'Wonder Woman' Cinematographer Matthew Jensen On The Film's Unexpected Emotional Reception [Interview]

Wonder Woman's overwhelmingly positive reception blew away the people involved in the DC Extended Universe film.  The movie's critical acclaim was not something that the cast and crew of Wonder Woman anticipated, nor the executives at Warner Bros., who hadn't even settled on plans for Wonder Woman 2 yet.

But, cinematographer Matthew Jensen told us in an interview, the reception was not a complete surprise. The movie was always going to be a success because it was a solid film, he told me. But what he and other male crew members of the film could not have forseen was the emotional resonance that women found in the film, many of them crying or tearing up at the soaring battle scenes.

In our interview, Jensen detailed what went into filming those action scenes, and what he thinks sets Wonder Woman apart from the other DCEU films.

Wonder Woman has been out for two weeks now and it has been getting phenomenal reviews. What was your reaction to the rave reviews for Wonder Woman?

The reaction has been incredible and the reviews have just been remarkable. I had a feeling we would get good reviews, not quite what we got. When I saw [Patty Jenkins'] director's cut, I thought, 'Wow this movie is good.' I'm pretty critical of everything I worked on, so for me to say that was a huge leap, so it just speaks to the testament of the job that Patty did. I think I've been most surprised by the emotional reaction, that people have been feeling to the movie, that they've really been moved by it, that part I did not anticipate at all. And it's the thing that I'm most pleased about.

Let's talk a bit about the Amazon battle scene. It's one of the scenes that has got a big emotional reactions: people are becoming emotional over it, etc. And it's an amazing scene to watch because there's been nothing quite like it, a huge army of women plowing down German soldiers. What was it like shooting that scene?

[Laughs] Shooting that scene went on for a long time because we were on a beach in Italy and it was over the course of a few weeks. It was a huge team effort between the first unit and the second unit to achieve everything. And the second unit was directed by Damon Carro who's a veteran of [Zack Snyder]'s movies. At times we were all together so we'd have six cameras shooting the action sequences, so that's a little bit of controlled chaos, running around making sure all the cameras are in the right position and for me, getting all the exposures right, communicating with all the camera operators. Then we would split off and the first unit would generally do [Connie Nielsen]'s fight scenes, [Robin Wright]'s fight scenes and [Gal Gadot], while the second unit was doing all the detail work, the stunt work that needed a wire rig or more of a stunt performers' athletic skills to pull off a maneuver. Or they would do a huge camera rig that would take hours to set up that we just didn't have time to do. It's just a huge effort logistically, technically, and requires everybody to work together.

So you focused on the first unit that shot Connie's, Robin's, and Gal's scenes?


Robin's performance really struck a chord with people in the few minutes that she had. When she was shooting her scenes, was it clear that she was going to be the star of this battle scene?

Robin is such a presence. And we knew that she was kind of the very important, emotional center to the first half of the movie because essentially she is teaching Diana to become the warrior that she is. Robin on set is so focused and intense. She's such a funny, lovely person but then she put on the headgear and the armor, and it was like I didn't want to mess with Robin at all. We had a feeling that when she rides through on the horse that, that was going to be a big moment.

The other scene that elicited tears from the audience: Diana striding onto No Man's Land, repelling bullets, essentially the scene where she becomes Wonder Woman. Was there an idea of how impactful this scene would become?

Patty and I were always in complete agreement of the importance of this scene. We realized that this is the major moment for Wonder Woman's coming out, when she reveals herself. Generally the superhero origin movies that have worked so well, there's this sense of anticipation that is created in the first half of the movie because you're waiting for the emergence of the superhero, so the movie can play with that tension. We know that was what we were trying to do. When she emerges from the trench and starts blocking bullets, we wanted there to be a release. We were trying to build to that moment and that was a huge thing we were trying to achieve in the filmmaking.

wonder womanA lot of people read a greater meaning from that scene. Not only was it about her becoming a superhero, but it was about her rejecting the limits of her gender.

