The producer wore roller skates and carried a large mallet. Sporting a bright mustard-gold jumpsuit, candy-dipped pigtails and a demented grin on her face, she mowed her way through acrobatic enemies, leading a charge of fierce women into battle.
It was Day 50 of filming on “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” and the cast and crew was working ferociously on a darkened soundstage on the Warner Bros. lot to nail a complex stretch of fight choreography in one long take — a melee involving dozens of actors and stunt performers on a rotating carousel ringed with large prop hands.
Huddled around a monitor, director Cathy Yan scrutinized every beat of the swirling camera as it captured her “Birds of Prey” heroines fighting in fluid synchronicity. She called out adjustments to cinematographer Matthew Libatique. The carousel had to be painstakingly reset each time. The clock was ticking.
In the back of her mind, Margot Robbie calculated the day’s schedule between every call of “Action!” and “Cut!” but the producer-star was still having a blast. Before long, they got the shot, and she zoomed over to take a quick water break while the stunt team rehearsed the next setup.
“This is our office,” she said with a smile, no hint of the bumps and blisters she’d accumulated over months of playing manic antiheroine Harley Quinn in the action blockbuster. “This is us going to work today! It’s insane how lucky we are.”
Once upon a time in Burbank on this very same soundstage, Busby Berkeley spun “42nd Street” dancers into tableaux, Bogart and Bergman took a trip to “Casablanca” and Judy Garland poured her heart and soul into “A Star Is Born.” On this balmy afternoon in March it’s been transformed into a fun house lair dubbed the Booby Trap, the decaying house of horrors where Harley and her new pals face off against an army of thugs in “Birds of Prey.”
First introduced to movie audiences in Warner Bros.’ DC superhero film “Suicide Squad,” Robbie’s popular agent of mayhem narrates her own story in “Birds of Prey.” But it wasn’t easy to shed Harley of her famous ex, a guy Hollywood is so obsessed with that Warner Bros. doubled down on his big-screen presence by casting Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” — a bet that paid off with 11 Oscar nominations. When Robbie first pitched the idea for a Harley Quinn film, the studio wanted to know how much Joker would be in the story.
Robbie’s answer: None.
“Harley is so completely consumed by the Joker,” she said. “It’s either all or nothing. Either we’re doing a movie about Harley and the Joker or the Joker cannot be there, because if he’s there for even a glimpse that would be her sole focus. So it was really important to kick off the movie with the statement that he’s not in the picture — for better or worse.”
Written by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), “Birds of Prey,” opening Friday, is a dazzlingly madcap, R-rated standalone in which Harley, reeling from her breakup with the Joker, rediscovers herself and teams with a new squad of sisters-in-arms: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Det. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and street urchin Cassandra Cain (newcomer Ella Jay Basco).
Somewhere out there in the same DC Extended Universe, Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman are fighting to save the world, probably. In Harley’s corner of Gotham, the Birds of Prey have more immediate concerns in the form of crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a rich and volatile narcissist whose henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) has a penchant for slicing faces off.
At 29, Robbie is already an A-list Hollywood star and two-time Oscar nominee for 2017’s “I, Tonya,” which she also produced, and for the Fox News drama “Bombshell,” which is still in theaters. Here she makes a major career leap by producing her first studio film for her own banner, LuckyChap Entertainment, and having creative say in her biggest leading role to date. And like Harley, she’s brought more women along for the ride.
It was while making “Suicide Squad,” which saw the character locked in a toxic relationship with Jared Leto’s Joker, that Robbie began to wonder: What would more look like for Harley Quinn? Trading that “Daddy’s Lil’ Monster” shirt for a tee with her own name on it, “Birds of Prey” envisions a Harley liberated from her ex’s spell who takes the orphaned Cass under her wing and, in a way, forms her own justice league.
Five years ago as she was making “Suicide Squad,” she met rising screenwriter Hodson over a coffee meeting that turned into breakfast pizzas and mimosas. Lots of mimosas. They struck an instant bond, discovering they had the same taste and sense of humor and story, and Robbie pitched her idea for a Harley Quinn girl gang movie.
“As soon as she said that, I was in,” said Hodson last week in Hollywood, joining Robbie and Yan before the film’s global press tour. “The alcohol helped.”
Robbie nodded, laughing: “Ideas were flowing.”
Hodson wrote a script and by 2018 they had the studio greenlight. They just needed a director.
Separately they both met Yan, a relatively unknown indie filmmaker who’d just premiered her first feature, “Dead Pigs,” that January at the Sundance Film Festival. The sprawling Chinese-language ensemble drama, about strangers negotiating a rapidly modernizing China, had made its way onto their radar out of the festival.
Yan met with Hodson, then with Robbie, and made a sizzle reel to convey to the studio the ideas and visual direction she envisioned for the film as seen through a savvy, modern female lens.
It included, according to Yan, the Kim Kardashian vampire facial, proposals from “The Bachelorette,” a De Beers commercial and a remix of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” which ended up in the film in a musical dream sequence. She wasn’t sure if her vision was too crazy or just crazy enough, but by April the director had landed the “Birds of Prey” job at a time when few people outside of Sundance had even seen her first film.
