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Talking How and Why WONDER WOMAN Made Such an Impact with DP Matt Jensen

Admit it: In the days since DC’s best reviewed film smashed into theaters, you’ve been curious to know what it was like to work on the set of Wonder Woman. What with its visual flare–those beautiful Italian cliffs!–and its litany of powerful women, plus a central hero filled with love for humanity and the utmost earnestness, not to mention all the firsts it represents in so many ways, how could you not be? And, if you’re someone who was profoundly moved by certain aspects of the film, and even by its mere existence, you may be touched to learn about some of the men on set.

If you weren’t aware, Hollywood is an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. But so much of this film exists outside the typical Hollywood field of vision: it’s a female-fronted superhero film (with a huge budget, no less) directed by a woman. And helping usher in this vision, quite literally, was Director of Photography, Matt Jensen. This veteran of such productions as Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan, and both of Josh Trank‘s features—Chronicle and Fantastic Four—knows what it takes to bringing epic, fantastical tales to life. And, working closely with director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg, he helped shape the visual language from which Diana Prince would emerge—one that’s, arguably, changed the ways of the DC Extended Universe for good.


“Coming up with the language of the film was not only a tremendous challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity,” Jensen explained. “I had a lot of fun with adding just the back and forth of trying to pinpoint what exactly it was that we were going for, [and Jenkins] was great about giving me big ideas. Then that would lead to me going in certain directions, and then we would get into the minutia of how we were going to achieve those big ideas. We looked at a lot of photographs, we looked at movies, we looked at commercials, we looked at painters. We looked at everything we could that might spark an idea, and then I did a lot of testing of different looks on things.”

When Patty Jenkins was announced as the director for Diana of Themyscira’s big screen debut, the dubious voiced concerns over handing the reins to a woman some folks deemed “largely untested.” After all, she’d only directed one film and several episodes of television—never mind that the film she wrote and directed was Monster, which had garnered endless critical praise and an Oscar for its star, Charlize Theron.

Jensen did not have those doubts.


“Patty is a veteran,” he said matter-of-factly. “She’s made a movie before, she’s done a lot of pilots. In many ways—at least for the last couple of movies that I’ve made—she has more experience.”

The director quickly proved to be the sort of creative force Jensen would revel in working with. “What I loved about working with Patty is that we were always talking about character and we were always talking about story advancement,” he said. “Instead of talking about what’s cool or what hasn’t been done, which is really abstract, Patty is always coming at it from the approach of: What would the character do? What is the emotional impact that we’re trying to make here? How does this shot advance the story? Those questions make the look and how you’re going to achieve it easier to answer, right? Because it becomes much more about pragmatism than some abstract notion of what is cool.”

That said, the notions of cool and pragmatism converged in the film’s fight scenes, which many women say brought them to tears (or made them ready to fight) because it was the first time they’d seen a female character portrayed in such a powerful way. “They’re the Amazons,” explained Jensen, “They’re badass and they’re protecting their island. We [were] just going to make sure that they’re a bunch of badass warriors protecting their island. I think, to me, they were just a group of warriors and we were trying to all make them look strong and capable and athletic.”

The goal was athleticism and strength that felt natural to the Amazonian characters and that didn’t make Diana or her crew seem like a bunch of Mary Sues—a term often lofted upon female protagonists whose abilities are viewed (usually by men) as unearned (see: most conversations about Rey in The Force Awakens).

For Jensen it was simply a matter of logic. “In order for you to understand Diana, you had to understand the culture that she comes from. And she was trained by the greatest warrior of all time, Antiope [Robin Wright]. We had some of the best athletes in the world on that beach. Look at [these women] compared to the crew. We were all a bunch of doughy crew guys; all those women could kill us. So we just got out of their way.”


But it was in the construction of those scenes that the team affected the audience most of all–by looking at the Amazons as strong human warriors: adept at what they do, powerful and confident in their abilities, and, for the most part, largely un-sexualized. This is, frankly, no small feat when it comes to portraying women fighting. For every staid stance in Wonder Woman, every gigantic leap from atop shields and boulders and buildings, there are approximately 10,000,000 examples of boob-jiggling giggle-fighting meant to titillate rather than inspire. It’s the hyper-sexualized norm for most female fighters on screen.

Thankfully, “There was no difference in how we approached it and how I approached fight scenes in Game of Thrones, or any of the other things I’ve done,” said Jensen.

