A wise man once told his superhero nephew that with great power comes great responsibility. And though Patty Jenkins doesn’t spend her off hours leaping from tall buildings (as far as we know), the weight of an entire industry rests squarely on her shoulders. But you wouldn’t know it from talking to her.
When we caught up with Jenkins a week out from the release of Wonder Woman—just the second feature film she’s directed in her 20 year career (the first was Monster, which earned Charlize Theron an Oscar for her riveting portrayal of the prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wournous)—the 45-year-old California native was exuberant, warm and eager to talk about a movie she’s spent the better part of a decade trying to get made.
Jenkins seemingly has every reason to be on edge. As she gets set to launch a new blockbuster tentpole in the heart of a crowded summer movie season—a proposition that probably still gives Michael Bay night terrors—Jenkins does so while caught in the crosshairs of one of Hollywood’s most central debates. Whether she likes it or not, Jenkins has become the poster child for female directors and their place in the blockbuster universe.
Not only is Wonder Woman the first female-led superhero movie of this generation, but Jenkins is the first woman director to be given the keys to a major superhero franchise. If Wonder Woman succeeds, the thinking goes that her female counterparts will suddenly be allowed into the boys club after years spent watching on the sidelines. Couple that with DC’s hope that Wonder Woman helps wipe away the bitter after taste left by the ill-fated movies Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, and one might argue that Wonder Woman is the most heavily scrutinized superhero movie ever. No pressure, right?
But none of that was in Jenkins periphery when production began on the film in late 2015 on the other side of the world. As Jenkins tells it, her only goal was to tell a story that did justice to the hero she first encountered as a child, when she opened the pages of a DC comic book.
“I remember feeling like a scrawny, loser, nobody child, a powerless child, and then suddenly you’re on this journey where you’re everything you wanted to be,” she said of that first meeting. “The feeling that she gave me inside my body was so powerful.”
Here, Jenkins discusses why it took so long for this day to come, how she blocked out the outside noise, and why Wonder Woman is the hero we need right now.
The production was fraught with rumors of trouble on set, then there was a rush of early positive buzz. You must be experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. Are you just relieved to finally have it out in the world?
Beyond. It was one of the most tiresome things about this movie. The internet speculation, and the fact that regardless of what was happening, it was truly shocking how some things would start online with zero relationship to reality, and then you’re just left playing defense. That was an aspect of filmmaking that I’ve never experienced before. I kept saying “Could we just show them the film please!” So yes, it’s amazing to finally just have it out.
Talk to me about what Wonder Woman meant to you as a young girl growing up. Was it important to have a strong woman in a genre whose most iconic characters are male?
In the purest most beautiful way, I wasn’t thinking about it intellectually. I don’t have an intellectual agenda as my leading objective, because I’m just responding to wish fulfillment and how that works for all. Exactly the same reasons that little boys have been drawn to Superman and to Batman, is because they imagine if they become that powerful, what could they do? Wonder Woman is that for me. When I was a little girl, the feeling that she gave me inside my entire body was so powerful in exactly that same way. When I was on the playground you’d run as fast you could outside of your homeroom so that you could be the first one to declare that you’re Wonder Woman. Then for the next hour of play, in your head you looked like Linda Carter while being incredibly powerful.
Do you remember the exact moment you opened your first Wonder Woman comic?
I remember the context. It was feeling like a scrawny, loser, nobody child, a powerless child, and then you take this journey where you’re everything you ever wanted to be, as the pages turn. All of the issues on top of that are secondary. And yet it’s a victory to those things. So that was integral to my approach to making the movie. I wanted to think about that not at all, and that will be the victory. The original Superman had been the first thing that did that to me. It didn’t matter if it was a boy or a girl. I was Superman. So to treat her as that grand of a universal and aspirational character is its own victory.
We’ve been in the golden age of superhero movies for some time. Why do you think it took so long for this movie to be made?
