Before Warner Bros. released “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” in February, the studio hoped it would be the next hit in the movie series based on DC superheroes. The film stars Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the impish criminal introduced in “Suicide Squad,” as she strikes out on her own after a breakup with the Joker and assembles her own gang of antiheroes (including Ella Jay Basco, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez).
“Birds of Prey” was also a breakthrough for the director Cathy Yan, who was hired on the strength of her independent 2018 feature debut, “Dead Pigs,” and who was the rare woman working in the mostly male arena of comic-book adaptations.
Despite the anticipation, the movie was a box-office disappointment, grossing just under $200 million worldwide, and some late-stage efforts to make Harley Quinn’s name more prominent in the title were not successful. (By comparison, “Suicide Squad” grossed more than $746 million worldwide in 2016.)
But now, amid the widespread closure of movie theaters during the coronavirus pandemic, it is one of several recent films that is going quickly from cinemas to on-demand video and will be available to home viewers starting Tuesday.
Yan said in a recent phone interview that she hoped that “Birds of Prey” might resonate with viewers, even at this anxious time. “It’s meant to be a fun, empowering, crazy, laugh-out-loud ride,” she said. “It lets you disengage from the world for a little bit, so I hope that it can bring some light to people’s lives right now.”
Yan, 33, talked about her experience being recruited for the “Birds of Prey” team, the roller-coaster ride of its theatrical release and the film’s celebration of breakfast sandwiches. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did you make the leap from “Dead Pigs” to “Birds of Prey”?
“Dead Pigs” was such a different experience. We ended up cutting the movie entirely in my living room in New York — you can imagine how furious my husband was. But it had a sort of kinship to “Birds” — the ensemble nature of it, the dark comedy. Soon after Sundance, I met with Christina Hodson, the screenwriter. She had already written “Bumblebee,” the Transformers movie, and she’s about my age and we have a similar background — she’s half-Taiwanese and grew up in London — and it was nice to see someone who was doing anything at that scale. Then I met with Margot Robbie and we also got along very well Soon after that, I went in to pitch my vision of the movie to Warner Brothers. I got the film that April, three months after Sundance.
Did you have to be persuaded in any way that “Birds of Prey” was the right next project for you?
Frankly, I did not. Really, my goal was just to make another small movie one day, and then hopefully build a long career. It was definitely a little bit of a left turn. But what I really loved about “Birds” was always the script and the attitude. It was a lot more grounded than some other movies of its ilk. I wanted to do something more visceral, and not rely too much on VFX and technology right now. It felt like something I could arguably achieve.
Often when we ask why there aren’t more female directors making tentpole movies, we’re told that these aren’t the kinds of movies they want to make. Do you hear that too?
Oh yeah. I remember, years ago, a female executive saying that — that they were trying really hard to find female directors for this bigger action movie and a lot of them didn’t want to do that. I felt that was a bit of a blanket statement, to say the least. I think a lot of us would raise our hands if we were ever given the opportunity. But what’s helping is the actual subject matter becoming different. It helped my case that this was a movie specifically about the female experience.
What did your pitch for “Birds of Prey” look like?
I put together a pitch deck that had visual references for what I thought the world should feel like and look like — a lot of New York in the ’70s and ’80s. That kind of anarchy, of a place that just didn’t work but at the same time was such a hotbed for creativity. A broken system that wasn’t entirely despondent. And then I put together a sizzle reel that had everything from Kim Kardashian’s vampire facial to “Bachelor” proposals, and it was all remixed to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
What did you want to do with the Harley Quinn character that we hadn’t seen her do in “Suicide Squad”?
It was an opportunity to keep exploring the layers of Harley Quinn, because in “Suicide Squad,” she really is the girlfriend and it’s about her relationship with the Joker. She became a fan favorite, and Margot brought such depth to the character. But she was one member of an ensemble. And here, the movie is Harley — it’s implanted in Harley’s brain and seen through Harley-vision, basically. She could do anything, she could say anything. She gets to be her own hero and savior. The whole movie’s about these women emancipating themselves — it doesn’t have to just be from a relationship. It could be from their own self-doubt. It could be from a system that they don’t feel really sees them. All of the Birds go through that in some way.
There’s a wonderful little moment in one of the fight sequences where, in the middle of an all-out brawl, Harley hands off a hair tie to Black Canary. Where did that come from?
Christina Hodson had gotten the idea. She and her sister were talking about, why is it that all women in every action movie can have perfectly blown-out hair, and it’s always down? I was like, you’re so right. I put my hair up just to wash my face, to brush my teeth, to do very light amounts of yoga. So we wanted to give a big middle finger to some of those expectations.
When women direct genre movies, they’re often made to stand in for their entire gender in a way that their male counterparts are not. Did you experience that with this film?
Whether a little bit of that is just in our own heads, I think there was that pressure on “Birds.” There were plenty of think-pieces about it afterward. When a male-led action movie doesn’t do well, it doesn’t necessarily negate male-led action movies for the next five or 10 years. The press isn’t writing about that. But it’s hard to not feel that way. I felt like, female directors, Asian directors, Asian female directors — my failure would somehow preclude them from the opportunities that they deserve. That’s something that we have to bear that responsibility of.
What was the experience of the film’s opening weekend like for you?
That’s when I really realized I made a different movie. I’ve never experienced the intensity but also such emotional satisfaction but also fear. You don’t need everyone to understand it — you just hope that a few people do. You hope that they saw what you’re doing. And I think that’s all any artist can really hope for.
Did you second-guess yourself after its release — “I should have included Batman or the Joker,” anything like that?
Of course you do. The movie is of such a scale — as its director, there are things that you control and things that you don’t, things that were definitely above my pay grade as well. You have to let go of certain things, unfortunately. I had gotten kind of used to it, trying to stick to your instincts whenever you can, but also understanding that it’s an extremely collaborative process to make a movie.
How did you feel about the film getting an accelerated VOD release?
I still think the best viewing experience will always be with a big crowd, the best sound and all of that. I was really inspired by what Universal did, to release theatrical movies on VOD quicker. I thought that was great. I didn’t actually speak to the studio, I just tweeted about it — I said I would not be opposed to it. And then found out that they were already thinking about it. So it just worked out. I wish I could say I had that much power.
Warner Bros. has been much less rigid than Marvel about requiring its superhero movies to tie into each other. What does the outcome for “Birds of Prey” mean for this strategy?
I can only speak for this movie and my experience. But there was very little pressure to integrate it with other movies. We were always a stand-alone film. At no point was I ever told I had to shoot in this location or tie it in with anything else. I felt very free to make the best movie that I could. And I can’t emphasize enough that it was a risk. I thank Warner Bros. because it was a risk to make it R-rated. To have a scene where Harley snorts cocaine and powers up and beats a bunch of guys with a bat. There’s some really weird, crazy stuff in the movie that we get to do.
“Birds of Prey” really fetishizes breakfast sandwiches. Why was this so important to you?
It’s such a New York thing and I’m a very proud New Yorker. We were shooting in L.A., so we had to change it a little bit. It was impossible to find that New York bun — that doughy, circular bun. I remember asking my assistant at the time, who was flying back to New York, to go to a bodega and pick up some of the paper, where one side is foil and the other side is wax paper. What’s been really fun is getting comments from people in Greece or Turkey or South Korea that are like, “What’s a breakfast sandwich? I want a breakfast sandwich.” The breakout star of “Birds of Prey” is the breakfast sandwich.