Earlier this year, I visited the set of Birds of Prey, which promises to be a very different kind of DC Comic Book movie. The film is a spin-off adventure for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, but it also sees the formation of a new, all-female team of superheroes, along with an edgy, irreverent tone.
During our visit, I was able to speak to producers Sue Kroll and Bryan Unkeless, who screened some early footage for us before diving into the film’s unique energy, what director Cathy Yan brings to the project, and why Batgirl didn’t make the cut.
Note: this interview was conducted in a roundtable format with other assembled journalists. The interview began with a presentation of footage. Sue Kroll’s opening remarks have been edited for clarity.
Sue Kroll: We’re very excited about this whole because it really is the first of its kind for DC just in terms of being female led, a girl gang, it has a very different kind of attitude and spirit to it. It’s very funny. Very smart. And very audacious and obviously we’re in the midst of production. But that’s sort of what the vibe is and we put together a little reel for you. It’s only a minute and eight seconds it’s all behind the scenes footage from our camera tests. But I think we’re going to probably show it to you right now because it’ll give you a sense of what the spirit is and how different and unique it feels and how gorgeous it looks. This is not color timed or anything, it’s all behind the scenes stuff. And. I mean we just looked at it last night and it’s fucking amazing. If I must say. So why don’t we take a look at it.
(They screen the reel.)
Bryan Unkeless: Yeah it’s been, you know, this is one where, first of all it’s just been a blast. This movie has been so fun from the beginning. We’ve had a long prep, we’re really gotten to know each other. The cast is spectacular. They are all bleeding for this and we’re trying to take chances and really try and do things a little bit differently and push the envelope. Be a little more sardonic and edgier and a little bit more attitudinal and subversive and it’s really exciting for us to talk about it with you guys because you mean a lot to us. Obviously you know this world so well and it’s important, we talk all the time about whether or not we are making something that you guys will love and be proud of and we sure hope so and we hope that out of this you know you guys get a little bit of a glimpse into what this is. And if there’s anything we can do to help you see what we’re doing and what this movie is all about, bring you into the family because it really has been a family from the beginning.
Sue Kroll: And this is just the beginning. You’re our first guests and you know it’s early days and so we’re not prepared to turn over everything obviously but I think what we’re hoping is, obviously, that the relationship evolves and we figured out, obviously, moving forward what we’re doing together but like Bryan said, we want to be partners in this. I’m excited that you’re here.
I think the biggest one is we’ve heard over the last couple weeks that DC is going to do more sort of specific things and this obviously feels like that but what can you say about the connections to a suicide squad or another suicide squad movie because Harley obviously is such a big piece of those.
Sue Kroll: Well what I can tell you, I can’t speak for the studio, but this is a standalone film and obviously Harley really popped coming out of Suicide Squad and actually the idea for this movie is Margot’s idea of a girl gang film. But this is a standalone movie and it’s not a sequel or tied in any way to Suicide Squad. So it’s an origin story of sorts. Which is great because it used to be the universe is all connected and obviously there are a lot more discrete films that are in development and we’re one of them obviously in production.
I was just reading the synopsis of the film and One thing I’m curious about the story being driven by Harley’s perspective in this series and I’m curious if this is kind of an unreliable narrator situation? Like how much of her vision are we going to specifically see?
Sue Kroll: Well we want you to be surprised but what we can say is Harley obviously is very unique right? Her point of view on the world is very specific. So imagine that you are looking at the world through her eyes and her rationale and reason. And that’s what we’ll be offering up to you. So it’s fun. I mean that’s where the spirit of the movie comes from. But you get a lot more dimension to Harley now because you’ve seen her in Suicide Squad but this is a movie where we really explore a lot more about her and I think you’ll be surprised.
Can you tell us a little bit about character choices because it’s like an unconventional…even the birds of prey you have two characters from it, but having Cassie in there and Rene, was there kind of a thesis how they came to be or were they characters that the writers were really kind of into.
Sue Kroll: A little bit of both and I think, just to speak plainly, some of the other characters are in development in other movies movies and these are characters that have been explored in the canon. There are lots of different versions of birds of prey. And this is the one that everybody wanted to tell. So, we’ll see where it goes in the future.
A lot of the words you’re using subversive and stuff suggest maybe an R-rating do you guys know if you’re going to go for that? Is it Deadpool or The Dark Knight?
Bryan Unkeless: We’re two thirds of the way through production. So a whole lot of things could change, and that whole process as you know it’s complicated but one thing I think that has really been a guiding light for us is to push boundaries and really not allow any kind of barriers to the creativity or the attitude that Harley sets forth. So that will lead us to where it leads us. But certainly we’re trying to take chances.
Sue Kroll: And trying to embrace the audaciousness of the story.
As you noted, there are other characters you could choose from for a Birds of Prey roster. A lot of us have seen Shazam! We’ve seen Aquaman. We saw how standalone those were. We also saw a big world-building to them where they can expand within their own universe. In this universe, do you guys have plans to do that? Is there maybe teases of planting seeds for other characters to come and things like that throughout this film?
Sue Kroll: There isn’t, but we of course would love, you know, to expand our world at some point.
Bryan Unkeless: We’re trying to keep our head in this game. (Laughter) We gotta do well on this one and then we’ll see where that leads us. We’re just trying to deliver here.
