A Tuesday night in December at London’s massive Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden complex, Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine are nearing the end of their third collaboration as director and actor. It’s one of Pine’s final days of shooting on “Wonder Woman 1984,” the breathlessly anticipated superhero sequel due out next year, and Jenkins, perched on a couch in her trailer, is trying to convince her star to stay a few more days for the wrap party. “We should talk about Saturday,” she insists.
“You see people drunk,” Pine says, “who you don’t want to see drunk.”
Jenkins laughs. “You’ll be too busy carrying me!”
In their work together — two “Wonder Woman” films, the first released in 2017, and the new TNT limited series “I Am the Night” (premiering Jan. 28) — Jenkins has seemed to be perpetually inviting Pine to the party, helping one of his generation’s leading matinee idols bring out a more rumpled, fractious, freaky side that’s impossible to express in most big-budget cinema. But, more in “I Am the Night” than in their first work together, the two are lifting each other.
Since “Wonder Woman” hit screens, Jenkins has emerged from plain sight as one of Hollywood’s top populist mythmakers, a helmer with a deep understanding of how to use our collective reference points to illuminate brand-new tales that feel as though they’d always been with us. What’s more, she’s refreshingly unpretentious in her approach to her career, attracting collaborators like Pine who are willing to take chances with their personae in service of a good story.
On “I Am the Night,” the actor plays Jay Singletary, a disgraced journalist who sees a dubious path to career redemption in the case of young Fauna (India Eisley, in a role based on the real-life memoirist Fauna Hodel, Jenkins’ longtime friend). Jay intervenes in Fauna’s quest to figure out her true identity, and her ties to a man suspected of being the Black Dahlia killer, in order to shore up his fragmented career. The series represents another opportunity for Jenkins, who directed the first two episodes, to flex her muscles with a story that feels both archetypal and bleeding-edge, and for Pine to play a character who looks like something other than a typical underwritten leading-man part, to find a sleazy edge that can be lacking in paragon-of-judgment Capt. James T. Kirk of “Star Trek.” As the actor, who also executive produced “I Am the Night,” explains, “I found Patty at a time in my life when I was searching for deeper resonance with the material. It’s about witnessing and being witnessed. As a friend, Patty does that, and as a creator she helps me see aspects of myself that I usually don’t notice.” TNT is hoping that millions will tune in to see those aspects too.
Set in the bustling American West of 1965, “I Am the Night” begins as a story split in two unequal halves before merging into one complete, if warped, picture. At the center of the tale, at first, is Fauna, a schoolgirl haunted both by the sense that her personal history is something other than what she’d been raised with and by the growing hostility of her mother. The chance to discover more about her origins represents a meaningful step toward independence. Emerging from the margins is Jay, a onetime rising star on the newspaper scene who’s been reduced to “gotcha” snapshots of powerful men behaving badly to fuel his chemical appetites. “Fauna’s the young, naive character hoping to be somebody in the world,” Jenkins says. “He’s somebody who knows he’ll never be anybody in the world and trying to come to terms with that. Where do you go from there? How do you crawl yourself out? What wakes you back up to find the fighter?”
As the pair’s quests for the truth — one built on self-discovery, one on self-interest — intertwine, Jay emerges as the sort of complicated, tormented hero who plays better perhaps over six episodes than a single feature. It’s a role Pine, who combines popcorn appeal with a brooding inner hurt, was built to handle. “He’s this incredibly deep and interesting person,” Jenkins says, “but one who also has the skill set to give you something stupid and superficial that we want. If you say, ‘I want you to sing backwards and then show me the inside of a person who’s facing their life,’ then Chris is like, ‘OK!’”
There’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum around the creation of “I Am the Night” as director-star collaboration. To hear Jenkins and her husband, the writer and “Night” creator and showrunner Sam Sheridan, tell it, the addition of Pine, as a character composited from several real-life figures, made the long-gestating project — one that Jenkins had pitched to networks, with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios as a would-be producing partner — come together.
Pine’s involvement was, in part, premised on the fact that Jenkins was attached to direct. “I can entrust Patty with what should be one of the genetic pieces of directing, which is understanding another human’s psychology,” Pine says. “She is keyed in to me in a certain way where she can use the trip wires and pull that switch and throw some spice here, some pepper there, and I can go off and do what I do.” What’s a somewhat surprising move for both — a basic-cable limited series for a red-hot director who’s just found her footing in features and a movie star who doesn’t yet need to pivot to TV — is an expression of mutual trust.
