'Birds Of Prey' Writer Christina Hodson On Writing Harley Quinn And How 'Trainspotting' Influences Her Writing [Interview]

DC has been a good home to screenwriter Christina Hodson. After writing Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), DC and Warner Bros. hired Hodson to adapt two other comic book properties, including Batgirl. Based on the glowing reception to Birds of Prey, the studio now has another strong voice behind their comic book movies. They haven't always this much sense of authorship and crystal clear vision.

Birds of Prey is a comic book movie that doesn't overstay its welcome and has more personality than explosions, although the grounded action is a visceral delight. It's a tight, character-driven comic book movie that Hodson – a former executive at Focus Features – recently told us about writing. Plus, she discussed her favorite Harley Quinn stories, the Trainspotting influences, and her days as an executive.I heard you say in an interview you wanted to shake up some boxes with the movie, so what other parts of the genre did you want to subvert? What did you want to do that was new?

I love the genre. I love action movies, I love superhero movies, I love comic book movies. I'm generally a movie nerd, but I was seeing a lot of them, and we've seen as you say, kind of the big CGI wild ending stuff, but there's only so many times you can save the world from blowing up.

I wanted to see a different angle on Gotham City. I think, in particular, I loved Gotham in the Batman movies, all the Batman movies, but I wanted to see a different texture. Margot and I from very early on decided to set the movie on a very hot, bright, summer day just because I wanted it to be sweaty, stinky Gotham. I wanted to see silly things like, "What does a Gotham bodega look like?" "What is a $2 egg sandwich in Gotham?"

I think that was kind of one of the fun things about telling a more contained story was that we got to see a lot of these details. We got to go home with some of these characters. You get to see what Huntress' bathroom looks like, you get to see what Harley's apartment looks like, with its very strange details, like the pillow and the picture of Harley with the nuns. Again, I think laying in some of that texture into this world was really fun and something that I just haven't been before.

What about the nonlinear structure? How early on did you imagine it?

Immediately. Honestly, that was one of the very first things that I came back to Margot with. We knew we wanted to do an ensemble team-up. We knew we wanted to do it in a different way and then the challenge was, "How?" I went and did some thinking, and the way I pitched it to her initially was, "I wanted to see the four completely different women, living completely different lives. Each of them kind of set on a different path and in some way, in some kind of trap." Some metaphorical traps, some more literal traps. Whether it's career, or financial or emotional, and then see where they would go, and then set them on a collision path with one another. And really, Cassandra became the catalyst that brings these four women together and causes them to collide in the third act.

But yeah, the nonlinear and the ensemble thing both came naturally. It was also just telling a story through Harley's point-of-view. She's a very unreliable mouthpiece. Having her as the storyteller, it felt very natural that she would be jumping around back and forth because different things are important to her. She doesn't care about the beginning, middle, end. She cares about an egg sandwich and a hyena and you know, random shit.

With that character, you're free to do an animated scene, a musical number, and the list goes on. How weird did you feel you could go? What else did you try?

She got pretty wild. I actually remember writing the Marilyn scene I finished the first draft, and I gave it to my husband to read. It was about two hours before I had to send it in and he was like, "I love it. It's awesome. Think you need to get weirder in the first few pages." Okay, so I rushed away and I had the half an hour and I just... I don't know how Marilyn came into my head, but it just felt really right, and as soon as Margot read that, she was like, "Yes, I love it." We got weird and wild and wonderful and it was really, really fun because it didn't feel like we were at all being constrained and DC were incredibly supportive of that. [Executive producer] Walter Hamada, in particular, just being such an incredible advocate for the movie and so supportive of our weirdest ideas.

What are notes like on a DC property? What was important to Warner Bros. and DC that they wanted to see in the movie?

Honestly, I think for all of us it's similar. It's one thing to honor material, honor the source material, and honor the fanbase. You want to do right with fans, you want to present to them the characters that they know and love and have read. But also remember that in the DC universe most of these characters have been through so many different iterations. There is no one canonical version of any one of these characters. It's about balancing being true to the material but also doing something fresh and exciting. So then they feel like that they're seeing something new. You're kind of adding to the fabric of this universe. So yeah, I would say we were pretty aligned in that in terms of wanting to do right by the fans and also kind of surprise and [excite them].

What are some of the elements of Harley Quinn from the comics that were crucial to you?

Aw, so many things. It's hard to single out any single things. I mean, I can tell you some of my favorite comics?

Please do.

