Wonder Woman: Patty Jenkins Talks Wanting to Make a Classic Movie Epic

Our full interview with Patty Jenkins in the post-production edit bay of the DCEU's Wonder Woman movie!

Photo: Warner Bros.

The making of Wonder Woman has been a longtime coming for Patty Jenkins. Even though it’s already been about two years since she first signed on to the superhero epic, which will see Gal Gadot lasso World War I German foes into defeat on June 2, she’s been thinking about the film ever since 2004—when she first pitched writing and directing Princess Diana’s adventure to Warner Bros. following her Oscar winning film, Monster.

She is very reflective on this when she sits down with myself and eight other journalists in a London screening room, several floors below the post-production editing suite that hopes to hit the reset button on the DCEU’s tone. Indeed, moments earlier Geoff Johns, an executive producer and writer on the film, had told us that Jenkins is doing for the Diana character what Richard Donner did for Superman, but it’s Jenkins’ own passion that is most convincing. She has thought for ages about just what decade a Wonder Woman movie should be set, never mind how she’ll handle meeting Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).

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Following the first several scenes that were screened for us—which included the sight of Danny Huston’s villainous Erich Ludendorff “regaining his strength” from a gas that allows him to crush a 1918 metal gun like it’s made of putty—we were able to discuss that scene and so, so much more over 45 minutes. Below is most of the conversation we had with Jenkins. I personally only asked four of the questions, but the friendly chat enjoyed too many great insights to leave it at that.

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This could potentially dive into spoiler territory, but are we supposed to take away from this that Danny Huston is Ares?

This whole thing is really interesting to me, because I don’t think we set out to be super mysterious with who the villain is, but it’s kind of funny it’s turned into what it’s turned into. So now I don’t want to comment about it, but there’s definitely, you know, good fun characters. [Laughs]

… I have very mixed feelings about all of this, because on the one hand, it’s interesting there have been not-real and real spoilers talking about various things, and honestly the only thing I can say to you guys is until you’re inside one of these movies, you cannot believe how absolutely not-real some of them are. [Laughs]

I’m sure you guys know, because you’ve been around it so many times, but when we watch some of these stories take off, [it’s] ‘oh my God, one person says they know one person who knows one person who speculated one thing,’ and then it gets picked up and travels like wildfire. It’s been shocking to watch how those things progress.

So this is about a third of the way through the movie?

Yeah, it’s typical first act, second act break, you know? It’s like the first act is really her origin, it’s where she came from and who she is. That’s what’s been so super-fun about this. You look at who she goes on to be in the world in the future, and seeing this person from a child on to becoming an adult and the hero that she is in this film, and watching their whole origin and storyline.

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Can I ask you about your journey on getting this film made? I know you pitched this story like 10 years ago.

It’s funny, it wasn’t quite that I pitched it, it’s I had been making superhero short films, hilariously, because I went on to see a door open to write and direct Monster, and I was like, ‘Oh great, I’ll do that.’ And then suddenly, I was a super dark director. But people who knew me growing up were like, ‘Of course you’re making Wonder Woman.’ That’s the irony; the irony is it’s much more shocking that I made Monster than it was that I made that.

As soon as I made that film, because I don’t love all superhero films, but I love a great one. So my first meeting with Warner Brothers was in 2004. They said, ‘Hey, so we’re interested. We want to meet you and what do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Wonder Woman! I want to do Wonder Woman.’ And since then I came in every year to have a meeting about it at some point.

And then interestingly, and it’s funny because my mom sent me the script and I’ve got it framed somewhere, but I have copy of a submission to me, ‘Patty, we’d love for you to think about writing and directing Wonder Woman. And I was pregnant when I got it. [Laughs] It was like 2008, and I was like, I can’t now, now’s not the time to do it.

So it went on its own various journeys, and I kept going into meetings on it, and talking about it, and different ideas. So when this came back around, I’ve been around the block now. And I almost did Thor, and saw how that went. That story turned into something I didn’t feel like I was the right director for. You just start to have respect for things need to have the right director for the right thing.

So when it first came back around, it wasn’t finding its place in the universe, so it was more speculative. Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I’ve always wanted to do Wonder Woman, but now it’s complicated, because now it’s in a whole other thing. It’s just not me coming in and doing it. But they went on their journey, and then it turned out that they found themselves wanting to do exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for all those years, which is just a straight up origin story. Just a freed up, just an origin story and be very straightforward about it.

