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"It gets really nuts” – How Birds of Prey takes us into the mind of an unhinged antihero who breaks all the rules

Harley Quinn behind bars in Birds of Prey
(Image credit: Warner Bros)

"It’s really surreal," Margot Robbie tells Total Film as she looks at a poster for Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn), to give it its full title. “I feel like I’ve spent so long thinking about it, and working on it, that it’s going to be really nice to be able to put it out in the world.” She’s not exaggerating. This spin-off movie for Harley Quinn and her “girl gang” has been in the works for years, since before Suicide Squad – the DC movie in which Harley made her big-screen debut – opened in 2016.

“Once I started getting to know her, and prepping for [Suicide Squad], I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there is so much more to be done with this character,’” continues Robbie. “Obviously, you can only do so much in a film like Suicide Squad where there are so many other characters, and you’ve got to be introduced to everyone, and you’ve got a huge plot thing to contend with. So I was just like, ‘There is so much more to do with her.’”

Robbie took Harley’s destiny into her own hands: a key producer on Birds Of Prey, she was integral when it came to pulling together the behind-the-scenes talent. She met with screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) four years ago to start work on script treatments and drafts. Cathy Yan (Sundance hit Dead Pigs) was appointed to direct, chosen for her proven ability to handle an ensemble and create a heightened reality. “She gave a great pitch, to be honest,” explains Robbie. “She put together this sizzle reel which was fantastic. It was a no-brainer for us after that.”

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It’s October 2019 when Total Film meets Robbie in the Four Seasons New York Downtown hotel, she couldn’t be styled more differently to her punky on-screen persona. She looks every inch the power player in a lemon yellow suit, the jacket draped over the back of the couch, structured short-sleeved blouse and white stiletto heels, her dark blond hair swept to the side. Chatting about her passion project between sips of milky tea, she explains that Birds Of Prey is more of a standalone than a direct continuation of Suicide Squad. “It’s very much like the comic books where you pick up in a totally different place, and it doesn’t directly link to what happened. But at the same time it's not such a leap that you're like, 'Oh, what's going on?!'"

“It’s definitely a standalone movie,” confirms Yan when we catch up later, deep into her post-production schedule. "Obviously, Margot is playing Harley again, but we are our own film. We’re not a sequel to Suicide Squad. The Gotham that we’re exploring is a little bit different as well. We try to pay some homage to Suicide Squad in some of the looks, and the fact that Harley’s mallet is the same, and the bat. It was really, really fun to create our own movie, and to not feel like it had to be a sequel or a continuation of Suicide Squad.”

On the big screen, DC Comics has been ripping up the rulebook of late. “It’s a really big sandbox to play in,” beams Yan. “I was given an opportunity to do something that was quite different, and wasn’t a sequel in any way.”

After a misfiring attempt at an extended universe with Justice League, DC has gone from strength-to-strength since it cut loose to focus on solo stories. Aquaman and Shazam! were unexpected standalone triumphs, while Joker – which has no connection whatsoever to existing DC movies – recently grossed more than $1bn as 2019’s darkest horse. So who better to continue DC’s cinematic resurgence than its manic pixie nightmare girl? First introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, Harleen Quinzel was the breakout star of Suicide Squad.

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Emancipation is the key word in Birds Of Prey’s extravagantly fanciful subtitle. It’s not so much the Squad that Harley’s been emancipated from: it’s more specifically the Joker (as played by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad). And it doesn’t look like it was a polite conscious uncoupling, given the trailer sees her throwing knives at a drawing of her ex. Will we find out what caused the rift between Harley and Mistah J? “I can’t say,” says Robbie, side-stepping spoilers. “I wouldn’t want to ruin it. What I will say is: the reason for their breakup is not integral to the story in the film.”

Just because Harley’s single doesn’t mean she’s flying solo: the title, after all, refers to DC’s all-female superhero group, that like most comic-book teams has varied its line-up over the years. Here it includes detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Their separate paths all converge with Harley’s when it comes to saving a streetwise kid called Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from crimelord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his sadistic sidekick Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).

