How ‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Saved Harley Quinn From Joker and the Male Gaze
The first Asian-American woman to direct a superhero film opens up to Melissa Leon about giving Harley Quinn the crazy-fun movie she deserves.
Before shooting the bone-crunching, playfully violent action scenes ahead of them, director Cathy Yan was upfront with her actresses: Sweat stains would not be optional.
Yan’s second feature, the glitter-explosive girl-gang movie Birds of Prey, starring the DC universe antiheroine Harley Quinn, thrives on its singularity—its exuberant girliness, its irreverence, and its many inventive sequences of hand-to-hand combat. Actresses including Margot Robbie (playing Quinn herself) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (as the killer songbird Black Canary) performed many of their own practical stunts, a point of pride for Yan. Rather than obscure their movements on screen through editing or CG, the director chose to “show these women as they are”—their faces, sweat, physicality, unruly hair and all. Yan laughs recalling spritzing Smollett-Bell on set: “We were like, ‘Does she have enough sweat now?’”
Touches of authenticity and femininity shape Birds of Prey, a product of its talent both in front of and behind the camera. Robbie, through her own production banner LuckyChap Entertainment, enlisted Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) to create the ensemble action movie, a showcase for the lady prankster after her big-screen introduction in 2016’s Suicide Squad. The difference in the ways both films regard Harley Quinn is stark: where Suicide Squad fixated mostly on the sexiness of her curves and her abuse at the hands of The Joker, Birds of Prey recasts her as a winsomely flawed action hero. With Mr. J firmly in her rearview, Harley can finally reinvent herself—she just has to figure out who she is without him first.
With Birds of Prey, Yan also becomes the first Asian-American woman to direct a superhero movie. Her Chinese-born, American-raised background (and past life as a Wall Street Journal reporter) informed the 33-year-old director’s Sundance prize-winning debut feature, Dead Pigs (2018). Traces of that film’s dark-humored eccentricity can be felt through Birds of Prey—the film’s tone is what convinced Robbie that Yan was perfect for the gig. (Plus, she could ensure yet another measure of authenticity: Harley’s apartment, nestled in the Chinatown of a sunnier, scrappier version of Gotham, is stocked with the canned fish and vinegars Yan remembers from childhood. “I don’t want this Kikkoman bullshit!” became a philosophy.)
Yan spoke with The Daily Beast about more of the work that went into Birds of Prey—from production design to stunt work to Raging Bull and Hannibal Lecter references, to the importance of fun and the female gaze. (And bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches.) Read our conversation below.
OK, as a person whose favorite color is pink and whose favorite movies include The Thing, I felt like Birds of Prey’s blend of girliness and grisliness was made for me.
(Laughs) You’re the perfect audience for this!
I was at the early screening in New York where you and the cast made a surprise appearance. You chose the word “subversive” to describe the movie then. What does it subvert in your eyes, and how?
I think, for me, it’s got that subversive attitude. It is exactly everything you said where we can pair glitter with peeling off faces and it’s [got] an attitude that I don't think you see that often from women-led movies—just kind of unapologetic, no holds barred. And it all stems from Harley Quinn. That's the way that she sees the world, that’s who she is. She’s unpredictable and nutty, but at the same time, she can be so sweet and vulnerable and she sees everything with this childlike wonder at the same time that she’s completely capable of crazy amounts of violence.
So, first, I think it is subverting maybe an expectation of what a female-driven and female-led superhero movie could be like. Certainly when I first read the script, I was just wowed that something like this could exist and could be made. And then of course, very thankful that I got to be a part of it. For better or worse, I think that it is pretty unusual from that perspective.
There are a lot of fans for whom Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the single best part of Suicide Squad, though we only see her through a very specific lens in that movie. It can be and has been described as very male gaze-y. I wondered what you knew you wanted to do differently in terms of how you photographed the actresses in Birds of Prey.
I’m attracted to multi-dimensional, complicated female characters and I’m hoping we were able to do that with this movie. That just meant celebrating them for who they are on the inside as much as on the outside—staying mostly on the face because that’s where the performance is. Allowing the female actors to feel really good about themselves, to feel confident when they walked on set, to feel comfortable that when they do a kick, you know, that they don't have to worry about that. That we got them. But also that they just felt really good in what they were wearing. That was really the impetus for a lot of the costumes. Obviously, we took so much inspiration from the comic books themselves, as well as street style, current trends, all of that. But a lot of it was just making sure that our actors could be the best versions of themselves. So yeah, it really came out of that.
Each of the movie’s action sequences has its own distinct style. Whether it’s Harley and Cass fighting goons under a sprinkler system and splashing in slow motion, or Black Canary’s fight in the alley that plays like a ’70s action movie scene. What was it like honing in on the vision for each of those?
A lot of it came down to the characters that were in the scene. So, with Black Canary, she's a bit more rough around the edges, she's a fighter from the streets, and therefore it felt right that her action sequence in the alley would have a bit more of that vibe to it. And I always thought that she’s so soulful. We put her in almost flared jeans—again, a little bit of that reference to the ’70s, and of course the music that we use. It was a way to just draw out her character, that soulfulness, but also the kind of more street, rough fighting style.
