Cathy Yan is a filmmaker known for her distinct aesthetic, darkly humorous tone and love for subverting typical genre rules and telling unconventional stories. Her debut film, Dead Pigs, which she wrote and directed, won the Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, among several other accolades. Her latest film is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which is now in theaters through Warner Bros.; she is the first Asian woman to direct a superhero genre film. Next, she is slated to direct and produce a film adaptation of Sour Hearts, a collection of short stories by Jenny Zhang, which she will co-write with Zhang. Yan studied at Princeton, where she earned her BA, and NYU, where she received a dual MFA and MBA in film. Previously, she was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in New York, Hong Kong and China, and brings her sharp, journalistic instincts to her filmmaking. Yan was born in China and is currently based in New York. (Picture by Tim P. Whitby, courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the release of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the latest DC Comics movie, starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez and Ewan McGregor, director Cathy Yan comes up with a themed list of three artists working outside of film who help get her creative juices flowing. — N.D.
I was thinking about what I love outside of movies, so I thought I’d highlight three artists and creators from different disciplines who I really admire. I used to be a dancer myself, so I’ve always loved and admired dance. Jiří Kylián is a choreographer, who used to be the artistic director for a dance company called Nederland Dans Theater, whose work is a mix of traditional ballet techniques and a contemporary style of ballet that’s more emotional and evocative. I’ve always loved his work and particularly “Petite Mort,” which is absolutely stunning. I think in many ways what he does in dance is very similar to what I aspire to do in film, which is to make something that feels very approachable but also challenging and interesting. I first became aware of him when I was a dancer, and distinctly remember going on YouTube and watching videos of his work over and over again, and then pulling friends in and saying, “Have you seen this? It’s so cool.”
Dance has been a big inspiration to me as a filmmaker – it can’t help but be, because that’s the way I’ve always seen the world. I think choreography and directing are not that different: you have this crazy vision in your head that you’re trying to convey. As a dancer, you focus not on what’s said but on the components of storytelling that are visual and conveyed through body language. What makes filmmaking so interesting and different from theater is that it can be so entirely visual, and Jiří Kylián is a master of visual storytelling. The way that he uses light and moves bodies, the different formations he creates and how evocative and emotional just the flick of a wrist can be – all that has inspired me a lot.
There’s a dance sequence in Birds of Prey which paid homage to Marilyn Monroe, so I chewed that one right up! I dissected how the original “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence was shot and tried to shoot it in a similar way with a Technocrane, focusing on all the little details so we could make it our own. It was so much fun to shoot and to work with an amazing choreographer, Ryan Heffington, who choreographed the sequence for us. I remember Denna Thomsen, who worked with Ryan on the piece, said to me, “It’s great to have a director who can give very specific notes on what certain movements should be.” It was super fun, as it was a wonderful intersection of two things that I love.
I love food, and there’s a really brilliant chef in New York working right now called Ignacio Mattos. He has three restaurants: Estela (which is probably my favorite restaurant in New York), Altra Paradiso and Flora Bar. They are all very distinct, but also so good. My dream evening is just sitting at the bar at Estela and having the whole meal there with my husband. I really enjoy being a regular at these restaurants; we know all the staff at every one of them, and that makes it so much more fun, so much more familiar. It is kind of like Cheers – everyone knows your name, and you can say hello and ask them about their lives.
Ignacio Mattos’ food and his restaurants are very tasteful and interesting, but also very approachable, warm, enjoyable – and tasty. To be able to do both of those things – to elevate a craft but also keep it super simple and delicious – is really remarkable. And I’m inspired by that approach in my own work too. I’m always trying to work out how to test myself, how to push the art of cinema forward, to do things that we haven’t seen before but also make it really compelling, emotional and relatable.
Maybe it’s because my husband works in the food industry, but I see so many parallels between food and film. I’m always excited to watch the latest movies, both as a filmmaker and an audience member, but then there are also the movies that I rewatch time and time again that are classic and I’m always happy to go back to. Sometimes you get more out of them on the second, or third, or eighth viewing. It’s the same with restaurants: I love checking out new places, but there’s something so comforting about eating at one of your favorite spots where you’re a regular. There’s a different kind of satisfaction to that experience. And then there are times – whether it’s with a movie or a restaurant – when you just want to get your mind blown. When you’re making a movie, it’s hard to watch other movies, because you start to analyze them instead of just relaxing and enjoying the experience. Once I’m finished, though, I want my mind blown all the time. Now I’m done with Birds of Prey, I’m catching up with all that I missed over the past year, and I want to be stimulated and challenged all the time.
I’ve been a huge Radiohead fan ever since Pablo Honey, and the band’s music has hugely influenced me. Johnny Greenwood’s collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson was like two gods coming together for me, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaboration with Thom Yorke on their dance short film, Anima, was the three things I love coming together. If there’s some broader theme connecting the creators I’ve chosen, it’s that their work is very accessible and enjoyable, but also challenging. Radiohead never stops improving and changing, and I love that. You can grow with them.
When I was young, I remember my friends would ask, “What’s this dour music you’re listening to?” because everyone else was listening to pop. But their music was like a best friend; it was dark and brooding, and just what my young self wanted at the time. It’s so intimate, and it felt very personal to me. It’s like a whisper, and you almost want to listen to it alone. You feel like you have a secret relationship with the band and no one else knows about them – except wait, no, they’re one of the most popular bands on Earth! Going to a Radiohead concert, being around other people, all of whom are singing every word to every song, was wild. It was so different, but also so satisfying to feel that you’re not alone. I try to see them live whenever I can, and I’m dreading the time when they stop touring.
I don’t really get nervous around famous people, but I’d get nervous if I met the band. I’m sure everyone goes up to them and gushes, because Radiohead is their best friend – and maybe that’s what I’d say, that their music has accompanied me through my life, and will continue to do so because they continue to make great music and evolve. As a creative myself, it’s very inspiring to see people who keep pushing and challenging themselves.