One of the advantages that a female screenwriter’s perspective can provide is illustrated by an endearing moment in Birds of Prey‘s third act involving Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a hair tie.
“My sister did inspire the hair tie moment, which, apparently, people seem to like on the internet,” Hodson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My sister and I always joke about the fact that women in superhero movies … are always going into battle or doing this big, crazy, epic thing with beautiful flowing hair perfectly quaffed, when both of us wouldn’t even consider eating a sandwich with our hair untied. So yeah, it had to go in there.”
Because Harley Quinn breaks the fourth wall in her own R-rated superhero romp, Birds of Prey has been compared to Deadpool even though plenty of genre films have used the convention long before Ryan Reynolds’ pair of films. As it turns out, Hodson and Robbie scripted Harley’s fourth-wall breaks well before 2016’s Deadpool was even released. In fact, the producing partners began work on Birds of Prey in 2015, while 2016’s Suicide Squad was still shooting. Robbie also previously appeared in two films that broke the fourth wall, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street and 2015’s The Big Short, in which Robbie broke the fourth wall as herself.
“The VO was something that was there from very, very early, and again, we wanted to do something fresh and different that we hadn’t seen before,” Hodson explains. “At this point, this was before Deadpool existed, and we just thought it was a fun, cool, weird way of telling a story through Harley’s lens.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Hodson also discusses how she first joined forces with Margot Robbie, the latest on Batgirl and The Flash and her writers program with Robbie.
Thank you for leaving Joker out of this movie. There was no point where he was ever involved, right?
(Laughs.) No. Honestly, Margot said it well the other day that Harley is an all-or-nothing kind of person. So we knew from Day One that we just wanted to do a Harley story with no Joker.
I was surprised to learn that you and Margot started brainstorming for this project while Suicide Squad was still shooting. How did the two of you get linked up?
Margot pitched the idea of doing this movie to the studio in the summer of 2015. Obviously, that was a bold idea because Suicide Squad hadn’t even come out yet. She wanted to do a girl gang, Harley and the Birds of Prey movie even though people didn’t know who the Birds of Prey really were. Obviously, the studio did, but they’re not well-known characters.
She and I met because we have the same wonderful agent, Ida Ziniti, at CAA. She said, “You guys will just get on. I think you’ll like each other.” So we went for a coffee, and we fell in love. It was great. We just had a real meeting of the minds, and as soon as she mentioned the idea of this movie that she wanted to do, I was like, “Yes, please. Let’s do it.” We’ve been working on it ever since then.
Since your nieces inspired Bumblebee‘s Charlie Watson, I assume/hope you didn’t have a family member who helped inspire Harley?
(Laughs.) Sadly, no — just me and my general bad behavior, although my sister did inspire the hair tie moment, which, apparently, people seem to like on the internet.
So the hair tie moment was scripted?
Yeah. My sister and I always joke about the fact that women in superhero movies — or action movies generally — are always going into battle or doing this big, crazy, epic thing with beautiful flowing hair perfectly quaffed, when both of us wouldn’t even consider eating a sandwich with our hair untied. So yeah, it had to go in there.
When you write for Harley, does her “vibrancy” creep into your own life in some ways?
Margot was just saying the other day, “You’re scarily similar to Harley.” Apparently, I’m a bit like that in my normal life. I don’t kill anyone, I promise. (Laughs.) I’m quite nice. But yeah, she feels like a very natural piece of my personality. It was not a stretch to have to channel the Harley voice.
While I prefer Harley’s new look, there’s no denying that her Suicide Squad look became a pop culture phenomenon. Thus, were you and Margot somewhat apprehensive about changing her look?
I think we really wanted to do something bold, fresh and different. Our goal from the beginning was to make this a stand-alone piece. While it’s a character that you’ve met before in another movie, it really is its own thing — its own movie. Generally, as an overall thing, regardless of costumes, we weren’t afraid of any of that, and Cathy did an awesome job of giving the character her own look for this movie that would feel distinctive.
How did you make sense of all the material involving these characters as you built your story? Did you pull bits and pieces from different books and runs?
