Art School Superhero
July 27, 2017
The blockbuster superhero movie Wonder Woman likely did not escape your notice, due to its omnipresent advertising, its critical accolades, and its popularity. Set in World War I and starring Gal Gadot as the comic book–based Amazonian princess, and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, the character’s longtime love interest, it has grossed over $780M at the box office worldwide two months after its release. But one aspect of the film may be unknown to you: it was directed by Patty Jenkins, a 1993 graduate of the School of Art. Not NYU. Not UCLA. She graduated from The Cooper Union. She is “hugely grateful” and has “massive affection” for her training here, she says. So much so that she took the time seven days before the opening of the movie to talk with the magazine of her alma mater.
How did you come to The Cooper Union?
There are some people who want to become directors from a young age. In retrospect, I never did. All the trappings were around it, but I was incredibly drawn to the arts of all kinds. Even though I was interested in music and drama, I wasn’t interested in being a musician or a playwright. But I did love photography and painting. So I focused all my energy on that. I went to a high school [in Kansas] with an excellent arts program and the teacher knew a lot about art school. The brass ring was perceived to be Cooper.
I got into Cooper for painting and photography but it was in my first year that I took an experimental film course. At the time, Cooper had two programs. It had experimental film taught by Bob Breer and it had a very early video animation program. I enrolled in both and that was it. My head exploded. The second I sat down putting pictures to music, it was the most authentic relationship I had ever had to art. I was like, “I can’t stop doing this. I have to figure this out.” I then became an independent film studies student for the next three years.
Your graduation year was singled out as a watershed in the New Museum exhibition, 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which featured the Cooper Union art collective, Art Club 2000. What was the atmosphere of the School of Art at the time?
It was the opposite of where I was, even though I admired it. It was all about irony, side jokes, and very “meta” conceptual art. My work was all about big emotional things. Even in my paintings there were always narratives and some sort of drama
How does your experience at The Cooper Union inform your work?
It informs it tremendously. Often I have been faced with choices to do things in this industry that I am glad I didn’t do even though they seemed like good choices at the time because they would have made me a quote-unquote “big director.” But I thought, “I didn’t come here to be a big director. I don’t care about being a director. I’m here to make the pieces of art that I am interested in.” As a result, I have had a very intimate relationship with the work that I’ve done. I don’t care about being a director at all. It’s a necessary step to get the piece of artwork that I want. If I am successful at being a director, that’s great, but that’s not why I’m doing it.
How do you bring your artistic mark to a film that so many people are so heavily invested in, either financially or through their relationship to the history of the main character?
I brought my mark to it because of this: I do believe sometimes in the commerciality of art. So my aspiration was to make a beautiful film that would also fulfill all the things that would also work for them. That’s how these movies work. My aspiration was probably more grandly commercial than theirs ever could have been. Because I wasn’t wanting to just make a new installment of something. I wanted to make the greatest superhero movie of all time that is commercial and makes you laugh and makes you cry, etc., etc. There’s nothing easy about it. But it ends up being easy in a way to make it a very intimate piece of artwork, because your aspiration is even bigger than theirs.
If you were to bring a part of Wonder Woman to a crit, what would it be and why?
I would probably bring her walking up through no man’s land through her dancing with Steve in the village they help liberate. (I would cut all the action in the middle of her going through the town.) Because no man’s land is the one extreme and the dancing is the other end of the grand story I am trying to reach. Great romance and great action, but that action having a character-driven point of view.
What would have been the feedback, do you think?
I would probably have gotten the same feedback I always got back then, which was discomfort at the revelation of any honest emotion. Because that was what was going on. It was all about laughing and winking and joking.
How do you feel about your time at Cooper?
I have a massive affection for The Cooper Union. A huge affection. Because even despite what I just said, that was more about the tone of the art world at the time. Some of which I appreciate. But the tone of the art world was very “too cool for school.” And I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a war, if this is what we’re doing with our time. Who’s trying to do anything that matters or is sincere here?” It was the tone of the art world that I was very turned off by. But The Cooper Union was not teaching that. It was teaching fortitude of vision in a kind of brutal way sometimes. But I am deeply grateful for it. And I have deep affection for it. Because the truth is I think I honed my understanding of how serious your point of view and intentions need to be. And how well executed they need to be. And what good execution is. That all started there. So it is a huge gift to have been equipped with the training of an artist. Because that’s what it requires: training. You have to learn the trade of being an artist. And Cooper did that for me, tremendously. Such an inspiration.
