“I grew up dancing and was a choreographer, and I had all these [artistic] outlets,” says Yan, 33, who was born in China and raised largely in the Washington area. Yet she viewed professional filmmaking as a faraway dream.
“Coming from an Asian immigrant family,” the New York-based director says by phone, “I didn’t think you could do this professionally.”
Not that her relatives didn’t foster a profound love of film. While she was growing up in Northern Virginia, her “deeply creative” father — who had moved to the D.C. area to join a think tank — would drive the family an hour to find an art house playing a movie such as 1993’s Beijing-set “Farewell My Concubine.” And by age 8, she notes, she was the kid carrying around a video camera, eager to express herself through art.
By the time she moved to Hong Kong with her family at age 14, a love of storytelling had taken root. After getting a degree from Princeton University, studying at its school for public and international affairs, she decided to try journalism, becoming an overseas correspondent for such outlets as the Wall Street Journal. Yet the desire to make movies remained strong.
So Yan enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, choosing a dual MBA/MFA degree program with an eye toward becoming a producer. She still didn’t fully see herself as a director.
“There was personal growth I needed to get through, as well as my immigrant background,” Yan says. “And, frankly, as a woman as well, it felt a little more achievable to become a producer."
While at NYU in 2013, Yan directed her first short, “Last Night” — a tale centered on a Chinese politician’s privileged son — and was bolstered by the fact that in such a supportive program, “I got to be treated as an equal.”
After a few more shorts, Yan’s breakthrough was her 2018 feature “Dead Pigs,” which combined her eye for journalism with her filmmaker’s sense of metaphorical story. Inspired by a news article about thousands of deceased swine floating in the Huangpu River, she made a Shanghai-set dark comedy focusing on the forces of modernization. The film, starring Zazie Beetz (“Joker”) and Mason Lee, won a special jury award at Sundance — and won her notice in Hollywood, including from such admirers as Robbie, who is also a producer on “Birds of Prey.”
“Dead Pigs,” Yan notes, was such a small film that it was edited in her living room, so “the fact that anyone would appreciate it at all was such a boost.”
Moving from a smaller film to a superhero franchise can feel like a mammoth leap, Yan says, but she was inspired by such auteurs as Taika Waititi, who migrated from small comedies to the Marvel tentpole “Thor: Ragnarok,” then back to the humbly budgeted 2019 Oscar nominee “Jojo Rabbit.” And whether Yan is working on a small or large scale, there are consistent traits that attract her to a project.
“I have always been able, in an almost journalistic way, to take a step back and observe — analytically and anthropologically and sociologically,” says Yan, adding: “The movies I want to make always have to have a conversation not only with myself about personal growth, but also with the culture at large.”
Yan read the “Birds of Prey” script shortly after her Sundance breakthrough, and part of the appeal was the strong narratives of the female protagonists, including Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).
“It has this entirely motley crew of people,” Yan says. “They don’t even necessarily like each other all that much, but they get together and realize: ‘Okay, we have a common goal. We have to protect a kid [Cassandra Cain, played by Ella Jay Basco] and we have to take down Roman’ [the villain played by Ewan McGregor] — and decide they must work together. It’s a very matter-of-fact, realistic decision.”
While making the jump to a much bigger budget, Yan reached out to a fellow groundbreaker: Patty Jenkins, whose 2017 hit “Wonder Woman” was the first solo female-directed film to open north of $100 million in North America.
“I called up Patty during preproduction and I was like: 'I don’t know what I’m doing. What am I supposed to do?’ ” Yan says. “I’d never had preproduction for so long. I’d never worked with this many people. I’m working with two departments — VFX and stunts — that I’d never worked with before.”
Jenkins’s advice: Lean into the fact that you know this movie better than anyone. “I thought that was a lovely and especially helpful thing to say at that time,” Yan says.
Yan wants Hollywood not only to continue to hire more women in prominent positions, but also to “support them in the long run institutionally so that women can have sustainable careers,” she says.
Toward that end, Yan says she chose Perez, 55 — an Oscar nominee in the ’90s for “Fearless” — as the relentless “Birds of Prey” policewoman Renee Montoya. “I fought really hard to get Rosie the job, because Renee Montoya was not written to be an older woman,” Yan says. “That’s who I just really imagined in the role.”
Once filming began, Yan says, she was sensitive to her actresses when it came to everything from cinematography to on-set culture. “I do think there was a comfort for them,” Yan says, “that they were being looked after.
“As a woman, I’m not putting the camera in certain places” where it may create an “unflattering” shot, she says. “I’m not going to put them in an outfit if they’re not comfortable that it’s not the best version of themselves. I understand the fears of: ‘Oh, is my tummy showing too much?' Or: 'Will this angle give me a muffin-top or cleavage?’ — all the anxieties about all of those things that I’ve had and Margot has had and the costume designer, Erin Benach, has had.”
Yet as “Birds of Prey” kicks off a run of female-directed superhero movies — with Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow” coming in May, Jenkins’s sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” in June and Chloé Zhao’s “The Eternals” in November — Yan says this phase is only one step toward better representation.
“I’m lucky enough to get here, and a few other women are,” the filmmaker says. “But let’s not just make this the Year of the Woman. Let’s make this the industry standard."
This story has been updated.