more interesting to me than saying she was a badass.

As we wind down, you’re now working on something with the cool kids at A24, right?

(Laughs.) Mm-hmm...

I said this to Hodson, but it bears repeating: Thank you for leaving Joker out of this movie. I also really appreciate the street-level stakes, specifically the lack of sky beams and portals.

(Laughs.) Thank you, thank you. I appreciate that.

***

Birds of Prey is now available on Digital HD and VOD.

  • Brian Davids
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