Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – A Twisted Origin Story

You ever hear the one about the cop, the songbird, the psycho and the mafia princess?  Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is a twisted tale told by Harley herself, as only Harley can tell it. 

It’s open season on Harley Quinn when her always unpredictable life spirals even more out of control following a particularly explosive break-up with her one true love, Mr. J.  For the first time, she’s unprotected and on the run…with every thug in Gotham running after her, starting at the very top with crime lord Roman Sionis.  But with an unexpected assist from three very unlikely sources—Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya—Harley and her newly contrived cadre just might survive this insanely wild, potentially (probably) deadly day.

Margot Robbie, who reprises the role as well as produces the film, says, “The most exciting thing for an actor is to have choices with your character, and you can really do anything when you’re playing Harley Quinn.  With some roles, you can react one or two ways; with Harley, it’s more like 20, and every one of them makes sense for the character.  That is really liberating and creatively stimulating.”

For that reason, among others, even while she was still filming her first turn as the fan-favorite anti-heroine in “Suicide Squad,” she recalls, “I knew that I definitely wasn’t ready to stop playing her, that there was still so much yet to be discovered and explored on screen.”

That uncharted territory led Robbie to delve into options for Harley that included surrounding her with a girl gang, namely the popular DC team up Birds of Prey. 

“I wanted to see what Harley would be like without someone to take care of her.  And it’s always been a part of my own life to have a group of girlfriends that do everything together.  We’re a very mixed bag of personalities,” she smiles, “but everyone loves each other despite being pretty different.  That’s what drew me to developing a story for Harley with the Birds of Prey, to find a group that’s unique, but who complement each other, especially in their fighting styles.  Together, they make up all the pieces of the puzzle.”

To help draft the players and create the world of the film, Robbie reached out to screenwriter Christina Hodson.

Christina Hodson first transitioned from development executive to screenwriter in 2012. Her first three spec scripts were featured on the Black List three years in a row, the last of which, “The Eden Project,” was a sci-fi action script that sold in a bidding war. This led to her joining the “Transformers” writers’ room in 2015. Based on the pitch she conceived in that room, Hodson wrote the screenplay for the “Transformers” spinoff, “Bumblebee,” which was released in December 2018. She will next be writing both the “Flash” and “Batgirl” movies.

“Margot and I fell in love over early morning pizza and mimosas in the summer of 2015,” says Hodson.

Margot Robbie and Christina Hodson

 “She told me of her dream of doing a Harley Quinn/girl gang movie and I was 100 percent in.  We really saw eye to eye on the tone, on keeping it fun, and on doing something boldly different in the superhero movie space.  We both love those movies, but we wanted to try something a little different, something non-linear, action-packed but also with a lot of humor.”

“Christina and I got along the moment we met and we’re going to be friends forever,” Robbie adds.  “She’s a genius.  I had a lot of ideas that didn’t fit together yet, like this relationship or that tableau from the comics, this character here, that storyline there.  She found a way to weave it all in and turn it into something that reflected Harley’s personality and was in Harley’s authentic voice.”

Creating An Origin Story

For the origin story that would pair Harley Quinn with a new collection of characters, they drew inspiration from various comics, such as the New 52 series, when Harley is out on her own and no longer with The Joker. 

That circumstance appealed to them as a logical starting off point because, in order to be the lead in her own film, shouldn’t she also be the star of her own life? 

For Black Canary, they opted for Dinah Lance, daughter of the original, same-name Super Hero with the killer cry, but who still hesitates to hit that high note. 

They liked the version of police detective Renee Montoya who could be a little too tough and sometimes get in her own way, and felt that Huntress, with her tragic backstory, made for an ideal enigmatic loner averse to social interaction.  All of whom made for the most unlikely grouping of wholly reluctant individuals, so who better to match with the infamous criminal girlfriend known for standing by her man…after her man has kicked her to the curb?

Once they had their onscreen team locked in, Robbie teamed with producers Bryan Unkeless and Sue Kroll and the trio, collectively, found their director in rising star Cathy Yan, a discovery out of Sundance.

Margot Robbie and Cathy Yan (right)

Director Cathy Yan

Cathy Yan is a filmmaker known for her distinct aesthetic, darkly humorous tone and love for subverting typical genre rules and telling unconventional stories. Her debut film, Dead Pigs, which she wrote and directed, won the Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, among several other accolades. The film, which is set in Shanghai, came to fruition after she read a news story about 16,000 dead pigs mysteriously floating down the Huangpu River.

Her work on “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” makes her the first Asian woman to direct a superhero genre film.

