At first glance, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Wonder Woman 1984” could scarcely be more different. The former is a sobering ensemble drama based on the real-life trial of the left-wing activists — including Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) — who organized protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which became a series of riots. The latter is the fantastical action-adventure sequel to the 2017 phenomenon “Wonder Woman,” in which Gal Gadot’s titular superhero lives in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., and travels by lassoing lightning.
When “Chicago 7” director Aaron Sorkin and “Wonder Woman 1984” helmer Patty Jenkins met over Zoom in early December to discuss their work for Variety‘s Virtual FYC Fest, it quickly became evident that the films, and the filmmakers, share at least a few similarities. Both got their start decades earlier: Sorkin in the 1990s with films like “A Few Good Men” (which he wrote based on his play) and the Emmy-winning series “The West Wing” (which he co-created and wrote for four seasons); Jenkins in the 2000s with the Oscar-winning film “Monster” (which she wrote and directed), followed by many years directing television before “Wonder Woman.” Both Jenkins and Sorkin clearly value telling stories about people who devote their lives to fighting for what they believe is right. Both directors have deeply mixed feelings about the industry’s pivot to streaming, even as their movies have turned from theatrical releases to streaming-centric ones — as Paramount sold “Chicago 7” to Netflix while Warner Bros. shifted “WW84” to a day-and-date release on HBO Max. And both still miss their old day jobs.
Aaron Sorkin: When did you decide to begin working on the second “Wonder Woman”? Was it the Saturday morning after the film opened?
Patty Jenkins: No. Very weirdly, like there aren’t enough problems making these big tent-poles, it was in the middle of making the first one. Because you do find yourself seeing what you’re not being able to do. I love Wonder Woman and I thought she was such a cool character. She’s really not Wonder Woman until the very end of the movie. And so I found myself just saying, I would love to let loose this incredible character. So it started with a list of things that I wanted to experience.
Sorkin: You just want to stay with her longer.
Jenkins: Yeah, I just wasn’t done with her. And there was stuff that I wanted to see and stuff that I wanted to feel. And so I wrote a list of all of those things and the story started to form around that.
Sorkin: The technical element of the visual effects is beyond anything I understand. My only experience with visual effects is crowd duplication. Nothing close to what you’re doing. Before we even get to that, how do you go about imagining things that don’t exist?
Jenkins: Honestly, the interesting thing is it’s one step after another. It’s not like you just can conceive of it. It’s a series of questions. So the Olympic Games of the Amazons is a key part of her origin story. We had to cut it out of the first movie and not shoot it. There just wasn’t enough room. So that was something that I was like, “Oh, we could go back there and do this thing that we’d always wanted to do and use that as the setup story that I want to tell.” And then it ends up being this very long series of like, “What would these women do? Would they fight? No, they don’t like hitting each other. That’s not what they live for.” So they’re showing off all the different skills. Then it just evolves from one thing into another. And it’s so laborious and it goes on for so long, Aaron, you can’t believe it. That’s the crazy part. You just like, you’re slowly building a vase for years.
Sorkin: I believe that it takes that long. I just don’t believe that if I had that amount of time, I could do it. I think if I had an unlimited amount of time, I couldn’t do it.
Jenkins: No. You totally could do it. You probably don’t have a passion for doing it. It’s not different than the great stuff that you’ve written and directed. It’s just whatever your goal is. So can I ask you: When did you decide to do “The Trial of the Chicago 7”? When do you decide to direct it?
Sorkin: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the second film I’ve directed. And in neither case, [my first film] “Molly’s Game” and “Chicago 7,” did I know that I was going to be directing a movie when I was writing it. The case of “Chicago 7,” in 2006, on a Saturday morning, I was asked to come over to Steven Spielberg’s house, and he said that he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago 7, and I said, “That’s great sign me up, count me in.” As soon as I left his house, I called my father and asked him who the Chicago 7 were. I was just saying yes to do a movie with Steven. So there was a lot of research to do. There are a dozen good books on the Chicago 7, some of them written by the defendants. There’s a 21,000-page trial transcript. But most critically, I got to spend time with Tom Hayden, who passed away a few years ago. It was Hayden who was able to give me the insight into the personal relationship he had with Abbie [Hoffman].