Yeah, we did a whole bunch of research. When we first had that get-together four and a half years ago, one of the first things we did was go to the studio and go to the DC Comics library and just take a huge stack of materials. Obviously, Margot had already done a lot of research on Harley Quinn, so I did a lot of that as well. So, for the Birds of Prey, we ran the gamut, but my biggest influences were probably early-Chuck Dixon Birds of Prey and, obviously, Gail Simone’s wonderful work with the Birds of Prey. For Harley, I love every iteration of Harley. So many people have brought so much great stuff to her character development over the years, but I really love Conner and Palmiotti’s stuff recently. So you’ll see a lot of pieces from there.
Did your stage direction include all the fun action moments like bouncing the bat on the ground or lighting a biker’s beard on fire?
It was super fun writing the action bits, and yeah, one of my favorite things about writing action is all the specifics. I like getting involved in that kind of stuff. We had amazing stunt people; we were working with 87eleven. We actually had some really fun sessions where I got to do writing with them. I got to dream up stuff, and they’d try it out. Or they’d pitch me things. It was just a really great collaborative process.
Was Black Canary reluctant to use her Canary Cry because her mother likely died from using that power to help the GCPD? As we saw in the third act, the power takes its toll, physically.
I think it was more of a metaphorical thing and just the fear of using your voice generally. I think a lot of people can relate to that fear of getting involved. Yes, absolutely, what happened to her mother put a piece of that in her, but with or without powers, I think it would’ve been there.
I think she saw her mother be someone who stood up for the little guy, and it didn’t work out for her, obviously. I think it’s given her this edge, this reluctance to get involved and this assumption that “my voice won’t count whatever happens so there’s no point in using it.” I think this is something that’s relatable and real. I see it happening now in this country with the way things are going. People often feel like their voice isn’t going to have a lot of power, and obviously in Canary’s case, that voice has a very literal power.
I got a huge kick out of Jai Courtney’s Boomerang being the only Suicide Squad cameo since it was the least expected of the group. Did the Australian connection between Margot and Jai influence this decision?
No, it was just something that I thought would be fun. I put it on the page, and someone mocked that up. I remember saying on the day, “Let’s put it right here!” because I thought it would be funny.
Just to clarify, that Ace Chemicals flashback was the same footage from Suicide Squad?
Yeah, that’s from Suicide Squad. I think I’m allowed to say that.
I really appreciated how Harley tapped into Dr. Quinzel’s knowledge a bit more. Did you have fun writing those diagnoses?
Super fun! That’s one of things I love most about Harley Quinn as a character. She’s this ditzy, fun, silly, crazy, kooky person, but she’s also fiercely intelligent. To me, she rivals any of the best brains in Gotham. (Hodson whispers🙂 “I’m coming after you, Batman.” But, yeah, I think Dr. Harleen Quinzel is incredibly intelligent, and that’s what makes Harley a ferocious character. She is wild and wonderful but also incredibly smart and insightful. She knows what she’s talking about, and that’s kind of her secret superpower.
When Harley suddenly had roller skates on inside the Booby Trap, was there ever a piece that showed the change, or was it always intended to be a gag?
I can’t talk to all the exact footage and all of the things that we got — because I don’t want to reveal too many things — but no, it was always meant to be a funny thing. That is totally a Harley move. It’s like with the hair tie thing. Leaning into the reality of those heightened superhero moments is always super fun.
Was Harley’s inner monologue and voiceover a partial response to “the voices” line from Suicide Squad?
Mostly it was just that I wanted to tell the story through Harley’s lens because it’s a fun lens to see the world through. So the VO was something that was there from very, very early, and again, we wanted to do something fresh and different that we hadn’t seen before. At this point, this was before Deadpool existed, and we just thought it was a fun, cool, weird way of telling a story through Harley’s lens.
Harley also breaks the fourth wall by addressing us, but she also makes meta comments about the story being told (e.g., Roman’s motivation and plan, Renee’s suspension). What was the philosophy behind when to break the fourth wall?
