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INTERVIEW: Birds of Prey’s Cathy Yan Talks About Her Debut Film Dead Pigs

Yan's 2018 feature is finally streaming for American audiences.

cathy yan

When Warner Bros. announced that Cathy Yan would be directing Birds of Prey, many fans were quick to look up her feature film debut, Dead Pigs. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, where it won a Special Award Prize for Ensemble Acting. Now, 3 years after its critically acclaimed debut, Dead Pigs is finally streaming for American audiences on MUBI starting on February 12.

While many successful indie directors (Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank) are given the reins to massive franchises (Jurassic World, Fantastic Four, respectively), female directors are rarely rewarded with such a giant platform. Yan’s hiring made her the first Asian woman to direct a studio superhero film and only the second female director ever to direct a superhero film. But upon watching Dead Pigs, you realize immediately that Yan is a bold and innovative new voice in filmmaking.

Inspired by the shocking 2013 Huangpu River dead pigs incident, the film is an ensemble story in the vein of Nashville or Magnolia, which follows the journey of several characters as they struggle with wealth inequality and the rapid modernization of China. The film is both a razor-sharp satire of the affects of globalization, and a deeply grounded drama about family and relationships.

The film stars Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club), Mason Lee (The Hangover Pt II), Zazie Beetz (Joker), Meng Li (Young Love Lost), Haoyu Yang (The Wandering Earth), and David Rysdahl (Nine Days).

We talked to Yan about Dead Pigs, working on Birds of Prey, and her career as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal.

The Mary Sue: Dead Pigs is such an ambitious debut film. How long was the journey from conception of the idea to shooting?

Cathy Yan: I think about 3 years, I wrote the first draft of the script during my final year of film school in a screenwriting class, and that came to me really quickly, and it took a long time to get it made because, you know, I had no real credits to my name, I was a first-time filmmaker. It went through multiple labs which was super helpful, and I’ve always, having gone through that whole process of film school and then being a nobody, and just all of that, I equate it to almost like a video game, where you have to keep collecting coins until someone will take a chance on you, and that’s kind of what had to happen.

So I spent 2-3 years just part-time working on it, trying to chase down any opportunities for financing and in the meantime, I’d made a short film version of it just to see if I could even do it or do something in China. What really helped was getting connected with Jia Zhangke (producer on Dead Pigs/director of The World, Still Life) my executive producer, I always admired his work and he has such an amazing reputation, so once that happened and he signed on, that definitely helped us get the movie made.

TMS: The film has already been released in China, what was the reception like there?

CY: You know, I’m not really sure! I think I was in the midst of shooting Birds of Prey when it did come out, and you know, for me my hope was always, ‘if it can find an audience, then that’s amazing!’ I think that in many ways its also a very outward-looking film that … there would be quite an interested audience outside of China, and frankly that’s how most arthouse films in China work, because it’s quite a nascent industry, there’s not a lot of support for indies there. The market is dominated by very large blockbusters and there’s also the government, and those sorts of controls too, which make it really difficult for a strong independent film scene.

dead pigs

(image: MUBI)

TMS: Before you began directing, you were a journalist at the Wall Street Journal. How does your journalism career inform your voice as a director, since both jobs are essentially storytelling?

CY: Absolutely, it informs everything, I really think so. I don’t really think that I’m no longer a journalist in a way, I just think that like, I love the craft and the act of filmmaking, but I’m telling the same stories that I would tell if I could talk about journalism, just in a different format. And sometimes it’s nice and liberating to be able to fictionalize things, but I’m constantly inspired by the world around us and what’s actually happening, and I’m very curious about that and trying to unpack the headlines, so most of my work has that sense of timeliness, and I want it to feel relevant and that’s what I’m curious about.

With Dead Pigs, I was very curious about the dead pigs themselves, but more so what drives people to want to dump pigs in the river and how did that come about and what are the repercussions and what does that say about us as humans, and what does that say about what motivates us, and where society is, and that’s kind of the driving force of Dead Pigs but also I think a lot of what I want to do.

TMS: The film is a tightrope balance between the humor and absurdity of the piece and the more grounded emotional moments. Was that tone something you envisioned from the very beginning, or did it come to you later in the process?

CY: A little bit of both, some of the humor was just found on the day, on the set. Like the chanting women outside the salon, they just existed at the salon we scouted and wanted to shoot in, and I just knew that it spoke so much to the film and is so absurd and bizarre, we actually found a lot of that while we were there, that is what I love about China and why I wanted to make a movie there, was just this brashness and craziness and this emphatic earnestness and kitschiness that I wanted to really capture. I hadn’t really seen it before, and it always tickles me, but it also fascinates me. And I think that generally what I love too, I think there’s always comedy in the tragedy and probably, I laugh at a lot of inappropriate things because of it, but that’s just always been what I’ve found to be true to myself, to my voice, and my sense of humor.

birds of prey cathy yan

(Claudette Barius/DC Comics)

TMS: For many of us at The Mary Sue, Birds of Prey was one of our favorite films from 2020. Was there anything you wanted to put include in the film that just didn’t make the cut?

CY: There always is, right, you keep going ‘oh I wish I got this or I wish I did that.’ It was a really tough challenge, much like Dead Pigs in a way, because you’re just balancing a lot of things tonally but also frankly the storylines, and it was a very stuffed script in terms of that. We had 5 protagonists and 2 antagonists, so there’s a lot of things I wish, for me, I’m mostly focused on character and character development, but when you’re making an action movie as well and you have to play within the rules of that genre and those expectations. What’s funny is that you get even fewer minutes to develop character and tell the human side of the story, so that’s just something that I had to juggle with the entire time, like ‘well actually 20 minutes of the movie is just action’, and there’s some great character moments in action, but it’s still action. So I think that was just the big challenge of Birds was just kind of, you know, balance all of these opposing factors.

Dead Pigs premieres exclusively on MUBI on February 12.

(featured image: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, son, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.