Christina Hodson has been living with Harley Quinn for a very long time, and you could say she’s grown emotionally attached. “I never want Harley to leave me,” the screenwriter tells MTV News over the phone from London, where she’s in the middle of a hectic press day promoting her latest film, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Told from the perspective of DC Comics’ resident wild child, and in her own colorful voice, the film is an vibrant explosion of chaos, violence, and glitter, and it finally gives Harley a chance to stand on her own. A passion project for both Hodson and star Margot Robbie, the pair developed the plot together four-and-a-half years ago. From the start, they knew the film had to be three things: It had to be Harley’s story; she needed to find her girl gang (enter: the Birds of Prey); and it must be R-rated.
“Our goal when we set out was to do something that felt different,” Hodson says. “We both loved big action movies. We both loved superhero movies. But we deliberately set out to do something that felt fresh and bold and risky … and Harley was the perfect vehicle to do that with. She feels unlike anyone else in any universe. She’s very much her own thing.”
In this conversation with MTV News, Hodson talks about living inside Harley’s mind throughout the development of the film, collaborating on set with director Cathy Yan, and how she’s using her platform to empower female writers to pitch their own superhero movies. Plus, she answers the age-old question: Where goes Batman get his breakfast sandwiches?
MTV News: This film is set in Harley Quinn’s world, and you’ve been working on this project for years. What has it been like living inside Harley’s brain all this time?
Christina Hodson: I love it so much. Harley has been there since the beginning, and now we’ve let her loose. It’s been a dreamy experience working with Margot. It’s been been four-and-a-half years since we started talking about this. Getting inside Harley’s head was easy because she’s got such a great history in the comics, from the very beginning when Paul Dini and Bruce Timm introduced us to her. I have especially love getting to know Margot at the same time. Harley feels like a part of both of us. We speak the language fluently now.
MTV News: Making it an ensemble film was also key, bringing in the Birds. I don’t know if an entire film about Harley would have worked quite as well if it didn’t have these other characters like Huntress, Black Canary, and Renee Montoya to balance out Harley’s eccentricities. Was it developed as a ensemble film from the start?
Hodson: All credit goes to Margot for that. When she was filming Suicide Squad, she knew immediately that she wanted to do more with Harley. And what she really wanted was to see a girl gang on-screen. She’s got such a strong group of friends, and she wanted to see those relationships reflected. She loved the Birds of Prey. There are so many incredible female characters in the DC Universe, so we both started doing a lot of research on the Birds of Prey, starting with the Chuck Dixon comics and all the way through to Gail Simone’s work. It was about falling in love with these characters and bringing them together in a way that felt different. We’ve seen a number of ensemble team-ups that feel roped — the gang is assembled and they go off to save the day. We wanted to give each of these women their own story and then have the stories collide so that they’re forced together.
MTV News: What was it like balancing those characters, with their individual story lines and nuances, in the script?
Hodson: They’re all such different characters. Huntress, historically in the comics, has this incredibly rich and kind of dark backstory. In many ways, she’s the female Batman of the DC Universe. But what I wanted to do with her, and what I think the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead does so well is bringing a real heart and humor to that role. Even when she’s being tough and kicking ass, she’s pretty fucking funny. Likewise, Canary has great wisecracks, and that’s true to the comics. Gail Simone has done such a fantastic job with Canary over the years. And Jurnee Smollett-Bell embodies that; she can kick you in the gut and then say something hilarious. And Rosie Perez brings real depth and heart and hilarity to a character like Detective Montoya, who can read as really straight. There’s only so much I can do on the page, but she brings that character to life in such a dynamic way.
MTV News: I really like that it was a film that celebrates and empowers women without being a “girl power movie.”
Hodson: We wanted it to feel organic and not like a girl power movie. It doesn’t need to be a feminist movie because we’re all women writing and making this movie. It’s just naturally there. It’s a movie that I hope men and women will love.
MTV News: I particularly loved the fight sequence set to “Black Betty” in which Harley inhales an unknown substance and then proceeds to lay waste to an entire mob of criminals.
Hodson: Margot is so good in that scene! And she does so many of those stunts herself. Margot is fantastically good with a bat. It’s a little scary.
MTV News: Did you spend a lot of time on set?
Hodson: I was on set every single day. And I should give a shout-out to Margot’s stunt double, Renae Moneymaker. Anything that Margot couldn’t do — and there isn’t a lot Margot can’t do — Renae is the one doing it. But she was also the one training Margot and working with her every day. She is so talented and worked her ass off on this movie. And it pays in dividends.
MTV News: What was it like collaborating with Cathy Yan and all of these creatives on set?
Hodson: Getting to work with other women whose work you’ve admired is so fantastic. I met Cathy for coffee two years ago. It was right after Sundance. I saw Dead Pigs and thought it was fantastic. It’s an odd one to watch and then say, “Hey, you should direct a superhero movie.” But there’s a darkness there, and it’s an ensemble story. I immediately introduced her to Margot, who loved her. There are so many amazing women who worked on this movie, like Sue Kroll, our other producer. She has such a depth of knowledge on the marketing side. And we had some really lovely men on this movie too!
MTV News: Was there a scene or performance that really surprised you?