That trust stems in part from her ability to see aspects of him that hadn’t been exploited to their fullest before “Wonder Woman,” the side Sheridan calls “the secret man under a man. Chris is sort of like a noir character himself.” That side can express itself in breezy jadedness — as in “Wonder Woman,” in which Pine’s Steve Trevor spouts wisecracks that end up revealing his broken faith in humanity. Similarly, Jay holds viewers’ attention with his hunger for just one break to go his way after years of humiliation. This is someone, we sense, who would do practically anything to get ahead; by the show’s penultimate episode, he has.
Bringing out all Pine can do, the actor freely admits, requires a director who’s willing to assert herself in the face of star power.
“I’m certainly not the greatest actor in the world, but I consider myself someone who has a nice big tool bag,” Pine says. “And I really like to be directed. [On ‘I Am the Night’] I had very little time to prep, and I said, ‘Look, Patty, give me the steel pillars of this guy, and I’ll start throwing paint on.”
The pair’s relationship was forged in meetings on the set of “Wonder Woman,” in which Pine would end up being indulged — at least a little — given that, despite his high profile, he did not have top billing. He was, if not a supporting actor, there to be supportive to Gal Gadot’s superhero. To some degree, the same is true of his “I Am the Night” character, who’s assisting Fauna and whose journey exists in the context of her finding herself.
|“He’s this incredibly deep and interesting person,” Jenkins says of Pine. “If you say, ‘I want you to sing backwards and then show me the inside of a person who’s facing their life,’ then Chris is like, ‘OK!’”
Barry J Holmes
“As a leading man, it’s the male actor’s job in the pieces that I do to inhabit the role or do the job that Gal did so wonderfully in ‘Wonder Woman,’” Pine says. “Being in the film and supporting a woman doing that job is kind of a dance between ego and soul. I’m not too proud to admit it and say that at times, I’d have 30-minute conversations with Patty; I’d look at her, and she was wonderfully patient. I’d realize it had abso-f—ing-lutely nothing to do with me.”
Jenkins laughs: “It never had nothing to do with you. Never.”
“But as a man and an actor and an ego-ful person,” Pine continues, “you really make peace with that and have a sense of humor about it and say, well, screw it then — let’s just go to this party and do this thing that should be done and fulfill the job as presented to you by your general.”
The ability to compromise — to let go of what Pine calls “the 8-year-old in there saying, ‘When’s my turn?!’” and accept work that’s richer than a traditional movie-star part precisely because it’s not the starring role in a big-budget production — yielded a performance rich in nuance as well as a collaboration that’s brought him yet more exciting work.
“There’s something that happens to certain good-looking leading people,” Jenkins says, “and that’s not to say they’re all this way; they can get asked to do some very simple things as a result of that. I think Chris is incredibly good-looking, but he’s also a million other things. Particularly the more we’ve gotten to know each other, the more it’s like: You’re those things. But also incredibly funny and incredibly deep and incredibly complex and incredibly willing to go all of these different places.”
Pine says he now feels “more at ease playing someone like Jay than I would otherwise. I’ve never been Thor, never will be. I think any actor would say this — that the complexity and the shadow is as vital and important to —”
Jenkins cuts him off. “They don’t all feel like that. They super don’t. That’s why Chris is so great; they super don’t.”
Few directors would use the time after their smash hit ($821.8 million at the global box office) to do much more than a victory lap, let alone pitch and execute a limited series. But immediately following “Wonder Woman,” Jenkins made use of a slender window — one that she calls “a little tighter than we wanted it to be” — to return to television, where she worked in the years following her acclaimed first feature, “Monster.” In the interval since she first pitched “I Am the Night” with Harpo, the limited series form had flourished, with success stories including HBO’s “True Detective,” FX’s “American Horror Story,” and TNT’s “The Alienist.” That last show — which garnered strong ratings as well as nominations for best limited series at the Emmys and the Golden Globes — was a central part of a long-term effort to evolve the Turner cabler from its recent history of older-skewing procedurals like “Rizzoli & Isles.”
“We want to cultivate an audience of people that love closed-ended mysteries, because that’s a specific kind of show,” Sarah Aubrey, executive vice president for programming at TNT, says. “Mysteries beg to end.”
But Jenkins’ involvement made “I Am the Night” an easier greenlight than the equivalent from a director who hadn’t just redefined a comic-book movie subgenre. Recalling her first meeting with Jenkins and Sheridan just after the release of “Wonder Woman,” Aubrey says, “If they had said she wanted to direct the phone book, I probably would have said yes. I just believe in Patty so much.”
“Patty is keyed in to me in a way where she can use the trip wires and pull that switch, and I can go off and do what I do.”