“Her backstory is that she was the daughter of this very powerful don,” says Winstead, introducing TF to crossbow-wielding badass, Huntress. (The Scott Pilgrim star compares Yan’s directing style to Edgar Wright’s.)

“As a child, her whole family was assassinated in front of her. She was taken in by these bodyguards who raised her and trained her to be an assassin. And now her mission in life is to avenge the death of the family.”

Song bird

Birds of Prey

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Dinah Lance is a singer at the Black Mask club, owned by big bad Sionis. “Black Canary in Birds Of Prey is very much the Dinah Lance that we know and love in the comics,” explains Smollett-Bell, an excitable bundle of energy still beaming from attending New York Comic-Con with the gang the day before our meeting. “We are trying to capture the essence of her. But in our film, when we meet Dinah, she’s settled for a life in which she is working as a singer in Roman Sionis’s Black Mask club. Due to a traumatic event in her past in which she lost her mother who was a crime fighter, she wants nothing to do with cleaning up Gotham, and is perfectly happy to keep her head down and just do her work – which goes against her true nature.”

Traditional superheroics – and the powers associated with them – are in short supply in Birds Of Prey. “It’s more of a heightened reality,” says Robbie, pausing to consider how much further she can go without veering into spoiler territory. “It’s not metahuman folk. Only one of our characters is a metahuman, and it’s not something that she’s even really fully understood or accessed at that point.” The most grounded of the Birds, and the one with the moral compass pointing northwards according to Robbie, is Renee Montoya.

“She’s a human being without [powers],” Perez tells TF in her inimitable rasp. “So I didn’t want her to look as sleek and as polished as most action heroes. I wanted her to be a real woman of a certain age. She knows how to handle herself, but I wanted
it to be honest.”

(Image credit: Warner)

It sounds as if she is, in many respects, an outlier of the group. “Because she’s in law enforcement, she’s very, very weary of [the other Birds],” continues Perez. “But they all have one objective, which is to protect Cass, and bring Roman Sionis down. So they have to work together. And what I do like is that it contradicts the narrative that women find it difficult to work

together. You know? That they’re catty or bitchy, blah, blah, blah, – all that BS. Everybody has to put their differences aside and work together, just as women do every single day.”

The final piece of the puzzle is Cass herself, the girl who finds herself in the middle of the maelstrom. “Everything’s revolving around her now, because her sneaky little butt decided to pickpocket some things,” says young Ella Jay Basco who plays her. “Cassandra Cain is this street kid. She comes from pretty much nothing. She’s super-mischievous, super-sneaky, and she likes to play with people. It’s fun to her. Everything is a game, because she’s still a kid. She’s so independent and yet misguided and vulnerable. And she worships Harley and all of the other characters.”

So, do we class teenaged Cass as one of the Birds? “She’s not an official Bird,” laughs Yan. “I wouldn’t call her an official Bird. But in the movie, we form a very impromptu girl gang, if you will, with Cass and Harley as well.” Yes, strictly speaking, Harley was never an official Bird either. “She’s not technically a member of the Birds Of Prey in the comic books,” says Robbie. “But she can collide with the Birds Of Prey, which she does in this film. But the Birds Of Prey aren’t officially formed at the beginning of this film.”

Given Harley’s propensity to rile up well, just about everyone, that should make for some combustible chemistry. “Harley is always going to feel opposed to anyone in an authoritative position, with cops being at the top of that,” explains Robbie of the group dynamic, almost gradually slipping into characters she goes through the roster. “So that’s her immediate, and initial, conflict with Renee Montoya. But when she starts working outside the system, [Harley] can appreciate it. 

"She thinks Huntress is an absolute badass, because anybody who can kill that effectively and be such a mess in the head with all that childhood trauma – that’s thrilling to Harley, so she loves Huntress. Black Canary she identifies with. She immediately can see that Canary is serving a guy that isn’t treating her well, so I think she kind of identifies with Canary in that way. And the kid? Ugh. She’s just a kid, and annoying, and she doesn’t want to have her around. But she’s got to. And then by the end, the little shit kind of grows on her.”

