- Insider talked to “Birds of Prey” director Cathy Yan about the challenges that went into making her first movie for a Hollywood studio.
- She said that being anxious about the process was always on her mind, but that the strength of the script and the top-notch casting alleviated that.
- Yan said it created a shooting process that allowed her to focus on each character, which led to all them having solid screen time, not just the movie’s star Margot Robbie.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Four years after Margot Robbie brought the iconic DC Comics character Harley Quinn to the big screen with “Suicide Squad,” the crazed flame of the Joker is back and things have certainly changed.
You just have to read the movie’s full title to know that: “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”
The movie (in theatres Friday) is an R-rated, ultra-violent, glitter bomb knock to the senses that follows Quinn as she breaks up with the Joker, teams with a crew of kick-butt women, and sets out to wreak havoc on Gotham City (and maybe find time to defeat the bad guys, played by Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina).
At the helm of all this is director Cathy Yan, who with only having one feature film under her belt (the 2018 China-set dark comedy “Dead Pigs”) perfectly crafts a movie that lets not only Robbie shine in the lead role, but her supporting cast as well, which includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell.
Yan chatted with Insider about the challenges of taking on her first studio movie, how collaborating with her actors led to memorable moments, the audition tape by Chris Messina that left her and Margot Robbie speechless, and the little details Yan put in to honour her Chinese-American heritage.
Jason Guerrasio: Seeing that this is such a big movie, what were the things that gave you pause before agreeing to do it?
Cathy Yan: It all happened so quickly for me and I so wanted the job, really. I loved the script. I met Margot and [screenwriter] Christina [Hodson] early on so I knew who the team was and that was exciting. I certainly didn’t know whether I could handle something this big but I also had faith that we’d figure it out. And for any filmmaker there’s a bit of, “What is this going to be like? Am I going to be able to execute on the vision that I wanted and take the risks that I wanted to take?” But the script was already so risky, in a way, and seeing that was supported and that I got hired, I felt my hiring was a good sign.
Guerrasio: [Laughs.] Getting the job was a good indication things would go well.
Yan: Yeah. Or at least that we were on the same page.
Guerrasio: Was there a moment when you were at ease and were fully comfortable?
Yan: I don’t know if you’re ever fully at ease as a director. You’re always nervous about something, I think. The first time you watch the movie as an assembly you’re nervous. But I think, honestly, when we hired the amazing crew and our cast came together, having all of those pieces in place and knowing who the team really was and that they were so impressive and supported my vision, that really helped.
Guerrasio: This is clearly Harley’s story, but you did a great job in giving her costars a good amount of screen time so that we felt connected to them all. How hard was that to pull off?
Yan: Part of it was the casting – finding these larger-than-life and committed and talented actors. People who could bring a lot of charm and charisma. Whether that’s Chris Messina or Rosie Perez. And finding Ella Jay Basco [who played Cassandra Cain] was huge. It was casting as if they were leads, because they are.
Guerrasio: But how did it all come together? Was it something in the edit that kept you focused so you wouldn’t fall into that common trap of suddenly some of the characters fall off the story?
Yan: A lot of it was already in the script. The way it was structured and written, it did give ample time because so much of the movie is through Harley’s eyes. I mean, we state it in the subtitle, it’s her emancipation story, but it’s the emancipation story of all these women. So we had to tell all their stories.
I had a little experience with this kind of ensemble with my first feature, “Dead Pigs.” That had a similar set up, five different characters and all of them are sort of protagonists. I remember shooting that and feeling like we were shooting these very intense short films and then at the end it comes together. That’s how we shot “Birds of Prey.” I had requested to shoot the team-up in the third act towards the end of production so we got these siloed intense week or two weeks of shooting with a certain character. There was no way for anyone to feel like a supporting character. Even Chris Messina, I really wanted his character to not just feel like the henchman. That was a lot of prep and character work.
Guerrasio: You bring up Chris playing Victor Zsasz. He is a joy to watch in this movie. Did you encourage him to go off the rails or was there a point where you were like, “OK, Chris, bring it back.”
Guerrasio:Because there are scenes were he’s chewing the scenery and I don’t say that in a derogatory way. It’s amazing.
Yan: You should have seen some of the stuff that was left on the cutting room floor. But I would say what you do see is a relatively pulled back version of what he explored on the day. But that’s how I like to work. Chis was so committed. He fought for this role. He auditioned and I just remember in the audition he put these fake teeth in his mouth and he put blue eye shadow on. And he didn’t have the script. So I don’t know what in the world made him think that that was what the character was from basically the two pages that he got for the audition. But it was the version that I wanted. So he sent in this bonkers audition tape, completely balls to the walls, and me and Margot loved it. We were like, “What is this?”
Guerrasio: The scene where he goes off about his scars, was that on the page?
Yan: That was pretty much on page. Originally Harley was meant to be hung upside down and tranquilized. And I give every credit to Chris because he said, “What if I just move her and manipulate her like a rag doll?” And I said, “That is way more interesting.” So that’s what we did. Every take was different and that’s how I like to work. We totally played around and it was so much fun to do that on a movie like this. It allowed a lot of room to play and a lot of it ended up in the movie.
Guerrasio: That room to play, was that a surprise to you? I think most filmmakers who do their first studio project assume that’s not going to happen – that they are going to be handcuffed.
Yan: I think we built it in. That was something that I was very clear on that I wanted. That’s how I like to work. There was the talk of, “Can you get more coverage?” But we built it into the schedule so that we could protect that. That’s always the most important part, can we get these moments? We wanted the movie to have that casual haphazard feeling of a friend retelling a really really funny story to another friend. I wanted to capture that kind of energy.
Guerrasio: Being a Chinese-American filmmaker, was there anything in the movie you’re most proud of? Something that when you read the script you knew, “That’s where I’m going to place this.”
Yan: It’s funny because Christina Hodson, our screenwriter, is half Taiwanese too, so I think by the time I even read the script there were all of these small moments of diversity where characters are written a certain way. It wasn’t just obvious or understood it would be a white character. Those moments in the script I really appreciated. And it was quite funny to have a little Mandarin in the movie (Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character speaks it in one scene). I remember someone asking me, “Do we need a Mandarin consultant?” And I’m like, “I think we’re good.” [Laughs.] “I think I can handle that.” And Mary pulled off the Mandarin so well.
And up in Harley’s apartment, that’s above Doc’s Chinese restaurant, I really made sure with our production designer that everything from Doc’s was authentic. So there’s a very specific type of Chinese vinegar and a specific canned fish. They actually went out of their way to source that because I just wanted to get that right. I felt I had not seen that in a movie and it would be a nice little nod to those who recognise it.
Guerrasio: And I think many women will appreciate the moment in one fight sequence where there’s a pause in the action so a hair tie can pull back someone’s hair.
Yan: [Laughs.] That came from a conversation that Christina and I had. I think she brought up how crazy it is that all these women have perfect blown-out hair in all these other action films, and I was like, “You’re right.” I put my hair up for anything. I put my hair up to wash my face, I’m certainly going to do it to fight some bad guys.
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