You cite 1978’s Superman as a key inspiration—you saw it at age seven—but that film was rated PG. Wonder Woman is PG-13. Were you thinking about today’s seven- and eight-year-olds?
I think about it all the time. We live in a day and age where all the superhero movies have been PG-13 and not for kids at all. I actually went out of my way, within the context I am in—we are already set during World War I and the target audience for DC films was already very adult—but I went way out of my way to not be graphic. There is hinted sexuality. But that’s true of Superman as well. It’s actually a very adult film, Superman. There’s death and there’s talking about underwear. People getting buried under dirt. So I took my cues from Superman. Every parent has to choose for themselves. But tons of eight- and nine-year-olds have seen it and not blinked. I was always hoping I could move it as close to 13 as possible, because I knew that they would want to see it. But that was the world I came into.
The cultural context of the film’s release shifted dramatically with the outcome of the presidential election. Did it play a role in the shaping of the film?
It’s funny, when I went into making the film, obviously, I am super-aware that I am the first woman director of a major superhero release and this character hasn’t been filmed for a long time. But my artistic approach to this movie was definitely to tune all that out. The great victory is to say that this is not a “female” superhero. It’s a superhero, and you think about the fact that she’s a woman secondarily. And a victory for me too is I hope I will get to be just a director and not always be leading as a woman. That everything I do speaks for all women. It’s so limiting and slightly insulting. As if it’s literally because of my gender that I direct the way I direct, not as an individual. So that was how I approached it, but then as I am coming out into the world it’s shocking. God, we are standing at the center of a real issue.
Wonder Woman has been the focus of some gender-related internet kerfuffles. Feminists noted her lack of armpit hair as oppressively inauthentic, while a certain male demographic objected to a few “women-only” screenings of the film. What’s been your reaction?
My mom was a big feminist and it was a big topic of conversation in our house and one that I tried to tune out and leave behind with the idea that I was moving into a future where those things were accomplished. And I felt very confident going into the world, and luckily I benefited from it so that I felt anything was possible for me. But it is shocking to me that all these years later, it’s still such a big issue. I thought we were further along than this.
Your father was a Vietnam War veteran. Wonder Woman has a World War I setting. Did your father’s experience inform the movie?
It informs Steve Trevor’s character completely. My father became a fighter pilot because of his very clean, idealistic ambitions to save the world based on what he grew up seeing during World War II. Then my father ended up strafing villagers in Vietnam and having a lot of complex feelings about, “How did I become the bad guy?” So I think that was subtext in Steve Trevor, someone who has been around the block enough to know that they are not quite sure they believe anymore that you can really make a difference, you just have to try. I liked colliding that jaded, human experience with Wonder Woman’s naïve hopefulness. They both change each other. She learns from him that the world is much more complicated and he learns from her that you can still be a hero and save the day. My father was a big influence in that way.
There is a sequence early in the film where the young Diana learns the history of the Amazons through what looks like an Old Masters painting that becomes animated. How did you visualize that?
That was the hardest thing I had to do in the whole movie, in a way. This is very related to my Cooper Union years. When I started to approach how I was going to tell that sequence I loved the idea of this painting coming to life. But then, what is that painting going to look like? I know way too much. I have a huge pet peeve. The art in movies drives me crazy sometimes. It was a huge challenge thinking, “How am I going to make the painting in the first place and how am I going to find the right people to work on it?” There is an animation studio in Poland called Platige that had animated a painting, Battle of Grunwald. So I found them. Then I needed to find the painter. I found him in Canada, this young artist named Raphael Ochoa. A brilliant artist who also works digitally sometimes. He has an extremely strong understanding of Renaissance lighting. The painting is so vast that I had to get a bunch of other artists under him at the Aaron Sims Company. It was an incredible undertaking. It was all digital. That was the trick. A lot of people worked two years straight. It was one of the last things I approved.