Hodson: Chris Messina playing Zsasz. He bought so much depth and life to that role. Even watching him on set, he would play so much with that performance. He’s such a gifted actor, and most people have never seen Chris play a villain. To see Chris go to town and be so wickedly, deliciously evil was wonderful. He and Margot really bounce off each other well. He licks her face in a few scenes. I remember him going up to her and asking, “Is this OK? Am I going too far?” And she was like, “No! Bring it!”
MTV News: Ewan McGregor is also having so much fun in this movie.
Hodson: Roman Sionis is a really unusual villain. One of the important things for Ewan that I think comes through on-screen is that he’s not playing Roman as a villain. Roman in Roman’s mind is very much the hero of the story. Ewan approached it as the guy who think he’s in the right; he’s not being evil for the sake of being evil. He’s being evil because he’s a narcissist.
MTV News: This film also picks up on some of the details you’d find in the comic books, like the emotional attachment that Harley has toward a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.
Hodson: It’s very important!
MTV News: But things like that, getting to go into restaurants and meet other people who live in this city, make this film feel very fresh. Batman doesn’t go to bodegas, but it’s so integral to Harley’s story.
Hodson: Where does he get his breakfast sandwiches?
MTV News: Alfred probably makes them.
Hodson: They’re very posh breakfast sandwiches, I’m sure.
MTV News: But how fun was that for you to really dive into the streets of Gotham?
Hodson: Super fun! We wanted to see a different kind of Gotham City. It’s the insides of the bodegas that are sometimes a bit scuzzy; it’s Doc’s Taiwanese restaurant. We just wanted to go home with Harley, so there were a lot of details that were brought to life. When you go inside her apartment, she has a Queen Elizabeth pillow and a picture of her as a schoolgirl with a couple of nuns. Little details like that.
MTV News: And the beaver, which is just not explained at all.
Hodson: Of course! You can’t not have the beaver.
MTV News: I hope it found its way into Margot’s own home. Did you take anything from Harley’s home?
Hodson: Props department would not be happy if I answered that question!
MTV News: The dynamic between Harley and Cassandra Cain is surprisingly sweet. Why was it important for you to bring those two together and make them the heart of this story?
Hodson: One of the things that I love about that dynamic is getting to see Harley with a kid. It’s such an unusual thing. We’re so used to seeing her with Joker or with her peers, but seeing her with this kid who really looks up to her, and seeing the terrible advice that Harley would give to a child, honestly just makes me giggle. But it also opens up a vulnerable side to Harley, and a sweet side. It was really fun being able to see Harley go to those places.
MTV News: The film really earns its R rating, which must have been quite liberating for you.
Hodson: That was one of the first things Margot told me when we met: She told me she wanted Harley, she wanted Birds of Prey, and she wanted it to be R-rated. I was immediately in. Harley is a character who is best told in an R-rated setting. With that, you can expect the unexpected. She’s not always going to be dainty and polite about what she does. So to do that with the language and action was important. With PG-13, you can’t hit someone and have wet blood, you can only have dry blood. It’s not that we wanted the movie to be gory or gratuitous. We just wanted to feel free in our storytelling.
MTV News: You’re working on a few other DC projects at the moment, like Batgirl and The Flash. What do you love about these characters?
Hodson: For me, the thing about the DC characters is that they have real humanity. I love Batman. I’ve always loved Batman. Some people see him as an archetype but, if you think about it, he’s got an incredibly human story. He’s a kid who lost his parents when he was young. Barry Allen, likewise, is such an emotional character. Andy Muschietti has come on to direct The Flash and he brings so much of that heart and warmth to everything he does. Because these characters have been around for a long time, DC has explored so many facets of who they are and where they came from. I’m a huge DC fan — always have been.
From left to right: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Cathy Yan, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Margot Robbie, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina, and Christina Hodson
MTV News: Last year, you and Margot teamed up for the Lucky Exports Pitch Program. Why is that so important to the both of you?
Hodson: About two years ago, when Time’s Up was kicking off, I started looking into the statistics of female representation on-screen. I also looked at the behind-the-scenes numbers in the Writers Guild of America. Looking at feature writers, men were outnumbering women 3:1. Out of about 1,600 feature writers, there were only 116 people of color. Those statistics are terrible and they need changing. I felt like there was a real practical way of doing it, which was to bring up other women. In the same way that I’ve had opportunities, I wanted to create more opportunities for female writers looking to break into the space that I’m currently in, tentpole action movies, which traditionally has been seen as a predominantly male space. There are so many women out there who love action movies and want to write action movies.
MTV News: So then you brought it to Margot’s LuckyChap Entertainment.
Hodson: LuckyChap was founded on this principle of wanting more female representation on-screen and behind the camera. So I approached them, and they were super excited to get involved. It was a four-week program that we ran in November, where these six incredible female writers came in, and we took them all the way from that early seed of an idea through outlining a movie and coming up with a fantastic pitch. The thing that was really inspiring for me and Margot was seeing how they collaborated. There’s this assumption that there’s competition among women in the industry, and that’s completely untrue. Both of us have found real support in our girlfriends.
MTV News: What’s the key to having a really successful pitch?
Hodson: Two things: confidence and love. You have to really, truly feel passionate about it. You have to feel it in your bones. The women that I know who are going to succeed in this field aren’t faking it. They love these action movies. They love superhero movies. It’s who they are and the stories they want to tell.