In one soon-to-be classic scene from Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) enters a Gotham police department in full glamourpuss regalia: a broad black hat perched over a fuchsia silk scarf, a sleek trench coat, and Audrey Hepburn sunglasses.
“Can I help you?” an officer asks.
“Why yes,” she purrs in her best received pronunciation. “I’m here to report a terrible crime.”
“And what terrible crime is that?” the officer replies, clearly uninterested in helping her. Before he knows it, the woman before him has shed her glossy outerwear, revealing high-waisted denim shorts, red suspenders, and a shotgun loaded with glitter pellets and bean bags. “This one,” she crows, taking aim.
Director Cathy Yan pitched DC’s Harley Quinn spinoff movie using clips from The Bachelor and Keeping Up With The Kardashians alongside Max Max: Fury Road. Her ethos? Understand the system you’re challenging (The Bachelor and KUWTK being the system), and then set it on fire (a la Mad Max). Like Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, Robbie’s Harley Quinn is an unpredictable threat to the men who run her society. But instead of a cropped haircut and leather armour, she wields the very girly trappings used to control her as lethal weapons. It’s 2020, and women no longer have to sacrifice pink and sequins to kick ass.
Subtitled “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” (although the title has been changed in certain cinemas) the movie follows its protagonist as she twists, twirls, and cons her way out from under ex-boyfriend and former partner in crime Joker’s thumb, establishing her own legend and following in the process. “All of the women are underestimated in this movie,” Yan said during an interview at Refinery29’s New York offices. “Harley's underestimated. [Men] think that she's just a girlfriend, or she's crazy and fun and sexy, but not capable.”
Yan knows what that’s like. “I'm a small Asian girl, and I certainly have been underestimated before,” she said. “Sometimes that can be used to your advantage.”
That could be the tagline for Birds of Prey, which assembles a crew of unlikely misfits with few options other than to work together to survive. Faced with the threat of Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask, Harley Quinn reluctantly teams up with child pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the revenge-seeking Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), whose voice is so powerful it can literally shatter glass. In true Bachelor parlance, none of these women are here to make friends — in fact, they’ve been trained to think they’re natural enemies. But necessity breeds innovation, and they soon realise that their strength lies in numbers.
Yan only had a couple of shorts and one indie film under her belt when she was tapped to helm Warner Bros.’ Harley Quinn spinoff, written by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) and produced by Robbie’s LuckyChap shingle. It’s the kind of career blastoff story one usually hears about male directors: Colin Treverrow famously made the jump from a debut indie feature with a $750,000 budget (Safety Not Guaranteed) to a $150 million studio blockbuster when Steven Spielberg hand-picked him to direct Jurassic World. But it’s no happy coincidence — with LuckyChap, Robbie has leveraged her own success in order to lift up other women creatives who might otherwise be shut out of the industry. Birds of Prey marks the very first time a woman of Asian descent has helmed a studio-backed superhero film, one with a reported budget of nearly $100 million.
The China-born Yan grew up in northern Virginia, where her family encouraged her burgeoning artistic streak. Still, she never once thought that this was a passion she could pursue professionally. “I didn't see anyone much like me doing it,” she said. “I come from an immigrant family that was very much about academia, even though I had very creative parents. It just wasn't anything that seemed possible or even within my world.”
At 14, Yan and her parents moved to Hong Kong. She came back to the United States for college, attending Princeton University, where she received a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2008. She worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal before enrolling at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to pursue a dual MBA/MFA degree. And even then, she thought she’d go on to be a producer. “It really took me actually meeting people who were going to film school [to even] give me an opportunity to think of [directing] as something I could do.”
Just days before Birds of Prey’s release, Yan sat down with Refinery29 to talk about the challenges of breaking into Hollywood, and why it’s time to take a glitter gun to the idea of the perfect woman.
Refinery29: We’ve seen women villains before, and even anti-heroes, but they’re rarely fun, playful characters in the way that men get to be. How did you toe the line between making Harley someone we can root for without giving her a moral redemption arc?
Cathy Yan: The likeability thing is a huge conversation. I lucked out having Margot [Robbie] — she’s just so likeable, and she's infinitely watchable and able to bring charisma and heart and charm to the character. Because the character can be really annoying, I think it was about showing the sides of her that I think people can immediately empathise with. Whether it’s being a little bit of a hot mess after that breakup, or her love for an egg sandwich, there's these moments throughout the movie where Harley does redeem herself. But I don't think any of [the Birds of Prey] would be described as likeable, and I'll take that as a badge of honour.
Was it always your intention that these women wouldn’t really get along, but team up out of necessity?
That was something that I really wanted to tease out of the script: This suspicion towards one another. That's unfortunately the system that we were born and bred into. It's [been] so nice to see that get dismantled in recent years, but also I think we have to be realistic and acknowledge that most of our lives, there was that one spot. There's just so much institutionalised competition, and that was a story that I wanted to tell. But it doesn't also have to be this kumbaya moment. It can be what it is, which is they are suspicious, they had to work together, and through them working together, through them fighting together, that's when they start to like each other. But even then, they don't always have to get along.