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“And so then they came back to me, and said, ‘We want to do the origin story, and I said, ‘So do I! Let’s go!’ [Laughs] So it’s been interesting, because it was both a sudden thing, but also an easy sudden thing, because I’ve been talking about it and thinking about it… [My assistant] and I have pulled photos for this movie and put together visual presentations on how it would be done like many times. So it was like boom. I know exactly how I want to do this movie.

For me, as a woman watching this film, there’s a context under which, over the last 10 years or 20 years, a lot has changed for women with the rise of digital media, and the feminist movement has reached a new age with social media as well, and the representation of women. So you’re watching it with a different set of eyes, so I was wondering whether there were any changes that informed how true to the character you wanted to be, and how you as a woman in Hollywood as well, you’re one in a minority of role models.

Oh, thank you. It did change, but interestingly it changed in a slightly different way. I went into it saying, ‘She’s my Superman.’ Like she can’t be dark or angry or nasty, and I kept seeing female heroes had to be some alt-character. They just couldn’t be the main lead. They had to be made more interesting somehow. I was like, ‘No, no, no, not here. She’s just got to be Wonder Woman. She’s Wonder Woman. I love Wonder Woman, let her be, you know?’

The thing that surprised me is that I came in naively thinking, let’s make that. But there was more fear in the world at every studio about doing that kind of thing. Just a belief only boys liked action movies, and boys didn’t like female characters, so what do you do to address that? And that’s what changed. Things like Hunger Games started to show something else was possible, so I think the way I always wanted to do it became possible.

You know I grew up in a bit of a feminist fantasy with a single mom, and was totally shielded in a way from the idea that I couldn’t do something or that there couldn’t be something. So I think it’s been more of an education for me. Why can’t everyone see that it doesn’t matter if it’s a dog or a woman, or a person from another country or wherever, it’s about the story you’re telling.

You’ve told universal stories about different things. So I think people are more nervous about that than they are starting to be now. It’s ironic that you could make an animated movie about a dog being a universal character, but God forbid it be a human being who wasn’t a [man].

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It’s funny the way she says, ‘I’m the man who can.’

It’s funny, because if you just replace that line with a different reading, I don’t like it as much. Because the one I like is the one where she’s completely oblivious. ‘I’m the man who can!” which is what it sounds like before. Now it sounds a tiny bit more strident. Like, ‘I’m the man!’ She has no feminist agenda at all, and it never occurred to her that anybody would be—that is what made her being or having any kind of feminist storyline at all, which you just can’t avoid, is her total obliviousness.

And that’s something I cared a lot about, which is she can never be lecturing and she can never be scolding, because she just walks out, ‘What’s going on? Why would this be happening? I’ve grown up in a land—why are you acting like that? I’m going to take my clothing off, what’s the problem?’

Which is just such a funnier way of looking at it and talking about it. ‘That’s absurd! Why wouldn’t I fight?’ So anyway, we had fun with that part of it.

Could you talk about the changes from 2004?

It changed every time, I think, because I had a couple versions that were modern day, and you find someone who is the long lost great-great grandchild of this Wonder Woman, or great-grandchild or whatever. And you’re like, ‘Oh, there was this story in the ‘60s about this person who was Wonder Woman,’ so you’re referencing Lynda Carter more and kind of saying there was this superhero Wonder Woman who walked the earth and did all these things, and then as the story starts to progress, ‘She’s like, yeah, my grandmother and whatever’ and then poom, some woman comes along and you’re like, ‘Oh that’s her!’ She’s just immortal, she went into hiding all this time.

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“So all these various ways of does it have to be the original origin story or do we jump to modern times? I didn’t want to do her origin story in modern times. So it was like it was depending on which way it could be done. If it was about making it a modern movie.

Thor is fine to go into modern times, because people don’t really associate him with the ‘70s or the ‘60s. But she kind of is associated [with that era]. We know about Thor too, but I didn’t want to start with that story now.

When did you start focusing on a World War I backdrop for the story?

That was a decision that I actually stepped into. When I had always talked to them before, it was always assumed it was World War II, and then when I came into the project, the studio and Zack [Snyder] and everybody had decided, ‘Oh, let’s look at World War I.’ And I ended up loving it, because ‘Wow, that’s really interesting, because we’ve already seen so many World War II movies, and it’s such a well-known story.’

Whereas if you’re looking at a god with a belief system coming into man’s world, World War I was the first time we had mechanized war, we started bombing people from afar, that it was a world without any kind of pride or system of what was honorable and what wasn’t.

They’ve always been shooting people from afar, but they didn’t have the technology to do it in the same way. And so it became a cool thing just to explore a different period of time and to tell a story you haven’t seen before. And who’s the bad guy was much more gray in World War I, which made it interesting, because they’re not just straight up villains, an obvious villain. She ends up being able to question, ‘Well, what’s going on here? Why are you firing that gun? Aren’t you on the good side?’ So the complicated nature of that was really fascinating, of her observation.

