Harley Quinn just wants some fucking coleslaw.
It’s March 12, 2019, and on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, one of the key scenes in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is being shot. This is day 41 of 64 on the production and the scene features Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) finally tracking down Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who happens to be in the middle of a whole big mess involving the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and, of course, Harley Quinn herself, played by Margot Robbie.
Harley can’t understand why Renee, a Gotham City police officer, is after her. Renee says it’s because people like Harley, the Joker, and Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) feel like they are above the law, but Harley says she doesn’t think she’s above the law. It’s that the law is beneath her. In fact, the only law she trusts is coleslaw. “Hmmm, coleslaw,” she ponders in a room loaded with weapons and the possibility of death. “You really are a fucking psychopath,” Renee says.
It’s a joke, of course, but it’s also a perfect example of just how off the wall everyone behind Birds of Prey wants the movie to be. First of all, though no one would ‘fess up to this being a hard-R rated movie, the number of “fucks” in the five-minute scene being shot when we were on set, most of them screamed by a pre-teen girl, suggested otherwise.
“Pulp Fiction meets Rashomon” is how director Cathy Yan describes the movie, which is a “standalone origin story” for the Birds of Prey, according to producer Sue Kroll, and set almost in a “parallel universe,” according to Yan. So, did Suicide Squad happen? Does Batman exist here? Is Billy Batson a few cities away? No one knows for sure, and that’s also because Harley Quinn is telling this story.
“The film isn’t in any time,” said production designer K.K. Barrett. “It’s in the storytime that it exists in by itself. Like the characters being in their own heads, the world the story takes place over could be many different decades. It’s not any singular time. There’s nothing that adheres it to now or to then. It could be a story that’s told and made up, as these are, and there’s a little bit of fiction and lies going on so you can’t really trust what you see.”
So what exactly is happening in Birds of Prey? Well, the plot revolves around a couple of criminals (McGregor’s Roman Sionis and Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina) trying to capture the aforementioned young girl, Cassandra Cain. The only thing standing in their way is the unlikely scenario where Harley, Huntress, Canary, and Renee Montoya team up to stop them. The scene we saw shot back in March basically brings all of those storylines and characters together in a tense, funny, third-act scene that sets the stage to what’s likely a massive action set piece pitting the ever-combustible Birds of Prey against a shit load of street gangs.
“I first actually pitched the notion when we were actually still shooting Suicide Squad,” Robbie said, who is also a producer on the film as well as its star. “I kept saying like, ‘Oh, Harley does so much better when she has people to play with.’ I kept thinking that in real life I had such a girl gang, like my group of girlfriends, and I just want Harley to have a girl gang. I just want it to be like a girl gang for Harley to be a part of. And then obviously I’d been reading a ton of the comics, anything involving Harley, and one of the separate line of comics is the Birds of Prey, which I started reading. And Harley’s not a traditional member of the Birds of Prey, but it was a fun kind of girl gang to kind of dip in and out of, I suppose.”
The story was to be grounded too, with much lower stakes than most superhero movies, and so Robbie said she and writer Christina Hodson started with one character as the way into that. “It really started with Huntress,” Robbie said. “I just loved Huntress, and with my initial pitch on the story, I said I wanted to keep it quite contained, get no bigger, and no world-ending stakes. Like the stakes were as big as perhaps mafia level or gang level as kind of a basis.”
From there, it was kind of just building a team that Robbie thought was right.
“After Huntress, it kind of fleshed out from there,” she said. “Which other members kind of counterbalance her revenge story, and Harley’s version of what’s right and wrong? You kinda needed a more moral character like Renee Montoya—we needed a cop in there. Canary obviously is so crucial to the Birds of Prey, we really wanted to introduce her as well. And then Cas, Christina, the writer, and I actually spoke about a lot of our favorite films, and wanted to pay homage to a few things, but, Leon: The Professional was one of them, and we just loved that relationship—the mentor and mentee, a very unexpected friendship there. We kind of found ourselves gravitating towards that as well.”
Aesthetically Birds of Prey has that same kind of ragtag, eclectic, diverse vibe. It feels like a world that we’d want to explore more of. Something unique and vibrant. “I wanted to kind of blow-up whatever my preconception was of a comic book character or ‘heroes world’,” said Barrett. “Make it pop yet dirty because I felt like those were the streets that Harley tread through untouched. She can kind of go anywhere. She can go high, she can go low. Nothing affects her and she comes through unscathed.”
To that effect, all the costumes were designed to work in very specific night time lights and even the props all have some kind of weird, killer clown aesthetic—just spikes and wires and everything real bright and messy. Even the scene we saw shot took place on top of a funhouse called the Booby Trap, which will feature huge slides, trampolines and more, like a real-life, indoor circus.
And yet, Robbie and the team know this is ultimately Harley Quinn’s movie so fans will get her greatest hits. She has roller skates, pet hyenas, and a stuffed beaver named Bernie. You’ll probably see some sort of large hammer. One thing she won’t have is that pesky boyfriend of hers, the Joker.
“Something I explored a lot in Suicide Squad was Harley’s co-dependence with the Joker,” Robbie said. “Obviously he has a huge influence on her. But…I did want to explore what is the version of Harley out of a relationship, and whether she’s out of the relationship on her own accord or his, if he kind of kicked her to the curb, it still affects her, but in a very different way. And I thought we’d see a very different facet of her personalities. ‘Personalities’ I would say, cause I think she has multiple.”
That describes Birds of Prey, too. A movie with multiple personalities. Something that will be aware of other DC movies but trying to blaze its own trail. Something that creates its own look and feel but also borrows from the comics. Things may even get emotional and poignant along the way.
“To me, the story’s super compelling and personal because it is about emancipation,” Yan said. “About women almost being competitive with one another and bringing each other down, but also because of our own inabilities to feel so powerless and the stranglehold that is the patriarchy…Especially, I think, set against the backdrop of ‘Me Too’ and what has been happening in our industry in the last few years. So that definitely infiltrated its way into my pitch as well. So, for me, this film was so much more than a superhero film about like and the first girl gang film or any of that. It really has a compelling narrative and theme to it that is very, very personal.”
Personal resonance mixed with timely themes as well as F-bombs and coleslaw? Sign us up.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn opens February 7.
Correction: An earlier version of this article called the film’s funhouse the “Booty Trap.” It’s, in fact, the “Booby Trap.”
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.