Real blood is thick – thicker than water, you know – which means that it’s difficult to replicate onscreen. In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock dripped chocolate syrup all over the drain at the pivotal moment in that infamous shower scene.
Later, stunt crews would perfect a sticky, sweet formula of corn syrup and red dye for whenever they needed to realistically replicate fake blood — but it’s only allowed in a movie with an R rating. (R in the US translates loosely to MA15+ in Australia.)
“I’ve done a lot of fighting and stuff in a PG movie, and you can’t show wet blood,” Margot Robbie tells news.com.au in disbelief. “Only dry blood. It’s incredibly unrealistic to get hit in the face with a giant object and not bleed.”
We’re speaking in London on the eve of the release of Birds Of Prey And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn, the all-female ensemble flick spearheaded by Robbie’s Suicide Squad anti-heroine.
The movie, directed by Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) from a script penned by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), follows Harley in the wake of her breakup from the Joker, struggling to find her feet.
Along the way, she teams up with a scrappy bunch of women – a police officer who can’t stay within the boundaries of the law; a Mafia scion hellbent on revenge; a singer with a dangerous hidden talent; a pint-sized pickpocket who robs the wrong man – to take down Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), Gotham City’s sleaziest nightclub owner. Let’s put it this way: Birds Of Prey features a whole lot of wet blood.
“I knew that if we were going to have a female ensemble action film, to be pulling punches, literally and figuratively, was just going to dampen the entire point of doing it,” Robbie explains. “We want to break the notion that women can’t excel in the action space, or that ladies don’t like to go see action films, which is just not true.”
Robbie, who serves as not only star but producer on the film through her production company Lucky Chap Entertainment, understood from the start that Birds Of Prey needed to prioritise explicit content for that exact reason. “I didn’t want anyone to be inhibited with the stunt fighting, but also with the language,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be gratuitous or push too far, but you just want to have the liberty on set to do and say anything you think your character would say or do. And you can’t put a muzzle on these characters.”
To that end, Robbie drafted in stunt company 87eleven, responsible for the heart-thumping action in films such as the John Wick franchise and Hobbs & Shaw. “They pushed us really hard because we had [the rating],” Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays high-kicking hero Black Canary, says.
“We went for it, and it was awesome. They were yelling at us offscreen: ‘Kick ‘em harder! Kick ‘em in the balls!’”
Each of the four female heroes had their own particular cadence when it came to the action scenes. Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is all legs – at one point in the film, she kicks a man in the face so hard that she smashes his jaw into pieces.
“Oh my gosh, I had done a little bit of taekwondo as a teenager but nothing to brag about, let’s be clear,” Smollett-Bell says, grinning.
“So that was new, sister, let me tell you… I love to dance. So I could understand the concept of choreography. But this? Having to be all legs… My legs were on fire!” she recalls of the gruelling, five months of stunt training she underwent before production commenced.
“Walking hurt,” she adds. “Just to walk to the car was painful. To sit on my arse hurt.”
For Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays an assassin named Huntress, training involved brushing up on her crossbow skills.
In her role as a bourbon-loosened police officer called Renee Montoya, Do The Right Thing’s Rosie Perez practiced how to throw a devastating punch. And Robbie revisited some of the skills that she picked up in 2016’s Suicide Squad, like how to expertly wield a baseball bat, while also attempting a new trick: Rollerblading.
“I definitely underestimated how difficult it would be,” Robbie admits. Having conquered ice skating for I, Tonya, the actor thought she would breeze through Harley’s climactic action sequence, which takes place entirely on rollerskates. “I thought it would be easy. Ice skating? I’ve been there done that! Not the case,” she says, with a laugh. “It was really hard… All these things that in [writer] Christina [Hodson’s] garage we thought, ‘This is great!’ And when time came to do it, I was like ‘What were we thinking?’”
Such as rollerblading while swinging an enormous mallet in the most vicious fight scene in Birds Of Prey. Or having Harley pick up a hyena – named Bruce “after that hunky Wayne guy,” as she puts it in the film – as a pet.
“God hyenas are expensive,” Robbie jokes. “We ended up going to see a real hyena, and quickly discovered that he was going to have to own everything that he touched, people would have to be incredibly quiet and still around him and if you’ve been on a film set, that’s not the case. Eventually what we settled on was a very big dog, who we then CGIed to look more like a hyena.”
Robbie might have found rollerblading difficult, but Birds Of Prey director Cathy Yan believes that the actor’s dedication to her stunts was “incredibly impressive”.
“She’s just so talented and good at everything,” Yan says, laughing. “Which is great for the role of Harley Quinn, because in this movie you get to see her do so much stuff. It’s really incredible to see her be an amazing actress. There’s some great emotional scenes in the movie but at the same time she picked up so much. She gets to be funny, she gets to be emotional, she gets to be vulnerable. All of these different facets of Harley Quinn, and Margot can do it all.”
Birds Of Prey And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn is in cinemas now