The latest DC Universe animated feature, "Wonder Woman," is already receiving heaps of praise, in no small thanks to the work of screenwriter Michael Jelenic ("Batman: The Brave and the Bold"), director Lauren Montgomery ("Superman: Doomsday") and executive producer Bruce Timm ("Justice League Unlimited").
Before the New York Comic Con premiere of the film, CBR News participated in a set of three roundtable interviews with "Wonder Woman's" creative team, where they discussed the Amazon warrior's solo feature debut and much more.
In this first installment, we present our chat with screenwriter Michael Jelenic.
Michael, you wrote the screenplay for "Wonder Woman." What's it like bringing this iconic character into a full-length feature film?
You know, Wonder Woman is a tough character. There isn't necessarily a definitive version, although a lot of fans will argue that they have their own sort of definitive version. Does she fly or does she use the invisible jet? Is she as strong as Superman or is she as strong as the other Amazons? There's sort of a checklist I have to go down to determine what her character is. That was a bit challenging.
Mostly, I wanted to go for all the iconic things that the general public [would recognize]. I wanted this to be a Wonder Woman that would be accessible not just to hardcore fans but people in general. So you put in the lasso of truth and the invisible jet.
By the way, I know the flying thing is a huge deal [with fans], but she either flies an invisible jet or she [herself] flies. Just from a storytelling point of view, the invisible jet is a little bit more interesting and iconic, so that's sort of why I went in that direction. And the flying thing wasn't just my decision, by the way. I don't mind that she doesn't fly, but apparently I should! [Laughs]
How did you feel, being a man writing a screenplay for a female iconic figure? Did you feel like you really had to speak for women a little bit?
I think I worried more - I always say, if you write Batman and people don't like your interpretation of the character, then you just suck as a writer. If you write Wonder Woman and they don't like your interpretation, then you're sexist! Very daunting. I read the message boards and it's like, some people think it's a deliberate choice that she doesn't fly, a deliberate choice to depower her. That's really not our point of view. I will say that ["Wonder Woman" comics writer] Gail Simone was involved early on and she sort of set a lot of character personalities and character relationships and I used her early work as a blueprint. She helped me as far as getting in my head the voices of certain characters.
As far as writing for women - I think if you know specifically what the character's motivations are, then it's not so difficult. I think if you watch the movie, all the major characters have specific motivations and you know what's pushing them forward. That's sort of what guides them forward.
What do you think makes Wonder Woman an iconic character?
That's a tough question. Obviously, different parts of her fanbase sort of find her iconic for different reasons. I think the reason she's sort of relatable for some people is the sense of someone isolated from the outside world. As teenagers, we're all sort of kept in that isolated world and as we grow up we go out to the bigger world, and want to make that sort of impact. That's sort of what I was looking at with Wonder Woman. That's the one thing I found sort of relatable about her. Obviously I think she's such an icon because she's, you know, she's so revolutionary when she came out. First superhero female, you know?
What was the starting point for this movie? Was it the "going to the big city" idea, or was it looking at someone who's out of their own time?
It's kind of like a coming-of-age story. Also, the more obvious one is the fish-out-of-water story. That's the other part I focused on. [In preparing for the film], one of the movies I watched like 20 times was "Ninotchka," a 1939 Russian movie. It's about a Russian communist coming to Paris and there's a sort of culture clash. It's a very charming movie and I thought there was something to take from that and apply to the broader "Wonder Woman" story.
Wonder Woman is one of the DC characters that shows her religious faith. How did that influence your writing?
I think there's not a whole lot of that in the movie. We set up in the movie that she's sort of a gift from the gods. That's what she is. Her mother suffered all these terrible things and because she suffered this, she's given the gift of Diana, who is supposed to heal her society. In that aspect, you can do the sort of little Jesus parallels and whatnot. We don't really have her praying, "By Hera!" That's not the story in this version.
To what extent has this version of Wonder Woman been influenced by other female heroines introduced after Wonder Woman? A comparison might be Xena. Indeed, the marketing for this Wonder Woman is in the "warrior princess" vein.
I've never actually seen an episode of "Xena," to be perfectly honest. I saw on the message boards that people might think that this isn't "Wonder Woman," it's "Xena." That did not cross our minds at any point. She's got super-strength, has almost all of her iconic tools. I just approached the character from an individual aspect - what's her sort of motivation, why does she want to leave Themyscira, what's her goal and what's her character's standing?
I would say as far as other female characters, I wanted her to remain more feminine than, say, ["Tomb Raider."] She's a girl, you can relate to her on that level. She's not just an awesome warrior - she's a **female** awesome warrior. I wanted that to be clear.
How would you compare the long form of this animated feature writing to shorter form, such as your work on "Batman: The Brave and the Bold?"