Honestly, I think it’s finances. There has been an obsession with opening weekends that’s led to the creation of the blockbuster and the tentpole, which was believed to be driven by the young male audience. Particularly, there have been some failures of female superhero movies. I don’t know if that was consciously true for Warner Bros., but I feel like over a large swath of time, the only reason it wasn’t a no-brainer was because that math wasn’t understood. I think in the last 10 years we’ve really seen that none of that is true anymore.
What were the conditions that changed that finally gave a studio the wherewithal to make this happen?
I think that the piracy market made the bottom fall out of the young male audience. So they’re no longer the largest audience. Surprisingly, middle-aged women are, although nobody seems to know what to do with that. So the strongest box office in the world is no longer young boys, because they pirate. The second thing is the diversity of the marketplace has really shown its strength. There’s a more diverse market and they really do have a craving for all different kinds of things. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are proving the outdated system of the tentpole industry, which is a one-size-fits-all single voice. And then I think third of all, it’s the success of things like The Hunger Games, that showed “Oh wow! This is just a universal character, and everyone’s going to see this movie!”
If you’re only going after teenage boys, you’re going to hire a slightly older teenage boy to direct.
Do you think it was important that a woman tell this story?
I don’t think it had to be a woman. I don’t think that any film has to directed by any kind of person because you never know what’s going on inside of them. But, I do think that being a woman definitely felt like a wonderful point of view to tell the story from. I felt the same way when I made Monster. In both cases I’m not making a movie about a woman. I’m not thinking about that anymore so than a man thinks they’re making a movie about a man. They’re making a movie about Indiana Jones. I was making a movie about Wonder Woman. I’m not thinking about gender because that’s not the leading difference between me and the main character. Of course I’m a woman, of course I have a slightly different point of view, and of course that might make me more capable of understanding the values in a slightly different way than a man might perceive them to be, so in that case it is wonderful.
This is the first superhero movie directed by a woman and only the second time a woman director has commanded a budget of over $100 million. Does this feel trailblazing for you, like you’re breaking some kind of barrier?
It’s not something I do anything about because there’s nothing I can do, but I’m definitely conscious of it. And it’s interesting because I would try to do the best job I could anyway. Earlier in my career, when dodgier prospects came my way, or films looked like they were going to go pear-shaped, I said “No, no it can’t be me. You’re going to need somebody else to direct that and it’s going to be no big deal for you.” If I were to direct it, it would’ve been a big deal.
What do you think is at the core of Hollywood’s refusal to let women directors into the club?
I think it stems what target audience they’re going after. If you’re only going after teenage boys, you’re going to hire a slightly older teenage boy to direct. But secondarily, I’m sure there’s a bunch of stuff I don’t want to believe in like power. I don’t know why directing in particular strikes that chord of feeling like you need that kind of figure. I am that kind of figure, and have no problem being that kind of figure.
So you’re tough when you need to be.
I grew up in a military family, so I understand what holding your line is. I have no problem stepping into that kind of behavior even though I think I’m very friendly and I keep my shit together. But I think for whatever reason, there’s a power perception that people have a problem with.
Let’s talk a bit about Gal. You inherited her from Zack Snyder. Was it difficult to not get to choose your own Wonder Woman?
I wouldn’t have done the project if I had even the slightest problem with it. That’s how important casting is. I remember when I read in the news that Wonder Woman had been cast and my heart sank. I had been talking to the studio for so long about doing it and I was like well “that’s that.” I’m sure we wouldn’t have made the same choice. And then I started paying attention to her, and watching her and looking at her and it was just unbelievable. Frankly, I think they did a better job than I could have because I don’t know that I would have scoured the earth as hard to find her. I don’t know that I would’ve looked internationally. I would have just looked for an American girl. The fact that they found Gal and chose her is a magical gift to me. They’re incredibly intelligent people and they were looking for all the same things I would have looked for—all the values that Wonder Woman stands for exuding from someone in an honest way, and boy did they find it. She’s the greatest.
[Gal Gadot] walks onto the stage in the Wonder Woman outfit, and I just became 7 years-old again in two seconds.