The movie kept getting kicked down the road, primarily because the two riot sequences in the film were budget busters. There wasn’t going to be a lot of money to make a movie like this, and the various directors who came along were having trouble budgeting it. Finally, what happened was the world kind of caught up to the script after Trump got elected. Steven felt the time to make the movie was now. He had seen “Molly’s Game” and was sufficiently pleased that he thought I should direct “Chicago 7.” And he just said the riots are your problem now.
Jenkins: Oh man. That’s an amazing person to inherit a film from.
Sorkin: It sure is. He visited the set. There’s nothing like directing some of the greatest actors in the world while Steven Spielberg is standing behind you. So back to you and “WW84.” Listen, when I look at the monitor, I’m seeing what’s going to be on the screen, almost always. You hardly ever. What is that like?
Jenkins: I have always thought that the writer in me was who made the director in me any good. Because it’s the writer in me that really crossed all those bridges in my room, in the dark, where you wrote the scene one way and you really envisioned it, right?
Jenkins: So this becomes this grand exercise in that. The hardest challenge is keeping the map in your head and not losing faith. I think it’s absolutely imperative that you have your script done and you think it’s great. I don’t understand how people do it when things are changing. I don’t know how you could keep track of it. I’m not a believer in that. I’m not a believer in studios doing it. I wish they would stop doing it — get your shit together and get your script written before you start making a movie. It drives me nuts.
So we did very thorough writing, and then every single day, you have to have faith in the writer in you and then in the artists that you worked with to make a plan, that the plan is going to work. But let me tell you, it’s absolutely fascinating to have to wait so long to see it come together. This was such a complicated film that even in the middle, the studio was like, “I don’t know about these things.” I was like, “You can’t judge it yet. We don’t have the effects in. So it looks stupid now, but you have to wait.” Carrying that is very lonely.
Sorkin: I’ve never heard that before. And I’m not surprised now that you say it. You have to wait a really long time before you know if you had a good day. That must be incredibly hard.
Jenkins: And you could blow that day at any point through inattention. If you don’t stay absolutely vigilant towards the small details, you will run out of time and never be able to make that shot look cool. It’s wild that way.
Sorkin: How much time did you have? You are about to give an answer that’s going to make me not feel sorry for you.
Jenkins: Two and a half years.
Sorkin: Yeah, go to hell. [Laughter]
Jenkins: And lots and lots of money.
Sorkin: Go to hell again. Go twice.
Jenkins: That’s the other thing. As someone who’s worked on smaller independent things and everything is such a struggle, it is a trip when you’re like, “You know what? I need Trafalgar Square.” And it’s like, “OK. It’s shut down.” [Laughter]
As a director, I’m always pushing to the edge of the envelope, because it’ll push back and show you where the line is. Here, I said I want to shoot at a mall. Then I go in, and the set decorator and my production designer have decorated every single store in the entire mall, including the interior. I was like, “Oh my god, how expensive was that?” And they were like, “Everybody wants to be sure that you have everything you need.” I have to learn how to be the one to say “Please don’t do that because that’s money I need later!”
Sorkin: Wow. That really is something. You shot a bunch in D.C.?
Sorkin: I’ve worked in D.C. before. And it’s a beautiful place to shoot. But did you find that no matter where you were, you were in the landing pattern of some airport?
Jenkins: Yes. Also the caravans with the sirens whenever the President goes anywhere. You were there for so long doing so much you must have really become an expert at it.
Sorkin: My very first day on a movie set was “A Few Good Men.” We started shooting in Washington. It was an exterior, and I write these scenes that are five, six, seven minutes long. We could not get through a take without a commercial plane roaring. So they made a couple of phone calls, and incredibly, as if it were Patty Jenkins making the call, they managed to reroute — like, for an hour — some of the planes that were landing. Rob Reiner called action and suddenly, like out of “Apocalypse Now,” five marine Apache attack helicopters just came over the horizon.
Jenkins: That’s amazing. You always do so many great characters. I do a small amount of characters, so I find that overwhelming, doing such beautiful character work with so many. How did you handle the size and scope of [“Chicago 7”]?
