Cathy Yan on 'Birds of Prey,' Gotham City, and the Power of Women

Image: Variety

2020 is shaping up to be an incredible year for women in film, particularly so when it comes to big budget numbers. With women helming tent-poles the likes of Black Widow, Mulan, and The Eternals, it feels like studios have finally worked up the guts to let women tell their own stories, and in her sophomore feature, director Cathy Yan is leading the charge.

Everyone’s favourite backflipping clown princess of crime, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), has parted ways with the Joker, and she makes it known to the whole of Gotham by exploding Ace Chemicals where the two fell in love. Now she’s lost her immunity as ‘Joker’s girl’ and has a target on her back. But, fortunately for her, so do a lot of dames in Gotham, and in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, we get to see some incredible women come together to kick ass. In introducing Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Cathy Yan has created an explosive and deliciously giddy film that will leave you jamming to Doja Cat’s ‘Boss Bitch’ on repeat.

Screen Queens’ Millicent Thomas sat down with Yan to discuss all things Gotham, hair ties, trusting your vision, and more…

SQ: Going from an acclaimed Sundance debut (2018’s Dead Pigs) to a huge studio movie is not something you hear about very often for a woman filmmaker. What was it like for you making the jump from an indie feature to something of this scale?

Cathy Yan: It was definitely a lot and it was very humbling to get the job. Then a little intimidating when you actually have to think about how to do it. I think what it’s all about as a director is making sure that the team is amazing and I had such an amazing team, both behind the camera and in front. It’s about gathering the right people and the right chemistry to make the right movie. So much of directing, I think, is casting and selecting your department heads, and then collaborating with them and encouraging them to do their best work. Because they’re all complete experts at their own craft. So, in that way, once you get the machine going, it gets easier.

How did Birds of Prey actually come to you following Dead Pigs, how did you get in the room to pitch your vision for the film?

It was only a few months after Sundance that I met with Christina Hodson [screenwriter] and Margot [Robbie], and I had heard about this movie and, frankly, I didn’t even think I was in that conversation. But we all got along really well and I think they wanted someone who understood their point of view; not just about the movie but about the world. So I just went in and I did my pitch. My point of view is very much like, I would love to do this version of the movie, and I’m just going to give it my all and if this is not what they want then that’s totally fine.

And for a movie this size to have a team as female-led as this one feels like such a huge deal. What was it like during the production process and on set to be surrounded by so many incredible women helping you tell this story?

It was such a sisterhood, we had a lot of fun. We even had pina coladas on Fridays, and it was just great to share our perspectives on things. I think where it was really obvious is when we were doing costume fittings and everyone in the room was a woman. Erin Benach, our costume designer, is so cool and she just gets it. There was just this understanding of what women wanted to wear right now that we all immediately got, so it was really fun to do these fittings because the costumes were this cool combination of street style and each woman’s personal taste, as well as what looks good on their bodies. We were of course inspired by the comic books, and what we wanted in our movie and all of that, but it was just really nice to be like, “oh that’s cool, that’s cute, you look so great in that” you know?

Yeah totally! I feel like with a lot of female superheroes they tend to just squeeze them into a catsuit and call it a day. But this really felt like the characters had a say and were having fun with their personal style.

Exactly! I wanted them to be differentiated beyond just a colour palette.

And it totally worked. So, if I’m not mistaken, you come from a journalism background. Do you feel that informs your film-making in some ways?

Definitely, I think it teaches you a lot. It teaches you how to tell a good story, what a good angle or a good take is, and how to tell stories in a way that’s compelling. In journalism you’re always trying to extrapolate the bigger picture, and think about it in the context of what’s happening in the world. I think movies do that too. There should always be the question of why is this movie being made? Why now? Why is it compelling? What does it say about the world and our culture? So that’s kind of how I like to think about the movies that I want to direct. Why now, why me, and what impact can it have?

What you say about ‘why now?’ feels relevant to Birds of Prey in particular. I noticed so many powerful nuances amongst the wildly fun action that deal with very ‘now’ subjects. Your film tackles things like sexual assault, toxic relationships, women standing up for themselves and each other. How does it feel to have a film in this new emerging superhero canon where women are allowed to tell these kinds of stories?

Yes! That’s the story I want to tell. I think that’s what made the script so compelling to me, because it’s so layered and – I said this in my pitch – it works on so many different levels. The first level is just that it’s a fun entertaining ride, you’re laughing and you’re having a good time, and hopefully the action is great and stimulating and fun. But I always look for something in the material that has that extra layer and I think this movie has a ton of those little moments and details, and ultimately the story is an encouraging one. It’s one of women who are sort of alone and lonely, or certainly don’t feel like they have the support or the strength to do what they want to do. Then they kind of come together haphazardly and realise that they may be stronger together than they are alone or apart. I think that’s just a really nice story and kind of shines a mirror on a lot of what we’re going through in the world right now.

I truly loved that about this movie. They prove in the film that they can stand on their own and define their own narrative, but they also realise that it doesn’t mean they can’t let people in and stand together also.

Like you say, there are levels in the script, especially in things like Huntress’ toy car that she gives to Cassandra [Cain]. I absolutely loved that moment because it was just so real. You know, she says, ‘You’re a child. You shouldn’t have to see this’ and she’s right.