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 How has the character of Steve Trevor changed through your various versions and also how difficult was he of a character to get right, because I imagine you don’t necessarily want him to be a damsel in distress character?

He is actually very difficult, but also very easy in a way. So he hasn’t changed not at all since I’ve ever be interested [in this movie]. I didn’t want him to be a damsel in distress. I didn’t want to make an issue out of it, I didn’t want to make a feminist statement with him. I wanted the guy who you wanted [her] to be with, who you wanted to be with, and who’s also trying to do something else at the same time. And I wanted to live up to that emotionally myself.

Who’s the guy who’s like ‘okay, cool,’ but they could still be like, ‘That’s a little intimidating.’ But they could also help you when you need help or love you or support you or whatever. And so since the beginning, I’ve cared about hitting that same target that anybody would want to hit for your love interest, which is make him someone I am in love with, who believes me and helps me where I have weakness. And the vulnerability of that relationship meant everything to me, and I would say it all the time throughout the movie to other people. ‘You would never do that to Superman, you would never do that to Lois Lane.’

Like if we would ever have this, ‘Well, she can’t need his help.’ I’m like, so if Superman was like, ‘Fuck you Lois, man!’ How satisfying would that be to anybody? They have to need each other. It has to be a love story; everybody has to be stronger or more powerful. We just have to make it work in that sort of way, and we can’t overthink what he means if she needs him for a second or if she knows more than her in this way, and she knows more than him in another, because she’s a superhero. Don’t worry about her.

So I think Superman is a great parallel for her. You wouldn’t do it to Gwen Stacy, you wouldn’t do it to anybody. So it’s important that all of those people have their people in the world who believe in them and love them and help them, yet understand their lives are complicated.

You mention Gwen Stacy, and you’ve obviously had history with Marvel and DC. What do you think is the most striking difference between the two universes in your experience?

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I think there’s been a tonal—I think Marvel sometimes goes for more fun, and DC goes to make a more serious film. But I think there’s shades of gray in all of it, like I think Doctor Strange was a more serious film, and I think this is more of a lighter film. And I don’t think Suicide Squad was particularly un-light. They’re all over the place. I think there may be slightly more consistency in the tone of Marvel films recently, but I don’t think that will always stay the way.

I love them both, I will never stop being grateful for wanting me to do their movie, you know? That’s not an obvious choice, and I met them, and we hit it off and had great conversations about it, and at the time it seemed like they could go a lot of different ways, and they wanted to go the way I wanted to go. And then things shifted, and they decided they needed to go another way to fit into their universe, and it was not something that I found myself suited for. And so it was a much more peaceful departure, but I’ve always had fond memories of them, and I respect what they do.

Could you talk about the pressure? You’re coming into the biggest genre that’s going on right now, there’s so many filmmakers who’ve come and gone off these projects. Could you talk about what that experience has been like for you and fitting into a wider universe?

It’s funny, there are two different realities going on. The one reality is the idea of getting to make a movie like the movies that impacted me as a child is my life’s dream, you know? Like it’s my life’s dream to make a great film. To make a masterpiece in my lifetime would be my life’s dream. And so you never will; you’ll never end up feeling like you did, so each time I’ve ever worked on something or thought about something or made something, you’re already aiming so high for yourself. You’re like, ‘This could be it!’  It’s so hard to make a film. This could be it, and it’s not.

So on the one hand, almost nothing changed. My relationship to this movie is still ‘am I the right director?’ Okay. ‘Can I do it?’ Okay. ‘Can I make it great? Oh my God, are we getting close? Oh my God, don’t let it get messed up! Oh Jesus!’ It’s like the same ride in a way, but certainly I flip back out to this intense focus of what this movie means and what does it stand for, and I was very aware of that with Thor where I was like, ‘Mmm.’ If I’m not confident that I’m the best person for this movie, and I’m not confident I can make a good movie out of this, this is politically a big step backwards for women directing blockbusters. [Laughs]

So you do have to be very aware the whole time that these people need something great, and do I believe I can aim for great with them, and that we have a chance?