Sorkin: It was a lot of characters, a lot of actors, and often they’re all in a scene at the same time. And one of my concerns was — because they’re all different actors, too — just making sure that they were all on the same movie. It turned out that wasn’t hard. It was one of those things where it jelled at the table read. Everybody knew how to do this and was very generous with each other. There’d be two, three, four days in a row when we were in the courtroom for five weeks. And lots of times, they just had to sit there. It was about coverage for days before we get to a big scene of theirs and they were extraordinary about it.
Jenkins: We talked about the crowd scenes in your movie, and you did a masterful job at them. How did you end up conquering that?
Sorkin: First of all, we were able to shoot in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, which was crucial because then I was going to be able to use the hours and hours of archival footage that existed because nothing has changed in Grant Park or on Michigan Avenue. I just came up with a plan with our DP Phedon Papamichael and our editor Alan Baumgarten that what I was going to do was get mostly very tight shots of just someone’s eyes right before nightstick came in, of blood, of a tear gas canister being loaded in, fired, landing. That kind of thing. And then a few wide shots that were going to be helped by the smoke from the tear gas. That was going to help me conceal the fact that we didn’t have thousands of extras, because it’s much harder to do the crowd duplication when they’re running and fighting. So between the wide shots, the very tight shots and the archival footage — which we put into black and white, we didn’t want to try to pretend that the archival footage was ours — we managed to sew together those sequences.
Sorkin: I want to ask you, because I have to believe that there is a difference when so much money is on the line, in your case — so much money that’s being spent on the film and so much in terms of the expectation of what this film is supposed to make. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but part of the plot [of “Wonder Woman 1984”] is there’s a wall in the film. And I’m wondering if that was an intentional nod to the politics of the wall [Trump wanted to build].
Jenkins: Believe it or not, no it was not. While I was making the first movie, it literally sprung from a plot point. It was like, “Oh they’re doing this thing with a wall.” However, I kind of believe in this in the synchronicity of these things with life, and definitely several things in the movie became in sync with what was really happening years later when we were making the film and now years later when it’s coming out. So I was certainly aware of it, and I certainly didn’t change it.
Sorkin: That’s exactly what happened to us. It started out as a chance to work with Steven. And then it was a good story to tell. And then… I’ve been asked if I changed the script at all to mirror events in the world, and I did not. The world changed to mirror the script.
Jenkins: I have had a lot of that in this movie. Even the rioting on the streets of D.C. It’s so crazy. I sort of believe that art is that way. Things are wafting in the air and who knows what’s influencing what. It’s such an interesting thing.
So you and I have done very different work. I started as somebody who didn’t set out to be a director, either. People periodically asked me, “When did you decide you wanted to be a director?” And I’m like, “I still don’t want to be a director.” I don’t care about being a director. I just want to make the movie I see in my head. And you and I have both done television and theater. What makes you decide what thing you’re doing? And how do you feel about, shifting gears between the multiple jobs?
Sorkin: First let me say, I’m not done wanting to work with great directors. Just mentioning that, Patty. I’m really glad to hear what you just said. Because I, too, don’t feel like I’m changing hats when I start directing something that I’ve written. I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. When I’m directing something, I’m sure I have to lean on the DP and the production designer more than most directors do. But I really consider it exactly what you said: just seeing the vision through somehow.
Sorkin: I had been asked to direct “The Social Network” when I turned it in. Scott Rudin, who was producing that, he wanted to turn me into a writer-director. Scott, Amy Pascal, who was running Sony at the time, and I said, “You know what, let’s just give it to David Fincher. He passes on everything. Let’s just let him read it and pass and then I direct it.” And he read it and emailed me three hours later and said, “Hey Aaron, it’s David Fincher. I’m going to direct ‘The Social Network.’ Can I come over?” And I would rather it work out like that, if the director is David Fincher or you.
Jenkins: Thank you! I should be so lucky.
Sorkin: There’s something else I have to tell you, Patty. I have a daughter, who is a sophomore film major at NYU. For the last couple years, she has just fallen in love with filmmaking. She writes short films, she makes them with her friends, she’ll take any job on any movie set anywhere. I don’t think it has anything to do with me. I think it has everything to do with you.