I certainly didn't understand the emotional reaction on that level until we started getting the feedback. To me, what I connected in this scene, is that here is a person who used their ability to defy what is expected of them, and to do it for the right reasons. And to me, that's the power of that. Beyond there is a whole other level that I think woman are responding to, and that here is this woman who has been told to be quiet, to get in line, this is not why we're doing things, and she says, 'No, I'm going to do it my way.' I think that's what's connecting it with women, and that's something that I as a man could never really anticipate.

How much of the movie was improvised? I know the dialogue on the boat scene between Steve and Diana was mostly improvised by Chris Pine and Gal Gadot. Was there much freedom for improvisation?

There wasn't a ton of room, but whenever there was an opportunity, Patty tried to create a space for the actors so that they felt comfortable to do that. A lot of the times she would go off and work with them on the side while we were setting up, so we weren't really cognizant of the improv nature of a scene, it was just part of her process and working with the actors. So we could still stay on schedule and move this big machine forward.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

My favorite scene, it turned out really great in the cut, and it was a beautiful, magical couple of nights when we shot it, was the dance sequence with Diana and Steve in Veld with the snow falling. They were so great when they were shooting together on set, we had music on set and it was a beautiful night, even though it was really cold. There was a romance in the air when we were shooting it, and I think that carried across in the movie.

Wonder Woman No Man's LandSo it was one of the more intimate scenes that you connected to, rather than action.

Yeah, [with] action sequences, there's so many little pieces that it's sometimes hard to see them, get into the flow of them. When two charismatic people are relating, you can see that when you're looking through the lens, and that's the beauty of that kind of thing.

We talked a bit earlier about how some scenes gave different meanings or interpretations than you originally intended or thought of. I noticed some visual parallels to Disney movies in Wonder Woman, like the scene when Diana rescues Steve after his plane crashes in the water is similar to The Little Mermaid, for example, or other scenes that are like Tangled or Moana. There's been some comparisons to Diana as a Disney princess. Were any of those visual allusions on purpose?

That's so funny, all the movies that you mentioned, I hadn't seen any of them. If that comes across, I don't know if Patty thought about that in the writing stage, I don't know and I certainly wasn't privy to those conversations. The amazing thing about Diana's character that we always wanted to emphasize is that she's an optimist and she stands for good. She's refreshingly uncomplicated in that aspect, and we always wanted to emphasize that she has a strong moral center.

This isn't your first rodeo with the superhero movie business: You previously shot Chronicle and Fantastic Four. But I think we can say Wonder Woman is the brightest and most colorful of the superhero movies you've done. What went into the choice for Wonder Woman's color palette — especially since all the previous DC superhero movies were so notoriously dark?

I think it all comes down to what the story dictates. Wonder Woman is such a different character than all the DC characters and certainly different from the characters in the other movies that I did. So she's a brighter, more optimistic, sunnier character. And she comes from an island that's paradise. So that informs a lot of the color choices that we were trying to make. Themyscira, its color scheme arose naturally from the fact that we wanted the environment to be lush and green and beautiful.

Wonder Woman TV SpotAlthough Wonder Woman looks so different than DC movies, there's still a Zack Snyder-esque flair with the slow-motion, etc. Did you have to compromise those DC visual quirks with your and Patty's vision for the movie?

We were concerned with keeping the movie within certain aesthetic parameters. Patty is a fan of Zack's work, and his action stuff is just stellar and he has such a good grasp of when to use slow motion and when it will make an impact. And Patty saw the slow-motion as a chance to show Wonder Woman's grace, add sort of a balletic quality to the action sequences. So we use it to punctuate her ability and I think it ended up working up really well. We weren't trying to do anything, we were just trying to tell the story visually as best as we could.

Other than those visual quirks however, is there anything else tying Wonder Woman to the DC Extended Universe or is it just meant to be its own little corner?

We always viewed it as a standalone that's loosely connected to the other movies by the photograph. We saw it as essentially an origin film, like Batman Begins or Superman. We're doing this iconic character justice, we're giving her due with her movie, and luckily everyone at Warner Bros. and Patty, we were all in sync about that.

Patty Jenkins hasn't signed on for a sequel yet, but has expressed excitement about returning to Wonder Woman. Would you consider coming back for Wonder Woman 2 or other DC movies?

I would love to come back for the sequel or other DC movies, it's been a great experience. I'm hopeful and I think something will happen, but I haven't heard anything yet.