'Birds Of Prey' Director Cathy Yan On Crafting Old-School Action With The 'John Wick' Team [Interview]

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinnis a movie bursting with personality. It's poppy and gritty, slapstick-y and visceral, and most striking of all, it doesn't confine itself to as many boxes or rules as most comic book movies do. It's a rare comic book movie with an actual sense of freedom and spontaneity. Behind the boisterous vision is filmmaker Cathy Yan.

Before Yan was writing and directing films, she was already sharpening her skills as a storyteller. A graduate from Princetown University and the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Yan was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, based in Beijing, Hong Kong, and New York. She was one of the youngest writers in Wall Street Journal history. After her time as a journalist, she went on to direct more shorts and her feature directorial debut, Dead Pigs, which impressed Birds of Prey's star and producer, Margot Robbie.

Recently, we spoke to Yan about the set pieces in the movie, paying homage to Jackie Chan and Orson Welles, and more.

It's always nice not seeing characters fight CG or having to suspend your disbelief too much. It's all very poppy but still has this tangibility. 

Totally, and I love the word you use, tangible. I really want to see the classical and tangible and pastoral and analog. And maybe it was a bit in a reaction to everything else that was out there, but also it just felt right for the movie. I think there's something that's very grounded in it and it's quite intimate. It's not about saving the world. It's about saving a kid and maybe Harley's soul, in a way. And I always love that about this connection. I thought about how do we translate that into the world, and I think that element of just keeping it very real and tactful was part of that.

The action has a real old school vibe. For a movie of this scope, for example, it's great to see a foot chase. Were you thinking of classic action movies as references? 

Yeah, for sure. And a lot of our references were old school action movies. Jonathan Eusebio, our stunt coordinator, and I talked a lot about Jackie Chan movies and just the way they were all practical and he just kind of did it. What was so good about it was the inventiveness, the creativity of the way that he uses space or props or even the character moments built into those action sequences

And Margot Robbie's facial expressions and physical comedy are very Chaplin at times.

[Laughs] That's so funny. For sure, I think there's an homage to old school comedy, and even in our homage to Marilyn Monroe in the dance sequence, or the classic movies that she watches. I immediately, when I was working with Margot and she was playing Harley, I saw her as Lucille Ball and the physical comedy of that. That was definitely a big reference. There's just something very oddly classic about Harley Quinn.

Why do you think that is? 

I think it's the physical comedy, right? There's a bit of slapstick to it and she's just physically funny, and I think she's such a specific character. I think there's also a very childlike wonder about her, which is why it doesn't seem all weird that she would eat cereal and watch Looney Tunes with a teenage child. There's something that makes sense.

When you first read the script, where did your imagination go with the action? What were your initial conversations with 87Eleven [the company behind the action in the John Wick films] about in terms of capturing what you envisioned?

Well, first I was like, "Oh my God, we're never going to be able to do all this stuff." [Laughs] There was so much of it. I think that was the fun about the acton in the movie, which is there are so many layers to it, and that's sort of what I think about the movie as a whole. First, we just wanted to make it feel real and raw, even though we were talking about a comic book and making the action scenes quite practical and hand to hand. Again, paying homage to the old school like Jackie Chan movies. I really wanted to show the women just be physically strong and being able to overcome or beat the opponents through their own strength and their powers, as opposed to a giant superpower. And of course, we do have a moment of the superpower but for the most part, it's all hand to hand, and that was really important to me. That was actually the main reason that I decided to work with 87Eleven, not in a way that I knew they could handle the choreography and the way it was shot.

Jonathan Eusebio is so great because I knew that was the kind of action that they did. Very practical, very hand to hand, and focused on choreography, inspired by old martial arts style, and also the way they shot it, because not really cutting but letting the action linger and showing off the capabilities of actors. There's something for actors. And so, that was kind of the first layer. And the second layer was, because it's the Harley Quinn movie and because it's heightened and crazy and fun, we always just wanted to add that extra element to it. So whether it's sprinklers in the jail cell, or rollerskate or carousel or the entire concept of the funhouse, it's just throwing another challenge out there or adding that glitter or sprinkle to a cupcake.