Aubrey cites not just Jenkins’ name and reputation but her grit; speaking of Jenkins and Sheridan, she says, “their passion about [the project] and the amount of time they’d lived with it and their determination to get it through made it a no-brainer to say yes, absolutely, and how fast can we do this before we have to do the next ‘Wonder Woman.’” The quick-change nature of the two enterprises — shifting from mega-budget, heavily leveraged superhero filmmaking to the more financially constrained but perhaps more freewheeling world of cable TV — suits a creative whose restlessness keeps her pushing forward.
For instance, when “Monster,” won Charlize Theron an actress Oscar, Jenkins says the reception left her slightly unnerved.
“There was something obviously 90% amazing,” she says, “but the 10% that was not amazing was, whatever I do next is my follow-up to ‘Monster.’ Yeah, OK! But what if I just want to work? I can’t do anything now?”
Jenkins began directing television — a path that included episodes of “Arrested Development” and “Entourage” and pilots including her Emmy-nominated work on “The Killing” — as a way to experiment. “I might want to try doing long lenses. I might want to mess with a new thing. I started doing TV a little bit before everyone else because I was like, I want to do both,” she says. “I want to have a place where I can mess around and learn skills, and I want to have a place where I make my films. And I use them for two different reasons.” The birth of her son delayed her return to moviemaking: “Wonder Woman,” 14 years after “Monster,” was her second feature.
“I feel like a feature filmmaker insofar as I like to have a beginning, middle and end,” Jenkins says. “I find having a small piece in something that goes on forever to be less satisfying for me, if I’m only directing an episode.”
But with “I Am the Night,” Jenkins, as director of the first two episodes and executive producer, set the show’s vision and creative agenda. (Victoria Mahoney and Carl Franklin helm the other four installments.) And she uses the show to accomplish the same thing she did with both her Charlize Theron serial-killer movie and her Gal Gadot idealist vision.
“There’s something so flashy that it’s ticking all the boxes of big story,” she says. With that accomplished, it’s possible to drill down to subtler themes of identity. “We’re actually making a very subtle, universal character story about identity. Even if you find out the worst thing about yourself, what are you going to do? We don’t all get to be the hero. Even when we have our heroic moments of getting to make the film we want to make or whatever, it’s not gonna last. So what do we do with that?”
Jenkins speaks fluidly about her vision for the series — the trajectory and collision of Pine’s and Eisley’s characters, the incremental discovery of resilience within Pine’s hard-living hack journalist. (“There are probably five or 10 people in the whole industry who truly understand story and perspective. And she’s one of them,” Sheridan says of his wife. “She understands emotional storytelling in a way that almost nobody can even get a hold of.”) It’s a calling — but, given her understanding of how success can be short-lived, the project is obviously personal too.
|Jenkins and Pine go over the script on the set of “I Am the Night” with actor Leland Orser.
The show puts Pine and Jenkins out on the line in a manner beyond artistic risk. Pine cites the typical chatter about peak TV — “Television, as we all know, blah blah blah; it’s a great time” — before noting, “I want it to be seen. We’re living in such a democratic time of media; there is just a lot of stuff out here. To get your foot in the door and rip the door off and shine a light on your particular opening is more difficult.”
For its part, TNT is planning a heavy marketing and PR blitz, despite the net’s long-term scripted strategy having been thrown into doubt by AT&T’s recent acquisition of parent company Time Warner. (AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has said he wants to shift TNT’s resources, along with those of TBS, to HBO.) Indeed, “I Am the Night” — a collaboration with top talent that boasts a cinematic look and a dark thematic bite — may provide proof of concept for what TNT can do.
“I think the material has been speaking for itself in terms of its ambition and its commercial potential. We’re all getting to know each other,” Aubrey says. “We’re getting an opportunity to show them what we can do. We’re just going to keep going forward until somebody comes and tells me to sit down, and even then I will not listen.”
Aubrey’s attitude is a lot like that of the show’s director and star, who are pushing into risky territory and subject matter simply for the pleasure of risking together. Both are having fun with ideas of what behooves a superhero-movie lead and its director, pursuing the fun of collaboration over safety. It’s a story whose end, happily, isn’t yet known; the two have vowed to pool their talents again, and soon.
“I love seeing those people’s work evolve when you do get to work together like that,” Jenkins says. “It’s not happening out of convenience, nor is it a usual thing that you find people who work together this well. There are 700 movies with male leads that would be great, and Chris could play most of them.” She laughs, enjoying the prospect of future collaborations together. “So why wouldn’t we?”