We speak with Matthew Jensen about his own hero’s journey, how his work on The L Word prepared him for Wonder Woman’s shooting schedule, and what an Oscar nod would mean to him.
Matthew Jensen is responsible for shooting two of the most striking superhero films of the 21st century with Chronicle and Wonder Woman. It’s easy to understand that his experience with the former influenced his approach to the latter. But Jensen’s work on Wonder Woman started when he was just a kid seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in theaters.
We caught up with Jensen the day after National Wonder Woman Cosplay Day (or Halloween to some), and we discussed how he approached the film not as a superhero movie, but as a classic adventure film like those he devoured as a kid.
FSR: How was your Halloween? Did you get to witness all the Wonder Women running around?
Matthew Jensen: You know, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, so we were mostly running around trick-or-treating. She opted for Batgirl, instead of Wonder Woman.
For some reason, my neighborhood didn’t have a lot of Wonder Woman, so we were taking the other end of the DC universe. But people have been sending me photos of everybody in New York dressed as Wonder Woman. It’s just kind of insane. I know it was the number one costume on Google, apparently, so it’s kind of extraordinary.
So far, you’ve made three superhero origin stories, with Chronicle and Fantastic Four and Wonder Woman. What do you think draws you to these types of films, to these origin stories? What do you think they do that other films don’t?
Well, I mean, I think that they tend to be the least complicated, in terms of introducing the characters. There’s always something very kind of primal and relatable about origin stories, to me. In many ways, they’re coming of age movies. In all the cases that I’ve been involved with, it’s about the characters trying to come to terms with and understand their power, and then how are they going to use that power? Is it something that’s going to be for good or for ill? Is it going to be something that’s driven by their ego or something that’s driven by a greater urge to protect and to help? These are, I think, very relatable questions, for me, but also for an audience, and make for compelling stories.
“There’s no doubt that my early movie-going experience has affected the choices that I make now.”
Do you think, growing up, coming to a kind of cinematic consciousness, in the ’80s, with all of the Joseph Campbell, heroes journey films that were coming out at that time, do you think that has anything to do with your draw to these origin stories and the hero archetype? Do you think that has anything to do with your interest in them?
Probably, yeah. Before we made Wonder Woman, Patty and I were talking about the kinds of films that we were drawn to as a kid. Certainly, a movie that really kind of informed me wanting to make movies was Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remember vividly the experience of seeing it, when I was nine years old, in 70 millimeter and six-track Dolby stereo, you know? In a theater in Washington, D.C. I remember everything about that moment when I kind of clued into the power of movies, and that was certainly it. So I think that these do appeal to me. It does appeal to the kid in me, to be able to be on the other side of this and make movies that a younger version of myself might see. I think it’s tremendously powerful. There’s no doubt that my early movie-going experience has affected the choices that I make now.
Have you taken specific things from each successive outing as a cinematographer for this kind of action, coming of age stories?
Yeah, I think they all build on one another. I think all of them have been very different animals, both in terms of budgets and scope, and the characters, and the filmmakers that I was working with. I think certainly on the technical end I’ve gotten more comfortable with stunts, and visual effects, and knowing the questions to ask, and the ways in which to pursue, and things that I’ve liked and done well. One I’ve built, on a technical level, on the next one. So yeah, that certainly applies, although I think I’d be hard-pressed to identify exactly what that is. I would hope that I’ve just become a more efficient storyteller over the course of those movies, but that’s a little harder to put my finger on, just because in each case the filmmakers have been so different. So much of what I do is in response to what they want. But yeah, there is no doubt that what I’ve learned does build progressively, each time.
“I still think I’m influenced by Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
Going back to even pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark, you were born into a family of cinephiles. A lot of conversation kind of revolved around film and things like that. Your parents especially liked movie musicals. Are those some of the first movies that you ever remember watching? What was the first movie you ever remember?
Gosh. Well, my parents bonded, I think, over movie musicals, but I never really watched them until film school. My dad also loved the Warner Brothers adventure films, the Errol Flynn movies. So I certainly remember watching The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Don Juan and those movies, The Sea Hawk, very young. It’s hard to say what the first movie I saw in the theater was, but it was all around the Star Wars, Superman, those early kinds of movies. The early blockbuster days.