All three were determined to make “Birds of Prey” into an irreverent, weird and R-rated fantastical action film that felt true to the female experience while playing within the lines of the DC Comics playbook. Among their favorite Harley quirks in the film: Her obsessive love affair with a perfect breakfast egg sandwich. The filmmakers grinned.
“To spend a whole section of a movie on an egg sandwich seemed like a fantastic idea to all of us,” Robbie said.
“The three of us all knew exactly the egg sandwich we wanted,” Hodson added. “We wanted a $2 New York, wrapped in crinkly paper with a little bit of the foil —”
“I said, I want to see the cheese dripping out … and why are we cutting it without seeing the yolk? Are you crazy?” Robbie said.
Hodson smiled. “It was very sexy.”
Most important, they all wanted the same things for Harley’s emotional journey. Starting with the aftermath of her breakup, “Birds of Prey” would reveal more of who Harley is to an audience that might love her from “Suicide Squad” but doesn’t know her all that well just yet.
In “Birds of Prey” we watch as the former Dr. Harleen Quinzel nurses her broken heart with clubbing and chaos, and we also go home with her to the cluttered apartment she shares with her pet hyena Bruce, named “after that hunky Wayne guy.” She emo-cuts her own hair in the mirror and drowns her sorrows in Easy Cheese while sobbing and wearing a onesie.
She questions who she’s been and who she wants to be, and sometimes that means curling up on the couch watching cartoons with a bowl of Froot Loops.
Harley Quinn: She’s just like us.
Well, kinda. Harley does possess lethal fighting skills, killer instincts and an unfiltered fearlessness. In one set piece, Harley is propelled while on roller skates at high speeds by an enemy’s car before flipping onto the roof of the vehicle, where she continues battling an assortment of henchmen.
Robbie did the stunt herself, strapped into safety lines as crew members and Hodson anxiously looked on. Harley herself might find emotional vulnerability the scarier adversary to face.
“You fear for her soul in this movie. She doesn’t have the safety net of the Joker that she had in ‘Suicide Squad,’” Hodson said. “Here she’s starting in one place and ending in another and over the course of that journey the question is: Is she going to make it out with her soul intact?”
Former Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing and distribution Sue Kroll served as producer on “Birds of Prey” alongside Robbie and Bryan Unkeless after working on Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and the previous campaigns of the $5-billion Extended DC Universe, which began with 2013’s “Man of Steel.” She says that what sets Harley apart from her more staid PG-13 superhero predecessors is exactly the point of “Birds of Prey.”
“It made complete sense years ago to start out with the bigger, more well known characters like Batman and Superman and so on,” Kroll said. “While I do think it’s a departure from where they’ve been, I also think that is a progression and a very natural evolution that is a justified exploration of the wide variety of characters in this world that people desperately want to see.”
Fresh and frenetic, “Birds of Prey” also introduces new heroines to the DC films, each on her own tangled journey: Smollett-Bell’s conflicted singer-turned-wheelwoman Black Canary, Winstead’s vengeful Huntress and Perez as Montoya, a dogged cop too headstrong and too female for her colleagues on the force.
Robbie was especially impressed by 13-year-old Basco, who makes her film debut as Cassandra, a street-smart pickpocket who lands in hot water after lifting a high-value stash from the wrong bad guy. The mentor-mentee dynamic that unfolds between Harley and Cass, say Robbie and Hodson, was partly inspired by the 1994 thriller “Léon: The Professional.”
“She’s so capable and multitalented,” said Robbie, who was starstruck to discover only after her young costar was cast that she’s the niece of “Hook” actor Dante Basco, a childhood icon of Robbie’s. “She can draw, sing … we’d be like, ‘What did you do on the weekend? I watched ‘Love Island’ and got drunk with my friends.’ She’d be like, ‘I recorded a song with my cousin. Do you want to hear it?’”
Unkeless, who worked with Robbie previously on “I, Tonya” and on the Hulu series “Dollface,” which she also produced, described the extra motivation that comes when your lead actor is invested in the entire production.
“What people don’t realize is that acting is just one aspect of an entire production that she is managing,” he said in an email. “Before she delivers a single take she’s worked countless hours with the writer on the script, negotiated the budget with the studio, hired the cast and crew and gracefully looked after them, trained tirelessly on the stunts,” he said. “How can you slack when your movie star cares so much?”
Robbie pointed to the value of bringing on collaborators who shared her, Hodson and Yan’s vision, including Oscar-nominated production designer Barrett (“Marie Antoinette,” “Her”), costume designer Erin Benach (“Drive,” “A Star Is Born”), Oscar-nominated cinematographer Libatique (“Black Swan,” “A Star Is Born”) and stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio of 87Eleven Action Design, who trained the actresses to do many of their own stunts.
“It was the people who came in and asked about character, and asked about the world, even if it didn’t directly pertain to their department, because it all ultimately does,” said Robbie, who also produced the upcoming thriller “Promising Young Woman” and will reprise the Harley Quinn role in a 2021 “Suicide Squad” sequel.
“In that way we built out this collaborative group,” she said. “And in doing so suddenly being a producer on a studio film isn’t as daunting because you have a great team of people that you love and respect …”
“Almost like a superhero team,” Hodson chimed in dramatically, cracking up Robbie and Yan. “Almost like … a Birds of Prey.”
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