Harley Quinn saved the world in Suicide Squad, but she fights even harder to save herself in the recently-released spin-off Birds of Prey, which gives her a group of fellow DC heroines to battle alongside, leading to some brutal and eye-popping fight scenes unlike any we’ve seen in a superhero movie before. In Birds of Prey’s third act, when Harley Quinn and the rest of the Birds of Prey—Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco)—find themselves outnumbered in an abandoned carnival funhouse by legions of the wanna-be crime lord Black Mask’s goons, their immediate thought is: “what’ve we gotten ourselves into?” Behind the camera, there were identical moments of panic when director Cathy Yan and her crew wondered the same thing while filming the movie’s must-see fight scene.
“I know that they all wanted to murder me at the end of those days, because it was unbelievably tough on them,” Yan says, heaping praise on Margot Robbie and the other stars. “I am just endlessly impressed by what they were able to do,” she adds, which rings especially true knowing that, due to some long, complex takes, there was no other option but for her cast to do most of their own stunts.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) feels more like an action movie than it does a superhero movie, especially since its big battle, last act set piece is a grounded brawl rather than a world-ending CGI extravaganza. Yan and her stunt team kept referencing Jackie Chan movies and the acclaimed Indonesian action movie The Raid while conceiving Birds of Prey’s fights, and the funhouse scene wears those influences on its tatted sleeve—especially since Jackie Chan was never afraid to get a little silly even as he was kicking ass.
Harley Quinn (perhaps showing off Robbie’s razor-sharp I, Tonya skills) roller skates around goons while bashing them in the face with her oversized hammer. Huntress, ever the dedicated vigilante, stabs the hell out of one thug while rocketing down a slide before any of the other Birds realize the fighting’s really started. All this violence takes place in a derelict carnival attraction, and prior grudges that would have been a problem on the streets of Gotham—like the one between Harley (a criminal) and Montoya (a cop)—don’t matter inside these twisted walls, a riotous circus of death and destruction.
The funhouse itself is utterly impractical as anything other than a bonkers place to hold a show-stopping battle royale, but that willingness to be fun for fun’s sake without needing to justify its existence is part of what makes Yan’s Gotham the spiritual successor to the more outlandish Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher-era Batman films. The filmmakers opted to set the fight inside of a funhouse because it’s a nifty metaphor for the “inside of Harley's mind,” but creating such an intricate set—a rotating turntable floor, ghoulish clown faces with springy tongues, and in classic Hollywood fashion, an intricate mirror maze—wasn’t easy given everything else that went into creating the scene.
“Our stunt team was starting to choreograph, but they didn't necessarily always have the exact equipment that they needed,” Yan recalls. “So they were sometimes working off of cardboard cutout versions of what the hands would look like or what the carousel would be.”
It’s fitting that Yan says it took the interlocking of different departments working in harmony to bring the barnstorming scene to life, because that’s essentially what happens for the Birds of Prey themselves. “The idea was always that we would spend time with each of the women individually and give them [each] a little corner of the funhouse where they could fight against a certain group of men or a certain gang and show off some of their skills,” Yan says. “Then they would come together at the end on the carousel, and by that point, they've all honed their skills and they're able to work seamlessly together.”
Each character was assigned their own distinctive fighting style, inspired both by the character’s background and the actresses bringing them to life. “Rosie Perez loves boxing—loves it—and so we were like, well, why don't we, make Renee Montoya a boxer or have her have some boxing training,” Yan says, adding that Black Canary had a kick-focused style inspired by Muay Thai as a nod to her comic book martial arts expertise, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s height allowed her Huntress to be a long-reaching “precision machine.”
“And then, of course, Harley is just a little bit of everything,” Yan says. “A big gymnast—really knows how to handle a mallet.”
There’s no need for the camera to cut between the four heroines once they’re united on the spinning carousel as the fight progresses (along with Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain, who is too busy trying not to die to do much fighting). Indeed, once the scene escalates to this moment, Yan wanted to have as few cuts as possible—not quite in the hopes of simulating a 1917-style single-shot spectacle, but to make the viewers feel like they’re there in the thick of the brawling. (Also, Yan notes, the spinning set-piece meant too many cuts could be disorienting.)
“Most of the time when you are shooting action, you might get to shoot, like 10 seconds at a time,” she says. “But in our case, we had takes that ran for like 30 seconds, 40 seconds.”
“There's Margot on roller skates on a moving carousel trying to do all her choreography that also has to be complete tandem with what every other woman was doing, which also had to be in complete tandem with what our camera guy was doing and our sound guy who was running behind the camera guy with a boom,” Yan explains. “And then all of that has to be a complete tandem because we had to start and stop at the same time and place in order to be able to cut for continuity.”
Despite the gloriously heightened nature of the fight, Yan endeavored to keep things relatively realistic and grounded, noting that they were “counting bullets” and “counting arrows” while choreographing the scene. Perhaps the most realistic—and relatable—part of the fight comes when Harley offers Black Canary a hair-tie, which she happily accepts. Yan says the moment came about during a conversation with screenwriter Christina Hodson.
"Women just always seem to have perfectly blown out long hair in any action sequence,” Yan says. “I've got a hairband on my wrist at all times. Like no matter what, and I don't even have very long hair. Even if I’m doing like a downward dog in yoga, I definitely have my hair up.”
“It was just so unrealistic to have perfect hair when they're kicking ass,” she adds. A carnival seemingly designed as the setting for a death match, though? Welcome to Gotham.
Plus, a great explanation for why Suicide Squad’s Joker got kicked to the curb.
Originally Appeared on GQ