Margot Robbie had been pushing for her breakout Suicide Squad character, charmingly unstable Harley Quinn, to get a movie of her very own for a while. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which hits theaters on Friday, was a long time coming, but for director Cathy Yan, things happened very quickly.
Yan had just premiered her first feature, Dead Pigs, at Sundance in 2018, and it was only a month or so later that she found herself meeting with Robbie and screenwriter Christina Hodson. “We talked mostly about ourselves actually and just got to know each other, but it became very clear to me that this was a really interesting point of view on a superhero film,” Yan recalls.
Shortly after that, Yan pitched Warner Bros. her vision Birds of Prey and a different kind of Gotham that felt more like a scrappy neighborhood than midtown. Just like that, Yan had made the jump from an indie festival to a blockbuster tentpole. And, she was one of the few women to direct a superhero movie. (Encouragingly, she’s actually the first of four women to do so this year, as Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, and The Eternals are also all female-helmed.)
A very loose sequel to Suicide Squad, Yan’s Birds of Prey catches up with Harley Quinn as she’s trying to go at it solo following a breakup with the Joker (Jared Leto, who is busy elsewhere being a “living vampire,” is nowhere to be seen in the movie). But, after she crosses Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, having a ball playing the B-list Batman gangster Black Mask), Harley is forced to team up with other women that have, intentionally or not, also crossed Roman, including Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), hardass Gotham PD detective; Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer with a killer voice; Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a deadly vigilante with poor people skills; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket.
Yan chatted with GQ about working in DC’s increasingly loose cinematic universe, reinventing Gotham City, and why hyenas are bad actors.
GQ: Ever since Justice League, it seems like DC has taken on kind of a pretty fast and loose approach to its shared universe. Movies like Shazam!, Aquaman, and Birds of Prey, could pretty much be standalone rather than a piece of a larger narrative or setting up the next movie in the series. Did you feel a sense of freedom while making Birds of Prey, in terms of the larger scale of the cinematic universe?
Yan: It was pretty liberating to be able to create my own version of Gotham and know to not be so tied to the way that any other director had done things and to be able to really pick and choose and honor the comics, honor what's come before. Certainly Suicide Squad existed and introduced Margot's version of Harley Quinn, but we were also able to take liberties from there. And that was extremely liberating. I think that for any director, it seems like a lot more fun than the reverse—being told “you have to do make this perfectly connected to something else.” I think the success of these standalone movies has really proven something.
There really aren't any serious references to Suicide Squad in this movie other than one offhanded line from Harley about line about saving the world with a bomb around her neck. Were there things you decided to pull from Suicide Squad, and where did you decided to go into your own direction?
I think there are certain elements of Harley that we kept. We weren't completely reinventing that character. We kept all her tattoos, but then we changed them according to her character and where she's going because in this movie, you know, Harley is figuring out who she is when she's no longer the girlfriend. And that was important. The “J” tattoo on her arm becomes a mermaid. You see her at the very beginning of the movie turning “puddin” into “pudding cups.” That was a cheeky nod to where she was and when she's going from a character development perspective. We gave her slightly different haircuts, letting the dye grow out and get a little bit more diluted.
I really love the look at the mallet and the bat and the bat from Suicide Squad. We ended up keeping that. I love the way that David Ayer created a world that felt a little more grounded, that was a bit more inspired by street style. I appreciated that. I felt that was the world of Harley Quinn, in a way, because she doesn't really have a superpower besides her crazy mind. So I definitely took a cue from that world and then I pushed it even more and made it our own.
Was there ever any attempt to get Jared Leto to make a cameo or otherwise appear as the Joker again or was that intentionally never considered?
Basically, yeah. It would be such a small little moment anyway with him. The movie is just about Harley, and Harley doesn't need the Joker. So, we didn't feel like we really needed Jared.
We've seen a bunch of different Gothams in various movies. If we normally see the Manhattan equivalent of Gotham city, Birds of Prey felt more like this was Gotham’s Bronx or Queens.
That was definitely by design. Harley just felt like a bit more of a scrappy character who isn't always necessarily in the center of power. And a lot of our characters were as well. Even Roman Sionis—he aspires to be, but maybe he's not quite there yet. And I liked that.
From a world-building perspective, I really wanted to make a world that felt like the Gotham that you know. Like, nothing quite works. This is why it's so fun. You have all these villains, you have the heroes that come and save the day. It's crime-infested, it's a broken system. But at the same time, I really wanted to show a Gotham that had hope and still had fun and creativity, and crazy characters.
I was really inspired by New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s as well, where you just have both those bad things and the contrast of a real burgeoning art scene and creativity and crazy stories. Take Harley. She's very capable of darkness, she's capable of a lot of violence, but at the same time she loves glitter and pink and she's quite the manic pixie girl. There’s a duality in her, and I tried to reflect in the duality of Gotham as well because everything is told through her eyes a bit in this movie.
It felt like you had a pretty grounded Gotham, but every once in a while you’d just throw in a detail like an abandoned funhouse or spooky pier that seemed like it was straight-up out of a Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher Batman, where it's just kinda silly for silliness sake. Not at all practical, but very fun.
Totally. I love those Batmans. We sort of forget that because Gotham has been so serious for quite some time now, but I always really appreciated those. Joel Schumacher is a great filmmaker, you know, and, and of course, Tim Burton is too. Those were the things that I grew up watching.
Birds of Prey reinvented a lot of classic characters compared to how they traditionally appear in the comics—especially someone like Cassandra Cain. What was the adaptation process like, and how did you pick these characters from DC’s stock and shape them to what you needed for this story?
With our villains and all the women and specifically with Cassandra Kane—this is an origin story for everybody. None of them has become the superhero version of themselves yet. They're all women who are struggling to figure themselves out, struggling against the system. It's only at the very end that they come together and some of them become the Birds of Prey. I liked that. I feel like we really understand them as humans first, and then they gained power later.
What does it mean to you that this is a superhero origin story, but all the characters are women?
We meet all these women individually and they may not be, let's say, living their best lives. And oftentimes when they do interact, it's not pleasant. Renee and Harley are in complete conflict, and even with Harley and Canary, Canary finds Harley to be the most annoying person in the world at the beginning of the movie. It's only at the end that they sort of have to work together. And I've always liked that as a story because I think it shows that as women we are stronger together than we are apart, and we may have to unteach ourselves a little bit in terms of the instinct to be more competitive or not fully trust someone else.
Throughout most of history, it was like, well, there's that one woman who got the CEO part, and that’s it. Or women of color walking into an audition room and seeing only other women of color and understanding that there's only one woman of color that's going to get this role, and the tokenism of that. That no longer has to be the case, and if we all band together, we can really make it not the case and change the entire system. So that’s something I can really relate to.
What was it like working with the hyena?
We had very much considered working with a real hyena because so much of the movie was practical effects and that was something I really wanted to try to focus on. But we ended up meeting a hyena in the Valley named Fonzi. And while he was lovely, we soon found out that hyenas are probably the worst animals to try to actually bring onto a set. They’re practically untrainable. What we wanted out of Bruce, the hyena in the movie, would've been pretty much impossible with a practical hyena. We ended up having a German shepherd named Clark—who was adorable—on set, and he was trained to do everything that Bruce did. Then we were able to map on a digital hyena on top of him. In the Twizzlers scene, for example, that's actually Margot sharing a Twizzler with a German shepherd. We have to thank our amazing VFX supervisor, Greg Steele and WETA Digital for that.
Originally Appeared on GQ