Change is in the air, ladies and gentleman! And this weekend, Los Angeles got a taste of that, when Margot Robbie, director Cathy Yan, and the full cast and crew of Birds of Prey took over Hollywood, in a gloriously chaotic stunt that turned the city into “Harleywood” for four-straight mayhem-fueled days. The massive Hollywood and Highland Center was home to the outfits, vehicles, and props of the film, as well as special photo activations and makeup demonstrations.
To kick off the event, members of the press, and the hardest of hardcore Harley fans immersed themselves into the neon lights and colors of “Harleywood,” on Thursday, greeted by a massive stage, and several Harley Quinn lookalikes. As everyone lined up around the stage, the lights dimmed, and the speakers began blaring to the sounds of “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Projected all over the buildings of the shopping center were the luminous, colorful images of the Birds of Prey characters, and several cartoonish images and symbols that could only be conjured up in the loony-tune mind of Harley Quinn. Propelled by the cacophony of lights, sounds, and colors, the cast and crew of the film was then assembled one by one to the stage: Director Cathy Yan, Chris Messina (Victor Zsasz), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Huntress), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Black Canary), Ewan McGregor (Black Mask), screenwriter Christina Hodson, and of course, Harley Quinn herself, Margot Robbie.
In front of the crew sat a giant button in the shape of a black diamond (a reference to a key MacGuffin in the film). And led by Robbie and Yan, the whole gang placed their hands on the button, and pushed it. To the surprise of everyone around the stage, a sea of streamers shot out in every direction, burying those by the edges of the stage in thin colorful paper. The Egypitian-inspired archway on the Northside of the shopping center illuminated into a gigantic billboard for the film, with the bright allure of the neon sign, saying “Harleywood” shone above it, while fireworks filled the air. And so for a fleeting, but exciting moment, the cast of Birds of Prey had changed Hollywood.
However, despite being three paragraphs in, that’s not the point of this article. As we all know as readers and writers of The Nerds of Color, there needs to be more than just a physical change in Hollywood. Turning on a neon sign doesn’t change how Hollywood should look or how the industry needs to evolve. That comes from an increase in gutsy projects that dare to reshape the who’s and what’s of the industry. And thankfully, the Birds of Prey are also helping significantly with that. In addition to being the first film about a female superhero group, Robbie and the other producers, made it a massive priority to have the film directed and written by women of color, and starring women of color! And it’s those decisions that will evolve the industry.
Following the opening ceremony of “Harleywood,” the cast and crew made themselves available to the press to discuss the film and the steps they have taken to change the game. Here’s what they had to say:
Christina, this is really one of the first mainstream superhero movies to have, not only a female voice, but to have a female voice of color (courtesy of you and Cathy). What was that like, and how was that infused into the script?
Hodson: Mostly this was a huge honor. It’s exciting and it was about time, as I’m sure you’ll agree. How did I infuse it into the script? Well it’s just who I am. I am a nerd of color. It comes out on the page and that’s how it goes. I hope it’s just in there naturally and organically.
Traditionally Black Canary in the comics is Caucasian. This time, she’s being portrayed by an African American actress — Jurnee crushes it! Which is amazing, because typically people of color don’t have the opportunities to play such big roles in comic book films. Was that inherent in the script?
Hodson: Yes! Margot and I put that in the first draft. It felt right to me. I wanted to. Warner Bros. was completely supportive and wonderful, and no one ever questioned it! And you’re right, Jurnee crushed it!
To Ella and Cathy, it means everything to have an Asian American director behind a multi-million dollar superhero film, and also to have an Asian American female lead in the film. When you got approached by WB, what were your reactions to getting the project, and how did you approach the work based off that?
Yan: It was very humbling and surreal. It all happened very quickly. It’s something I think about a lot. At the time I didn’t think about it at all. But it’s a really great responsibility. And hopefully the movie is just good. And people talk about it being a really great time, and a really great movie, that just so happens to have an Asian female director and an Asian female lead.
Basco: I definitely think it should have happened sooner. But it’s definitely an honor to be a part of this. I couldn’t be more grateful.
For Ewan and Chris, were you able to get a hold of the source material or were you inspired more by crime/mafia characters?
Messina: I looked at the comic books, and they were helpful. I didn’t know the characters or the comic books [before this]. They were helpful certainly with the look of it. There were early incarnations of Zsasz that were bleached blonde, so we did that stuff.
McGregor: Not really. I looked at some of them, but honestly didn’t look too deeply into the comic books.
Messina: There was a lot already on the page [of Christina’s script]. A great fun script with a lot of comedy and a lot of danger.
What was it like training for the action sequences in the movie?
Smollett-Bell: For Black Canary, you can’t phone that in! She’s one of the dopest, street fighters in the DC Universe. I trained for about five months total. A few months before shooting and during shooting. I worked out five days a week and changed my diet to become as strong as I could. But the stunt team really kicked our butts. They really wanted us to do these stunts ourselves. And Cathy had a really ambitious way of shooting it.
Jurnee, could you discuss how Black Canary differs in this film versus the source material?
Smollett-Bell: Black Canary was written quite a long time ago. And there were so many versions of her that were retconned a bunch of times. And so my biggest influence was initially the video game, Injustice 2, which is how I was introduced to her, even before the movie even existed. When I was cast, I went back to all the comics, and spent time trying to read all the Black Canary comics, which was confusing because her origin story changed, and would be established, then they’d toss it away, and it would change again. But I think it was great. We picked from quite a bit of them and chose the ones that fit best in our story; making her a street fighter, and a songstress, and the daughter of a vigilante who has super powers. And yet in our film, it’s prior to her really owning her superpowers… So it was fun to explore this powerful woman who’s completely in denial about her powers.
We have never had a female driven superhero team on the screen until Birds of Prey. You guys broke the barrier by being the first. How does that feel to break those barriers, and to do something completely revolutionary to the genre and comic book films today?
Robbie: It’s amazing. We wanted to diversify, even in age range as well. We’re an eclectic group, but one that represents the world around us. And everyone, I think, either is or should be making the effort to represent the world more honestly on the screen.
Winstead: I’m so proud to be part of it. I think for that reason, and many other reasons, I can’t imagine being a part of any other comic book franchise but this one. This one is the one that speaks to me the most because of everything that it’s doing in terms of pushing those boundaries and pushing things forward, and speaking to a broader audience. That’s something that’s really exciting to me. And I want to see the way that it progresses and the direction it keeps taking.
And that’s a sentiment I think we call can agree with! Birds of Prey hits theaters February 7, 2020!