Patty Jenkins on 'I Am the Night' and Why Kristen Wiig Will Surprise You in 'Wonder Woman 1984' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
After the success of Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins had Hollywood at her fingertips. But instead of going big for her follow-up project, she went small-ish, shifting her focus from a larger-than-life heroine doing fantastical things to a little-told tale about a young woman who emerges as the unlikely hero of her own haunting journey.
The real-life story of Fauna Hodel, who was given up at birth and raised to believe she was mixed race, only to discover she most definitely wasn't, was one Jenkins had wanted to tell for years. It took nearly a decade for it to come to fruition in the form of TNT's I Am the Night, a six-part 1965 noir drama that paints a stunning portrait of a woman peeling back the layers on her own identity, as she confronts the sinister truths about her family's possible involvement in the legendary Black Dahlia murder. It also doesn't hurt that it stars Jenkins' Wonder Woman leading man, Chris Pine, who dips his toe for the first time as an executive producer, and introduces India Eisley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as the captivating heroine at the center of the madness.
Jenkins, 47, has been candid about her desires to keep going to the Chris Pine well as their respective careers progress. (They reteam once again in 2020's Wonder Woman 1984.) "Chris is an incredibly smart and very experienced artist, so as people get older, it also becomes more frustrating that they’re not able to have any input -- even when they have a great idea -- into something," she tells ET, adding that it was beneficial to have him take stock creatively as an EP. "Him getting to be a producer and have input in the score and in the cut and in the scenes and how things go was a great delight for him, and he was a perfect partner for it because we had a shared vision for it."
Ahead of the anticipated debut of I Am the Night, the filmmaker spoke with ET about a slew of topics, from reuniting with Pine on the TNT series ("He thrills me with his skills and delights me as a person") and why their working relationship works to whether Black Panther's historic Oscar nominations will boost Wonder Woman 1984's chances and Kristen Wiig's surprising turn as the villainous Cheetah.
ET: I Am the Night feels very personal in scope. You’re reunited with Chris Pine; your husband, Sam Sheridan, wrote all six episodes; you directed the first two episodes; and you were great friends with the late Fauna Hodel. Did it feel personal to you?
Patty Jenkins: It’s interesting. It definitely wasn’t driven by just an homage to friendship. But yet, both things definitely ended up being true. I think that what moved my desire to tell the story led to the friendship. Her story was the most incredible story I had ever heard. So dark, so interesting. But juxtaposed against this incredibly beautiful, positive, uplifting person and I think it was that contradiction, which made the story even more worth telling and also made me become great friends with Fauna Hodel. By the time we ended up getting to make it, the story had become so universal and personal to me and to all of us, because all of us really struggle to find ourselves and our identity, and who we want to be in the world. Seeing how that works through the journey of this woman who stumbles into the very worst possible things you could discover about yourself was a fascinating reason to tell the story.
What was important to you when it came time to translate her experiences onscreen?
It was the story to become the woman that I met. It’s this unbelievably gripping series of revelations and they walk us right into some of the biggest, darkest secrets in Los Angeles history. But within every single new revelation, there was a choice to be made about how she was going to deal with it and she defeated the darkness in a way that she was born into throughout the course of her life. The six episodes are the evolution of a human being in the face of great darkness and great darkness that’s within all of us, not just metaphorically but literally in Fauna’s case.
Fauna was a consultant before she died in 2017. How influential was she in the creative process?
Having her as access and a liaison to any kind of piece of research we needed was amazing. She connected us with her mother, Tamar Hodel, who really was at the center of the story, and had lots and lots of historical tapes that she had done over the years. She had always wanted to get this project done, so she had been collecting research material. She was an amazing treasure trove in that way. She knew the overarching way that we were telling the story and had read the first few scripts that we had already done before she ended up passing away and had great input but was incredibly supportive.
Because of your deep connection to Fauna, is I Am the Night the biggest passion project you’ve done?
I wish I could say that, but it’s not that. I’ve never done anything yet in features and in [TV] that wasn’t a passion project. Monster was a huge passion project of mine to tell that story right. Wonder Woman is one of my favorite comic book heroes of all time and an incredibly important personal story to me: the birth of a hero. I feel like I kind of have that relationship with all of my work, not necessarily pilots and episodics, but all of my self-generated work. I think that’s why I do it. I have a massive passion for the Wonder Womans that I’m doing and they feel almost as personal and passion-driven as anything.
Awesome. I’m so glad you think that. Isn’t she amazing?
What were you looking for in casting young Fauna and did she align with your vision of who she was?
She super did and it was not easy to find because you’re looking for someone powerful in silence and naivete. It takes this blend of someone who has all of this dynamite, explosive power inside of them but yet is just watching as they’re in over their head in the world at the same time. I think she’s a revelation. I also think she’s one of those actors who’s been drifting around. In my… (Pauses, before letting out a laugh.) I don’t know what she would think of me saying this but she’s a full-blown adult on the older end. (Laughs.) She’s like a 60-year-old trapped in an incredibly beautiful 24-year-old body. [Eisley is 25.] People like that are just waiting to become old enough to start doing the kind of serious work that they’re really meant for -- to escape their own good looks and do the kind of work that they are actually capable of doing. I find her so beautifully suited for this character and this role.
Chris said recently that he signed on to do this show to essentially have another chance to work with you. How does that make you feel as a director -- to have an actor of a certain caliber in your corner and wanting to be in your orbit?