Holding out for an antihero

Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

According to Smollett-Bell, “Dinah can’t stand Harley... She’s so annoyed by her! She’s this annoying gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe.” But when the cameras stop rolling, the cast have nothing but glowing words for Robbie in her dual capacity as star and producer. “It just means so much to her,” says Yan. “She was very actively involved in all of it, and she’s got really great taste. She knows what’s cool and what’s interesting. She wants to push the envelope a little bit, and take some risks.”

“She’s incredibly smart and savvy,” adds Winstead. “She has a real understanding of the whole picture. It’s not like, ‘This is the Harley Show, and what’s going on with Harley.’ She’s thinking about every character, and every story beat, and if it’s working or not.”

“I relied heavily on Margot as a collaborator, because she was able to wear so many hats, which was really impressive,” says Smollett-Bell. “She wasn’t just the actor who slapped her name on this film. She was very involved, and made herself available to the cast and crew for the collaborative process. Which I find very rare.” And as for what Basco made of Robbie, she says, "I don’t want to curse, but really badass. She is such a great role model.”

Harley herself – with her multi-coloured hair and penchant for ultraviolence – isn't exactly a role model. She is, after all, the very definition of an antihero: not strictly speaking good, bt the person we're going to be rooting for. "I think Harley borders on a villain and antihero," muses Robbie. "In darker depictions, she could be playing for the darker side and be more straight-up villain. In this film, she's kind of doing the right thing ultimately. But she's not a moral person. So I consider that more antihero. And I'd say that the Birds of Prey are all probably antiheroes."

Yan agrees. “If we saw more of the evil streak in her in Suicide Squad, I think this movie is more about the humanity in her.” What really positions the Birds Of Prey as the antiheroes in their own story is the fact there are some very bad baddies to contend with, led by McGregor’s Roman Sionis (in the comics, Sionis famously becomes the notorious Batman villain Black Mask). Here he’s flanked by another comics-iconic Gotham villain in Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz – a killer who carves a tally of his victims into his skin (an interpretation of the character was previously glimpsed in Batman Begins).

“They’re quite a pair,” grins Yan. “I think Ewan and Chris had a lot of fun just working off of each other. Roman’s a gentleman in some ways, and he’s also a villain in many other ways. Ewan really brings that level of charisma to the role. He had a lot of fun playing a villain, and playing a narcissist,” she laughs. “And we put his face on a bunch of things, so I think he enjoyed that as well!” Yan describes Zsasz as “a sadistic piece of work”, but expects both guys to be compelling, and to test audiences’ loyalties. “Over time, you’re like, ‘Oh, hmm. Maybe I like this guy?’ Only to make it worse when they do the terrible things that they do.”

Messina – best known for his long-running role on TV’s The Mindy Project plus movies like Argo and Julie & Julia – is both compelling and likeable when TF meets him in his native New York. He’s dressed in a casual blazer and speaks in a bassy drawl, his dark hair back to its natural shade after going bottle-blond for the psychotic Zsasz.

As well as citing Javier Bardem’s Bond baddie Silva as an inspiration, Messina also sees a Shakespearean parallel to his outsider character. “He’s even an outsider in Roman’s universe,” Messina explains. “But he’s been taken in off the streets, because he’s so ruthless and good at what he does. He’s really a sidekick, in a way, to Roman. I really thought that this character looked to all the more popular villains in the canon with envy and jealousy, almost in an Othello way, and wanted to take power.”

Messina underwent an extreme physical makeover; as well as the bleached locks, he was decorated with Zsasz’s trademark scars. “It does a lot for you,” he says. “The makeup department was so specific and extremely talented. The scars were all very specific and deliberate, because they’re tally marks. Where was the first scar? How many scars did he have in total? Where was he going to put the next one? What hand did he use to do it? I could name the scars, and who they were. He’s very proud of them.”

Action stations

Margot Robbie behind the scenes of Birds of Prey

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

As well as facing formidable foes, the Birds faced physically taxing training – from stunt experts 87eleven – for the film’s action sequences. “There’s some pretty crazy, fun action sequences in really insane settings,” says Winstead, “like a huge action sequence that’s in an amusement park, in a funhouse. And it gets really nuts.”

