After the critical and box office success of 2017’s Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins had the freedom to do as ambitious a project as she desired. She took a surprising route by bringing her long-held passion project to life: the bristling TNT noir miniseries I Am the Night, which aired earlier this year, reuniting her with Wonder Woman star Chris Pine.
Taking place in and around 1960s L.A., I Am the Night tells the interlocking stories of Fauna Hodel (India Eisley) and Jay Singletary (Chris Pine). At the beginning of the six-part miniseries, Fauna believes herself to be the biracial daughter of Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks) but soon discovers truths — racially and beyond — about her parentage, including possibly being a child of incest involving George Hodel, a gynecologist with artistic aspirations who may be the real Black Dahlia killer. Jay Singletary, meanwhile, is a scuzzy Los Angeles–based loser with a dark streak of bad luck and addiction whose career fell into the gutter after going after Hodel for his criminal activities. In the stories of these disparate people — an abusive doctor, a downtrodden journalist, and a young girl coming of age against the racial strife of the 1960s Watts riots — I Am the Night builds into a fascinatingly complex, stunningly performed, sun-drenched reconsideration of noir mores with a modern flair. I recently spoke to Jenkins about crafting the visual landscape of the series with two other directors, the generational power of noir stories, and why Chris Pine is so good at playing losers.
I want to ask about the other directors that were chosen for the project alongside yourself, because you establish in the first two episodes a really rich and fascinating world. It’s particularly strong in how it takes our expectations of what a noir looks like and subverts them.
Thank you for that! Thank you! That’s literally what we were doing, but nobody ever says it in that way, so I couldn’t appreciate it more.
I especially loved seeing Carl Franklin’s episodes. I’m such a fan of his work in Devil in a Blue Dress and One False Move, and I’ve enjoyed the directorial work that I Am the Night’s third director, Victoria Mahoney, has done on shows like You and Queen Sugar. Why did you feel that Victoria and Carl made sense for this world that you established?
This was a story I had wanted to do throughout the years, so I thought I was going to be the one to do all of it. Chris and I were getting really excited about it, but when scheduling started to look the way it was, it was heartbreaking that you can’t do all the episodes. But the mere existence of Carl Franklin made that slightly more complicated for me because I love Carl. Devil in a Blue Dress was groundbreaking and set the stage for a story like this to even be told. I kept saying, “If I have to go but I can get Carl Franklin … it’s not better than getting to do them myself, but it’s almost as great.” Here’s the other interesting thing: I sought him out, and when I told him the story, his jaw dropped and he’s like, “I optioned a different person’s version of that same story!”
So it was going to be just Carl and I, but when Carl hurt his leg and he couldn’t get working quickly, we wanted to look for another director to fill the middle two slots. Victoria was a little bit outside the box because she didn’t have the same history or body of work, but I was just really excited by the potential of bringing this point of view of a young, energized filmmaker. This is really Fauna’s story, so I was drawn to having a woman who could continue to carry that story forward, even though I’m open to any right person directing anything.
Well, I think that was a good choice because it feels like a very cohesive body of work, while also leaving space for individual visual choices. That’s another thing I want to ask you about: how the visual landscape of the series plays around with noir expectations. I was especially intrigued in location choices because there’s really interesting class commentary spoken through visual decisions. Can you talk a little bit about creating the look for the series?
We went into this thinking, We’re doing a kind of story that is very known for the tone of noir. And it really lends itself to being noir. But each generation that’s done noir has brought its own new thing to the party — Carl did, Chinatown did — so I thought, What’s ours? When we first started doing it, there was an assumption that we’d do shadows and darkness, but I thought, That’s not exciting. That’s just people mimicking what they’ve seen before. I found myself much more drawn to the idea of, How do we stay true to that spirit of noir, but do it in a completely different way? I started thinking of Hitchcock, William Eggleston, and photographers working in that period of time who, instead of going black-and-white, went really colorful but in a very limited palette. You’re capturing the tension and the withholding of noir in a new formula.