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You have to be aware of what their needs are too, but in this case, [it’s] slightly less intense, because I believe in a great Wonder Woman. I don’t have an alt-agenda. I believe in a great Wonder Woman origin story. I do. So all of those conversations become better, but yeah, it’s definitely an interesting life experience, fascinating all the time to do it. ‘Wow, this is wild how much it matters and how much it matters to a lot of people, and girding yourself to the fact.’ Like girding my son that ‘somebody is going to say everything. Someone’s going to hate it; someone’s going to like it; someone’s going to think it should be this way or that way.’ And you hope for the best and you hope for all of those things, but you also have to know that you’re stepping into a very intense world where she belongs to a lot of people, and you have a lot of people to please.

How was it working with Geoff Johns?

Geoff and I are really close. Super-close. So since my first meeting ever, years and years and years ago, I pitched, it was before I did it, I pitched in a room, and I pitched a storyline and Geoff Johns’ eyes lit up, and he said, ‘That’s what Dick Donner did for Superman.’ And he and I were like, ‘Ding!’ [Laughs]

So he and I have become super close, we have very similar goals for this movie, and I love him and his work, and I’m so grateful that he’s around.

Obviously Richard Donner’s Superman was a major influence, but were there other types of genres or maybe war films that you were drawing upon for this setting and time period?

I ended up being very ‘Superman meets Casablanca.’ It came up a lot, and Indiana Jones. It was those three films where I was like, ‘It’s a classic film. We are making a classic film.’ We care about humor, we care about epic, we care about heroism, we care about arc and story, and make it elegant. Go for it, don’t hold back and be more interesting with ‘shazang!’ Just try for that pocket all the time.

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It was really those three films with the kind of war hero, who Steve Trevor is: Indiana Jones or Rick from Casablanca meets Wonder Woman? It’s like, I’m in for that story, and that’s a great Steve Trevor. So that was sort of our way of doing it.

Can you talk about Etta Candy’s relationship with Diana since they have that close bond in the comics?

There’s been a lot of different versions of Etta, and this is the version who works for Steve, obviously, because she’s in a man’s world. So she becomes like the humorous woman who’s completely entrenched in this specific time period of the world where it is sexist and it all those things, but she’s got a great sense of humor and a great way of handling and navigating all of that. So it’s kind of the spirit of Etta Candy.

Is Wonder Woman’s [Hans Zimmer] theme going to show up?

Yeah, it’s going to show up, but it’s an interesting thing. It’s a great theme, but it is a very specific theme, so it’s not the kind of thing you could ladle all over a little girl [Laughs] or a naïve person. So it has its own journey. I see the entire movie as the creation of both the character and the theme. But it’s not the easiest thing to just throw all over the place.

How did you define your action style for this, because that’s not something we’ve seen a lot of in your prior work? So I’m very curious what your influences were of what the action would be in this film.

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There wasn’t one particular thing, I think it was a lot of different things. Like I said, what made it like everything else, what made it simple and very difficult is like any dramatic scene, if you’re really tethered in your point-of-view, then you know how to tell a story. I’m with her going across that battlefield and I’m telling the story of that, and that I know how to do.

So this one was not difficult because I’m doing it like I would any scene. And you need what adds up to making it exciting is the shots of the story. Someone is shooting and someone is running. You’re always going to look for the greatest shot you can find when you’re standing there. ‘Oh, looking straight down, that’s pretty cool and helps to tell the story.’ So there’s no influence on something like this, you’re just living up to a scene and how to really be there emotionally.

And then when it came to deploying different tricks and moves, I don’t even know where to start and end, because we would look at hundreds of things for every scene, and how like, ‘Okay cool. How should we go about this to get the feeling that we’re looking for?’ To really see her in action for the first time or in the beach battle to be, again, I was in her point-of-view for the the beach battle where you’re watching and like, ‘Woah, what is going on?’ Someone is seeing a battle for the first time, which is different than if your question is who is going to win.

If your question is, ‘Woah, warfare!’ that’s a different approach than ‘who’s going to win, who’s going to win?!’ And you’re going to shoot it differently and approach it and how to get those shots, and what those shots are. You look at all different kinds of influences. But I mean that’s the interesting thing I cared about from telling this story from completely inside her point-of-view for the most part.

What was your inspiration for your Themyscira?

My Themyscira? The same as Steve Trevor. I want it to feel like what that should feel like now. So Steve Trevor, I want him to make me fall in love with him like a guy that I don’t feel sorry for. And Themyscira, so much of what classic Themyscira is, is selling exotic magic. But a lot of it is dated, like the Roman columns. We’ve all been all over the world much more now. Is it that hitting the same tone?

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So what is taking that same classic thing but making it feel like what Themyscira should feel like? Where you say, ‘Woah, that looks almost real but it’s so magical, I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.’ So that was it. I was like taking the many things from the lores, different influences but always marching toward someplace you’re desperate to go that feels absolutely real.

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