It’s incredible and it’s so great when you find each other. I think that, as artists, [we're] struggling to do our best work in this world and I feel like I’m really at a place in my career now where I’m starting to connect with artists I want to work with again and again and again. Chris and I hit it off with a shared passion for the kind of work we want to do and he’s got the skills to do it and I’ve got the passion to try and help him do it. It’s a great thing and it’s pretty awesome.
What was the biggest change between working with him on I Am the Night versus Wonder Woman?
On the one hand, I think we have a tremendous shorthand working together so they’re the same in many, many ways. The biggest difference would be the depth of character work that we were doing. This really requires such an incredibly layered performance and Chris, for whatever reason, always downplays how difficult that is. Like it’s just his style. I keep wanting to tell him to stop doing that. ‘Cause I’m like, “Why do you act like you didn’t do anything and you always work so hard and you’re doing such in-depth work?” And he’s like, “Well, I just did it to work with Patty.” Yes, that’s true, but he did incredible, deep and powerful work. We have done that on Wonder Woman, but getting to do that [here was different]. This was [a guy with] damage and self-loathing and passion and desperation, with a sense of humor, all at the same time. It’s that and working with him as a producer, where we got a chance to have a lot of input early on and he had a lot of input into his character as Sam was writing it.
You’ve said that you anticipate collaborating with Chris again and that every partnership is intentional. What is it about this working relationship that pushes you both toward success? Should we expect a lifetime of Patty-Chris collaborations?
I honestly can’t imagine why we wouldn’t. We definitely have a passion for doing it. I think it’s a combination of I’m a director, I want to do work that delights me and thrills me and he does both. He thrills me with his skills and he delights me as a person. You get that marriage of like, you can do whatever I need you to do and we have fun getting there together. I have that with Gal [Gadot] as well, and I have that with Charlize [Theron] as well. Chris and I are in each other’s orbit right now so we’re going to keep going, I’m sure.
If I can switch gears and ask you for your take on this year's Oscar nominations. Black Panther is the first superhero blockbuster to get major Oscar love and a Best Picture nomination. Are you hopeful that Wonder Woman 1984 could follow suit?
I don’t want to think about it because I find that it’s too mysterious to get caught up in. I am super happy for Black Panther and I absolutely believe that more movies that are mainstream, particularly when they’re celebrated and critically reviewed and successful, why would they not be included in that form? But yet, I also am continually confused and alternately disappointed by other things that don’t get celebrated. You just have to do the greatest work that you do and know that the success of -- my success of the film with the audience is the one thing I can really kind of control. How other people celebrate it or receive it, it’s great when they do but I have no idea where the Academy’s at with that. (Laughs.)
You’ve been vocal about why you thought female directors were snubbed by the Academy and only two female writers were recognized out of 20 in the screenplay categories. What do you think is the first step to achieving equality on that front?
First and foremost, we need to be aware of who’s still curating everything. We can change as much as we want but the yearly opinion about what mattered and what counted is being made by the same narrow, limited point of view, as always. You just have to add that into what that means right now. The year in review across all boundaries is still being done from a very narrow slice of life. I can see that year after year, when people make incredible things that another minority group likes or loves or thinks is No. 1, it doesn’t count yet if it doesn’t please the single voting body of all awards. That’s a bummer. I look and I think about how so many different diversity groups have things that are No. 1 to them that are absolutely overlooked because it doesn’t delight this other kind of percent. We have a long, long way to go before any of our awards reflect the true great work of what’s being done by mankind.
For me, it was shocking when Crazy Rich Asians didn’t get any notice from the Academy.
You see what I’m saying? And by the way, I can’t tell you how many people said last year, “We’re honoring all of these great films but we’re going to give another honor to Wonder Woman because the women liked it.” I’m like, “So 50 percent of the population?” It could be the favorite movie of the 50 percent of the population but that doesn’t matter. That’s not what counts. It’s still the 99.9 percent of the voters are the men who chose what they thought was the best, and so all of the movies represented are going to be their favorites. The end. The African American community, how many hits have they had for how many years? It’s great that BlacKkKlansman got in there, but Do the Right Thing? These incredible, legendary movies that people like [Spike Lee] were doing for years were totally unacknowledged.
Speaking of 1984, when the casting for Kristen Wiig as Cheetah came through last March, it piqued my interest because it was both surprising and intriguing. What made Kristen stand out to you as the perfect foe for Diana? Especially since we’re used to seeing her in comedic -- and sometimes dramatic -- roles and we haven’t seen her in this space before.
I agree. I’m a massive fan of Kristen’s and she has always been an incredible actress. Even in her skits on SNL, she’s coming from an incredibly character-based place always. There was no part of me that didn’t see her as someone who has far-reaching potential. When it came to the character of Cheetah, exactly what we were doing with Cheetah required someone who had the full -- the same way Diana is powerful, she has the full spectrum of a human being -- that was incredibly important to me for Cheetah as well. Kristen just was the perfect Cheetah. She just was the perfect Barbara Minerva to come in and be someone who has great character, great depth, a funny friendship with Diana but then this potential to turn into something completely different. And boy did she nail it. I’m so excited because the people who have seen dailies, I hear about it all the time, everybody’s like, “Woah. I didn’t realize how amazing that was going to be.” Something incredible has come out of her.