The differences between them are huge. It is so much harder to do a long form script. A typical Saturday morning cartoon is 30 pages, and this script was probably 105. There are a lot more things you have to keep track of. Shorter form, you have three things, you set them up and they pay off in pretty short order. But here, you have more characters, more character arcs, more plot points. Also, second acts are really tough to write. What are they doing in the second act? Most people know how to start a story and end a story but the middle of a story - how do you keep that interesting? It's a bit daunting.
How were you first exposed to Wonder Woman? Did you read the character growing up?
The character I read as a kid was Batman. I only knew Wonder Woman if she was appearing in a Batman comic, so I'm sure I never got a true sense of her. I basically came into the project not knowing that much about her. If you'd asked me where she lived, I probably couldn't have said "Themyscira" or been able to pronounce it. [Laughs] So I worked with Bruce [Timm] and also James Tucker on "Brave and the Bold," and James is just a huge Wonder Woman fan and was very jealous that he couldn't work on the project. So I'd talk to those guys and people at DC and ask, "What would you consider her character to be?" So they guided me a lot. And I used the "Ultimate Guide to Wonder Woman" which I believe to be the canon. [Laughs] Anything it said in there showed up [in the movie]!
The first three DC DVD features were extremely successful. Does it put any pressure on you to have to keep it up?
As a professional writer, I have so much anxiety about pleasing every single person. I want the Wonder Woman fans to like this character, and I also want the people selling these DVDs to feel like this was successful. I feel a lot of pressure from all those certain aspects. I'm obsessed. I want this to be like "Doomsday," "Gotham Knight" and "New Frontier." There's some talk about her being a female hero, that she doesn't sell as well. But I think if I did my job well, it will [sell well] and if I didn't, it won't - and I'll take the blame.
How was the back-and-forth with director Lauren Montgomery and executive producer Bruce Timm?
There's definitely back-and-forth between us. I like to push things in the writing. One scene that's not in the movie is an extended fight scene that ends up in a strip club. I thought that was funny and ironic, and Lauren and Bruce disagreed. They thought it was borderline sexist and I can see their point, but that was the point of the scene - address that sort of sexist [thing]. You've got a woman fighting in a costume that sort of reminds me of a costume you'd see in a "gentleman's club." DC thought it was fine, I thought it was a funny scene. It's in the novelization, by the way, but it's not in the movie. I thought maybe I was pushing it too far there.
Lauren helped me write a scene. There's a scene in a hospital that I wrote and it was a little sloppy and she was like, "it's still not working for me." So I told her to take a pass. She wrote it, and I did a pass on her pass. And I think it worked okay. So it's always collaborative.
You mentioned earlier that female characters are sometimes harder to sell. Why do you think it took so long for a Wonder Woman film to appear? What about her makes it so hard to sell to an audience?
The reason why Batman has a cartoon series on every single day of the week is because boys buy boy toys. That's what sells the show. Toy company says, "Here's some money, here's a show we can sell toys on." Boys don't buy girls' toys, unfortunately. And girls don't buy girls' toys either, apparently, they'll buy the Batman figure instead of Wonder Woman. From a merchandising standpoint, it's a lot easier to make money, licensing-wise. If you're going to spend a lot of money, you want to do what you know is going to make the money. People get very uncomfortable stepping outside of the box.
I think with this "Wonder Woman," they find that there's definitely an interest in the character, they think it's going to do well, but I think... they want to try it out on the DVD animation before [moving to a live-action film or series]. Hopefully, this does well so that it shows there's an audience for the character.
Other than discovering Wonder Woman, were there any other characters that you started to write who surprised you?
She has a really great cast of characters. Hippolyta was really a lot of fun to write. She has an interesting point of view. She's practically almost Wonder Woman, but she isn't, so I think that's kind of interesting. Why isn't she Wonder Woman? She has to be a little bit flawed. And Steve Trevor, he's fun. He's a character I ended up writing in a certain voice that I enjoy. A lot of the characters are a lot more serious around Wonder Woman, but Steve Trevor stirs things up. He's a flawed character but he [becomes] worthy of the love of Wonder Woman. That was enjoyable. And [voice actor] Nathan Fillion is a genius.
Really, the cast is so much better than we deserve. Alfred Molina, Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Rosario Dawson playing Artemis, Virginia Madsen - they're all amazing. A lot of times you try to get a big star to sell the product and their performance is so-so because they don't have any experience in front of a microphone. But all of them are amazing. Oliver Platt is great in it. I'm glad that my name is somehow associated with theirs. I pretend to know them to my friends. "Rosario Dawson? Yeah, we're friends." [Laughs]
Is it nice to know that working with Bruce Timm is going to get the best out of you?
This is my first time working with Bruce and he's hard to please. He's sort of stern. He'll never, ever, ever tell you if he likes something you did. "Did you like the script?" He'll just shrug. He'll tell you if he doesn't like it, but that's the closest thing to a compliment, so you try and work extra hard to make sure he's happy.
"Wonder Woman" goes on sale March 3 on DVD and Blu-Ray.