I certainly saw a fair share of Warner Brothers cartoons. I still think I’m influenced by Bugs Bunny cartoons. Just their madness and inventiveness, I really still appreciate as an adult. I think even more now that I’ve been exposed to the litany of animation that’s out there. I still think that that stuff was the most insane, in a great way. Yeah. I certainly remember watching the Wizard of Oz on television at a very early age. I think the standard stuff somebody of my generation would’ve watched, I remember pretty vividly.
“[Cinema] started to become, at a very early age, a language, and a language that I was desperately trying to understand.”
Coming from a family like yours it seems like you had kind of a base vocabulary to talk about movies at an early age. Were you consuming these movies, or were you critically like, “Oh, I really liked how this looked for this reason,” at an early age, as well? Was that just always in your mind of being something more than just a consumer?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I think the conversation in my family was really like movies were part of the culture, and they were as important as literature and art and politics and knowing the infrastructure of your neighborhood. These were all dinner conversations, so I think we always talked about movies as, I guess, something to relate to. The way a character would react in a certain situation, or the way a line would give a sort of philosophical understanding of the world. I think that’s what movies represented in my family. They were very much a reflection of the world around us.
Then I got my first camera when I was 11. That was a Super 8 camera. I really started to understand it as a visual medium. I’m not sure that I could break everything down until much later, but I certainly was paying attention to what the camera was doing, and how the camera communicated certain ideas, and how certain shots communicated certain ideas. It started to become, at a very early age, a language, and a language that I was desperately trying to understand.
“I think I was learning about the efficiency of a frame communicating an idea…”
Did your interest in sketching and your interest in cartoons provide a way into understanding the visual medium of film, or was that something that was running parallel to it? How did your sketching inform your younger days of filmmaking?
From very young I was drawing comic book panels, or almost like storyboards, really. I think I was learning about the efficiency of a frame communicating an idea, you know? So I think definitely the sketching did inform that. Also, I think it was just merely a sort of a parallel kind of development. I just enjoyed drawing. It was a way to kind of disappear into my own creativity. Very much a solo activity. Whereas making a movie is not. I look back, and I’m only realizing this as I’m answering you, and you’ve asked a question, that I think it really did help me to previsualize shots, and it’s still kind of a skill that I disappear into when I’m trying to see the look of a movie. Is there a singular image that sort of strikes a chord with me? Often I have to close my eyes and almost … I can’t draw as well as I used to as a kid. My skills have sort of diminished, but I think the thought processes remain the same.
When did you move from D.C. to … You moved to Hawaii, is that right?
I did, yeah. I went to Hawaii for my junior year of high school.
You were taking film classes at the Smithsonian growing up in Washington, D.C. Did you find any sort of film community or anything like that in Hawaii, or were you kind of left on your own?
Yeah, well, I mean, my high school had kind of a production wing. It was excellent. They produced a television show on local access cable, and so I got involved with that. They had equipment and edit bays. They had a couple of film classes, both purely art and film classes, art and video classes, and then also I had a literature class that was called Fiction and Film, taught by David McCullough Jr. It was great. We were reading John Steinbeck novels and then seeing the movie versions of them. A lot of things were tied in. We were seeing some classic movies. He was also instrumental in getting us to read a film as text, as a novel or anything like that. It required just as much scrutiny of all the details. I was very fortunate in that regard, that that sort of education continued.
“…when I was building a career I was always going to have to jet off somewhere at a moment’s notice.”
So then you show up at USC. During that time you got an internship with Stephen Goldblatt, I believe.
Yeah, Stephen came to USC to talk, I think after shooting The Pelican Brief if I remember correctly. Then he basically kind of threw the offer out to this class, as like, “If you guys ever want to talk or need information, please call me up.” I was the only one who really took him up on it, and I called him. He was in the process of setting up something through USC to take on several students who were interested in cinematography, and we would rotate through what was Batman Forever as interns, basically. We would stay on for a couple of weeks and get to hang out on set and ask him questions, but mainly it was just a chance for me to hang out and watch and listen. It was an extraordinary experience, as far as that goes. I still carry a lot of what I learned in that time period with me.
Yeah. Yeah, you’ve mentioned the advice of, “You’re going to have to starve, but only shoot the things that you want to shoot. Don’t get sidetracked.” Is there another piece of advice that you live by?
