How Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins Became The First Woman To Direct A Superhero Movie: 52 Weeks Of Directors

by Lauren C. Byrd

While I would have been happy with Michelle MacLaren in the driver’s seat for Wonder Woman, I’m not going to sneeze at the studio hiring a woman to replace her. And that woman is Patty Jenkins.

Before she was going to brave the studio gauntlet to make a film version of the woman with a magic lasso, Jenkins made a little feature film called Monster. Jenkins, who enjoys both true crime and comedy, grew up on military bases all over the globe, where she became a fan of British sitcoms, but at the same time, discovered the work of directors like Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, and Stanley Kubrick. “Those guys are great at the tension of the unknown. You don’t know where the story is going and you’re not made to feel comfortable or safe,” Jenkins said in an interview with the Directors Guild of America magazine.

Jenkins spent the later part of her childhood in Kansas, where she became involved in the arts such as music and photography. She attended Cooper Union for college, studying painting. But it was her first experimental filmmaking class where Jenkins felt she finally found what she wanted to do with her life. “They had a Steenback editing bay and the first generation of editing equipment, the Toaster,” Jenkins said, confessing she sat there for days putting music to images. “It was the first time I had a completely truthful relationship to art. I wanted to live up to the music that I heard and make incredibly powerful emotional moments. That has continued to this day.”

This led her to working on commercials as a cameraperson so she could train on the job. “That was kind of misguided,” she said. Jenkins learned a lot about the equipment but didn’t learn how to direct. After eight years, she quit to attend the American Film Institute for directing.

She met Brad Wyman shortly after graduating from AFI. Wyman was an independent producer who had made some low-budget serial killer movies. Jenkins told him he should make a film about Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute turned serial killer. She had always been bothered by the way Wuornos’ story had been sensationalized. Wyman told her to write the script herself, adding that she would never get anything else made as a first timer in the industry.

While working on the script, Jenkins wrote to Wuornos, who was on Florida’s death row, and who was mistrustful of the filmmaker’s intentions. But the night before her execution, Wuornos left Jenkins all of her personal letters. Jenkins knew then she had to be the one to direct the film. “There was no negotiation, it was going to be me or no one. I had been given the responsibility to see it through and that’s what was going to have to happen.”

patty charlizeDirecting Charlize Theron in Monster

Jenkins secured a very small budget of $1.5 million and said she remembered the expectations for the film were straight to video. She said those low expectations actually helped give her the confidence to direct her first feature, which was a 23 day shoot. “If I had my druthers, I would have shot that film with big wides and scene-long single takes, but I didn’t have the time nor the money to spend on lighting or blocking such laborious shots. Performance was so important that I needed to be able to cut every single take to get what I needed out of it. As a result, you have to compromise style.”

Monster may not be stylistically what Jenkins envisioned, but the 12-year-old movie stands up to the effects of time. Performances, as Jenkins noted, are the key. Theron as Wuornos is haunting yet still human and relatable, especially her relationship with Selby (Christina Ricci).

patty jenkins thor monster

Wuornos killed seven men between 1989 and 1990 before she was arrested in 1991. Wuornos claimed that her victims were killed in self-defense because they had either raped her or attempted to rape her. She was convicted for six of the seven murders and was sentenced to death by lethal injection. She spent nearly ten years on Florida’s death row before her execution in 2002.

Wuornos has often been proclaimed as the first female serial killer, although that is somewhat debated. A pediatric nurse in Texas, Genene Jones, killed somewhere between one and forty-six infants and children in her care. Some claim Jones as the first female serial killer. Beyond the U.S., Locusta, who lived in Ancient Rome and had a penchant for concocting poisons, has also been called the first female serial killer.

corey nickols patty jenkins emmy magazine

Theron also served as a producer on the film. Jenkins said in a CNN interview that Theron’s name was helpful. “She knew, as I did, that there is a long, hard road for a movie like this. And the movie can get pushed and pulled in all kinds of different directions. So instead of being this overlord as producer…she just put herself in a position where she could really defend what it was we wanted to do. And fight for it.”

Of course, Theron went on to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of Wuornos. Jenkins was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Directing, but she won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

monster6Charlize Theron in Monster

After Monster, Jenkins wanted to keep working, but she knew she needed some time to relax and reset before jumping into another feature. “Making a movie is such a huge commitment of emotion and time that I didn’t want to be beholden to doing it for money.” In order to keep working, Jenkins directed episodes of Arrested Development and Entourage, quite the departure from the true crime world of Monster.

Jenkins took a year off from work after giving birth to her son, but she found it harder than she expected to return to dramatic territory. She worked on a ghost story series for AMC but it didn’t get picked up. However, when AMC needed a director for the pilot of another dramatic series, The Killing, they approached Jenkins. She almost didn’t take the job because the plot of The Killing centers around the murder of a teenage girl, and as a new mother, Jenkins found she could no longer watch crime stories about children. Veena Sud, the showrunner and also a mom, convinced Jenkins to come aboard.

“I had more time and money on that pilot than on Monster, so I finally got to do my big wides and single takes,” Jenkins said. The Killing earned Jenkins a DGA Award for outstanding directorial achievement in a dramatic series for 2011. She also directed the show’s season two finale.

picture 101

Despite her involvement with television, Jenkins hasn’t directed a feature film since Monster. In late 2013, she was rumored to be working on a true crime feature and in early 2014, it was announced she was going to helm Thor 2, but that proved to be short-lived, as Jenkins departed in June. Now she’s returned to direct a comic book film and hopefully, her vision for Wonder Woman will mesh with Warner Brothers’.

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