Honestly, it was pretty organic and what felt right to us as we were doing it. Margot and I spent so long with this character that a lot of things just felt natural. What felt right, what she would and wouldn’t say, what she would and wouldn’t do… There was no hard-and-fast rule; no one was telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. In a moment where you felt like Harley would give you a cheeky aside, we slipped in a cheeky aside. She’s a playful, cheeky character, and it felt right that she would do things like that in her own story — even if it meant undermining some of the characters.
Because Harley is such a scatterbrain, is that why you chose to tell the story nonlinearly?
Yeah, she’s just all over the place. She’s a little bit like a dog chasing a squirrel. She’s really focused on this thing over there, and then suddenly, she sees a shiny thing over there. It’s like the bit where she stops in the middle of a fight scene and sees a penny. She’s like, “Ooh, a penny!”
I think Margot and I from the get-go wanted to tell a story that felt super unusual and structurally unusual. It’s an ensemble story, obviously, and it’s nonlinear. So we went away and we actually looked at a bunch of movies and screenplays that we love. Two that came up were Trainspotting and True Romance, which we love. Both of which are ensemble, nontraditional storytelling movies but have a pretty traditional three-act structure. So that was kind of our hope. While yes, it’s sometimes backside upside-down, it also still does hit the classic beats of the three-act structure.
When you write for Harley and you read her dialogue back to yourself, do you mostly hear Margot’s voice as Harley, or do you still hear your own?
I hear Harley’s voice. Margot disappears, and then Harley takes over.
I’m still amazed by Margot’s performance, as this character possesses her. A couple of her co-stars have even admitted to me that they’ve caught themselves admiring her performance in the middle of a scene.
Yeah, she is remarkable. She really is. Watching her do it on set, when she’d switch out being the star and the producer, it was really a thing to see. She can just be your buddy standing next to you in video village, and then she steps in front of the camera, and you’re just like, “Holy shit.” It’s transfixing.
In a post-Joker world, what led you to another flashy gangster in Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), albeit one who’s sadistic, paranoid and insecure?
Mostly I think it was just about finding the villain that felt right with these heroines — and felt right thematically. So it’s kind of two things. One is the level. We wanted to tell a more street-level story. It’s not big, world-ending stakes. So we didn’t want a megalomaniacal meta-human villain. But also, thematically, Roman Sionis is another character looking for emancipation. He’s looking for emancipation from his family, and that’s something that’s very rich in the comics — the legacy of growing up in the Sionis family. To me, he just felt right and resonant. Of course, Ewan did a fantastic job bringing him to life.
Yeah, I really appreciate that Birds of Prey was a smaller-scale romp. In other words, thank you for no sky beams or portals.
(Laughs.) You’re welcome! It was fun getting to do something that felt a little bit more tangible.
I was on set all day, every day of all production on this movie, which was super, super fun. Generally, during production, people were very good about playing and improvising while staying within script. Yeah, I would be there to shout out random things, and a few people would come to me for extra lines and gags and things. But yeah, production and the additional was all super fun.
Do you thrive in situations where you have to write on the spot?
Not always. Sometimes, I get sheer blind panic if I don’t have a pen in my hand, because I can’t think of anything. If you give me a pen and paper, I’m fine.
Apropos of nothing, do you ever catch yourself writing in a British voice for your American characters?
(Laughs.) Definitely not on purpose. Sometimes, I use turns of phrase that no one has ever told me are not American, but I’ve been living here for a long time now. I’m officially American now, as of doing this movie. I became an American citizen on the set of this movie.
Well, congratulations are in order even though it’s not our finest hour.
(Laughs.) Yes, it is a weird one, but I’m very excited nonetheless.
Well, we’ve reached the part of the interview where I have to ask about things you can’t really talk about yet.
Since your involvement in Batgirl was announced in April 2018, long before Bumblebee‘s release, have you turned in several drafts at this point?
(Laughs.) I definitely cannot answer that one. DC’s policy is that they don’t talk about stuff in development. But I can tell you that I’m having a lot of fun, and I’m very grateful to be working in the DC universe.
Since you and Hailee Steinfeld helped make Bumblebee the best reviewed Transformers movie to date, do the Batgirl producers happen to have Hailee’s phone number?
