Patty Jenkins on Powerful Female Characters and the Universality of Wonder Woman
From 2003's Monster to the recent big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins has demonstrated an enormous aptitude for engaging, female-driven stories that defy cliché and laugh in the face of Hollywood's traditionally problematic relationship with gender-roles. And following Wonder Woman's massive opening weekend, she now holds the record for the biggest debut ever for a female-directed movie (that 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes doesn't hurt either).
Jenkins recently appeared on KCRW's The Treatment, hosted by Elvis Mitchell, for a discussion of the film along with her career as a whole. It's a revealing chat that sheds light on the filmmaker's storytelling process, along with her ability to craft compelling, unapologetically female characters. By the end of the discussion, it's clear that although Jenkins isn't credited with Wonder Woman's screenplay, her vision as a storyteller is absolutely fundamental to its success.
Here are some of our favorite takeaways.
On the mythological power of comic books
The filmmaker begins the interview by exploring the powerful storytelling appeal of comic books, the roots of which may lie in our historical fascination with figures of classical mythology.
“The greatest thing about comics and the reason I love them too is that I feel they have potential to be useful metaphors of our times – (the same way) that Greek mythological characters were, along with so many famous characters that we use at the center of story. And why are we attracted to that kind of character? The Hercules – the strong guy? We’re both drawn to the fantastical visuals of them, yet we can use these characters to tell a parable about life… You can satisfy on the level of a superhero film, with the subtext beneath that turning a universal issue of life.”
On the parallels between Monster and Wonder Woman
Despite vastly different subject matter, Jenkins notes that Wonder Woman shares much in common with her earlier critical darling, Monster. Specifically the way in which each film makes a larger-than-life protagonist feel surprisingly personal.
“In an odd sort of way, I felt I was able to make as personal a movie with Wonder Woman as I did with Monster. I worked with characters and a character arc very similarly. It’s a different physical process with different goals in mind, but in both cases I was only aiming for the best specific genre for each specific movie. I don’t only want to make movies like Monster, or only make movies like Wonder Woman, but that was the best possible flourishing version of each character’s story. I like nothing more than to put myself in the shoes of an extraordinary character until it becomes normal, and then try to experience what that journey would be like from their perspective.”
On crafting strong female characters
In perhaps the most illuminating portion of the interview, Jenkins details her approach to creating authentic, relatable female characters. Her secret? Treating each character like a real person with strengths, weaknesses, wants and needs - regardless of gender.
“I don’t see them as ‘it’s a woman, let me prove their strong’ – I have no problem in either scenario accepting how strong these women are. Both Aileen Wuornos (played by Charlize Theron in Monster) and Wonder Woman. So for me, a huge part of the journey was that their strength, power, and volatility was a given… So taking that strength, which was a given to me, but making sure we saw the vulnerability, and the want and the need that so usually informs this type of character… You would be shortchanging them as universal figures if they didn’t have both ends of the spectrum.”
On the universality of Wonder Woman
Touching on the project's earlier days in development hell, the director details her determination that Wonder Woman's wholesome core remain unchanged - even in the face of a modern, more cynical landscape.
“She’s here because she actually believes in the betterment of mankind through love, truth and justice. And that ties her more than most to the thousand-year tradition of storytelling with religious figures. For example, I am not like Moses, but I hear that story over and over again and it helps me to understand something about myself…
It’s been interesting to watch, even in this process, what people want to take away from that vision – be it that she needs to be harder, or less attractive or whatever it is (to fit into a modern context). To me, I felt it was my job and mission to (ensure) that nothing change. That she stay just as strong, and just as loving and accessible.”
On the decision to set the film during World War 1
Jenkins speaks extensively on the decision to set Diana's origin during the first World War (a departure from the character's comic book origin). She highlights the importance of finding the right contrast between character and setting while avoiding jarring shifts in tone.
“The hardest thing about this was tone. It was like… we have to make sure this doesn’t look like the greatest BBC production of a miniseries, and then this ridiculous superhero walks in… (but) a great way to think about it is that when we send in this superhero that’s totally unfamiliar with our world, we’re able to comment both on the absurdity of the times (1917), but also she’s talking about right now. She’s saying right now, 'you guys bomb people from afar and you can’t see who you’re killing? Where’s the honor in that?'"
On motivating a protagonist
Noting her preference for singularly motivated protagonists (in comparison to more passive, reactionary characters), Jenkins briefly touches on what she looks for in a central character.
“I feel like there are two different kinds of stories for characters in these types of stories. They can either be the only man called upon by the hero’s call or some inciting event. Or they can be someone filled with want that we can relate with. I think I identify most with the journey of wants, because we all want.”