Stephen was also the one to tell me not to get married, which was hilarious. I did kind of listened to that for a long time. I got married only a few years ago, for multiple reasons, but one of the things that was always in the back of my head was that when I was building a career I was always going to have to jet off somewhere at a moment’s notice. He was absolutely right. Yeah, I mean, there were a lot of other little things, advice I got from not only Stephen but from Dean Cundey, and from Gordon Willis, and from Woody Omens, who was my professor at USC.
From technical to leadership things, or how to approach scientifically the work that we do to eliminate guesswork. When you’re dealing in a creative medium and you’re dealing with [something that doesn’t exist yet] words can kind of fail you when you’re trying to explain something to somebody, and I think Gordon Willis was instrumental in taking me through a process of doing tests so that everybody could sit in a room and see an image and sort of sign off on what was working and what wasn’t. Then how to communicate with the film labs and so on, and be very transparent about what you were doing, to eliminate anybody questioning you. I still use a lot of what he taught me every day.
“…shoot tests and actually get the film back or a digital image back and point to it as your reference.”
Yeah. Is that how you find the look of your different projects? Is it through a lot of tests? I’ve heard different cinematographers put together lookbooks, or put together kind of feel collages of just colors and images and stuff.
Yeah. Yeah, I tend to work from either painters or photographers or other movies as the visual reference. I find that those are kind of the most concrete examples where I can point to one picture and go, “This is what I’m thinking.” Then from there, I design, generally, a fair amount of film tests, where the director can see exactly where I’m going and kind of sign off. Those vary from testing different lenses, to different lighting styles and colors, and working in conjunction with the production designer about colors of walls, and the shape of some of their practical lamps that are going to be in there. Then how those photograph against faces, and then hopefully the costume department is in there with you so their colors are working with the production designer, that are also working with my lighting.
So there’s a lot of coordination that needs to go on just to define a look because it is me, but it’s also all these other departments that are so instrumental. All of us have to dovetail and work together. The best way, the clearest way to do that, for me, is to shoot tests and actually get the film back or a digital image back and point to it as your reference.
Did your work on The L Word influence how you worked on Wonder Woman since the film is essentially a road movie? Both sets would seem to demand a highly versatile DP to shoot the huge amount of locations on both projects.
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, that was really my first experience in television. I wasn’t the main cinematographer on the show, Bob Aschmann was, up in Canada. I think for two seasons I would shoot all the Los Angeles scenes, essentially, that required actual LA location work. So not only did I have to match his footage but then I had to work with all these different directors. It was really an exercise in me blending in and learning to work with what I have because those shows were not really made on a budget. It’s nothing close to what I would work with later on Game of Thrones or Wonder Woman. So you really had to run with kind of what the world presented and make it work for you. Yeah, it did provide me with a template of how to be egoless in this whole process, although some would argue that I’ve regressed in that way now, maybe me included.
But yeah, I think that all my experiences in television really were incredibly helpful to me learning how to trust my instincts, to run with my first idea, and kind of live or die with it. So that’s always something that I can fall back on if all my planning doesn’t work out, or something falls through on a big shoot and I just have to run with something. I’m comfortable kind of relying on the roots of those early days.
So, now, here comes the Wonder Woman set of questions.
“DPs kind of solve problems of the stories, and they come up with solutions, and it’s always interesting to see.”
We kind of already discussed how you find the look of your different projects, and how it’s definitely a group effort. For you personally, what were your touchstones? What were the films that you looked at? We’ve also already kind of mentioned the road movie aspect of it. Did I miss any Easy Rider homages or anything?
[Laughter] No. Let’s see. Patty and I certainly talked about Richard Donner’s Superman, and we certainly talked about Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Those were both movies that we admired and where the bar was set very high that we felt we had to live up to, in telling her story. We talked about Casablanca. We talked about Raiders of the Lost Ark, mainly for just the phenomenal way that Spielberg stages not only action but just a simple dialogue scene. The way he blocks the camera on the actors is just unbelievable, and it continues to be. But it was more of a very specific reason that we were watching that. Weirdly, we also talked about Michael Clayton, which had nothing to do with Wonder Woman, but Patty and I both love that movie so it’s kind of like we were always getting on the aesthetic page of what we like. I’m trying to think what else we had talked about. Those were sort of the major touchstones.