Arguably the most evocative part of the film was the scene in No Man’s Land, where Diana rises out of the trenches, self-assured in her mission and ready to take on a host of firepower. It was one that the studio wanted to cut, but, thankfully, they were convinced to do otherwise by passionate plea from Jenkins.

And though Jensen “wasn’t privy to a lot of the conversations [Jenkins] had in terms of pitching it,” he was “really involved with Patty and Bill Westenhofer, the effects supervisor, talking about the shots and what we needed to get her out of the trench.”


“Patty and I talked a lot about this moment as being an opportunity to reveal Wonder Woman for the first time. We knew we wanted there to be cheers,” Jensen said. “We knew we wanted people to have an emotional response and for there to be a sense of relief–this hero is emerging, this hero is going to do something, this hero is going to change the course of the way. Everything we did was trying to have the viewer have that emotional experience.” He admitted, “The first time I saw it I got chills.”

He went on to add, “I thought, ‘Wow, if I’m getting this reaction now I think people are really going to respond to it.'”

And respond they did. Taking even a cursory look at the internet, it’s not hard to see the universal catharsis women felt when witnessing these seemingly pragmatic decisions brought to life. So much so, it’s hard to comprehend how folks working on it didn’t anticipate it. But it admittedly stunned Jensen.

“I certainly never had a sense of that when were shooting that this… that it was going to have this impact,” Jensen said. “I didn’t think about the Germans all being men and the Amazons being all women… and that sort of clash. I didn’t think about how that would ripple through the culture or how it would affect women specifically.”

He continued, “I’ve heard from people that I haven’t heard from in years—that part has been completely surprising and fantastic, [and] the public reaction has just been nothing short of amazing: I’m blown away and I continue to be blown away by the impact that this movie is having on the culture.”

Although Jensen believed in the movie from the get-go, a lot of the aftermath did surprise him. “What I didn’t anticipate in terms of their reaction is how it seems to touch on a larger need right now for women to feel a sense of power and release,” he said. “Look, I get it emotionally … I respond to it because, to me, I think I always respond to a hero defying the conventional wisdom, or the odds or being told you can’t do something, and, well, I’ve got the ability and the strength and I’m going to do what I want to do. To me that’s what being a hero is, so I respond to it on that level.”


It is interesting to see how radically different we approach the portrayal of male and female characters, moreover the different things they elicit from different audience demographics. A lot of that comes with the language on the page and how it’s interpreted vis a vis what societal standards ascribe thereto.

“So much of the language that’s in the script does affect the choices that you make,” explained Jensen. “There was nothing in how Diana was described that would clue you into any other way [to portray her] other than that she is what I just described to you earlier. I think all the credit should be given to Patty and Allan for taking that approach [and] I think the fact that we’re talking about this is a credit to Patty’s viewpoint.”

Perhaps the easiest way to coalesce what is happening here is to discuss the female gaze and the importance of being able to see a woman’s point of view (gaze) rendered writ large on the screen, intended not just for female audiences, but for male, too. Jensen, having gone to film school, is no stranger to the term.


“Look,” he said, “I was raised by a single mother, my wife is a writer with a very successful career in television, and we have a daughter, so these are all issues that have been with me a long time and continue to be with me. Certainly I remember debating a lot of these ideas about the male gaze in film school. … [It] was a conversation we were having a lot.”

He went on: “I used to do a lot of critical studies reading particularly a great critic, Robin Wood, who used to write about movies from a political standpoint and how a lot of the movies of the ’80s—particularly the movies that I was raised on—are a part of the cinema of repression. That if you really just looked at some of the biggest box office movies of that time what values they advocate, it’s bleak. It’s even movies that everybody loves.”

Jensen admitted he’s “tried to be cognizant of [that] in terms of the projects that I take,” but felt “fortunate in this case, in that there wasn’t a lot of discussion between Patty and me about that thing in specific, but I just knew I was aligned with somebody who thought very similarly and had a similar sense of responsibility in this.”


“This is why I got into film,” he added. “It’s to have this hopefully lasting impact. You want your movies to be talked about. You want them to be debated. You want them to open up discussion in the culture. I firmly believe this, that mainstream movies—pop culture movies—have the ability to open up these kinds of conversations.”

“So often it’s not used to its potential because everybody’s too afraid about merchandising and losing the widest possible audience,” Jensen continued, “or losing an audience that is mostly male and under the age of 30.” Thankfully, Wonder Woman had other priorities on its mind.

Wonder Woman is in theaters now. What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below.

Images: Warner Bros. 

Alicia Lutes is the managing editor of Nerdist and creator/host of Fangirling. Find her on Twitter if you want!

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