Absolutely. I think there is almost a motherly instinct in how the other woman protect Cass. We talked a lot about each of them having their own relationship to her, and how they see themselves in her in different ways. So, as you picked up on the Huntress one – Cass is almost the same age as Huntress was when she went through her trauma. She’s almost thinking, ‘you shouldn’t have to see this just because I did.’ So that toy car was a symbol of that. Even with Renee, she’s thinking that this kid is exactly why we need to clean the streets up so we don’t have children just wandering around and having to fend for themselves. Even Harley finds a tiny little bit of maternal instinct in her for Cass too. All that heart was really prevalent in the script for me.

I loved all the characters and their relationships so much, and especially the Gotham you created for them. The film on the whole feels scrappy and rough around the edges, and it really works. This isn’t the brooding, dark, Bruce Wayne Gotham we’re used to; it’s fun and exciting and feels super alive. How did you go about finding your vision of Gotham City?

I mean, everything you said is so accurate. That’s exactly what we wanted to show, because Harley is scrappy, you know? And she’s like this weird peripheral character in many ways that has become very iconic and deserving of her own world. Since the movie is seen through her perspective, it was really fun to be able to convey that. It is very scrappy and it is outer boroughs – it feels like it’s Queens or downtown New York in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s got that kind of grit and anarchy to it, but at the same time, I didn’t want to just create like a dystopia, sad, or bleak version of Gotham. I think it can still be completely chaotic and overrun by crime and all of that, but people still live there, they still have fun. We’re still partying, because you find a way to enjoy life anyway – there’s a real resilience there.

Yeah, I found the comedy so fun! Especially in terms of the editing in the way Harley chops and changes the story and goes back to retell things. How was it working with the fourth wall in that respect?

The voice over and her telling the story was always in the script, so we knew that it had to feel very subjectively ‘Harley,’ and her rewinding and stuff meant that we could play stylistically with so many things. The actual looking to camera thing is something we found on set, it just felt right because there are moments where we felt ‘well, let’s acknowledge this;’ she’s already speaking to the audience. The whole idea is you’re just chatting with your girlfriends and Harley’s almost like ‘I have the craziest story, you’re gonna wanna hear this …oops I forgot about this moment, let’s go back!’ and so on. It’s meant to be this casual and intimate conversation as she’s retelling it to the audience.

I absolutely love where she says something like, ‘well, I’m the one telling this story so I’ll start wherever the hell I want’ and she just kind of goes all over the place. That way she asserts herself like, ‘this is how I want to tell it,’ – you’re immediately on board.

It’s definitely chaotic but I hope it all comes together and makes sense!

It comes together beautifully.

Thank you so much.

There’s one specific moment that I want to talk about in a big fight scene towards the end. Canary is beating some guy up and her hair keeps getting in her way, so Harley skates over and tosses her a hair tie and they carry on kicking ass. It felt so important, like this small gesture that’s so universal and recognisable to women. That was my favourite moment of the film for sure. Do you have a favourite moment or scene?

Gosh, I have so many. I think the hair tie for me too definitely. Oh man, I am so happy that women are really responding to that. For us it was part of that cheeky subversive tone that we had for the movie where we could kind of do anything we wanted. I remember distinctly we were already in pre-production, and Christina and I just started having this conversation about how women always have perfect hair in action movies, and oftentimes it’s down and you’re like, ‘well, that’s just completely impractical.’ We talked a lot about maintaining a certain level of practicality; we were counting bullets and accounting for Huntress’ arrows and such. You know, we wanted to make sure that if they’re sweating, they should be sweating.

So we really were like, ‘that’s ridiculous, I would put my hair up up here.’ You’re actually fighting these guys, you’re not gonna have beautiful hair, it’s not going to be blow-dried and perfect and flowing over your shoulders. And so it was it was our way of commenting on that. I love that moment because I feel it says a lot about what our movie is.

It definitley sums up the feeling of the whole thing, for sure. Finally, at Screen Queens we work to raise the voices of both women critics and women filmmakers. I wondered if you could share any advice that you maybe received from other women coming into this industry that you would want young filmmakers to know?

I think, as women, we tend to not give ourselves the credit that we deserve. We are just taught from a young age to be modest, and modesty is great, but for years i thought I didn’t have the strength or I wasn’t confident enough to direct when I could have spent all that time actually learning to direct. It worked out obviously, and I’m happy for that, but I think there is so much self doubt that we women have. I think it would be really nice to keep encouraging yourself and then also finding other women to encourage and not be in competition with.

That’s something else that we have to try to unlearn. It’s something that inevitably happens when you grow up in a world where there is like only one female CEO so you think, ‘oh well the jobs taken!’ or people start to pit you against each other for the one ‘woman spot.’ To unlearn all of that and then just encourage everyone else around you, and all the women around you, to lean into your own creativity and be able to find confidence in yourself that you can do this. Because there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be as many female directors as there is male, and I think there’s a different way of leading people that is innately maybe a little more feminine that is very, very interesting, and creates a very warm and loving environment on set. So, just lean into all of that.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is in cinemas Friday

by Millicent Thomas

Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Dazed, SciFiNow, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm

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