“I trained for five months as a martial artist, five days a week, because you can’t play Black Canary and phone it in, man,” says Smollett-Bell. “You better learn how to kick some ass. But our stunt team, 87eleven, they pushed us really hard – really hard.” It was a new experience for Perez too. “I had fun, especially with the fight scenes,” she smiles.

Despite it being a hyperstylised world, the costumes favour functionality over sexiness. “I was very happy about the costume,” adds Perez “I was ready to say, ‘Hey, can we make her look like a real detective, instead of this sleek sex siren? It’s so unrealistic.’ And then I had my first fitting...”

“I felt so cool,” says Winstead of her leather Huntress outfit. “I felt totally empowered and feminine. But also, I was able to move. I was able to carry weapons. I was able to do other things that the Huntress could actually be doing. And that felt so great. There was never a moment where I was like, ‘I can’t do this stunt because my pants are too tight and my boots are too high.’”

If Harley’s costumes are somewhat removed from her Suicide Squad clobber, it’s with good reason. “I feel like in Suicide Squad, Harley was dressing for Mr J,” explains Robbie of the shift. “She was dressing in a way that she knows that he likes her to look. And in this one, she’s dressing for herself. Also, she’s kind of emotionally a hot mess at the time.”

In Birds Of Prey, Harley’s mental state doesn’t just influence the costumes. It influences everything. “Harley’s telling you the story,” says Robbie. “And because of that, you are definitely getting her version of events. The world is poppy and colourful and absurd at times. But then shit gets real, especially when you’re spending time with some of the other characters who do exist in a more grounded way. But for the most part, I would say that the tone of the film is Harley-esque.”

“We get to do amazing, crazy things, and we get away with it in a way because it's Harley's perspective, which is super fun for storytelling,” adds Yan. The Harley filter is what will differentiate Birds Of Prey from any previous DC Comics film. “It’s not Bruce Wayne’s Gotham,” confirms Smollett-Bell. “And because it’s told from Harley’s point of view, it’s fun, it’s wacky. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it’s very vicious. It’s all these really over-the-top elements that just make for a very entertaining film.”

It’s fitting that Harley has such an influence over the on-screen events, given that Robbie was so instrumental in shaping the film behind the scenes. “Tonally, I think it reflects Harley’s personality,” Robbie says. “And that’s what will differentiate it. At times, it’s absurd. It’s almost always funny. It’s dangerous. It’s violent. But it’s irreverent and subversive. It really is like Harley. It’s just a bit unpredictable but very fun and a little crazy.”

Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

After Birds Of Prey, Harley will next be seen in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, another rulebook-shredder playing fast and loose with standard sequel convention. Robbie describes that film as another different ‘iteration’ that won’t be a direct follow-on, much like how comics would chop and change. “Tonally, David Ayer’s world looks different to [Birds’] world, which will look different to James’s world.
So, no, there’s not a direct connection. But like the comics, it doesn’t cancel out one or the other.”

And, if the Birds themselves have their way at least, we could see them taking wing again in future. “It could be an incredibly fun world, and I would love to keep playing in it,” says Winstead on the possibility of follow-ups. “Just as a fan, I would love to see some of [Black Canary’s] interactions with some of the characters from
the comics,” says Smollett-Bell."Obviously, I would really love to see her taking charge of Birds of Prey. But there are so many great pairings that she had. Justice League, and the whole romance with Arrow. I think there's plenty of potential, personally, of what we could explore."

It certainly doesn't sound like Harley Quinn will be vacating Robbie's head any time soon. "I hope so," Robbie responds when Total Film asks if she can see herself telling Harley's stories for a long time. "I mean, I love her. I feel like there's so much you can do with Harley. There are so many other relationships and friendships and stories that I think would just be so delicious to explore with her. So I would love to do more."

Birds of Prey reaches UK cinemas 7 February. This feature originally appeared in our sister publication Total Film magazine. Pick up a copy now or subscribe so you never miss an issue.