Home Entertainment Director Cathy Yan on Birds of Prey’s “flop” status, VOD release, fan feedback, and more

Director Cathy Yan on Birds of Prey’s “flop” status, VOD release, fan feedback, and more

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Director Cathy Yan on Birds of Prey's "flop" status, VOD release, fan feedback, and more 4

In the run-up to the release of the ridiculously titled Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), I will admit I had zero hype for it. The trailers for Warner Bros’ Margot Robbie-led DC Comics movie really didn’t do much for me. There was just no pop to them, and they weren’t doing a thing to dissuade the anti-woke corner of the internet who were convinced this movie was just going to be about feminism over everything else. Boy, those trailers and those naysayers could not have been more wrong as Birds of Prey ended up being an absolute blast of a film, boasting great characterization, incredibly dedicated performances from the cast, and superb action choreography and cinematography from director Cathy Yan.

Unfortunately, thanks in part to a very late review embargo, by the time Birds of Prey hit cinemas, most people still hadn’t got that message and it opened way below expectations with $33.2 million in the US. International markets helped to bump up the opening weekend total to $81.3 million, but that was still way off course from what Warner Bros. had been expecting. And immediately, the dreaded “F” word started being thrown around by media. Flop. Here’s the thing though: Birds of Prey did underperform, but it actually made 2.4 times its $80 million production budget as it ended its theatrical run on $202 million. Yes, thanks to additional advertising costs, it would still not make a profit, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster either, especially considering that it was also an R-rated movie, which limited audiences, and essentially a follow-up to the badly regarded Suicide Squad.

And as Yan told THR in a lengthy and wide-ranging interview about her experiences while making the film, the overwhelmingly negative spin on the film’s performance “disappointed” her.

Yeah, 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-colour 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.

Fortunately though for Yan, who had only ever done the indie film Dead Pigs before this and been personally plucked from small-time obscurity by star/producer/co-writer Robbie, it wasn’t all negative.

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. 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.

Director Cathy Yan on Birds of Prey's "flop" status, VOD release, fan feedback, and more 5

One of the reasons for that global reach was that Birds of Prey got released on VOD much earlier than expected. When the Coronavirus pandemic caused cinemas around the world to be shuttered, Birds of Prey was one of the earliest titles that got pulled from cinemas to be available for rent digitally. And this was something that Yan had actually called for personally via a tweet on 16 March, and it turned out that she and WB had been on the same wavelength the whole time.

So, I heard that Paramount was starting to do it, and I thought that was really wise, especially with the theaters shuttering. People are at home, and I think they’re longing to have entertainment since so much content has been completely shut down. So, the idea that Birds of Prey can just be another option of something to watch in these times just seemed appropriate and really smart. So, I just independently did that, and it seemed to get a lot of responses. Then, I heard from [producer] Sue Kroll and my team that it was already in the works at Warner Bros. So, it worked out really nice.

Know what was more than just “really nice” about Birds of Prey? The bone-breaking action sequences which had a very visceral John Wick feel to them. There’s a very big reason for that, as Yan actually used 87Eleven, the famed action design company run by John Wick creator Chad Stahelski – who even personally came to set to help coordinate some of the stunt sequences. What 87Eleven brought to the table was not just the “grounded, very creative, incredibly practical and character-based” action design that Yan wanted, but they also trained the cast of Robbie, Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosie Perez to most of the stunts themselves, allowing for much better shots.

What I didn’t realize [87Eleven] did so well — only until I started working with them — was they really train them, and of course, if you really think about it, you’re like “duh.” Our actors did the majority of their own stunts, which I think is super impressive, and the way that we shot it made it so that it would be very difficult for them not to. The entirety of the fun house sequence was all done by the actors themselves. That amount of training and investment in the actors themselves — not to belittle stunt people because they’re amazing — but our stunt actors were actually more like trainers in a way. They developed these really close relationships with each actor, and I just really love that.

That element — beyond just their amazing choreography and the way that they just know how to create these fluid and very creative sequences with camera — was an element that I really appreciated about 87eleven. And I don’t think every action company does that; I think that’s a very, very special thing that they teach. All of our actors walked away with these lifelong skills which is pretty cool.

With that level of visceral action combined with Harley Quinn’s wacky Fourth Wall-breaking and subversive storytelling and being R-rated, there were a number of disparaging comparisons made between Birds of Prey and Deadpool. However, writer Christina Hodson already had these elements in her script as far back as 2015, way before Deadpool was released, which made the comparisons a bit unfair. Not that they bothered Yan though.

It didn’t disgust me that people were comparing us to Deadpool. (Laughs.) I love Deadpool; I think it’s a great movie, but we were very much trying to do our own thing. I can’t underline enough how it was a risk. I do have to thank the studio for supporting a movie that was never going to be four-quadrant. It was R-rated the entire time, and we never talked about changing the rating to get more people into the theater. It was a risk in many ways, and it was not an exact sequel to Suicide Squad, which would’ve probably been the less-risky version of how we could’ve worked with the Harley Quinn character. It was something that came from a real place of intent and what Margot and Christina wanted to do with the movie.

Birds of Prey definitely had more dramatic oomph than Deadpool did. In particular, one incredibly unnerving scene involving Ewan McGregor’s villainous Roman Sionis – who, up until that point had been a hilarious riot – grossly humiliating a woman in a nightclub. It’s massively uncomfortable to watch and that’s precisely why Yan and co insisted on keeping it in.

I’ll be honest: We had to fight to keep that scene because it was uncomfortable. It was risky, and we had to fight to keep it at all. There are cuts of the movie without it. I’m really glad that we kept it because I think it’s important. I think that a lot of people have been very impacted by that scene. I think it’s a huge turning point for Roman; it’s a huge turning point for Canary, and the way that we shot it was hopefully not about the sexual violence upon the woman. It was more about Roman, what he’s capable of and Canary seeing him for who he really is for the first time. Now, she can fully cut herself off from him, and I thought it was a really important scene. So, we fought for it.

Director Cathy Yan on Birds of Prey's "flop" status, VOD release, fan feedback, and more 6

As rough as it is, I’m glad it was kept in. It cemented what was already a brilliant performance from McGregor to make him, in my opinion, the best villain of the entire modern DC Comics cinematic universe so far. It’s a pity that with how Birds of Prey ended that we won’t get to see him in a sequel. And yes, Yan and her team still have aspirations for a sequel, as she told TheWrap. And for a potential follow-up film, she wants to include a character dynamic that fans had been calling for on-screen for years.

I think people aren’t ready to let go of Harley Quinn quite yet, and you know, Margot I don’t think is ready to let go of Harley Quinn yet either, so… hopefully.

I would love to see Poison Ivy and would certainly love to see the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy.

At this moment in time, sequel aspirations for Birds of Prey is still very much up in the air, but I can guarantee that adding Poison Ivy into the mix will definitely not hurt its chances. I would most certainly be there for it. How about you folks?

Last Updated: April 7, 2020

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