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Birds of Prey Director Cathy Yan on Career, Challenges, and Advice

Photographed by Shoji Van Kuzumi

 

Introducing #shiffonstories, a series on women we love and the stories they have to tell. In the spirit of women supporting women, they share a moment in their lives, big or small, where another woman made an impact on them. 

Today’s story comes from writer, producer, and director Cathy Yan. With her latest film Birds of Prey, released this past February, she became the first Asian-American woman and second woman ever to direct a U.S. superhero film.

 

𝐂𝐀𝐓𝐇𝐘 𝐘𝐀𝐍 | 𝐃𝐈𝐑𝐄𝐂𝐓𝐎𝐑 (𝐁𝐈𝐑𝐃𝐒 𝐎𝐅 𝐏𝐑𝐄𝐘, 𝐃𝐄𝐀𝐃 𝐏𝐈𝐆𝐒)
cathy yan in hoops and duet pinky ring
 

“It's a pretty lonely world to be a female director, so I really appreciated it when doing prep [for Birds of Prey] I was able to reach out to Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman. She gave me all the time in the world and she was very helpful and supportive, and I was able to have a nice camaraderie with her. I would do the same thing for anyone that reached out to me because unfortunately there are so few of us.

The leap between graduating from film school and making my first movie — that is such a hurdle, and I think this is another reason why there are far fewer female directors. Every step of the way, there are gatekeepers in terms of the types of films and people that get financing for their first movies. Then you have to get that movie into a film festival, then get distribution or acclaim and attention. And then from there to get hired for a larger budget movie or for a more established studio -- I was really, really lucky to do that. Very, very few women tend to do that.

 

 

How did you get to where you are today?

I did not necessarily think I could be a film director growing up, even though I love movies and whenever I had an opportunity I would do a little video for a class assignment as opposed to an essay. But I went to Princeton for undergrad and then went to work at the Wall Street Journal and News Corp as a reporter for a few years, and had a really good time.

There was this program at NYU that was very new at the time, a dual degree where you could get an MBA at Stern and an MFA at the Tisch film school. At that point, I think I always knew I wanted to direct but maybe did not allow myself to think I could.

I thought this program would allow me to continue the more business side of my interest, which also, frankly, felt like a safer thing to do especially as a child of Asian immigrants, where education and stability is very important. That allowed me to segue into writing and directing, because I very much got an MFA, even though the program was at the time meant more for people who wanted to produce.

It was this wonderful, lucky opportunity that not only the right program came along, but that I got into it and then that program allowed me to write and develop my skills that way. Soon after film school, I wrote and directed my first feature called Dead Pigs, which we shot in China, and then soon after that I made Birds of Prey. And here we are now. I started a production company with my dear friend Ash from Princeton, and we're making a lot of really cool stuff in television, features, podcasts, and it's really exciting. It’s very much the type of content that I want to be doing.

There were a few years after film school when I was just trying to get my first movie financed, and that was really hard on me mentally. I was almost 30 and I had debt and I was asking myself, can I really do this? I look back on that time period now, and while it was difficult, I grew as a person.” 

Anything you can tell us about?

I'm very excited about this movie that I've been working on with A24 called Sour Hearts, which is an adaptation of a book but is also very much combined with my own life and my story, having been born in China, then moving to the US when I was four. I was essentially brought up by my grandparents for the first four years of my life, because my father was a PhD student out of mainland China coming to the US. The movie is kind of a fun, sardonic unapologetic take on the new immigrant story.

Were your parents supportive of your creative pursuits?

Yeah, they were. I was very lucky to have that. But the pressure is more internal — when you grow up with that immigrant mentality, you just want to make sure that you're not a disappointment, that you can take care of yourself and not add risk to [your family’s] lives, so it really came from me. But my parents were always very supportive.

It can become about so many things other than your skills. You have to know the right people, have the right timing, and then people have to want to take that risk on you.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would say definitely give yourself a break. Having gone to a good university, there is a certain easy definition of success and stability. People were going to investment banking or consulting, and I was giving myself a really hard time for not progressing in this very obvious linear way. There were a few years after film school when I was just trying to get my first movie financed, and that was really hard on me mentally as well. I was almost 30 and I had debt and I was asking myself, can I really do this? I look back on that time period now, and while it was difficult, I grew as a person.

Whatever you do, whether you're a creative person or not, those years that you think are wasted or unproductive, especially in your 20s, those are actually really good. You’re developing yourself in different ways. Don't freak out, you're going to be okay. Enjoy this time.

 

Shop Cathy's jewelry: Classic Hoops in Gold; Rose Gold White Sapphire Duet Pinky Ring

                

 

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

The leap between graduating from film school and making my first movie — that is such a hurdle, and I think this is another reason why there are far fewer female directors. Every step of the way, there are gatekeepers in terms of the types of films and people that get financing for their first movies. Then you have to get that movie into a film festival, then get distribution or acclaim and attention. And then from there to get hired for a larger budget movie or for a more established studio -- I was really, really lucky to do that. Very, very few women tend to do that.

But the first step tends to be making your first movie, and raising maybe millions of dollars, and it is incredibly difficult. It can become about so many things other than your skills. You have to know the right people, have the right timing, and then people have to want to take that risk on you and, unfortunately, that's still really difficult and it's certainly really difficult for a woman of color in the film and financing business.

Did you have an idea going in of what it would be like?

Not really, because at first I thought I was going to be more of a producer. There was a way to follow that path by assisting, applying etc. that didn't require the opportunity cost of two years of my life of not working full time. It's equivalent to starting a startup where you're taking on so much more risk as opposed to getting hired by a company. But if you want to be a writer or a director, almost the only way to do it is to take those risks and I just think that's unfair for people who can’t afford to do that. How do we lower those costs, so that all the people who want to do it can do it?

Do you have any advice for filmmakers raising financing for their first movies?

Definitely don't take no for an answer. I got rejected from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab three times and it was so devastating. But I still made the movie and then I won an award at Sundance, so...

Also, understand that people are risk averse. Humans don't want to be first and don't want to be last, and if you really recognize that principle of human behavior, then it's easier to not take it personally, and also be humble when you do find success.

What would you name this chapter of your life?

Silver Linings.

 

Visit startupgirlfoundation.org to learn more about the companies our Duet Pinky Ring is currently funding. Make your own pinky pledge to pay it forward and support women by purchasing a Duet Pinky Ring here.

 

Duet Pinky Ring Set  Silver Lining Hoops

 


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