‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Is Ready to Break Free of Blockbusters, and Her Long-Delayed Debut Proves It

"Dead Pigs" spent three years without a home, even as Yan rocketed to blockbuster status. She never gave up on it, and it's clear why: it's her "calling card" feature.
Cathy Yan Is Ready to Escape Blockbusters, Her Delayed Debut Proves It
Cathy Yan
Stephanie Diani

Cathy Yan is the heroine of a now-familiar story: An exciting young filmmaker surfaces at a major festival, Hollywood takes notice, and a major blockbuster follows. Such was the route, with a twist, for Yan, who bowed her feature debut “Dead Pigs” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where her clever satire picked up both a special jury award and was greeted with enough acclaim to land her on Warner Bros.’ radar. Two years later, Yan’s DC entry “Birds of Prey” was in theaters, making her the first woman of Asian descent to direct a superhero film.

But, the twist: “Dead Pigs,” a fictionalized take on a 2013 incident that saw 16,000 dead pigs appear in Shanghai’s Huangpu River, hadn’t found a home, even as fellow filmmakers like Rian Johnson touted the charms of the award-winning comedy starring Zazie Beetz and beloved Chinese star Vivian Wu.

“Well, that’s what’s funny, right? We were having a hard time selling the movie, but I was getting meetings with studios,” Yan said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “A lot of the reactions at Sundance were, ‘Oh, this is actually quite commercial and relatable.’ I also remember people saying like, ‘What a calling card!’ Well, I didn’t mean to write a calling card. I wrote a story that was very personal to me.”

Yan feared that her blockbuster’s trajectory would mean leaving her debut behind, but this week, “Dead Pigs” can finally be seen by a wide audience, care of streaming outfit MUBI. Fans of Yan’s blockbuster may be surprised to find that her storytelling instincts took root in a very different kind of black comedy, but “Dead Pigs” is essential to parsing the career of a filmmaker whose full potential is still taking root.

Yan may have found greater success with her blockbuster follow-up, but she seems more readily at home with the daring, subversive form of storytelling found in her debut. To that end, “Dead Pigs” may provide a better template for next career moves than the high-profile gig it scored her.

“Dead Pigs”MUBI

“I think there is this inclination in our industry of just very much focusing on the new. My fear was that once it had its moment at the festival, what would happen to it thereafter?,” Yan said. “When I was shooting ‘Birds of Prey,’ it was sort of put on hold, because I wanted to give [that film] my all. It’s just been a year of trying to figure out what to do with it. In a way, it really worked out, because it is a global release and it is so accessible. Certainly, this year and the pandemic have shown just how much we need an accessible platform that is well-curated and is a nice home for films like ‘Dead Pigs’ and other modern and contemporary indies.”

The film, which assembles a stacked ensemble against the backdrop of the very real, very weird dead pig incident from which it takes its title, was a true labor of love for Yan. She wanted to make a film that could show off her flair for tricky tones and great humor, but that also addressed the nature of China, where she was born but not raised. Yan, who also wrote the film, neatly threads together all sorts of seemingly disparate stories, with both great attention to character and plenty of humor. It’s flashy and funny and bright. 

While Yan’s background as an indie-leaning writer and director might not seem ideal for the studio world, it’s easy to see what Hollywood brass liked about “Dead Pigs” and how they attracted Yan to the project — even though she wasn’t exactly chasing it herself.

“Making a superhero movie was definitely not in my bingo card initially in terms of my career,” she said. “I’m a big fan, but I just didn’t think that was something that I could do. So for me, it was very much about the script. As soon as I read the script, I felt the themes, the ensemble nature of it, and specifically the tone [were right for me].” (She also loved that it had a musical number, and who can blame her?)

The “Dead Pigs” release brings a fascinating contrast to Yan’s evolving career, which has found her premiering a top-10 theatrical blockbuster and a global streaming release in the space of a single year. But that odd stretch gave her time to remind herself that the pressures of a studio release aren’t endemic to every aspect of moviemaking. The synthesis of the two projects has clarified her priorities.

“Dead Pigs”MUBI

“It’s actually been kind of nice, this extra time, this patience, not having to just be constantly part of that hamster wheel, with like the latest drops and opening-weekend box office,” she said. “[Movies] don’t have to impress everyone the moment that it drops. Stuff can take its time to find its audience.”

The $82 million “Birds of Prey” gave Yan an immediate crash-course in studio filmmaking, even if it didn’t satisfy her main impulses. “It was such a lesson in the way the industry is actually run,” she said. “I’m a New York filmmaker, I was going to NYU, never really spent much time in LA, and so even just that whole experience of the industry itself was really illuminating.”

Yan describes her studio experiences with the diplomacy of a media veteran (she got her start as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal). But read between the lines — and the headlines — and it seems likely that she’s made peace with the prospects of forging ahead without chasing blockbuster gigs. This week, reports surfaced of her next project, based on Rachel Khong’s short story “The Freshening,” which she and production partner Ash Sarohia will produce through their newly launched shingle Rewild. She said Rewild is dedicated to ensuring walls keep being torn down to make way for new voices.

“There’s so much progress that is getting made,” Yan said. “My focus is on making sure that progress is sustainable. I want to really focus on not just getting women hired or people of color just hired, but more like, ‘What’s that next job? How do you protect yourself in this industry? Who are the people that are supporting that person to make sure that their voices are heard and that they have longevity in this industry?’ That is going to be the big test, not whether the door is open, but if the door stays open.”

The “Birds of Prey” experience also helped Yan, who received a dual degree in film and business, understand how to address the industry’s biggest representational hurdles. “The thing that has been the most rewarding for me about ‘Birds’ is the messages from people who feel like they see themselves on the big screen,” she said. “Women and people of color and lots of LGBT people reach out to me to say how much the movie means to them. … When I was growing up, I couldn’t look to that many people, actually, anyone really, that looked like me having a career that I would dream of. That’s why I think it took me as long as it did to get the confidence to even be a writer-director and take those risks. I am very grateful that I get to be that to people.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by C Barius/DC/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock (10555549e)Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn'Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn' Film - 2020After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
“Birds of Prey” setC. Barius/DC/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

She added, “I think that’s why I feel this pretty big weight on my shoulders and a responsibility to continue to keep that door open, and not just say, ‘Well, we got me in, let’s all celebrate,’ because it’s definitely not enough.”

Yan is also directing an episode of “Succession,” a keen tonal fit for “Dead Pigs” and the product of a creator who, like her, revels in intricacies. “There is this alternate universe of people that I just naturally love, with great sort of insights and sense of humor, and I found them,” she said. “I think [creator] Jesse Armstrong is fantastic and it’s been such a pleasure working with him. … I’m learning so much about television, too. Speaking of what the future holds, I’ve done the indie, I’ve done the big studio blockbuster, and now there is so much innovation happening in television and playing with form and time.”

Beyond “Succession” and a staggering array or producing projects, Yan seems more inclined to veer away from existing IP. When she talks about her work, it’s explicitly as a “writer and director,” just like on “Dead Pigs.”

“That’s just me,” she said. “To sort of separate that out, to me, feels like it’s not my whole craft. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t collaborate, or that I have to write the script myself, but … to sort of lose out on the ability to help craft it from the very beginning, I realized very quickly that that’s not something that I want to have. I want to be a part of the whole process.”

“Dead Pigs” starts streaming on MUBI today. 

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