Sorkin: As close as she and I are. She was born as I was doing “The West Wing” and loved to come to the set. Kind of grew up on the Warner Bros. lot. And I think it was seeing you direct and the way she talks about you — so just so you know!
Jenkins: That’s so moving! That’s so incredible and wonderful to hear. I love that!
Sorkin: Well, I’ll never forgive you for it. [Laughter]
Jenkins: Now you have to deal with it!
Sorkin: Now I will never get another good night’s sleep.
Jenkins: Oh, I know. The life of a director. My mom follows me around from project to project going, “Oh, Can you just go to sleep?” I’m like, “No. I can’t mom.” It is true. I do apologize.
Sorkin: My parents still think I need something to fall back on.
Jenkins: My mom felt that way for a very, very, very long time.
Sorkin: I need to ask you. Asking for a friend. OK? What would you say to a screenwriter who really wants to write an action film, even a superhero film, but doesn’t have a reputation as an action guy. What would you say to them?
Jenkins: I don’t think — does that stand in people’s way from hiring you for anything, Aaron? I can’t imagine that someone like you… your friends may have a hard time. [Laughter] But I don’t think you would! We pulled in my friend David Callaham to work with Geoff Johns and I on this one, and he wasn’t known for writing superhero films. I think a great story is a great story. Here’s what I love about these superhero films. They are the grand, classic tradition of storytelling, a la Greek myths. They are a universal character that you can tell any story through. So the only thing that I think matters is embracing the fun of what it is and knowing you’re making a superhero film. And then anybody would want to hire a great writer.
Sorkin: I appreciate that. And I agree that story is story is story. But again, just the first seven, eight minutes of your film, there’s no chance that I couldn’t come up with that. They talked to me about “Jurassic Park,” and thank god that I didn’t write that film, because it would have just been people talking about dinosaurs. The whole thing would have been Jeff Goldblum.
Jenkins: But do you love those films?
Sorkin: As an audience member, I do.
Jenkins: Yeah, I don’t know. There are certain things I could never write which you write, even if I wanted to. There are things that I know I couldn’t do. I’m shocked, by the way, that such a big wheelhouse is my wheelhouse. Because coming off of “Monster,” I knew that I always wanted to make a superhero film because I happen to love them and have a thing for them. But I never thought I would be known as an action movie director. Never. And it turns out I love it.
Sorkin: You mentioned “Monster.” And back a few years ago, after you had directed “Monster” — which was an extremely successful film, won the Academy Award for Charlize Theron — you had talked about the fact that it wasn’t that easy for you to get your next film as a woman.
Sorkin: Surely, that has changed now.
Jenkins: I think it has. I feel like I have seen tremendous changes, post-“Wonder Woman,” of other women getting the opportunity to make things as well. I hope what they’re getting a chance to do is imbue their own point of view on it. That was the thing that I had trouble with for so many years. Everybody wanted to hire me and I got lots of great offers I’m so grateful for, but what they weren’t interested in is that they didn’t trust my ideas. So my scripts, they were like, “I don’t know if anybody would want to see that.” I’m like, “I know. But that’s what you said about ‘Monster,’ too, so let me do my film.”
Sorkin: Do you get asked to write and direct action films or superhero films that have a male protagonist?
Jenkins: In fact, I got hired on “Thor ” before I got hired on “Wonder Woman.” Even though that didn’t work out, I’ll always give props to Marvel for hiring me when there was no linear reason that you needed to hire a woman.
Sorkin: Your film is going to open Christmas Day simultaneously in theaters and on… is it HBO Max?
Jenkins: HBO Max, yeah.
Sorkin: How do you feel about that?
Jenkins: I feel strangely good, and I never would’ve thought that I would say that a year ago. Really for these movies, I’m a real believer in the theatrical model. It’s a tentpole. That’s what you’re doing. It’s made for the large screen. It’s all of those things.
