In terms of Hollywood career paths, Cathy Yan’s might be hard to emulate: born in China, raised in Hong Kong, moved to D.C., became a reporter for The Wall Street Journal based out of New York, Hong Kong, and Beijing, made a couple of short films, got her feature-length debut (Dead Pigs) into Sundance, and now she’s Margot Robbie and WB’s pick to direct a Harley Quinn movie. While WB is keeping mum on the details, the trades are reporting it will be a Harley Quinn-led Birds of Prey all-girl team-up flick (where have I heard that one before?), and while Yan’s deal hasn’t been finalized yet Deadline considers it as good as done.
Same old story, right? Chinese-American business reporter-turned-filmmaker gets a big blockbuster after making just one movie. Seen it a thousand times.
Well, not quite. In fact, should all of this work out Yan will become the first Asian woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie and just the fifth woman to do so overall. She’s following in the footsteps of Lexi Alexander (Punisher: War Zone), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Ava DuVernay (New Gods), and Gina Pryce-Bythewood (Silver & Black), that is assuming New Gods and Silver & Black actually get made (which is not a guarantee, especially with Silver & Black) and beat Harley Quinn to market.
But, at the same time there’s something awfully familiar about this, particularly the “she’s only made one movie and now a studio is handing her a budget north of $100m” part. It’s almost as if a bunch of dudes have done the same kind of thing over the past couple of years. Oh, wait. They totally have!:
- From music videos to (500) Days of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man
- From commercials to Snow White and the Huntsman
- From commercials to 47 Ronin
- From Monsters to Godzilla
- From Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World
- From Chronicle to Fantastic Four
- From Clown to Cop Car to Spider-Man: Homecoming
- From The Kings of Summer to Kong: Skull Island
And, to be fair, Patty Jenkins belongs on that list as well. Prior to Wonder Woman, she had years upon years of experience in the music video world, but the only film she had actually directed was 2008’s Monster.
In recent years, the studios have pulled back on this practice, burned one too many times by hiring directors who were quite predictably in over their heads. However, for a while it was quite the point of contention (e.g., the studios are doing it for cost-control reasons, not artistic, and it’s super sexist that only men seem to be getting the chances). Trevorrow, in particular, became for critics the leading exemplar of Hollywood’s white, male privilege, which is something he pushed back on, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2015:
“It hurts my feelings when I’m used as an example of white, male privilege. I know many of the female filmmakers who are being referred to in these articles. These women are being offered these kinds of movies, but they’re choosing not to make them. I think it makes them seem like victims to suggest that they’re not getting the opportunities and not artists who know very clearly what kind of stories they want to tell and what films they want to make. To me, that’s the reality.”
As if unknowingly confirming his point, a week after Trevorrow said that Ava Duvernay announced she had turned down Marvel’s offer to direct Black Panther in favor of focusing on real-world matters, like a documentary about America’s history of institional slavery. Years later, she explained she simply didn’t think she could work in Marvel’s producer-driven model, and the freedom Disney offered led her to A Wrinkle in Time instead. That didn’t work out so well for her at the box office, but WB quickly scooped her up to adapt Jack Kirby’s New Gods.
In an ideal world, directors would climb some unseen career ladder, taking on incremental increases in responsibility and challenges before graduating to the world of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s exactly what Christipher Nolan did on the way to Batman Begins. The death of the mid-budget movie, however, largely killed that possibility, and while there’s plenty of opportunity for directors to hone their craft on TV very few of those directors have then jumped to blockbuster movies (JJ Abrams, Joss Whedon and The Russos come to mind). Why would they want to when the new real goal is to be the showrunner of a trendy streaming or cable series where you have virtually unchecked creative freedom? Good luck finding that on a blockbuster.
By comparison, going from directing one single indie to a giant blockbuster is a real sink or swim scenario. Half of the guys on that list sunk, pushed deep under the water by grueling schedules, daunting special effects considerations, and domineering studio bosses and producers who figured an untested director can’t stand up for themselves and argue for their vision because, seriously, what real track record do they have to fall back on?
But Patty Jenkins pulled it off. So can Cathy Yan.
One final note: back in 2015 when Trevorrow was the poster boy for some of Hollywood’s worst instincts one of the rallying cries was to simply extend the same privilege to women. Margot Robbie didn’t wait. She started her own production company, and eventually after making Suicide Squad she told WB she wanted a woman to direct her next cinematic turn as Harley Quinn. One assumes that unlike David Ayer Cathy Yan realizes there’s more to Harley than just low-angle shots of her in booty shorts.