Birds Of Prey Screenwriter Christina Hodson Wants A Fantabulous Emancipation Of The Action Genre, Too
Our story seemingly begins in August of 2016, when Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad hits theaters and becomes a bonafide hit, grossing over $300 million. While the film is largely a vehicle for a series of despicable male characters, through the multicolored clouds of laughing gas and hot air waltzes Harleen Quinzell, aka Harley Quinn. In a matter of weeks, the Margot Robbie character captures audiences’ hearts, driving Harley to become the most popular Halloween costume that year, and the subject of an endless stream of thinkpieces. Now, she leads 2020’s Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn). But in truth, Harley’s story actually began long before her face was on billboards and her name was on movie tickets. Cut back to the summer of 2015 and a meeting between Robbie and screenwriter Christina Hodson. Theirs was supposed to be a typical industry meet-cute: coffee arranged by the agent that both women share. But that’s not how the story actually goes.
“It very quickly descended into mimosas and pizza first thing in the morning on a Wednesday,” Hodson tells Refinery29 with a laugh over the phone the day of the movie’s release. Robbie was still shooting Suicide Squad at the time, but already she had her heart set on an R-rated Harley Quinn movie featuring the Birds of Prey, a female-led group of vigilante crime fighters from DC Comics. Hodson recalls thinking the idea was “a tall order,” but it didn’t take much convincing from Robbie: “It was just a really great meeting of the minds. I totally just fell in love with Margot. I loved this idea of seeing women together. We so rarely get to see like a gang of women who are on screen; it's so often one or two women in a big action movie and there's competitiveness and cattiness between them. And that was not true for either of us in our lives.”
From there, Hodson and Robbie worked on developing the film together and then took up the task of pitching the studio. Though she had done the screenplay for Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, this would be Hodson’s first major comic book adaptation (she’s slated to take on The Flash and Batgirl films next). Nevertheless, away they went.
“It was definitely tough; we went through a number of iterations. Interestingly, we did kind of end up coming full circle, and our initial pitch does actually feel quite a lot like the finished movie. But it was a tough battle,” says Hodson. Her initial script, now framed and hung on her office wall by her “sweet” husband, is covered in a Harleyesque mess of Post-Its and multicolored masking tape. Eventually, that colorful document earned the support of then-new DC Films president Walter Hamada, who Hodson calls a champion for the Harley-focused film. “He was just like, ‘Let's get this made.’”
"I grew up watching quote-unquote boys movies, and I hate that there is this false perception that action movies are for guys."
Birds of Prey Screenwriter Christina Hodson
The tough sells, per Hodson, were some of the things that the writer and star-producer excitedly mapped out in their initial plan: The pure, non-catty sisterhood among the Birds, the R-rating, and the quintessentially Harley Quinn (see: non-linear) timeline.
“It was just about finding a way to tell each of the women's stories. I wanted each of them to feel like she was in her own movie in some ways and then have them colliding together in the third act, so that when we finally I'm getting them together, it feels satisfying,” says Hodson, acknowledging that it’s hard to make any supergrouping feel fresh in a post-Avengers-Guardians-of-The-Galaxy-Justice-League-Suicide-Squad world. “We’ve seen so many of them by now.”
The timeline, as messy as it is, was their perfect solution.
“It’s always tricky to try to pitch that, as you can imagine. It's difficult, but once we had that on the page, people understood that there was a method behind the madness. It felt like Harley Quinn; even when you're in a Huntress section or a Canary section or a Renee section, you still feel the presence of Harley.” And that’s important, considering that Harley is the character that brings people to the theater, but also because, as Hodson well knows, Harley is not traditionally a member of the Birds of Prey in the comics. There needs to be a reason she finds herself in their midst.
Next came the dressing, including the unforgettable C-plot that is the “murder” of Harley Quinn’s beloved bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich. In an early scene, Harley celebrates her emancipation (and a hangover after drunkenly blowing up the power plant where she and the Joker first declared their love) by visiting her local bodega for a Gotham delicacy. This was Hodson’s idea, after living in actual Gotham — New York City — for three years. She was absolutely determined to ensure the film got it right, with the help of Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan and Robbie.
“Cathy, Margot, and I all absolutely knew what the egg sandwich was, but anytime anyone else tried to like send us the photo of one we were like no, no, no, no, no. Go to any bodega in New York and just get a $2 sandwich. The paper's different; the bread's different. It's a very specific thing,” she says with a laugh.
There are also details that only a woman would know to put in — including one that Black Canary actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell couldn’t overlook. “I love the little bits that feel like, That was definitely written by a woman,” she told Refinery29 via phone in early February, referring specifically to the moment in the climactic battle when Harley offers Black Canary a hair tie so she can finish the fight without hair in her face. That moment, in particular, was actually born out of a gripe often shared between Hodson and her sister after watching so many women in action movies fight with long, luxurious locks — “If we’re going to do it to eat food, wouldn’t we tie up our hair to fight dozens of bad guys?” But Hodson says that detail is really more the natural effect of a woman holding the pen.
“You're a woman, you can't help but write as a woman,” she notes. “I just am one and there are things that can come out.”
Because Hodson knows this to be true, she and Robbie teamed up with Robbie’s LuckyChap productions to start a writing program specifically for women trying to break into the studio action movie genre so that more of these films can be written from a female perspective. They self-funded the project and plan to take each writer out to the major studios in 2020 with the hope that even if their films don’t get made, these women could be the next crop of big-budget action writers. As she describes the workshop, which took place in late 2019, she can’t help but compare the group — whose ideas range from action-horror to a rom-com style action movie — to her own big screen fivesome.
“Not to be a giant cheese ball, but it was like real-life Birds of Prey,” says Hodson. “In theory, these women should be in competition with one another, but they're not, because that's how it is in real life. In real life, we want to help each other. We want to support each other.”
But as we chat about these exciting new writers and working little moments of sisterhood into Birds of Prey (my personal favorite is Harley telling Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, “You are so cool”), there’s an elephant in the room.
Look at any big action hero, from Batman to Captain America, and you won’t find a character who needs to assert that his maleness makes him powerful or worthy. You won’t hear an anthem close out their movies with lyrics like, “I’m a mother-fucking man, baby, alright / I don’t need a woman to be holding me tight.” (That is, of course, a flipped version of Kesha’s “Woman,” which closes Birds of Prey.) Despite years of this conversation, we’re still at the start of women-led and women-created major action tentpoles — you can count the major female superhero films before BOP on one hand. And though Birds of Prey’s admittedly modest sales still made it the number-one movie in the world on opening weekend, most headlines about its box office cull were that it couldn’t outpace its male-led counterparts in the DC canon (it’s also reportedly why the film now technically has a new title in certain theaters, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey). Our gender still feels like a novelty in this space, but Hodson is optimistic that it won’t always be like this.
“Naturally you're going to have a conversation about it, and I'm happy to be talking about it because I want to be changing the system. But I'm excited for the day that it isn't a conversation because it is 50-50. It's completely normal: We've got female directors, there are male- and female-led action films, and gender isn't at the top of everyone's mind,” she offers. “We wanted to write a movie that was really, really fun for men and for women. I grew up watching quote-unquote boys movies, and I hate that there is this false perception that action movies are for guys. I'm just excited for it all to be normalized.”