'Wonder Woman' cinematographer breaks down the pressure of bringing a comic book to life
It may have taken 75 years, but Wonder Woman has finally hit the big screen in a solo film, and she is leaving quite the impression. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot in the title role, is the origin story fans have been waiting so long to see. Set almost entirely during World War I, the film takes viewers along for one heck of a ride as Diana is introduced to "Man's World," and soon transforms into one of comics' greatest heroes: Wonder Woman.
Whether it be the film's early scenes in Themyscira or the action-packed sequences in Europe, it is difficult to take your eyes off Wonder Woman for even a second. And bringing such stunning visuals to life was a true collaborative effort. Helping translate director Patty Jenkins' vision to the big screen was Wonder Woman's cinematographer Matt Jensen.
Mic spoke with Jensen, whose credits include Fantastic Four, Chronicle, True Blood and Game of Thrones, about his experience on the set of Wonder Woman. In our conversation, Jensen discussed Jenkins' enthusiasm on the set, how Wonder Woman draws from the comics and the pressure to deliver the film fans deserve.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mic: Before we get started, I saw Wonder Woman last night and I was absolutely blown away — loved it.
Matt Jensen: I’m glad. That’s great to hear.
The action scenes were so beautifully shot — especially those on Themyscira. Do you have a favorite scene, or one you are most proud of?
MJ: Actually, you know, my favorite scene is one maybe you wouldn't expect. It is in the middle of the movie when Diana and Steve go recruiting the rest of their team in the London pub and they meet Charlie and Sameer for the first time. I love the way that that's set. I love the look of the bar and the colors we were able to get out of it. I just loved the way Gal throws the guy across the room in the middle of this innocuous dialogue scene. Something about that scene felt very comic booky and period, but also there is a grit and really interesting use of color in it.
Reading a comic book is a very unique experience — and the art is so important. Translating that experience to the big screen can be difficult. How were you and Patty Jenkins hoping to translate the comic book reading experience to the big screen?
MJ: I think luckily we had the benefit of several movies having done it before well. So we had a template laid out for us in terms of what works and what didn’t work in certain movies. When you feel the true spirit of the comic books is really in the fighting sequences and the use of slow motion, you can almost imagine them in single-frame panels.
I think the second-unit guys, both Damon Caro and the second-unit DP Tim Wooster did an excellent job of fulfilling a lot of our wishes and needs in terms of what those scenes [needed] to feel and look like. We felt that since Wonder Woman is one of the big three in terms of superheroes; she deserved the kind of epic canvas that [Batman and Superman] had received before in the past in Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel and Batman Begins.
All those movies have a big scope and yet are an intensely personal and an emotional journey for the character. I think that became the guidepost for us.
Did you feel constrained to adhere the look of Wonder Woman to Man of Steel and Batman v Superman?
MJ: From the beginning, Patty was unafraid to say that this is a standalone and we are going to do our own thing and we don't necessarily need to worry about following exactly the "house style." I think I was more concerned about it initially, but I realized quickly into the process that Warner Bros. was completely supportive of us taking our own stab at this. I think you see some techniques that [Man of Steel and Batman v Superman director] Zack [Snyder] has used in his movies that we use — particularly in the action sequences.
In terms of contrast and grittiness — particularly what you see in the later Europe sequences and London — I think we are on par with the other movies. But Patty always wanted more color and we felt that looking at a lot of the Wonder Woman comic books and early George Perez [works], which was the main inspiration for the origin story in our film, they have a very specific palate, and there is a bold use of color. We felt that we could provide that in this one.
What was it like working with Patty Jenkins on the film?
MJ: It was a great collaboration. We got along very well, and she is very collaborative, not only with me but the entire production team. She is very open to ideas and she allowed me to run with a lot. She would plant the seed in my head, I would go off and figure things out, show her some things I was thinking about, and then we would pick and choose from everything I laid out, and it worked out very nicely.
She did that with everyone. She was good about being inclusive but also didn't let any of us run off the rails. She kept us all in line because she always had a firm idea of who Wonder Woman was. [Patty] is just so energetic and enthusiastic, and often is working out scenes by herself. I would always come to the set early and I would catch Patty there early kind of talking to herself and walking the scene by herself and making sound effects — she is so into it.
It is really inspiring to work with somebody who is like that all the time.
What can be so fun about comic book movies is trying to pick out fun nods and Easter eggs. Do you think fans will miss any subtle ones planted in Wonder Woman?
MJ: I don't think so. This movie really stands on its own, so I don't think there are too many things that tie into the other movie. Is that what you mean by Easter eggs?
Yeah that, and things that tie into the comics, like the ice cream scene, which I loved.
MJ: I think you will find influences from the different comics all over the movie. The great thing about it is if you are a fan, it is going to feel rich to you, but if you are not a comic book fan, it is all going to work very seamlessly with the narrative.
Speaking of comic book fans, this is not your first foray into the genre —
MJ: [Laughs] Yeah.
You're aware that comic book fans are very protective of their material. I'm from Philly, so it is sort of like being an Eagles fan —
MJ: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Is there anything you learned from your experience on Fantastic Four that you brought with you to Wonder Woman?
MJ: Well, I realized how intense the scrutiny is. Making a movie is an intensely vulnerable and chaotic experience. You have to be willing to try out ideas and work them out, and not immediately be open to getting shot down by the public. It is very important to stay protected so you are allowed to work things out. On the other end, these movies really do have to fulfill fan expectations, because they are what's driving them being made in the first place.
So, it's always important to go back and look at the intention, or roots of the character, and what it is that draws people to these characters. I think that you have to carry that spirit over to your work. You are always thinking about the audience. These aren't personal films. They are very much audience driven, and I am just as excited to see them as any of the fans. That's the challenge.
You have worked on Fantastic Four and Game of Thrones, a lot of huge productions, have you ever done anything that felt this big?
MJ: No, I haven't. And it is big in terms of not only as a production — I lit one of the largest night exteriors on an airfield outside of London that I have ever lit —but there was also the pressure of doing Wonder Woman justice. It was always in the back of our minds that many people have tried to get this movie off the ground in one form or another for a long time, and this was a tremendous opportunity and challenge for us to bring the character to the big screen. But with that came an intense amount of pressure. In that way it felt huge.
What do you hope fans take away from Wonder Woman?
MJ: I hope we did Wonder Woman justice, and I hope the fans are happy with the portrayal of the character, and just giving her her proper due in a big movie.
Wonder Woman is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Mic has ongoing coverage of Wonder Woman. Please follow our main Wonder Woman hub here.