The powerhouse that is Wonder Woman shows no signs of slowing down at the box office any time soon, having recently surpassed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice domestically. It takes a village of hundreds to make a movie like Wonder Woman. One of the key moving pieces is the director of photography, who works in sync with the director to make their vision come to life. In the case of Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins chose Matthew Jensen as her DP. I recently spoke with Jensen about the technical aspects of Wonder Woman and things got interesting when I asked about difficult scenes to film.
When I ask Jensen what he thought the trickiest scene to put together was, he laughs for a long time. Of course that means there’s a good story here. What scene is it? Could it be the amazing sequence on the beach where the Amazons take on the Germans? Or perhaps the No Man’s Land scene where Diana finally comes into her own as Wonder Woman? But the story Jensen tells is one you’d never expect: the ballroom dancing.
“I laugh because every day was tough, and great, but we always had a challenge. I’ll tell you that the thing that personally was the trickiest for me, and it might not be one that you would think of, is the ballroom scene where Diana dances with Ludendorff,” he says. I am intrigued. How can this be? A scene with little action and loads of dialogue should be simple enough, right? Turns out no. Especially when you’re filming on location at Hatfield House. Built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury, the Grand Jacobean home is not designed for camera rigs and dozens of people.
“It’s a very tricky location. It was a very long, beautiful, narrow hallway, essentially, that we dressed to look like a ballroom. But it was very enclosed and we wanted to see the ceiling. So that really limited where I could hide my lights, since because it’s old and historic I couldn’t really do anything to the walls or rig anything,” Jensen explains. “Then during the dance, Patty [Jenkins] wanted close-ups of our actors while they’re dancing and spinning. Originally when we got there I thought that [the actors] had choreographed the dance precisely. I came to realize as we were shooting that they were just kind of moving on their own, there wasn’t a specific step or anything, which added another wrinkle. In order to hold them in close-up we built a 360-degree track around them.”
If that sounds complicated, it was. Jensen continues, “You’ve got [the actors] moving in sort of random intervals, and you’ve got this whole train [of people]. I mean you’ve got a dolly grip pushing the dolly, you’ve got the camera operator, you’ve got the focus puller, and we’re all trying to stay in rhythm with them. And then, of course, I’m riding on the back of the dolly, holding a light like a Chinese lantern on a boom pole trying to get a key light in their faces and have it move with them as they move. We were bumping into each other, we would get ahead of [the actors] on the dolly, and the light would swing around them and I was just kind of going crazy about it.”
In the end, all the headaches and coordinated efforts were worth it, since you’d never know the struggle to film while watching the finalized sequence in Wonder Woman. Jensen praises his team and the actors, “ I had a really good crew and they were pros. Just to hold a close-up was kind of a technical achievement.”