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In 'Birds Of Prey,' Director Cathy Yan Gives Harley Quinn Her Own Feature


The new movie "Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn" begins with a breakup.


MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Harley Quinn) It was completely mutual.


KELLY: That giant explosion tells the world that Joker and Harley Quinn have broken up.


ROBBIE: (As Harley Quinn) Now that I've cut ties with Mr. J, I'm about to learn a lot of people want me dead.

KELLY: Very powerful, very rich and very angry people. So Harley Quinn gathers a crew of women, each with her own beef against the people after Harley, and convinces them to team up and fight. "Birds Of Prey" was directed by Cathy Yan. She's the first Asian American woman to direct a major Hollywood superhero movie, and she talked with my co-host Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Yan says she was drawn to Harley Quinn's story because she's a complicated female character.

CATHY YAN: She has these two conflicting sides of her. She's Harleen Quinzel, PhD. And on the other side, she is, you know, this angry mallet-wielding superhero.

CHANG: And when I talked to Cathy Yan, I wanted to know, how did she take Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, from the Joker's hot, crazy girlfriend to the empowered woman at the heart of this movie?

YAN: Well, I think because she has to figure out who she is when she's alone, when she's no longer the girlfriend. And I think that great existential question is sort of the question of the movie. It's a movie about identity and about all of these women finding themselves, finding their strength.

CHANG: Totally. Like, there's this scene in the film where Harley's sitting at a bar, and she's feeling, like, just gutted after her breakup with the Joker.


ROBBIE: (As Harley Quinn) You know what a harlequin is? A harlequin's role is to serve. It's nothing without a master. And no one gives two (expletive) who we are beyond that.

CHANG: The movie that you directed is about Harley Quinn becoming her own master, I feel...

YAN: Absolutely, and the sort of trials and tribulations of that because it's not easy. And, you know, you see her going through all these various stages of grief in our breakup montage, you know, everything from bloodying noses during a roller derby (laughter) to taking...

CHANG: To aiming darts at a face.

YAN: Exactly. Exactly. Not just Harley, but then introducing the Birds of Prey as well because all of these women go through something, and they're all trying to break free from their own chains.

CHANG: Well, one element that's common across all of these characters is that they're all angry, right? They're all angry for different reasons, whether they be personal trauma, how they're treated in the workplace, bad relationships. But none of them apologize for their anger. And what they do in this movie is that they express their anger with violence, like, lots of violence. And I have to say that watching it, on one hand, it was a little unsettling to see, like, all this gleeful carnage. But on the other hand, it was refreshing and sort of liberating for me to see women not care about the consequences of their actions. Tell me, what do you think is the value in seeing women express rage the way these women do in this movie?

YAN: Yes. I mean, without sounding too much like a diehard bra-burning feminist here, but yes, I think that women have rage. And I would rather have that rage be channeled in this heightened, fun, wild ride of a movie than in other ways. But I think we are tapping into that.

CHANG: Well, you know, there was something cathartic about watching the movie.

YAN: Absolutely.

CHANG: I understand that you had an almost all-female crew on the set. What was it like filming these pretty violent scenes, sometimes, watching these women just destroy their enemies?

YAN: I think there is this sort of cinematic history of it. You know, you want to just hoot and holler when these antiheroes stick it to the system. These are bad guys that these women fight, and they represent a system that has been pushing these women down. A lot of people can relate to that. And at the same time, it's fun. And Harley's hitting a guy with a mallet as, you know, Canary is kicking a guy on moving floors. And so...

CHANG: Was there ever a moment when you were like, oh, boy, we got to dial that back? This is way too violent.

YAN: You know, not really. I think we try to make responsible decisions about it without, you know, condoning too much with - in terms of gun violence, especially.

CHANG: Yeah.

YAN: I also wanted to really keep it mostly hand-to-hand because you can really do a lot of great action choreography with it. And I also wanted to make sure that these women, besides Canary, don't really have superpowers, and so they have to use their physical strength as real women to fight these guys. And I love that.

CHANG: Yeah. So you are still pretty early in your directing career. And, you know, then on top of all that, there's this talk about you being the first Asian American woman to direct a superhero movie. When you first walked on the set, did that weigh on you?

YAN: Yes, of course. I think, unfortunately, when there are so few...

CHANG: Yeah.

YAN: ...It's inevitable that there is self-pressure to do the best that you possibly can so that you don't mess it up for anyone else.

CHANG: Were there things you deliberately did to acknowledge that you are Asian American and an Asian American woman is in charge here?

YAN: I think it's more inherent in the decisions that I make. And so there was an instinct to just be more diverse with the casting. And even among the crew, I'm proud to say we had a lot of Asians on set.

CHANG: Was that deliberate, or was it a complete coincidence that there were suddenly so many Asians on this crew?

YAN: I was certainly not like, I need this many Asian (laughter) people...

CHANG: Right.

YAN: ...On set. But it was more like - maybe part of it was sharing that space of being Asian in a - in the industry where it wasn't necessarily a deliberate quota, but I think there was this shared sense of otherness that brought us all together.

CHANG: I love that. I mean, we are seeing more and more women directing. There are, like, pledges in Hollywood to work with more female directors. What do you think are some concrete things that directors can do, either male or female directors, to make sets more equitable?

YAN: I've been thinking so much about this. There are two major things. I think one for me is - and I've spoken about this with Jurnee Smollett-Bell, too, who is a real activist in her own way. And I think her child was 2 years old when she shot "Birds Of Prey." And we just threw around this idea of like, well, why isn't there a daycare trailer? Why do we have to put that elsewhere? And I think that there isn't much of an institutional support, so you don't get something like maternity leave because you're either on a project or off a project.

CHANG: And if you're going to have a baby, don't get on a project.

YAN: Exactly. And then another thing that I would love to, you know, work on one day is a mentorship program where female directors can shadow other female directors on features because there's just so much to learn about the actual process of making a movie, especially a movie of a larger scale, that you can't learn anywhere else. And on top of that, I think it would just be a great way to start building a network of female directors.


JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL: (Singing) This is a man's world.

CHANG: Cathy Yan's new film is "Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn."

Thank you very much for joining us. This was a lot of fun.

YAN: Thank you so much.


SMOLLETT-BELL: (Singing) You would be nothing without a woman or a girl. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.