A Harley Quinn movie has been a long time coming, and after the breakout success of Margot Robbie‘s live-action take on the character in Suicide Squad, it was only a matter of time before the beloved antihero got her moment in the spotlight. But Robbie, who wisely built herself a producing career alongside her rising spotlight as an A-List actress, earning Oscar prestige for her production banner Lucky Chap right out of the gate with their first feature I, Tonya. In keeping, Robbie didn’t wait around for her shot at a Harley movie, she pitched it to the studio herself while filming Suicide Squad, and thus, the seed that would become Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn were planted.
But every good movie needs a good director and so Robbie and Warner Bros. set out to find the right fit for their girl gang DC movie, and ultimately settled on Cathy Yan. The up-and-coming filmmaker has a bit of a mystery factor to her; her debut feature Dead Pigs screened at Sundance but has yet to be released. So what made her the right director? Robbie cited an admiration for the way Dead Pigs handled the demands of ensemble storytelling, but ultimately, it all came down to the pitch. “I remember writing copious notes every time we spoke to someone,” Robbie said, “and Cathy came in, and my page, there was just a big smiley face. I was just like, “It was perfect. She’s perfect for it.”
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the set of Birds of Prey on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, where we had the chance to speak to Yan and hear first-hand just what that pitch entailed and how she approached her Harley Quinn movie.
I’m curious just about the fact that this movie is kind of being told from her perspective and the idea of like just laying her in as an unreliable narrator and also is she an actual narrator?
CATHY YAN: She is the narrator and she’s definitely unreliable. Which is part of the fun of the film.
We heard a little bit about films that were influencing this like The Professional and like but can you talk a little bit about that?
YAN: Sure. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of influences on the film. I mean, the way that I sort of talked about the structure of the film is a bit like Pulp Fiction meets Rashomon. So it’s an unconventional structure. There’s a for me there’s a lot of my favorite filmmakers that are influenced, that have influences on this film so like Tarantino obviously. The Professional for sure, especially the relationship between Harley and Cass. We actually have a few like oh I guess I would say like odes to certain films in the movie. Watch out for that. And then also just we also visually I think very much influenced by A Clockwork Orange as well. And that and like the Milk Bar. The Black Mask Club has a lot of that. The female figures, I’ve been kind of reinterpreting that. The Mod style, the ’70s era. We really tried to make this film look like nothing that you’ve seen from a superhero movie before. And really ground it in a reality and in some of the films that I’ve loved through the years.
Speaking of odes to films, I’m curious if you could talk at all about how you kind of took something, a character that was established elsewhere and maybe paint odes to any other films in the shared universe, but also made it isolated ’cause that seems to be the theme of today?
YAN: Yeah. It’s definitely a challenge because you wanna pay homage to not just the comic books, but then also the films before it and obviously we’ve seen Margot play Harley before in Suicide Squad. And so it’s definitely a fun challenge to figure out like what do we keep from that version of Harley and what we differentiate. I think that given what the story’s about and her emancipation and that she’s out on her own, she’s not gonna do the Joker and with Suicide Squad she’s so connected to the Joker. I mean, their story is so intertwined. It really is their love story if you will. But this is not. And so I think that gave us a lot of opportunity to say, what is she like, not necessarily post-Joker but just in almost like a parallel universe, and allowed I think all of us the freedom to say like we’re gonna create a different Gotham.
And then, of course, we do keep certain things that is very Harley-esque. Like her tattoos have remained the same. Her hair is a little different, but it feels like a natural like arc to her character from Suicide Squad. And she still remains recognizable I think. And even her like white skin. We do a different patina on it so it feels a little bit different. It’s less thickly white I would say. But those are all like still touchpoints for sure.
Is there like an amount of time that we’ll see has passed since the last time we saw her that you can share?
YAN: There is not any known amount of time. No.
YAN: Yeah. It kind of exists in a parallel timeline.
Can you talk about your casting for Jurnee as Canary and Mary Elizabeth as Huntress? ‘Cause obviously Margot Robbie was established as Harley Quinn, but bringing them into play opposite her.
YAN: Yeah, sure. We really cast everyone. We didn’t, we saw everyone. We had them do chemistry reads and both Jurnee and Mary just like gave such depth to their characters. I think that’s what was really compelling about them immediately from the get-go. Like there’s such personality to them. And they become — when I cast them, [I was] always looking also to find like a similar soul in the actors as well as the characters that they play.
So I think with Jurnee, I mean, she’s just so like intelligent and deep and like grounded and she manages to be both like very soft but also really street smart and tough, which was very much Canary. And then I think with Huntress, Huntress has such an interesting back story and the psychology of someone who frankly is a little bit like has potentially P.T.S.D. and just like reeling from all of that. And Mary was able to really understand that and bring the depth to it so that she became yeah, a real character and not just like a badass. Yeah.
YAN: Yeah. And Rosie, I mean, I’ve loved, I’ve been a big fan of Rosie Perez for many years. I think for me I wanted when I first read the script I always sort of imagined a bit of a more mature Renee as like a nice balance to the other women and the way I’ve always described this group is like it’s a motley crew. Like you’re not, you don’t, they don’t look like the typical girl gang and I liked that. I like that they come together kind of unconventionally and randomly. And so with Rosie, I mean, she just brings such like strength to the role and such personality as well. And she’s just yeah, she’s awesome.
Superhero movies you’re used to seeing a lot of big visual effects from Marvel, DC, whatever, everything we’ve seen here is pretty grounded. Are there a lot of visual effects or is it more in-camera practical?
YAN: Yeah. There’s it’s I would say it’s mostly in-camera and practical. It’s just the way I like to work. And it is again just a it came from the story and the script itself being more grounded. And so this film is definitely that. I mean, we definitely have some visual effects but it’s mostly just to augment whatever we’ve been shooting in-camera.
Your producers are so enamored with your ideas coming into the project. Can you talk about — know you can’t reveal everything, but about your pitch when you were trying to get the role for director?
CATHY: Sure. I mean, frankly, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And I’d put together I think this is public now, so I put together like a little pitch deck that just had all my thoughts about the aesthetics of the film and the world. And then I also kind of created a sizzle reel, but it wasn’t like a sizzle reel where it just was like here’s a reference and here’s another reference and here’s another reference.
But to me the story’s super compelling and personal to me because it is about emancipation, about women sort of like almost being competitive with one another and bringing each other down, but also because of our own inabilities I think to feel so powerless and like the stranglehold that is the patriarchy. And so I feel like I very much have gone through that arc myself, so and I’ve seen it with especially I think set against the backdrop of like #MeToo and what has been happening in our industry in the last few years. So that definitely infiltrated its way into my pitch as well. So that for me this film was so much more than a superhero film about like and the first girl gang film or any of that. But it really has a compelling narrative and theme to it that is very, very personal to me.