"Vengeance Unlimited" written by A.J. Lieberman, that's one of my favorites that contains "Behind Blue Eyes," the storyline of which you'll see elements of in the movie. I love the early Chuck Dixon, Birds of Prey stuff, particularly Canary in those, and then more recently, [Amanda] Conner and [Jimmy] Palmiotti I think have done wonderful things with Harley, and in particular, seeing Harley without the Joker. The details like, Bud and Lou the hyenas, and Bernie the Beaver you'll see in there. Bringing in little elements that hopefully fans of the comics will see and be excited to see, that was important to us.

birds of prey harley quinn futureWas Harley Quinn's portrayal in Suicide Squad important at all to you or did you feel completely free with the character? 

You know, when I started working on the movie Suicide Squad was still shooting, so it couldn't have been right in the beginning because I hadn't seen it yet. I would say, we wanted to tell a movie that really stood on its own two feet. It's a movie that we hope you can come to as a fan of the universe and of Squad. But also, if you've never seen anything, you could come to it brand new, fresh. I think with any of these movies you're trying to bring in a new audience every time. I think it was just about balancing those two things. Balancing, of course, a character you've met before and you don't want to completely take her on a new path, but she is on a new path. It begins with the breakup from the Joker and we get to see her being her own woman for the first time.

You're the only credited writer on this and also Bumblebee. It is exceedingly rare for these sorts of movies to have one clear voice behind them. With your background as an executive, how has that past experience helped you there?

Well first off, thank you for noticing because it is hard and it is rare and it's a lot of work. Sitting on these projects from beginning to end, I think it does help that I have a background on the other side of the table because I think I understood from the beginning of writing is a collaborative process. It's about working with the rest of the team and that team is sometimes your cast, sometimes it's your studio executives. It's about hearing all of the voices, staying true to your vision but while also playing well with others. And it's part of the job that I really truly love. I think it definitely helps having that background. I wish it would happen more because there are so many fantastic and talented writers, if a studio just gave them a shot to stay on a bit longer, it would do fantastic things for them. I like that happening a bit more.

Is there anything you miss about your executive days or are you just too happy being a writer?

Honestly, being a writer is so much fun and especially with movies like Bumblebee and Birds of Prey, which I've been able to stay on throughout. It has been wonderful. DC treats me so fantastically well. I'm very grateful to be staying with them and doing two more projects with them. I would be lying if I said that there was anything I missed about my old job.

Good. A while ago, I heard you compare Birds of Prey to another movie about friendship, Trainspotting. How did that movie influence you?

It sounds very weird. Honestly, Trainspotting is one of my most favorite movies in the world and likewise for Margot, and when we found that out, we were very excited. We would never dare to compare our movie to Trainspotting. I think it's the masterpiece. The reason why we talk about it is because he was an early influence, just in that Trainspotting has a very unusual non-linear, non-obvious kind of... It's an ensemble movie. There are a lot of characters in that movie and it managed to do something that feels completely fresh and anarchic and different and yet it follows a pretty classical three-act structure. Trainspotting hits all of the beats. If you go back and you read the script, it hit the end of act one on thirty, the classic midpoint at 60, and trying to act three on 90, it's really a remarkable feat of writing. It's just a fantastic fucking movie, sorry for my language.

[Laughs] No, that movie calls for it. What other movies were on your mind?

One that we talked about a lot for the dynamics between Harley and cast was Leon: The Professional. I just think that's such a cool, interesting dynamic. Seeing the human side of someone who kills people for a living, and it tied in very well with "Behind Blue Eyes" by A.J. Lieberman. That was an influence, a bunch of them, they sound so odd but True Romance was another movie that Margot and I both just adore and does a similar thing to Trainspotting in terms of being nontraditional, nonlinear, but again these movies that are just in the back of our head. You never try and emulate Tarantino because you'll fail but reading him is always good for you.

What about Harley Quinn's voice? What's unique about writing her dialogue? 

So on the Harley front, embarrassingly it just feels very easy now. Harley is a language I'm fluent in at this point, and I don't know what that says about me as a person that does feel so easy and natural, but it does. I think it comes from spending a lot of time with Margot and a lot of time with the comic. Also, maybe just because I'm a bit weird myself.

What about writing Black Mask? To you, what makes a good villain?

With Roman, the thing that I love is the way that Ewan plays him. He never set out to play a villain and I think that all of the best villains are the heroes of their own story, and that's very much Ewan approached the material. He's a true narcissist who really thinks that he is the hero, he is not a mustache-twirling megalomaniac. He is a guy who thinks that the world should revolve around him because he's the best, and I think that's what makes him really cool and I just love everything that Ewan invoked in this performance. He's dangerous and hilarious at the same time.