This has been such a weird year, and it’s amazing how many things take recalibrating when nothing is working and everything is an unknown. So I was really for pushing the movie. But then we’ve pushed it enough times, and the movie is now the oldest on the Warner Bros. lot. We were done a while ago.
We’re storytellers, and the number one priority of that is communion with an audience. That’s it, right? That’s the thing I care about above all else. So in this moment and in this pandemic, I had to choose the most important thing over all of the other things in this moment. It felt like the right — like, I’m craving to see a tentpole. So if it’s about matching audience with something that you made, that was a wonderful idea and I was all for it.
Sorkin: Well, you’re playing my song. We didn’t have a choice. Paramount was supposed to distribute the film, and I think it was in May or June on a marketing call with Paramount’s marketing team. Jim Gianopulos was on the call as well. At the end of the call, he shared with us market research that they had done that showed that the first people who are going to return to movie theaters are people who thought the coronavirus is a hoax. No one felt that there was going to be much crossover between that group and people likely to go see “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
We didn’t want to push a year, because we wanted the film to come out before the election. Not that we thought we could affect the election, but now is when we’re talking about these things. So I was really grateful that Netflix came along. It was like a lifeboat coming along that had luxury cabins and a buffet. I’m very grateful for that.
But I agree with you 100%. I think, you know, we’re all scared that everything’s going to change now. Movie theaters are basically going to become, like, art houses. And that the films that you and I make will only be seen on streaming services. I don’t think that that’s going to happen. I think that for 4,000 years nothing has replaced the experience of being part of an audience. That shared experience, being in a theater when the lights go down, everyone laughing at the same time, gasping at the same time, being silent at the same time, and having the final moment of the film reverberate at the same time.
Jenkins: I absolutely agree with you. It’s the same thing we saw — when the book was invented, they thought people wouldn’t go outside anymore, the printing press. And television, they definitely said people would stop going to the movies.
I have a prediction about business, which is I feel like I’m seeing right now the same thing I’m seeing in the industry that depresses me over and over again, when every single studio in town starts chasing the exact same thing. And you’re like, why doesn’t someone differentiate themselves, instead of all going after the exact same thing? Like when it became going after the blockbuster and they stopped making smaller films.
In this case, I think what’s going to happen is somebody, even if people try to make it day and date, some studio’s going to be smart enough to be an outlier, and all the great filmmakers in town are going to go there, and the theaters are going to favor their movies. Because right now, if there are studios that announce that [going to streaming] is what they’re going to start doing, every filmmaker’s going to head to the studio that promises they’re not going to.
Sorkin: That’s right.
Jenkins: It’s not going to be that easy. I think there’s a sentiment right now that change is coming and there’s nothing you can do about it. And I think that doesn’t take into consideration the artists who can very much United Artists-it up and make a big change.
Sorkin: I hope that you are at the forefront of those United Artists.
Jenkins: Believe me, it’s in my mind.
Sorkin: Good. And I don’t want to get too personal or too rude. So let me figure out how to ask this question. I’m just curious. You and a film like “Wonder Woman 84,” surely part of your deal was backend?
Sorkin: All of that is thrown up in the air now. There’s no way of calculating how many new subscribers there are HBO Max because they want to see “Wonder Woman.” There’s no way, really, of knowing how much money you generated for the studio.
Jenkins: No there’s not, and so, probably like your deal, it becomes a purchase thing, of like, OK, the streaming services are not having a pandemic, it has nothing to do with them. So if you want to purchase that movie, then we need to strike some new way of compensating the partners.
Sorkin: You’re right. Netflix purchased the film straight up and everybody who had put money into it made money from it. To be very clear, my deal is not remotely like your deal. I get paid and coupons, OK? And so did everybody on “Chicago 7.” Another reason I’m really proud of the cast is everybody worked for nothing. It was basically take one step forward if you want to do this movie and we’ll have a good time while we are doing it.
Jenkins: It’s a crazy new world. I know that all hell is breaking loose with this Warner Bros. slate and what happens to all of those players? It’s wild days. I feel like there’s not one thing that will just stay put in this pandemic. Every single structure that you tried to rely on is just in crisis and falling apart.
Sorkin: I had a play on Broadway when everything shut down on March 11. We’d been running about a year and a half.