And then when you get to Harley and all of her fight sequences when she’s fighting alone, then it’s really just like, what wild, crazy thing can we do and how can we make it fun and visually stimulating and wild and unpredictable and silly and funny? That’s all Harley, and so a lot of her action sequences had that element to it. With Huntress, she’s so precise. She’s a trained assassin, she’s very elegant in her movement. So aesthetically, when we cut back to her in the flashbacks when she's training, it’s kind of got that vibe. Hopefully they didn’t differ so much that it felt whiplash-y in any way, but we definitely did try to highlight the character of the fighters themselves.
I was surprised to see the women actually sweat when they fight, too. And their hair gets noticeably in the way.
Those sorts of touches are so ordinary and human. Why was showing them that way important to you?
It was so important! I mean, we talked about it right away. I remember for Canary’s fight, we would actually add sweat to her. We were like, “Does she have enough sweat now?” And when she had that follow-up scene with Zsasz, we made sure that she stayed sweaty. Because that was really important to me. I even said from the get-go, I was like, I hope you guys are okay with sweat stains, because if it happens, it happens. I’m not gonna do anything about it. I really wanted to show these women as imperfect human beings, and that they can still be aspirational. They can still be these superheroes, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect. I think that we’re burdened as women with perfection all the time. And I thought it’d be nice to see something different onscreen and celebrate what makes them different. They're all undeniably still beautiful and sexy and all that, because it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
You also have several of the actresses doing a lot of their own stunts. That allowed you to shoot longer takes where viewers can actually follow the characters’ movements and the action is more exciting. What were some of the challenges of doing it that way?
I mean, mainly just how they were able to do it for so long. They were all amazing, they all trained for months. Margot is an exceptional skater. Jurnee had so much to do because of the legwork and making it look great and getting that power and the spin and all that—it’s really really, really tough technically. It’s kind of remarkable actually. We casted them purely based off the merit of their acting, and it just turned out that they all ended up being incredible, physically fit, extremely capable action stars as well. A lot of them had dance training, which I think really helped. But again, it was just very important to me that I show these women as they are, and show their physicality and their actual strength and not create that strength and power through editing or really fancy gadgets or superpowers. Of course, you do have one big moment where there’s a superpower but for the most part, it’s all hand-to-hand combat. We talked a lot about that and keeping it practical and real. We counted bullets, we counted arrows for Huntress. We didn’t always primp their hair. That was part of it too, the authenticity of the action itself and of the women you see on camera doing it. The way that we shot it made it almost impossible sometimes to switch them out for a stuntperson.
A lot of the movie’s characters are very, very different from their comic-book counterparts. Cassandra Cain is a particularly striking example. What went into shaping this new version of her, alongside screenwriter Christina Hodson and actress Ella Jay Basco?
Cass is the heart of the movie, I think. I would talk a lot about, “Do we fear for Harley's soul?” There’s a bit of an existential crisis in terms of who Harley is and her finding herself. Is she good, is she bad, is she ultimately neither—and both? It turns out she is all those things. She finds a little bit of a soul and that she does care. She has a heart, and that heart doesn’t have to be trained on an obsessive love towards Joker. And I think Cass is integral to that, you know? That relationship is really the central relationship of the movie for me. I think Harley liked seeing herself the way that Cass sees her, because I don’t think that Harley had a lot of self-esteem. She’s very, very confident in many ways, and she’s incredibly capable, but you don’t come out of a relationship like that with the Joker and just be completely fine. She’s been torn down. She’s terrified of being alone. And I think she really loved the way Cass sees her, as someone that is capable of love and can be responsible and can be good.
In the comics, Cass is raised without the use of her voice as an ultra-skilled assassin. Here, she’s this precocious, mouthy street kid and an extremely good pick-pocket. What was the significance of those changes to you?
All of these comic book characters have been reinterpreted time and time again, even within the comics, so there's a bit of flexibility and freedom that I think Christina felt with the script. And it felt right to, if we are going to have a 12-year-old, to have a 12-year-old that does have agency. Someone that can speak up and speak her own mind—especially, frankly, an Asian girl. That was really important to us, and I like that about her. And it was cool to give her a quote-unquote superpower that was very practical, which is that she’s just a really, really good pick-pocket. That was fun to see and it pays off in spades at the end of the movie. And when we found Ella, it was great because she’s just so organic and very authentic. She wasn’t, like, prepped and primed to be a child star. She’s just a real kid. That’s what we needed for this role.
The movie also takes place in a version of Gotham unlike what we’ve seen in the other DCEU movies. It’s a lot brighter, weirder, and more intimate, like a neighborhood.
Mhm, yes! I love that you picked that up.
Why did that feel like the right kind of setting for a Harley Quinn story?
The neighborhood-y thing was partially because of the story itself. There’s so many interconnections and people running into each other. Just purely the plausibility of that. I used the reference of Raging Bull and a lot of mob movies where it’s like a neighborhood and they rule this corner of the neighborhood, and that’s the way it is. It just felt right. Harley does have her dealings with Bruce Wayne and those big baddies, but we love the idea that this [Gotham] is scrappier, this is on the fringe, this is in the outer boroughs or way downtown and not at the center of power—because the center of power is, you know, a patriarchy, and that’s not what this movie is about. So we kind of stayed away from that.