Next, she is slated to direct and produce a film adaptation of Sour Hearts, a beautiful collection of short stories by Jenny Zhang. Yan will also co-write the script for the film along with Zhang. The film will be an autobiographical coming-of-age story about the immigrant experience from the point of view of a young girl whose parents relocate from Shanghai to New York in the ’90s.

Yan studied at Princeton University, where she earned her BA, and New York University, where she received a dual MFA and MBA in film. Previously, she was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in New York, Hong Kong and China, and brings her sharp, journalistic instincts to her filmmaking. Yan was born in China and is currently based in New York.

“I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive creative team, they were amazing,” says Yan.  “I know it was a very personal journey of many years for Margot, so I felt very honored to be a part of that.  And she was so actively involved as both a star and a producer, which was pretty amazing.”

The director also felt connected to the world of Harley and the Birds.  “Growing up, I loved Gotham,” she relates.  “When I read Christina’s script, I appreciated how she transformed it and the spirit of her storytelling, as well as the style and attitude of the characters.  They are these badass fighters, plus Harley is over the top, drops F-bombs and makes terrible decisions; her imperfections make her both relatable and also just really fun, and it was all there on the page.”

Kroll recalls, “Margot loves playing Harley and devoting the time and energy to figuring out all her quirks.  She and Christina had captured every dimension of the character, so when Cathy laid out her ideas for the film—the characters, the environments, the context—she really created a sense of place that allowed us to understand what she saw and felt, and how in line it was with our vision.”  Kroll says that Yan provided a comprehensive viewpoint that aligned with theirs from start to finish.  “Even her ideas for the music, which is incredibly integral to this film, were undeniable.”

Robbie concurs, “Cathy’s ability to give each character in an ensemble his or her moment on the screen was one of the main reasons I loved her film ‘Dead Pigs,’ but also why I felt she was the right person to direct this film.  When she came in, it was clear she understood the story and the characters and had so many wonderful additional thoughts.  Sue and Bryan and I just looked at each other and knew it just felt right.”

When the film opens, Harley Quinn is unceremoniously dumped by The Joker and, as she tells the audience (peppered with perhaps a few little white lies), she’s finally living her best life, which includes a new best friend: a hyena she names Bruce for, well…that other Gotham guy.  At the same time, she comes across several other women, each going about her day in her own way: solving mass murders, committing mass murders, or performing at a club patronized by mass murderers and their friends.  Respectively, they are GCPD detective Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez; Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead; and Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell.

“I love action movies.  If you want to put me in a movie about a bunch of girls kicking ass, I’m in,” says Perez.

Winstead agrees, noting, “I loved that this was a story about strong women trying to find their independence, and by coming together they find it within themselves and within one another.”

And Smollett-Bell, who would have double duty acting and singing in the film, loved the collaborative aspect of the Birds and Harley.  “Between the characters teaming up and Harley’s kind of humor, I felt like we were doing something a little different,” she says.  “I could really see myself in Black Canary and in this crazy, Harley world.”

To unite the women in a common cause, the film is infused with non-stop, edge-of-your-seat action as it pits them each against two very uncommon villains—mob boss Roman Sionis, aka the Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor, and his henchman Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina—in order to save one young girl, Cassandra Cain.  Cass is a sticky-fingered street urchin who picks the wrong pocket, and she is played by newcomer Ella Jay Basco.

For the look and feel of the film, the filmmakers and the design teams, led by production designer K.K. Barrett and costume designer Erin Benach, drew visual inspiration from Quinn herself, incorporating certain motifs into a very Harleyized version of Gotham City. 

Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis

Unkeless offers, “The story takes place in the mean streets of Gotham—not the Manhattan-inspired version, but the outer boroughs where the seedy underbelly thrives.  It’s all about attitude, told through the lens of Harley Quinn and all that entails: her crass perspective, her impolite exuberance, and her madcap, acerbic, subversive energy that is always unpredictable.  Put all of that together with this eclectic group of really powerful women who are pushed to their limits and have to form an alliance—albeit a loose one—not only to do what’s right, but just to survive the day.”

That’s right, it all takes place over about 24 hours.  Just another day in the life of one Harley Quinn.

Yan states, “The tone of the movie is totally inspired by Harley Quinn and her irreverent humor, as well as her dark side and the incredible, childlike glee she has for the world around her.  Christina had captured it all in the script and we made sure to continue it throughout all aspects of filming so that, hopefully, it will be part of the DNA of the movie.  I hope that by immersing themselves in Harley’s world, audiences will get to know her and her heart, but also just really enjoy themselves watching these amazing, kickass characters.”

Robbie concurs, adding, “The film is a wild ride and a lot of fun—a taste of life from Harley’s point-of-view that’s unpredictable, out of order, funny, dangerous, heartwarming…a little bit of everything, like her.”