Sue Kroll: And then getting these women together also for the first time and a new villain, it’s a lot, without distractions.
Would you say that that’s, in terms of not really building a universe out of this and just doing a standalone film, does that help you in the story process, or does that hinder you in some of the areas you’d like to explore?
Sue Kroll: That’s interesting. We haven’t felt any hindrance at all. The world that we’ve created is so expansive, potentially anyway, without bringing in lots of [other characters]. People haven’t seen these characters on-screen except for Harley, you know? So definitely not.
I’m just gonna ask the Batgirl question because she, Barbara Gordon, has been an important character for Birds of Prey really since the beginning. We have Cassandra Cain, but I’m just curious if we have Batgirl in this film?
Sue Kroll: You’ll not see Batgirl. Just gonna say ‘No.’
Can you talk about why you didn’t decide to include that character?
Sue Kroll: Well Batgirl’s actually, this is a studio question. That character’s in development on her own film, right? And so, yeah.
Bryan Unkeless: But a lot of it also has just originated from Margot and Christina kind of having this fun, open canvas or being attracted to the characters. So there certainly are some of those studio primers, but this by and large is, ‘This character’s awesome!’ You know? And Christina and Margot would get excited about these characters and it led us to the people we have on this wall.
What can you say about the stakes of the movie? Obviously, in a team-up movie, you need a reason that Harley can’t beat them herself. Can you talk about Black Mask and everybody and what they bring to it to necessitate a team-up movie like this?
Sue Kroll: They bring suspense and villainy. (Laughter) You’ll learn more about the movie. You’ll visit set and then as time goes on, but we don’t want to give too much away at this point.
Bryan Unkeless: One thing thematically, though it’s not so plot-driven, is that I think we find all of these characters at really unique times in their lives. Times of transition and in some ways times of, we use the word, obviously it’s in the title, emancipation from different things that are holding them back. Often times there’s men in their lives or other forces that are kind of holding them back, so there’s this kind of thematic pull. This sense of liberation in a way that pulls them [together]. Now that’s not plot, but that’s thematic underpinnings of it.
Can you guys give kind of like your version of the synopsis of the film? Like where we find the characters at the beginning and what their goal becomes?
Sue Kroll: Well you have the synopsis, right? And yeah, it’s kind of complicated to explain and we don’t want to go too much more deeply. I think that’s something you can talk to Cathy about today a little bit, and Margot, because you do find each of these women in different stages of their life and their life together, as they’re gonna come together. And Harley, we all know Harley is just, you know, she’s gonna be freed from her relationship with The Joker.
Bryan Unkeless: It’s not one that is, you know, again, it’s seeing through the prism of Harley Quinn’s perspective, right? So it’s not easily encapsulated in a linear logline. It’s pretty outrageous. And so to sit and talk about it from beginning to end would be challenging.
Is there anything you’ve seen before that you could maybe compare it to in terms of tone, or adventure, or anything like that?
Sue Kroll: I think it’s its own unique thing. That’s why when you look at the reel, and as you start to see things from the movie, it’s very… And look we haven’t seen the movie, right? We’re still in production, guys, so this is all about our goal and aspiration, but you know, it’s edgy and cool and gritty, but it’s also very funny and acerbic and spirited and each of the women bring very unique kind of dimension. And they’re in very different stages in sort of their evolution as characters. But I think to talk too specifically about it, I’m afraid it’s almost gonna be reductive and therefore dull, right? And this is, it’s early yet, so all the stuff that you need to get what you’re trying to shape, we’ll be able to talk about a little bit better, I think.
What is director Cathy Yan bringing to this in spirit and tone?
Sue Kroll: Well, I think everything that you’ve seen is what she’s bringing. I mean she is this very fierce, independent spirit. [She’s] very, very smart. She’s ferociously smart. She has a very specific vision. You’re gonna experience a little bit of that today. And it’s been really great. You’re hearing this a lot, I’m sure, female-led, but we have a lot of great women on the project and I include Bryan in that. (Laughter) But she’s a force. All the elements that you see here. It’s like the movie feels, it’s very grounded in the world, but yet a very unique take on sort of what you’ve already probably experienced from the canon. I want you to see it.
Bryan Unkeless: Yeah, I mean I think you guys can imagine when you’re deciding on a director for a movie like this, it’s a really heavy, weighty decision for all of us. We really, really deliberate and met with some unbelievable candidates, passionate and smart and people with great track records. And Cathy came in and just completely blew us away. Just came prepared with a fully realized vision that tapped into the voice and perspective of Harley Quinn in a stylized, cool, contemporary, edgy, subversive way. And did it in a way that made it feel relevant, made it feel fresh, and stood on its own. She brought in the sizzle reel. She brought in this visual document. She already had a great movie in Dead Pigs that tapped into a very unique tone. It’s rare when you leave a room and you’re like, ‘Whew! All right. We’re in for a good year and a half, two years,’ because you felt like, okay, the foundation’s laid out for you immediately.
Sue Kroll: And also, just to add to that, if you imagine all these women finding themselves, discovering who they are without their male counterparts, we talk about female empowerment. It’s obviously not intended to be on the nose and it’s still entertaining, but that’s what’s going on here. Cathy really brings that sensibility to the movie.
Bryan Unkeless: It’s fun.
Sue Kroll: Yeah.
Birds of Prey opens on February 7, 2020.
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