What is it about Gal that makes her such a good fit?
She shares every quality with Wonder Woman and that’s no joke. It’s one of those rare things. You need someone who can appear to be Wonder Woman on screen. That’s what you’re looking for—someone who can embody all of those attributes on screen. But every once in a while, there’s superhero casting that transcends, because that person is so authentic to the character that it becomes identified with them, like Lynda Carter or Christopher Reeve. It’s even more of a miracle that there was another person as authentic as Lynda in every way to that character. She’s brave, strong, kind, loving, badass—every adjective you can think of for Wonder Woman, Gal is. Lynda and all of the world is like “Oh wonderful, carry on,” because it’s the real thing. It’s a gauntlet pass from one Wonder Woman to another.
It sounds like this is something Gal was born to do.
It totally feels that way to me too. And by the way, she’ll do many other things. She’s a great actress with a long future ahead of her, but she was especially born to do this.
What was it like on set when Gal came out in the full Wonder Woman attire for the first time?
I remember it incredibly clearly. It was the photo shoot for costuming and it was the end of pre-production, which is the ugliest time for making a movie because all hell is breaking loose. You’re just like “Fine, fine, fine go to that stage, just get this over with, I have 15 minutes…” and she walks onto the stage in the Wonder Woman outfit, and I just became 7 years-old again in two seconds. I just wanted to go up and pet her arm and touch her hair, and that was the coolest thing. That would periodically happen throughout the course of making this movie. The child in me was so there.
The reception for the other DCEU films weren’t as enthusiastic as some had hoped. A lot of fans and critics are hoping that Wonder Woman rights the ship so to speak. Do you feel any of that pressure?
I do now, but I was making this movie in such a distant land, and all that was happening here in the United States. They were shooting BvS and Suicide Squad while we were shooting the beginning of this. We were off in our own world and we had always been making our own film. When those things happened to people that I care about and know, it was heartbreaking to watch. But we were already making such a different film that it didn’t affect us in that way. Of course it put more focus and weight on us, but I just had to carry on and make the film I was already making. It only made me stronger in the understanding that I had to carry through with my point of view.
How beholden were you to operate within the context of the larger DCEU?
Not at all, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. It actually means that to make the greatest film that I could was always the best thing for all of us. So that was always what I was trying to do in the first place, so nothing really changed. But of course coming out of the movie being done, you could feel the nervousness of everybody. I’m super aware but it didn’t end up rattling us. We already were the opposite of those movies and the ways they were being discussed. We were a love story, and a comedy, and totally different.
The trend in superheroes movies is to go dark and gritty. But there’s a light that shines on this movie that I think audiences will appreciate. Was that your intention?
Yeah, big time. And also, when I was looking at the landscape it feels like a missing color in the palette of the superhero genre. There are so many, and the great thing is all those superheroes are so different. So there’s room for a Logan, and a Dark Knight. There’s room for all of these different shades. But one that I felt missing was the grand, emotional, completely sincere fantasy journey of what it would be like to be a superhero. And what better opportunity than the grandest hero of our team who happens to be a woman. She deserved grandiosity, so I was excited to approach it that way. Let’s go for big time cinema, and have a great love story that’s not tongue-in-cheek or too jokey, and not too light and not too sappy.
Telling this story feels particularly vital in today’s climate. Did you feel that while making it?
It suddenly does. I have been craving a sincere conversation about our world and what’s going on, but yet I suddenly feel like we’re in a bad place. The world is not in a good place and we’re heading in a bad direction. We need to get serious fast and talk about very sincere hope for change and commitment to being heroes. I never expected this would happen, but I do feel like “Oh my god, this could be about more than Wonder Woman.” It’s time to teach the lesson of being a hero in the grand tradition of that practice.
It feels like Wonder Woman is the hero we need right now.
It almost makes me want to cry hearing you say that. It has been the wonderful thing about making this movie. Gal and I would always say, “Wow, something else is going on that we get to be a part of. This is bigger than both of us.”