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Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins on ambition, access and aiming for greatness

As Wonder Woman 1984 arrives on screen to delight audiences and critics alike – having been pushed back several times this year because of the pandemic – director PATTY JENKINS talks to KATIE BERRINGTON about the future of filmmaking, increasing opportunities in the industry and the time she shut down Trafalgar Square

The year 2020 was supposed to be different for Patty Jenkins, but not for the reason it’s turned out to be. Having been in production for five years straight – from her first Wonder Woman movie to her second, Wonder Woman 1984, with TV drama I Am the Night sandwiched in the middle – the director had planned to take the year off for some downtime. “I’d been kind of locked down in my own tiny world,” she says of the intensive period of work, “so to come out of it into a total standstill at first, and then the movie not even coming out… It’s been super-odd; so surreal and so unnerving.”

The release of Wonder Woman 1984 – with Gal Gadot again taking the titular lead, alongside Kristen Wiig, Chris Pine and Pedro Pascal – has been delayed several times due to Covid-19, but early reviews confirm that it will have been worth the wait. “I don’t wish that it had been delayed as long as it has, but it feels like the right time for it to come out, oddly,” Jenkins considers. “It feels like it will be a breath of fresh air, but it’s very much about how we live our lives, which has everything to do with what we’re facing now.”

It’s a great thing to be supported, to know that your movie will make it onto the screen and that you can still do something pretty personal to yourself if you’re doing the right project with the right people

Widely celebrated for her vision of the DC Extended Universe movies, for which she became the first female director of an American superhero movie, Jenkins is used to helming such a mammoth franchise by now. “When I signed on to the first one, you are stepping into a world that’s so much bigger than yourself, so you hope that the work you do makes it successful and bigger.”

With a background in the arts, having originally been a painter, Jenkins says she expected to be exhausted by the business of blockbusters by this point in her career and ready for a return to small filmmaking. On the contrary, she finds herself feeling “very comfortable here at the moment”.

“It’s a great thing to actually be supported, to know that your movie will make it onto the screen and that you can still do something pretty personal to yourself if you’re doing the right project with the right people backing you,” she says.

There is a small list of specific things that she still hopes to do within her movie-making career, but she says she finds herself constantly surprised by the projects she is offered and that excite her. Rather than the year off she had planned for 2020, she is currently working on three movies (including a new Star Wars title called Rogue Squadron and the third instalment of Wonder Woman) and a TV show. “So I’m not doing a very good job of not working!” she laughs. “But it’s because all those things are exciting. With Wonder Woman, there’s still a chapter of her that I haven’t been able to explore yet, and I’m excited to do that.”

With what she describes as a “compulsive” commitment to work, how does she find time for peace and quiet? “I really don’t, and that is unfortunate,” she groans, jokingly. “I think there are those years, probably for parents of young children – Gal [Gadot] and I talk about it all the time – where we’re either working or we’re trying to make up for not being around.”

Jenkins is passionate about expanding and diversifying opportunities in higher levels of filmmaking, a notoriously exclusive arena in myriad ways. She reflects on her own experience of breaking through and finding that, even after being embraced by the movie community as a director, there was less willingness to take a perceived chance on her ideas.

“Everyone wanted to hire me to do their film, but they weren’t trusting of what my instincts were about what I wanted to do,” she remembers. “Even when I made Wonder Woman, people didn’t understand [my instincts], as they weren’t necessarily how they would have gone about it, and then the film ended up finding this audience as a result.”

“I think that must be true across the board of all people [where] the stories they are looking for are not able to reach them, because the same group are deciding what’s popular,” she continues. Many of the issues stem from there being “an unfortunate amount of confidence in the industry of knowing what works and what doesn’t work”. She recalls a time when she first started out: “Somebody said to me, ‘No, you can’t make a drama; drama’s dead.’ I was like, ‘Oh, thousands of years of storytelling, but today, Hollywood is telling me that drama is dead!’” She laughs with disbelief. “It’s ridiculous.”

Aim for greatness and then be diligent in trying to pursue that. Every filmmaker owes that to the people working for them
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

The seismic events of 2020 could bring a shift to these certainties, though, she thinks. “Between streaming, the pandemic [and] greater diversity in filmmaking, there’s a huge amount of instability in the film community, where nobody quite knows what works or will work or how it will work with the same confidence they used to.”

As an inspiring leader at the top of her game, the impact that she would like to have on the next generation of filmmakers would be “for people to have confidence in their voice; in the big, beautiful story they want to tell, or the small, careful story they want to tell – to know it should exist in the world,” Jenkins says. “But then you must be rigorous in doing it well – it’s a combination of those two things.”

“There’s a sloppiness that’s got into our art form that I really think is tragic when you look at how much money goes into these films,” she continues. “Aim for greatness and then be diligent in trying to pursue that. Every filmmaker owes that to the people working for them.” As the person at the center of a movie set, she knows the “huge responsibility” that comes with the role, “to make a good work environment, to be getting productive things done, and to leave [people] with something they’re proud to be a part of”.

“It’s part of [why] I’m able to run a set the way I do,” Jenkins determines. “It makes it very easy to call out any bad behavior – you know, ‘750 people are here today [so] you can’t have a temper tantrum, that can’t be what happens’.” The Wonder Woman sets are a lot of fun, the director shares. But that isn’t necessarily a priority when it comes to the work environment that she wants to create, which she describes as “civilized, fair, kind, with an incredible drive for greatness… Everyone being treated well enough that they can strive for greatness; I think that’s how my cast and crew would describe it – I’m very ambitious, but I try to have a civilized work environment.”

Jenkins broke records with Wonder Woman; it became the highest-grossing live-action film by a female director at the time of its release, and it was the third-highest-grossing movie of 2017. Does it bother her to still have the caveat of ‘female’ filmmaker in her title? “I’m very proud to have played any role in moving things forward,” she reflects, “but I definitely look forward to the day that I get to be the filmmaker that I came into this thinking I would be, which is just a filmmaker.”

In a career already punctuated by highlights, it’s difficult to pick out favorites, but a particularly memorable moment for Jenkins was when she and her team took over Trafalgar Square for filming of the first Wonder Woman, filling the London landmark with hundreds of members of cast and crew. “I kept saying, ‘When we’re 90, we’ll look back and remember the day we shut down Trafalgar Square,’” she smiles.

Revisiting the early days of her career, is there anything she thinks her younger self would have benefited from knowing back then? “I think how much fun it was all going to be,” Jenkins pauses. “I have been dutiful, and working hard compulsively, and I’m so delighted now with the work I’m doing – more than I ever thought I would be. [But] I wish I’d been more excited about how fun this future could be.”

Wonder Woman 1984 is out in cinemas from December 16 (UK) and December 25 (US)