Birds of Prey screens at BFI IMAX from 7 February 2020
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is something of a riot in spite of being an ordeal to say or type. More commonly known as Birds of Prey, the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe places Quinn (Margot Robbie) front and centre after she lit up the screen in the otherwise disappointing Suicide Squad (2016).
Now, effervescent Quinn has split up with her beloved Joker and finds herself a wanted woman. She has to evade psychotic gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), aka Black Mask, and his grisly hoodlums, while protecting master orphan thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and dodging hard-bitten Gotham City detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Luckily for Quinn, nightclub singer Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), aka Black Canary, and crossbow-happy vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are seemingly on her side.
Among the cast, Robbie is on magnetic form, Perez is as indefatigable as usual and McGregor exudes a deliciously unhinged energy that’s a great match for the action and production design around him. Birds of Prey whips along at a terrific pace with plenty of laughs, and startles with bright, bold primary colours and nifty action set pieces.
Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs, 2018) and her team had a wide range of cinematic influences in mind while making Birds of Prey, and Yan was happy to name eight of the most significant when we met her on a cold January afternoon.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Director Howard Hawks
Yan: It was just so fun to flip the ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ sequence from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and make it a little darker and a little more Harley-fied. Our amazing dance choreographer, Ryan Heffington, is known for this weird but really interesting work. He had choreographed Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ video. But when I was talking to him, I told him what I wanted was “Lynchian razzmatazz”. We played around with motifs like the black mask and I loved it.
It was our costume designer Erin Benach’s idea to put Harley in a pantsuit. It’s a pantsuit version of the iconic pink dress that Marilyn Monroe wears. We keep all her tattoos, but there’s something very Marilyn and old school about Harley. There’s almost something like Lucille Ball about her, the classic blonde. We definitely played that up.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Director Stanley Kubrick
Yan: We talked a lot about A Clockwork Orange: the tone of it, the way that the gangs look and also this slightly surreal element of it, the way that the female form is used in that movie. We took that and ran with it at the Black Mask Club and at the Booby Trap. The Black Mask Club being a space that was such a character for the movie, so thinking about the Milk Bar [in A Clockwork Orange], that was a big reference.
I love Kubrick. There’s always this weird absurdist sense of humour, and it’s not always on the surface, but there’s always something going on. Even the way that they treat violence influenced us a little bit – like the way the gang in A Clockwork Orange sings ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ while committing a horrible act of violence. Similarly, we play around with the dichotomy of that.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director Jonathan Demme
Yan: With Roman I think there were a lot of references, but I particularly liked Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and the way that he’s so charming. Even though he’s so capable of evil, you’re still leaning in. He’s this gentleman; he really knows his wine. We took some references there of a gentleman villain, someone that is just so innately charming that you can’t help but like him. Casting Ewan for that was obviously very helpful too.
Director Luc Besson
Yan: One of the central relationships in the movie is between Harley and Cass. The big reference there is The Professional [US title of Leon] and that mentor/mentee relationship. There’s a shot in the movie when it’s on a wide angle, and Harley and Cass are walking down a hill, and then disappear down a hill. That was an ode to The Professional because you have that iconic shot of them walking up the hill and she’s holding the plant.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Director Baz Luhrmann
Yan: Another one for me in terms of the production design and the look of a movie was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and the way that it feels like it was familiar but also completely foreign. You didn’t quite know where it was, and it had this interesting ‘more-is-more’, very cool and street style. I use that reference a lot in terms of how I wanted the world to feel – that it was heightened and full of life.
Children of Men (2006)
Director Alfonso Cuarón
Yan: Children of Men has these long, continuous shots, which was always how I imagined shooting some of the action sequences – we have the action sequence with Huntress when she comes into the restaurant, and then the ending carousel sequence, feeling the most like that. It felt much more visceral and subjective, as opposed to creating the tension in the editing.
I felt we could surprise people by using foreground in an interesting way. That was really like a dance choreography between the cameraman and the camera and all of our actors and stunt players. Sometimes people will come in and out of the foreground and surprise you or we would use whip pans in a certain way. It was totally inspired by the way that Children of Men and many of Cuarón’s other films are shot.
Director Paul Feig
Yan: This is pretty out of left field. I put the film down in my long list of references and sent it over to Matty Libatique, our cinematographer, and he comes back and says “all of this makes sense but Bridesmaids”. Another one was Sex and the City in a weird way, too, as there aren’t that many female team-ups or female groups, especially ones in which I feel like they all have their individuality where you can go, “I am a Harley Quinn or I am a Huntress”, or in Sex and the City, “That was such a Miranda thing to do.”
I ended up using Bridesmaids as a reference because I thought the humour was great and raw, and it felt like how I speak to my girlfriends and how Margot [Robbie] and I speak to each other. We tell poop jokes and fart jokes and all of that.
The second thing about Bridesmaids that I loved was it was a motley crew of women. They don’t visually look like they would be part of a team per se. [I liked] that element of diversity in how strange, interesting and individual they are.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director George Miller
In terms of the style, I looked to Mad Max, because it is one of the more practical movies. If you look at some of the behind-the-scenes footage, those guys are really on the poles. They’re really doing it. I totally freaking love that movie. I don’t aspire to even be able to use it as a reference. But I think what I loved about the action in it is it’s nonstop; it’s stylised but it’s also really real. They’re just in a desert and all the vehicles are there; they’re going at speed, there’s almost no VFX. There’s just stunt players doing the thing. We tried to apply a similar rule to most of our action work.