The female gaze is so hard to describe — it’s like obscenity: You know it when you see it. What does it mean to you in the context of this film?
It’s about respecting the characters as opposed to seeing [them] in any sort of objectified way, and also celebrating the woman behind the character. Every single woman on our set has spent a long time in this industry. Mary[-Elizabeth Winstead] and Jurnee [Smollett-Bell] were both child actors, and Margot started when she was young, too. Rosie [Perez] has been around for a while in the most epic way. They all spoke about [how] was really nice to be on set and not feel like their guard is up, and have to be the one woman being like, "Can we not have that camera be down there?"
And I don't think that it's as black-and-white as male or female per se. Matty Libatique was our [director of photography], and he is thoughtful and sensitive. It's not so defined by pure gender. I think it's more just the attitude of respect and caring more about the performance and the characters as opposed to something else.
There’s been some backlash from male fans who claim that Harley’s outfits are less sexy in this film than they were in Suicide Squad. What’s your response?
I actually think Harley probably has more skin exposed than what she wears in Suicide Squad. For me, it's the fit of the pants; it's a high-waisted short, which is just more flattering on most women, and something Margot was more comfortable with. I remember the first time Margot put on that confetti jacket, she just didn't want to take it off, and you know then and there that it's right. It was never my intent to top down create these costumes, but more like, Let's just have fun with it. What do you want to wear? What is going to make you feel cool and badass, and look good? What are you wearing right now that would be interesting for us to even pull from? Those are the kinds of conversations we were having.”
The casting of this film also marks a change in the culture — the fact that you not only have several women, but also women of colour, of varying ages. That’s still rare.
Someone like Ella Jay Basco [who plays Cassandra Cain] is so heartening to me because she is a great version of the future. She's got such a good head on her shoulders, and she is so confident in herself. [She] doesn't want to be anyone else and her family is so supportive of that. Her friends are so supportive of that. She just doesn't seem to have the neuroses that I think I grew up with, and if she can help show that to other girls like her, or even younger than she is, I think that's remarkable.
I read that you fought to cast Rosie Perez because the character wasn't originally written for a woman her age. Is that true?
Yeah. I always adored Rosie, and I liked the idea that when you saw all the women together, they did make sense, but not in the way you would expect. Just having this diversity in every single way. I think it does mean a lot for women of a certain age to see someone like that — and she's doing all of her own stunts!
The action scenes in the movie feel very specific to the considerations women might have during those moments. What were those like to film?
I spoke a lot about that with Jonathan Eusebio, our stunt coordinator. How can we make it somewhat realistic that they can beat these men? Like how are they better at the craft of kicking ass? Maybe they are just better fighters. That's one way that they can beat them. Another way is to actually utilise their size or their flexibility. There are several nut shots in the movie — where can you hit the guy that's going to cause the most harm? It's a lot of just figuring out what levers we can pull to make it feel more realistic, as opposed to "She pushes him and he falls."
You directed one indie before taking on this big studio movie. That’s usually the kind of story we hear from male directors — how did it happen in your case?
My first feature, Dead Pigs, went to Sundance [in 2018]. And then a month or two after that I met with Christina Hodson, the [Birds of Prey] screenwriter. We share very similar backgrounds, and it was really nice to see someone pretty close to my age doing it because at that point she had already written Bumblebee. And then I met Margot, and again, she's such an impressive person, but someone that I felt at least some sort of kinship towards and I could relate to. Having those discussions was very encouraging because they were role models. And then I went in and pitched the movie, and it all happened really quickly.
You said you feel connected to this story — are there elements that you pulled from your own life experience?
You said you feel connected to this story — are there elements that you pulled from your own life experience?
In subtle ways. Ewan [McGregor] and I talked about what small little triggers that we women have experienced before, and about just peppering it in when it felt right. Towards the end of one scene he just goes, "Do as you're told." It's these little microaggressions — for a long time I think we didn't even know what they were. It was just reality. I remember so distinctly that video that came out where a woman was just walking down Canal Street and [filmed] all the cat-calls. I can finally walk down Canal Street now without someone either cat-calling me or saying konichiwa to me. It was not so long ago when that was completely appropriate.
2020 is being hailed as a turning point for women in the industry — five major studio films being released, including this one, are directed by women. How do we make sure it’s not a one-off?
It's a sustainability question now. We know that women can get hired in these roles. 2020 has proven that, and hopefully all the movies do well enough that it proves there is a demand for that kind of movie. I think the next step is: Are female directors on lists for movies that are not about women? I think we all want to do it all. Margot is an incredibly good example — she is making her own future, and she's empowering others and creating this community. I didn't think I would use the MBA portion of my dual degree when I was going to film school, but it’s extremely important to have as much control over everything over your creative decisions as a director.
What do you hope women who see Birds of Prey take away from it?
I want them to celebrate the fact that the women that they see on screen are anything but perfect. They can still be badass and sexy, but they can also be really tortured and wrong, and unlikeable, and a little difficult. We can all let go of this need to be so perfect all the time.