In Hollywood, playing by the rules doesn’t cut it, especially as they keep changing. After directing her 2003 feature debut “Monster,” which won Charlize Theron the Best Actress Oscar, Patty Jenkins was inundated with offers to direct. They just weren’t what she was looking for. And when she decided to direct television for money – and movies for love – her advisers counseled her against it. But she helped to launch “Arrested Development” on Fox and AMC mystery series “The Killing,” and landed an Emmy nomination and DGA win for that 2011 pilot.
When Marvel changed direction on a superhero movie Jenkins had agreed to make, and proceeded with “Thor” instead, Jenkins withdrew as director. She knew that the odds were not in her favor, and should the movie not come out well, she’d be held more accountable than any male director. Things worked out: she had more passion for and control over Warner Bros./DC’s groundbreaking global blockbuster “Wonder Woman.” But rather than follow that with another commercial studio movie, Jenkins zagged again, pursuing a TNT series written by her husband Sam Sheridan, noir thriller “I Am the Night,” starring Chris Pine.
Jenkins would not have done it any other way. “I learned a lot,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to be the director who took on ‘Wonder Woman’ had I not done the TV I did. I tried on all different things with new bosses and different tools. It was clarifying and illuminating.”
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On the set of “Wonder Woman,” Jenkins told Pine about this true, dark Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” story, and he couldn’t forget it. Her writer husband had been developing the project for years. Suddenly, industry forces started to line up: what didn’t quite fit as a two-hour movie or long-form series, became viable as a limited series after “True Detective,” which made mini-series more attractive to movie people – including Pine. The reality-based story morphed into a two-hander about a scruffy, druggy ex-detective (Pine) trying to solve the cold case that had shut down his career, and a naive young country girl (India Eisley) searching for her mysterious parentage.
Post-“Wonder Woman,” Jenkins had heat. And suddenly, stories told from a female point of view became more acceptable. “Hopefully a new chapter is happening,” said Jenkins. “So much of this story is about the identity of a young girl, who had not been that sexy to people. But she was the most interesting part of the story. I was in love with it and wanted to do it. I have zero interest in the size of what I should do, I only want to do things that I am dying to do, that I know how to do. That’s what makes it worth it. It’s such hard work!”
Producer-writer Sheridan and producer-director Jenkins shared showrunner duties. “We really oversee the whole look and feel and constant flow,” said Jenkins. “It’s trying to set it up to succeed.”
Originally, Jenkins was planning to direct all six episodes, but wound up helming only two, as Warner Bros. suddenly moved “Wonder Woman 1984” up from 2020 to 2019 – and back again. “I went from one day directing my second episode to full-on production for ‘Wonder Woman,'” she said. “In retrospect I could have done them all had we stayed on the original plan.”
But she loved bringing in director Carl Franklin (“One False Move”) as well as Victoria Mahoney (“Seven Seconds”) to direct the remaining four episodes. “This is a layered story, and how three different directors did it became interesting,” said Jenkins. “They were into it. I’ve done pilots and episodic, this was a different project.”
She established the Hitchcockian tone from the start – quoting directly from “Vertigo” – but opted for a sunny California noir fairytale with shades of red and blue rather than darkness and shadows. “It’s not avant-garde, hand-held documentary style,” she said. “I’m the storyteller. It’s a dance of tension between the filmmaker and what you are allowed to see. Hitchcock, Kubrick and Fincher are masters of showing you what to look at. It’s a little bit ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz.””
The story is about teenager Fauna Hodel (“One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel”), “who came here knowing nothing,” said Jenkins. “Everything is uncovered in a controlled way, with a manipulated reality. I have to withhold and then give right the amount of reality or surreality.”
When casting Fauna Hodel, who was raised as biracial, “her ethnicity didn’t matter,” said Jenkins, who auditioned many actresses of many different backgrounds. “It was important to be somebody who you are not sure. India with this part makes you lean forward, she shows huge complexity but is comfortable keeping quiet. I wanted to know what was going to happen with this girl, who is very strong and very naive at the same time, where you are worried about her but don’t know what she is going to do either.”
Sheridan took liberties with the real story, as fitting 25 years into six episodes required compression and omission. “I Am The Night” takes its protagonists on an identity quest, as the vanquished loser ex-cop tries to nail down eccentric, corrupt, ruthless adversary George Hodel (stage actor Jefferson Mays), who will do anything to succeed as an artist, and Fauna, who is asking him to reveal her true mother and father. Pine’s fallen detective provides another point of view, “he’s a person who’s seen it all, knows it all,” said Jenkins. “It’s about redeeming themselves.”
Finally, despite the movie star qualities that landed him Captain Kirk on “Star Trek,” Pine is “a character actor,” said Jenkins. “He’s a nuanced artist who likes to try different things. He likes to play.”
By the time the project got to the networks and TNT signed on, the package was fully formed. “They let me and Sam have creative freedom,” said Jenkins. “They knew what it was.” The married showrunners got along – for the most part. “We do great, but we have our moments, for sure,” Jenkins said. “It’s pretty funny. ‘You’re just going to do whatever you want to do!’ ‘I’m the director! That’s what directors do!’ When doing ‘Wonder Woman,’ the pressure was huge, but it’s the same thing on a show like this, I want to do something great. I was up against it again. It’s one thing to have ambition and another to have it realized.”
As a television series veteran, Jenkins knows how to make her days, even on a modest budget. She saw clearly how to use swooping crane shots and make the most of California. “What differs is that action is slow. With action, you never have time to kill! You are always barely making your days, with wire rigs and action shots that take hours to set up. The pace is slower. Drama has a little higher page count on TV.”
Crucial for the tone was the score, by New York opera and ballet composer David Lang, who had only tackled one score before. Jenkins was looking for a ’50s Elia Kazan avant-garde jazz score, “but not an insincere one,” she said. After Lang gave her a restrained first pass, she told him, “‘You have to join me and take the lead.’ And boom! This incredible score came out of him. When you are working with a true artist they bring something massive to the table.”
Up next: Jenkins is juggling several television and film projects. “We’re in a great place,” she said, “finally, with different sized outlets that fit different types of stories.” Over the horizon, as “Wonder Woman 1984” clears its hurdles, opportunities await. Jenkins might be interested in something like James Bond, which she was never available to discuss before. “Lots of people have reached out and I am excited,” she said. “Finally I am not getting one kind of thing, but all kinds of things. It’s a great new world. I have two or three I am passionate about. And something could come out of nowhere and excite me.”