Birds of Prey - Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie colored smokeLike the smoke in the police station? 

Yeah, the smoke, love the idea of the smoke because again, as much as everything was heightened, we also tried to keep it real. Really, in the police station, every time she reloads the gun, it's accounted for. We were counting bullets or we were counting hundreds of arrows, so there was a practicality to it all. For the smoke, that was a brilliant idea that Christina Hodson had about taking advantage of an environment. Like, what would Harley do to be able to beat a bunch of policemen in a police station, so the idea of the smoke was in there, using it as a weapon, basically. And then, of course, making this look the same color as her hair was an obvious choice. We actually tested a lot of different smoke, and I'm sorry to say that most of this smoke is a digital effect or we would use light smoke because it turns out that colored smoke is incredibly toxic for you and dangerous and completely not allowed by the studios. So we either use white stuff and colored it or was just digital.

You mentioned contrasts in the movie, and one of them is that poppy sensibility with some real-world horrors. The scene in the club, for example, it gets ugly. How much real-life horror did you want in Birds of Prey? 

For me, I really wanted to go there. That's what I loved about the script always. I was really interested in how fun the world is and how zany Harley is, but I also was very interested in finding out who she is as a person and all of these characters. It's the human element of it, what's grounded in character. I remember reading that scene in the club that you mentioned for the first time, and that was one of the big reasons I wanted to do the movie, actually. I found it to be incredibly interesting and compelling and challenging as a director. I thought it said so much about Roman Sionis without saying much, without having to really say anything, and I really loved that.

Easily the best of the new DC villains so far. I wanted to ask about his "look at my shit" scene with Black Canary. What kind of direction do you give Ewan McGregor for a scene like that?

Oh, gosh. We talked about it so much. I also really love Roman as a character. I think he's just weird and fun. Ewan really understood Roman. I think the most iconic villains are ones that you actually like or enjoy being around or look forward to seeing on screen. There should be something very compelling and very funny about them, and Ewan has both of those things in spades. He very much understood what Roman wanted, what got under his skin and the chip on his shoulder, his family, his need to control things even though he couldn't control his own emotion. I think that his inability to control Harley, that's one of the reasons why he particularly, I think, hated Harley. She really got under his skin because he couldn't control her, and that manifested itself in so many ways.

When we were thinking about Roman, we were also thinking of him as very much like a gentleman villain. There's something Hannibal Lecter about him. He's sort of a charming gentleman and just collects things that he thinks makes him more interesting. Lots of the lines Ewan found on the day. He really understood the character and the humor and we played around a lot on set, which was so fun and he added a lot of that.

That musical sequence had a Moulin Rouge! vibe, too. How'd you and Matty Libatique achieve that look? What's unique about working with him?

Well, it was an absolute pleasure working with Matty. He's become a very close friend and he is just incredible. So talented. For that scene, it was just fun. It was fun to reinterpret it again, something that became iconic through Madonna as well as through Marilyn. We shot it in a way that we use the techno crane actually, and we shot it in a way that felt very old school and in a very proscenium way as if we were just shooting a dance sequence. We purposely didn't try to get too cut-y or in your face because we wanted to simulate the feel of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the way they shot it.

We shot it in the Black Mask Club because the fantasy comes from her moment when she's tied up in the Black Mask Club. And then, just being able to flip it, I remember I said, "Can we make it feels sort of like Lynchian razzmatazz?" That's what it was. It was really fun. It was really fun to put Harley Quinn in a pantsuit. It was really fun to just pay homage to all the little details from the original and shortening it and making it more like Harley's.

So you pay homage to Jack Chan, Marilyn Monroe, and then at the end, you get film noir on the pier.

Absolutely. Well, I think originally in the script, it may have been in a different location, but then when we moved it to the pier, that was really exciting. It's a cat and mouse game. It was a deliberate choice to keep Ewan as a voice as opposed to having it cut between him and Harley, so we stay within Harley's perspective a little bit more and just keeping it very quiet and allowing the tension to exist in the sound design as opposed to a big score there, too. A reference there was Lady from Shanghai, and just again, the face-off and not being able to really understand where anyone was and using the element to scramble the senses.