I have always had, in all of my work, a pretty voracious desire for big, ambitious places to shoot. The Sowden House is incredible. The fact that we got to shoot there is mind-blowing. But then, in [Hodel’s ex-wife] Corinna’s house, it’s all lush and over-the-top with all hipster artists of the era, and yet Corinna herself was not all that wealthy. Instead of being like, “Oh, it’s just a rich person’s house,” it’s actually a not-that-rich person’s house who’s living up to being a rich person who esteems art above all things. Versus, you know, the house Fauna grew up in, where her mother doing her best to hold it together in all the hours that she can. Trying to capture all those character details in locations and then trying to make those locations as visually stunning and as participatory in the story as possible is something I really care about.
How did you balance the needs of the story, with regards to how Chris Pine’s character is a fictional creation but Fauna was a real person?
Fauna’s story is really the backbone of the series. Somebody sets out to figure out who they are and this is what they find out? They find out the most unbelievable, mind-blowing series of revelations, and who they are is at the very core of the biggest lies and crimes in Hollywood history? But more interesting is the race and class and gender dynamics all over. Jay was a solution to telling many men’s stories who were involved with the real story — those who tried to tell the story who got shut down, and those who are just as beholden to the world of definitions as George Hodel is. Jay and George Hodel are desperate to be “great artists,” and at what cost? Whereas one is willing to do these horrific things, the other one has a journey from being a failure as an artist to seeing a chance at redeeming himself if he only becomes a terrible human being. He doesn’t make that choice and he becomes not a great man, but a good man, you know?
I really feel his character echoes one played by Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. That character wasn’t a journalist and he doesn’t get a redemption story, but his mixture of dark witticisms, self-hate, and melancholy can also be seen in Chris Pine’s performance. How did you craft this character with Chris, and what do you think he brings to this role? I’m going to be honest, I don’t think a lot of white male actors are willing to play losers as well as he is, and he’s great at it!
Oh, I agree! I couldn’t agree with you more. A lot of people are afraid to be anything other than cool and heroic, and interestingly, it stands in the way of them being Humphrey Bogart or Harrison Ford. As long as they’re beholden to being cool or safe or heroic, they’re not going there. Chris is not trying to be that guy. Chris is a deeply interesting and complex artist who happens to be a real leading man as well, so the world doesn’t always ask him to do more. But he was so willing to jump in and try to play these other dimensions. Chris brought an unbelievable skill set and thoughts about the character right off the bat. I just tried to be the eyes who held it in that place until he got his bearings, and then he took it and ran with it.
Another thing I loved was the story’s deliberate pace. You’ve worked in both film and TV, so can you talk about the difference in pacing for a limited series versus film, especially when you’re doing films as big as Wonder Woman 1984 after shooting I Am the Night?
I don’t want things to be slow. I never go out of my way to make them slow. But great tension in some of the greatest films that I know of, they come from holding the tension and pulling you forward. I’ve watched Hitchcock with my son when he was 7 years old, and he didn’t know what the hell was going on — at 7!
Which Hitchcock was it?
We watched Vertigo! I wasn’t trying to be cool or interesting, but he actually sat there, leaning forward, absolutely rapt, and he kept saying, “What’s going on, Mommy? What’s going on?” And I said, “Exactly. Exactly. You don’t know what the fuck is going on, but you can tell that there’s a sure hand pulling you there.”
If you have the goods, then you need to set up the right world where you’re pulling the audience forward and sucking them in. Rushing isn’t doing you any favors. If you’re confident in your story, you don’t want to be slow, but you want to pull in just the right place and not be answering questions.
I know you can’t talk about Wonder Woman 1984, but let me ask a roundabout question. I’m a big fan of the character of Cheetah and I’ve been rereading Greg Rucka’s 2016 Wonder Woman run that delves into that character’s story. Were there any comics you read to understand Cheetah or decide what to do with Wonder Woman 1984?
I didn’t pick one particular run, but I tried to take them all in. I tried to look at what the core root is and bring that to life. I’m so excited for you to see it because I think you’ll be very happy. I’m extremely happy with it.