Even Roman is a bit of a fringe character. He aspires to rule Gotham, but he isn’t quite there yet. He’s getting there. And I like that. I love that element of the world where everyone is a little bit sassy and sneaky and everyone knows each other. Like in Raging Bull, it’s in such tight quarters that you can hear your neighbors yelling at each other and having an argument while you’re in the room next door. That felt really right to me. I’m from New York, so I really wanted to create that sense of just everyone living on top of each other.
And a good chunk of it takes place in a Chinatown, since Harley lives above a Chinese restaurant owned by a guy named Doc. Combined with the movie’s sense of humor and weirdness, it did make me think a bit of your first feature, Dead Pigs. What went into production designing those parts of the movie?
I love that. That was in the script, Christina wrote the character of Doc that way and Harley always lived at the top of a Chinese restaurant. That was so fun for me because, obviously, it’s personal and it was amazing to just be able to create that again. Even little things, like when we were production-designing Harley’s apartment, since it’s above Doc’s, I specified the exact type of vinegar that I wanted and the exact type of canned fish that I ate as a child to K.K. Barrett, our production designer. Like, “This is what we’re using. I don’t want this, like, Kikkoman bullshit.” (Laughs) You know, like, if we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right.
Speaking of food: Harley and the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Just the way she looks at it, the way it lights up the room. I felt seen.
(Laughs) That's the real female gaze!
Honestly. It’s a super fun moment, but it’s also functional—it comes early in the movie and tells us a lot about this new take on Harley Quinn.
That goes back to this idea of being subversive. Like, as soon as I read that scene in the script too, I was like, I am soo sold. But it says a lot about who Harley is. She’s just not a logical human being. She’s going to make terrible decisions and focus on the wrong things, but at the same time, there’s something unbelievably relatable about that because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been hangry. I really related to that in a profound way. (Laughs) And again, I grew up in New York and I live in New York. I know what that feels like, going to that corner bodega or store and getting that egg sandwich. So that we all felt very, very much that we had to get right.
The movie also has a hugely magnetic villain in Roman Sionis, who is both funny and frighteningly insecure. How did you and Ewan work out this new version of the character?
Ugh, I love Roman. I really do. It started with really wanting to make sure that Roman was someone that you would hate to love and love to hate. That you actually really enjoy spending time with him, or you think he’s very funny or charming, and of course Ewan has all of those things and a certain theatricality about him, and he’s a gentleman, too, which was really fun. That made him so perfect for the role. Roman comes from a good family and he’s got a big chip on his shoulder because that family hasn’t treated him particularly well. He’s the black sheep, the guy who has never really been able to get the love and the attention and respect he so desires from his parents, so he lashes out.
We had so many different references for Roman, even Hannibal Lecter—again, someone who is an iconic villain but also incredibly charming and can talk to you about, like, wines. (Laughs) Roman has that too. He has great taste! I was like, I want him to look great. I want him to look very heightened but still like he has taste. It was very important that we make his apartment look appealing in a way, that he has interesting art, that he collects interesting things. Because he’s a collector—he collects masks and artifacts and humans and women and beings. He loves to be the center of attention and he loves to be in control, and I think partially that’s because he can’t really control his own emotions.
I also found it interesting that when the women all do finally work together, it’s only because they genuinely no longer have a choice. It isn’t until after they’ve teamed up that they realize they actually do sort of enjoy each other’s company.
Yeah, we talked a lot about that. There were different versions of Harley’s speech, if you will. We knew we always wanted to flip it—again, back to the whole subversive thing—and not just do it the way that you would expect every other rousing, “let’s come together” speech in a movie to be. Margot knows Harley so well and she was like, Harley is not someone that is going to give that whole positivity speech. She’s very, very intelligent but, let me remind you, also a pretty bad person sometimes. It’s going to be a little bit more straightforward. And I love that. Renee was chasing Harley and Harley hated Renee. Canary finds Harley the most annoying person in the world. There’s tension between Huntress and Canary too, until they finally find respect for each other. I liked that they had a little bit of tension and conflict and it didn’t just miraculously disappear when they decided to work together.
But that was really fun. And much more realistic, in a way. The theme I love about this movie is that you are stronger together than you are apart. But understandably, we have to, as women, sometimes unlearn some of that instinct to be competitive with other women, because there used to only be that one part, or that one position, or that one role.
By the end of the movie, Harley isn’t reformed into a good person. She isn’t a good guy now or a Bird of Prey herself. She’s still a criminal, an antihero.
That’s what I always loved about it. Again, going back to the subversive thing: It’s not what you expect. Margot was very, very, very confident about that. She just knows who Harley is, and she knows what Harley isn’t. And Harley is just never going to be a perfect heroine. She does some good, but she also does some bad. And she loves hanging out with the ladies, but ultimately, she’s too much of her own bird. (Laughs)