(Laughs.) No comment.
Warner Bros. also added The Flash to your existing plate, which we learned in July 2019. Did Warners have you prioritize The Flash since it’s been in development longer than Batgirl?
I’m not allowed to answer these questions, but I’m also not allowed to choose favorites between my babies. But yes, I’m working very closely with Warners and DC, and luckily, it’s all the same universe, so I’m very happy.
Are you able to provide an update on your script for The Fugitive?
I cannot, but I can tell you that it’s not gone nowhere. That was a double negative, but it’s not dead. (Laughs.)
Is it tough juggling so many stories at once?
Sometimes, you want to just focus on one thing, but I’m having fun so far. I feel very, very grateful to have all of these great stories to tell and all of these great characters to play with. One of the most exciting things about this DC universe is that there are so many great characters. So to be able to have access to the ones they’ve given me, I’m very, very grateful. So I will happily keep juggling.
Growing up, when you envisioned your career, was being a go-to screenwriter for genre films remotely part of the plan?
Honestly, I didn’t even know it was an option that I could be a writer. It felt like such a far-off dream. I was a development executive before I was a writer, and even then, it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer. So I came to it late.
You’ve now received sole writing credit on two blockbuster films, which is miraculous when you consider the rest of the landscape. What’s been the key to this in your estimation?
I think it’s just about being collaborative. I’ve always loved collaborating with others. I think it’s because I came from a development background. I knew from the beginning that the script is just one piece of the puzzle, and you have to work well with others. Otherwise, you don’t stick around. I genuinely love working with my producers, actors and director. Getting to stay involved is such an honor, and it’s honestly one of my favorite pieces of the job. With Birds of Prey in particular, it was wonderful. They made me a co-producer on the movie, and I did get to be there every day on set. It’s a remarkable honor and one that I’m very grateful for. I’m pleased that it paid off.
A number of women are telling tentpole stories right now, whether it’s Nicole Perlman, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Lindsey Beer, Jac Schaeffer, Emily Carmichael, etc. Is progress finally being made when it comes to women telling these types of stories, or is there still a long way to go?
There is a really long way to go, and you named some of my most favorite people. We’re mostly friends, and we love each other. But it’s a shame that you could just rattle off their names like that. There should be so many of us that you cannot begin to list us. I think that’s one thing that we’re all working really hard to do. I can speak for Nicole, Lindsey and Geneva, because we’re all very close; they set up their company explicitly with that goal. I just ran a writers program with Margot explicitly with that goal. We want there to be more of us. So yes, it’s great that there’s some change, but we need a whole lot more.
Since you just mentioned it, can you tell me about your pitch program with Margot?
It’s called the Lucky Exports Pitch Program. It was an idea I came up with a couple years ago when Times Up was kind of kicking off. I started looking into the statistics behind female writers, and I looked at the WGA report. At the time, the numbers were astoundingly bad. Among working feature writers, women were outnumbered by men 3 to 1. Of 1,600 working feature writers, only 114 were people of color of either gender. So I wanted to do something to fix it, and I came up with the idea of doing this writers program that was based on the idea that we’re better together, and to create a network of support between female writers. I pitched it to Margot and Lucky Chap, and what Margot so believes in, she really puts her money where her mouth is. That’s what the whole company of Lucky Chap is about. So they immediately said yes, and we teamed up.
I hired a very wonderful executive named Morgan Howell, who really put this whole thing on her back. We ran the program in November, and it ran for four weeks. It was an intense writers room that I ran with six incredibly talented female writers, all of whom want to break into the feature tentpole space. We took six nascent ideas, such as a word, character or a scene. We broke the story, all three acts, a really strong outline and a fantastic pitch. We had incredible guest speakers. Chad Stahelski came in; Margot came in. We just had wonderful people on all different sides being incredibly generous with their time. We’ve got these six fantastic pitches that we’re taking out on the town in a couple weeks, and we’re very hopeful that studios will buy them. Hopefully, we’ll get all of these women working in that space. I’m trying to make the list longer for you. (Laughs.)
Birds of Prey is now in theaters.