Game Changers: Filmmaking once felt 'completely unachievable' for Cathy Yan. Then came 'Birds of Prey.'

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·4 min read

Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting women behind the camera who are disrupting Hollywood. Throughout 2020, we're talking to the female filmmakers directing some of the year's biggest hits and buzziest indies, as well as the pioneers who paved the way for them.

Like Steven Spielberg, who famously turned his childhood home into film sets while shooting amateur movies with his father's 8mm camera, Cathy Yan also experimented with filmmaking as a child. But Yan never imagined her hobby as a career path. The directing field has always been dominated by men, and Yan felt like she had other strikes against her, too.

"I wish I could say that when I was eight years old, I aspired to be a film director," Yan tells Yahoo Entertainment for our new series Game Changers (watch above). "But I didn't, and that was partially because I think it just felt completely unachievable, especially for a young Chinese-American immigrant." There was "such a low probability [for] someone of my background," she says. "So it took me many, many years to actually commit to it."

Yan, who was born in China and raised in Northern Virginia, eventually pursued journalism, becoming a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. She went back to school, though, in the mid-2010s, earning dual degrees — an MBA in business and an MFA in film — from New York University.

In 2018, Yan made her directorial debut with the indie Dead Pigs, a quirky dark comedy set against the backdrop of a real-life 2013 incident in which 16,000 deceased hogs floated down Shanghai's Huangpu River. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to major acclaim, and subsequently earned Yan a sit-down with Margot Robbie and screenwriter Christina Hodson, who were developing Birds of Prey, a DC Comics spinoff of 2016's Suicide Squad designed to bring Robbie's antihero Harley Quinn to the forefront and mark Hollywood's very first female comic-book team-up film.

"I think I always just really wanted to tell stories," Yan says about her transition from journalism to filmmaking. "I learned so much from being a journalist, in terms of how to tell a good story and what's a good angle on it. And another thing I look for in all of my work is a certain sense of relevancy. Like, 'Why now?' I think everything we do as artists, really, should have some sort of conversation with the outside world, with culture at large, and be a reflection of that or a mirror of that. For me, Birds of Prey fit really nice in that."

Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez and Cathy Yan on the set of "Birds of Prey" (Warner Bros.)
Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez and Cathy Yan on the set of Birds of Prey. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Yan landed the gig, and though Birds of Prey has not lived up to box-office expectations since its Feb. 7 release, the action film, which teams Harley with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), has earned stellar reviews, with a 79 percent "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has also earned Yan and Hodson serious points from fans for certain moments born from the film's female points of view, such as when Harley and Canary share a hair tie mid-fight sequence.

With Birds of Prey, Yan became the first of four women to helm major comic-book movies hitting theaters in 2020, with Cate Shortland's Black Widow (May 1), Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman 1984 (June 5) and Chloé Zhao's Eternals (Nov. 6) to follow.

But even as the winds shift in Hollywood and women are earning more opportunities to direct, there remains an image of what the typical filmmaker looks like for many people.

"Oftentimes we think of this stereotype of the director being very big and brass and loud and directing off of a speaker," Yan says. "And many, many brilliant directors have made brilliant movies that way. But I think there are other ways to direct. There's a very intimate way of directing. There's a way that feels very, very supportive and encouraging. A lot of what Birds of Prey is about is showcasing femininity in different ways. And strong women in different ways.

"You don't have to be masculine. You don't have to have all manly traits in order to be strong."

Birds of Prey is now in theaters; visit Fandango for ticket and showtime information.

Watch Yan and Hodson share behind the scenes stories from the film:

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