In the aftermath of her major breakup from the Joker, the eccentric vigilante Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds herself in the unexpected position of protecting a young girl (Ella Jay Basco) from the evil Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Upon colliding paths with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), they all must work together to both protect the girl and bring an end to Sionis once and for all, in the first predominantly female superhero movie.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is the latest entry into the DC Extended Universe. Director Cathy Yan is the first Asian American woman to ever direct a US superhero movie. Her 2018 film, Dead Pigs, won the SF Film Critics Award at CAAMFest 36. Ahead of the film’s release, Yan talks to CAAM about working on a film of this caliber and what she took away from the experience.
How did you get the job as the director of Birds of Prey?
I went in and pitched for it. I met with Margo and Christina— [producer] Margot Robbie and Christina Hodson, [the] screenwriter. I really loved the script. I just love the spirit of it. I love what the story was about. I loved the characters and then I went in and pitched.
This is your second feature film that you’ve directed. How was the transition from indie filmmaking to working on a film of this caliber?
There are just a lot more people around and it was both very different and quite similar, in many ways of when you’re actually making the movie, it actually felt very, very similar. The experience of just directing a movie—any movie, my own movie—was extremely helpful and your world kind of shrinks again when you’re making the movie. As a director, you’re talking to your actors, you’re talking to your heads of department and your AD and that’s kind of it.
But I think the biggest difference is probably right now, I’m realizing how much of an impact the movie has and all the different stakeholders in the movie—from the producers to the executives to the studio, but also to the fans and all the people who really grew up or love these characters and are all so invested in it. So I think that. I think being able to figure out the right balance between all these different stakeholders.
As of this film, you are the first Asian American woman to direct a US superhero movie. What goes through your mind when you think of this reality of yours?
I didn’t really think about myself in that way so much before I got the role. It’s definitely very humbling and I think that ultimately, we don’t really have to talk about this so much because there’s just going to be so many of us out there doing it and that’s the hope, right?
You talked a little bit about this already, but how would you describe the overall experience of making Birds of Prey?
It was great. It was wonderful. I was surrounded by really, really, really talented people. I had an amazing crew. I had an amazing cast that really, I think, we all got along and it was fun. It was a really, really fun time to be. We were just laughing all the time. We had piña coladas on Fridays. It was a good time.
What were some major takeaways for you personally from working on this film?
Major takeaways… That I did it. I think that was big. I mean, there are definitely times where I doubted myself. I’m sure other people doubted, because it’s a lot to just do it. So I think I can say the same thing for everybody that I’m really, really proud of everyone that worked on this and [Robbie] especially. She’s been working on this movie for almost five years now. So I think there’s something really wonderful and satisfying about it.
I think that another takeaway is that a lot of the little things that we put in there, that were deliberate, people picked up on and that’s really nice. That’s really, really nice to hear and see. The responses that we’ve received about that, the symbolism of certain things to certain people—that’s the power of movies and everything matters. Everything matters and everything is choice. So make good ones.
How did you go around with managing the cast when [Ella Jay Basco] was twelve years old at the time?
I didn’t have to go around anything. [Basco] is wonderful and she’s incredibly precocious and I think, honestly, I think we all kind of forgot that she was twelve years old. I mean, she really is so mature and she has wonderful parents, and she has really good natural instincts, and I didn’t feel like I had to re-program her. Sometimes, I think young child actors can come off very polished in a way because that’s what they have been trained to do. But with her, it was just always extremely natural and instinctual and she’s really good at improv. So no, I mean, there was no going around her whatsoever. I think it was all very, very easy and a pleasure.
I read recently that the fight scenes were actually influenced by old Jackie Chan films and the fight scenes in the John Wick films. What led to that decision for you to incorporate that kind of style in the fight choreography?
I wanted to keep them well grounded. I wanted to keep most of the stunts practical. I liked that challenge of it and I liked showcasing the women and their physicality and that they were able to outsmart or just fight and win over these men in a real way with their talents and their bodies and their strengths, as opposed to a lot of huge superpowers or fancy gadgets. Of course there’s one superpower, but for the most part, the fighting is very, very hand to hand. So that’s what I wanted. I wanted to keep it practical like that.
Jackie Chan started that whole… he’s a real godfather of action and stunts and bringing martial arts into movies really. I mean him and Bruce Lee, obviously. But the kind of stunts that he did were just so creative. It wasn’t just hit, hit, like kick, kick, but it was using the background, it was using locations, it was using props in a really innovative way. I mean, he literally already shot a scene with him on roller skates chasing after a car. He’s so innovative in that way and so I knew that we wanted to do that. We wanted to spin and do something that people haven’t seen before and be creative, but the action.
Is there a message you’re hoping for audiences to take away from watching Birds of Prey?
Yes, for sure. I think for me, the biggest one is just showing women as they are. Even though these are heightened characters in a comic book world, they are also flawed and imperfect and vulnerable, and that’s very important to me, especially in the comic book world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is out in theaters today.