Why Patty Jenkins' 'Wonder Woman' Success Shouldn't Be Surprising (Guest Column)
From the moment Patty Jenkins signed on to direct Wonder Woman, the world could have breathed a sigh of relief.
But instead, in that moment and in the weeks before the film’s release, much of the focus was on Warner Bros. “gamble” on her as a director, with skeptics pointing to her decade-plus feature-directing hiatus, and questioning why a helmer of only one feature — a low-budget indie serial-killer film, Monster — was qualified to direct a $150 million superhero tentpole.
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A few days before the premiere of Wonder Woman, one could almost feel the collectively bated breath of the DC superhero’s fans and of Hollywood, all wondering if this movie would be the savior of its genre, or a dead-on-arrival disaster. The suspense was understandable.
With its $103 million opening weekend ($228 million worldwide) and rapturous reviews, everyone finally exhaled. But they should have been breathing easy all along, because, years after her debut with a very different film, it was the same Patty Jenkins who brought the same talent, passion, optimism, vision and confidence to the table. As someone who collaborated with her on Monster, I saw those traits in action years ago, and I experienced them all again as I watched Wonder Woman.
The two films are worlds apart, yet they share Jenkins’ creative DNA. What could the story of a real-life serial killer possibly share with the story of a superheroine created in the 1940s? A lot, when Jenkins is the storyteller.
For starters, while Monster’s Aileen Wuornos is an antihero to Diana Prince’s superhero, Jenkins found authentic humanity in these characters, and grounded each woman's story in that humanity. If it’s surprising that audiences are moved to tears during action sequences and other moments of Wonder Woman, remember that Jenkins (and Charlize Theron) also led audiences to connect and sympathize with Wuornos, and moved us with the story of a killer’s struggles.
Humanizing and creating sympathy for a protagonist may seem like Storytelling 101, but anyone who has seen the superhero films of recent years can conclude that it’s harder to accomplish than it sounds.
Jenkins also adroitly bonds the audience to her protagonists by making sure we understand where they came from. Much of Wonder Woman is dedicated to Diana’s origin story, so that by the time she’s striding alone into battle in No Man’s Land, we feel like we’ve grown up with her. Jenkins understood the importance of character origin in Monster as well, and protected that notion in her screenplay. The film begins with glimpses of Wuornos as a child, and a teenager, so when we meet her moments later as a drenched prostitute in the rain, we have a sense how and why she got there.
Most importantly, perhaps, the reason Patty Jenkins delivered a Wonder Woman film to the world which is definitively a savior, and not a stinker, is that she has an instinct, an internal process, that doesn’t allow her to accept anything that feels less than emotionally authentic to her.
When we gave her notes on her screenplay of Monster, she never responded by changing a line of dialogue here, or a description there. She took the notes in and processed them, as if to see if and how they could benefit her emotional blueprint for the characters, before finding her own creative solutions on the page.
Her process was similar on set. On the day she was directing Theron and Christina Ricci in the deeply intense scene in which their characters must say goodbye to each other, the performances were strong, but, after a number of takes, the scene was still not feeling right to Jenkins. We were behind schedule that day, and considerably overbudget on our film-stock costs. It fell to me to remind her of these production constraints, and that we had to move to the next scene, or risk losing it from our short and sparse schedule. “I’ll pay for the film,” she told me, and at that moment I realized she knew exactly what she needed in the scene, and she was going to get that, no matter what it took. And she did.
And as the world now knows, with Wonder Woman, she did it again.
Clark Peterson is a film and television producer and executive, and was one of the producers of Monster. He recently produced the animated feature The Prophet, and the upcoming Ideal Home.
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