Black Mask gets a satisfying death, but for a villain's death, how many options and ideas are considered? 

We played with other options, I'll be honest. We definitely did. And that was how it was originally intended in the script and there was something I think very satisfying about the path of her taking it into her own hands. It felt like real growth for her and it felt like the right way to kind of cap off her relationship with Harley. It was important to me that they had a moment together, even though Roman is like, "Wait, isn't this about me?" That moment between Harley and Cassandra is important because that's a hugely important relationship in the movie, and it's about Harley just getting a little bit of her soul, saving a little bit of her soul there.

birds of prey reviewHow about her final look in the film? What note did you want to end on with her?

[Laughs] Oh, gosh. Well, that was just fun, and we've definitely pushed it. And we wanted to give her something that was strong and iconic but in a different way. Even putting her hair down was about point-of-view, because we're used to seeing her in the iconic pigtails. There was something nice about letting her hair down. Erin [Benach] designed the jacket, and there's actually a giant vagina on the back of it [Laughs].

It was always meant to be completely celebratory and powerful. Harley loves glitter and color and sequins and everything. There's no restraint anymore. She completely dresses for herself at the end. There's no strain at the end of the movie, and she gets to do whatever she wants. What would she wear then? That's what we came up with [Laughs]. And of course, there's the homage to the classic Harley Quinn with her black and white top. We thought was important to keep it.

I know you and Margot really connected over your idea of personalizing the action, making it incredibly specific to each character. How'd you want to do that, especially at the end?

Yeah, that was what was fun about the funhouse is that we really get to see all the women individually and then they come together and see how they fight together. Everyone had their own different fighting style. Harley was very much a little bit of everything. The rollerskates being a big one, and she's such a gymnast, so we did a lot of that.

With Canary, she's much more involved and powerful. She's a martial artist from the comics, and so we thought it'd be interesting to give her a lot more power in the legs. It's muay thai and kick boxing, and Jurnee [Smollett-Bell] cursed us all the way because that's actually the hardest thing to learn [Laughs].

With Rene, given her background as a cop, she would easily pick up boxing. It was really fun because Rosie Perez, she's a huge boxing fan. She's kind of considered the first lady of boxing, but she never boxed. It was a nice gift to her letting her learn how to box. It felt right for her character as well. She's a little scrappier and boxing and stuff like that the GCPD would teach you. And then finally, for Huntress, she's probably the most concise and trained and tactical fighter of the bunch.

With Mary, she just learned a little bit of everything. Because of her height, it gave her a real power. It was just a combination of what the characters, what inspired them that we know happened in the comics and what works for the characters in the movie. And then, finally, it was a matter of what actors could do. Learning and training in that fighting style, it actually became part of their counter work.

Whatever happens in the future, I'd very much like to see Ali Wong get in on the action scenes.

[Laughs] Oh, me too. I would love to see that, as well. For sure.

Overall, it's a very simple crime story and not too busy, but telling the story from Harley Quinn's point-of-view and that nonlinear structure, what were the challenges there?

It was always this fine line between making it straightforward and understandable, and also kind of having fun with it and keeping it authentic to Harley's perspective. And one thing we talked a lot about was the storytelling is relatively specific because it should feel again like an intimate story told to a girlfriend. Harley's telling the story and this idea that she can go as we often do when we're just having a casual conversation, "Oh my God, here's a funny story. This is what happened to me, and then there's this person. Wait, hold on, we have to go back and let me tell you about them." That was part of the storytelling and I thought that was really exciting as its own maker to get to play around with that so that it wasn't perfect. It was never designed to be.

What's next for you? 

Right now, I'm co-writing a script for A24. It's a movie called Sour Hearts. It's inspired partially by my own life, which is very odd, and it's also an adaptation of a beautiful, beautiful book by Jenny Zhang. It's this combination of the book as an inspiration point, but also my life and Jenny's life. It's about the immigrant experience, actually. It's about my experience and her experience growing up, young Chinese women in New York, United States, in the eighties and nineties.