Jenkins: Wait, what is it called again?
Sorkin: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Jenkins: Oh, yeah. I read about that. Yeah, that’s amazing.
Sorkin: In a year and a half, we hadn’t played to an empty seat. And then we had to shut down like everybody else. And, listen, the people who get it in the teeth are not just the actors. It’s the crew, it’s the front-of-house staff, the ushers, the ticket takers. My old job bartending in Broadway theaters — I don’t know what those people have done. But reopening Broadway is much trickier than reopening the movie business. Because Broadway can’t be a day of performance business the way movies are.
Jenkins: God, that’s so true.
Sorkin: You have to build up in advance. You need tourism to come back to New York. And New York’s number one tourist attraction is Broadway. There are smart people in a room trying to figure out how to do this. But we all found out the hard way — me, you and everyone else — that our entire livelihoods depend on strangers gathering in dark rooms.
Jenkins: I know. It’s been so strange and incredible to try to figure out how to do all of these things. It’s been amazing the phone calls I’ve been on and I’m sure you’ve been on. I’ve had many of them with the heads of Warner Bros. all year. You expect to have people call you and tell you what they’re thinking. And instead, it was all of us sitting around going, “I don’t know. I mean…maybe.” So weird. Like there is no Power That Be. Everybody doesn’t know what to do and everybody’s trying to figure it out. And god, what is going to happen to all of the actors in Hollywood, who came here to make it and didn’t make it yet? And were waiting tables. And the crews! There are so many people I can’t figure out how they’re making it.
Sorkin: Oh, I’m with you. And I know we don’t have much time left. So I just want to get back to your film for one second — I’ll make my last question an old question from the first film. How did you find Gal?
Jenkins: I didn’t. It’s funny. I am the most obsessive caster, particularly after casting Charlize in “Monster” and it making perfect sense to me and not making sense to other people. I’m very, very particular about it. And it was the most magical thing in the world. I had told Warner Bros. I wanted to do “Wonder Woman” in 2004, and kept talking to them throughout the years. And it just kept not working out. And all of a sudden they announced that Zack Snyder had cast Wonder Woman and my heart sank. I thought like, how could you? If you’re just putting her in a smaller part in your movie, how could he cast Wonder Woman?
But he did the most incredible job in the world in the fact that he looked for someone outside of this country. I don’t think I would have. I think I would have cast an American. And literally, she was made to play this role. There’s nobody better in the whole wide world. It’s something that happens in these tentpoles, where you’re used to making every decision and then these genius things will come in the side door and you have to be willing to acknowledge that’s the better thing.
Sorkin: How many weeks did you have for post?
Sorkin: Oh jeez! [Laughter]
Jenkins: Okay, so my last question for you is, I loved that you were a bartender. I was a waitress in New York.
Sorkin: Oh yeah? Where?
Jenkins: In Dojo’s, in the East Village. Being a waitress is my other favorite job. I loved waiting tables.
Sorkin: And I really liked tending bar!
Jenkins: I sometimes say when I retire you’re going to find me waiting tables somewhere because I like to work. It’ll be so great. So when you were bartending and you would think about what you wanted to one day write, have you written the kind of thing that is your greatest dream?
Sorkin: Patty. [Long pause. Tears up.] I’m sorry. I never imagined any of this. My dream — my greatest dream, and it wasn’t a modest dream — was simply to be a professional writer, to pay my bills writing, my rent and my phone bill and food, writing. That’s what I wanted. After college, I came New York. I was struggling playwright. Every kind of survival job, anything that paid minimum wage, mostly bartending at Broadway theaters. And I wrote my first play, which was “A Few Good Men,” on cocktail napkins during the first act of “La Cage aux Folles.”
Jenkins: Oh my god, I did not know that! That’s legendary! You overshot.
Sorkin: I did, by quite a distance. But I still feel like that guy who is just so excited to be a professional writer. So nothing is really bad news to me — except that my daughter wants to be a filmmaker because of you. And I’m going to get my revenge, Patty. I really will.
Jenkins: I wish you luck. It’s not the greatest life, I will say. But I love it. I’m addicted to it. What can I say?