Birds of Prey: Director Cathy Yan Talks Expectations, Reception

DC's Birds of Prey was the only major comic book film to see a theatrical release in 2020 so far. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner Bros moved up its home release. Despite opening at a more modest $33.3 million in February, some painted the film as a box office disappointment even with strong positive reviews and an $82 million budget. Director Cathy Yan spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about getting the film made, its expectations, and Harley Quinn's transformation.

A still of Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (2019) from Warner Bros.
A still of Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (2019) from Warner Bros.

Birds of Prey: Expectations vs. Results

"I think that if you actually look at the details of the budget breakdown… I know that the studio had really high expectations for the movie — as we all did. There were also undue expectations on a female-led movie, and what I was most disappointed in was this idea that perhaps it proved that we weren't ready for this yet. That was an extra burden that, as a woman-of-color director, I already had on me anyway. So, yes, I think there were certainly different ways you could interpret the success or lack of success of the movie, and everyone has a right to do that. But, I definitely do feel that everyone was pretty quick to jump on a certain angle."

Going into Birds of Prey, Yan knew she was in for a dramatically different experience as a blockbuster studio film. When it came to her goals after landing the gig, it was important to provide a voice to those who aren't normally afforded the opportunity.

"I'm not really sure what I expected. What was definitely beyond expectations was some of the positive stuff, such as the real global reach of the film and getting really wonderful notes from people around the world who felt like they were seen for the first time in a movie like this. They felt like they could identify with the characters on screen, even though they were in a heightened world — a world with stocked grocery stores. (Laughs.) It was still a world that was very aspirational.

Equal Representation

A lot of people — especially a lot of women and younger people — really felt like their voices, their type of people, they themselves… were represented for the first time on the big screen. When we first set off to make the movie, making some of those choices — whether it's in casting or even in the way the characters look or dress — was somewhat deliberate, but I didn't really think about the global impact of those decisions. So, that was really nice."

Evolving Harley Quinn for Birds of Prey

Yan credits actor Margot Robbie and writer Christina Hodson for Harley Quinn's evolution transitioning triumphantly from Joker's shadow. She went into detail about the character's changes to full emancipation.

"…If you think about the pressure or expectations on the movie too much, you can succumb to it. For us, it was very much grounded in character; it starts with a breakup. It's Harley finding herself and being her own hero in a sense. Suicide Squad was very much about her with the Joker, and the way that she looked was part of that. They looked like a couple; she literally had 'Puddin' choking her neck with a choker. So, there were obvious and deliberate decisions that I'm sure were made when designing her look for her character and central relationship in that movie.


For us, she goes through that, and she goes through a physical transformation as well. So, it was always grounded in the story that we were trying to tell, and in that case, it didn't really scare me. On top of that, I think our approach to her was to still make her feel confident and fun, and it's still flattering even if it's a weird, hideous haircut. Margot can pull so much of that off, and it was fun to take those risks. It was fun, as women, too, to gather around with hair, makeup and costumes and go, 'Okay, what do we want to wear? What looks good on her? What's fun? What feels current, relevant and now?' So, it became just a really fun exercise — one that we felt women would understand and also be excited to see.

Yan breaks down more details about Birds of Prey including fighting to retain a critical scene involving Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). She also talks about the importance of layering with characters like Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Check out the rest of the interview at THR. Birds of Prey is available for digital and home release.

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About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangora. As a professional writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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