I tend to look at specific examples from certain movies. DPs kind of solve problems of the stories, and they come up with solutions, and it’s always interesting to see. For instance, we have this scene or this entire sequence where Diana is leaving the castle, German high command, and she rides into the town in Weld. Then she rides from Weld to the German airfield. Over the course of that it’s turning into night, from a late afternoon dusk winter thing, and so that’s a very tricky lighting thing to plot out over the course of several scenes.
I’d looked at how Roger Deakins did it in Skyfall, where Bond is in his house and it’s going from late afternoon to night as his attackers are getting closer and closer to him. Just how he did it, and where the transitions were, and where the color shifts were in the skies. What was continuity and where the jumps were. It’s always helpful. Roger’s work is such an inspiration to me, so I find that I turn to his work. Even though I don’t necessarily go about it the same way, I think it’s interesting to watch how he thinks these things out.
“Your instincts do kind of take over once you’re presented with that realistic of an environment.”
Yeah. Patty was looking for more of a contemporary look for the film, but I also read that one of the touchstones, especially in the trenches, was Paths of Glory. How did you kind of reconcile those two?
Yeah, I’m glad you led me there. Well, we looked at a couple World War I trench movies. I think we also looked at War Horse, and A Very Long Engagement, and Paths of Glory. That’s mainly to see how they deal with the trenches, and how they deal with warfare, and what we could take or what we could learn from those, or not, you know? I don’t think we really took anything specific from those movies. They just sort of provide information and things to look out for. Yeah. I think that’s about as far as that went. The set was built on the back lot of Warner Brothers, and it was 300 yards of mud and muck and a trench. At a certain point you just kind of react to the surroundings, you know? It becomes a very instinctual process because you’re dealing with these very real elements like the trench. It just makes sense to get in there on the Steadicam on a wide angle lens and follow our characters. Your instincts do kind of take over once you’re presented with that realistic of an environment.
Going from films to fine art, you found inspiration in John Singer Sargent portraits. Earlier in this conversation, you kind of mentioned how you go to fine art. Is that a regular occurrence for you, that you go to paintings for inspiration?
I tend to go more towards photography, but painting just made sense given the period. Certainly, I think it’s where Patty’s oriented, too, having gone to art school. Yeah, it really depends. But I think my first go-to is photography, especially when I’m doing more modern work. Singer’s work, just all the portraits, and since he was doing painting around the time of World War I and was doing paintings of battlefields and things like that. Then also World War I generals. It just made a lot of sense.
“…because all of us knew that it was the signature moment of the movie at that point, that we were very concerned about it and we wanted to get it right.”
You’ve mentioned the kind of back and forth way of collaborating with Patty, how she’ll give an idea or a broad idea, and then you’ll go off and figure out how to achieve that and come back with it, and she’ll add to that. Can you give an example of that kind of relationship, with either a shot or a sequence in Wonder Woman?
Yeah, let’s see. Well certainly the no-man’s-land sequence was very much a back and forth between us, but also visual effects was heavily involved as well. Because that sequence was heavily prevised, we all got a chance to really weigh in. But I think once I got involved, Patty and I really started getting into the detail work of how Diana is revealed before she finally comes out of the trench. Patty had had this idea of the camera swirling around her to reveal that she’s put on the tiara, and you don’t exactly know what she’s doing. She described it as almost like, she said, “My homage to the Wonder Woman twirl, from the ’70s.” It’s like she’s not twirling, but the camera is.
So she’s changing. That was in the previs from when I started my prep, and then in our conversations, I started talking about like, “I think we need to do more detail work of her suit.” I thought, well, we could continue those kind of flowing movements, the camera swirling around her boots, those kinds of things. Then she would come back with another idea, and she’d say, “I’d also want the golden lasso, to see it go up over the last lip of the ladder.” So that, I think we were really kind of a lot of back and forth, to the point where I don’t even know who suggested what at the end. Where it’s my idea, or her idea, or Bill Westenhofer, who did the visual effects. We all had such a great time coming up with how that reveal was going to work. I think because all of us knew that it was the signature moment of the movie at that point, that we were very concerned about it and we wanted to get it right.
“…I’m having to light environments that they are then going to have to light in a CG world…”
At Film School Rejects we’ve been kind of talking about the relationship between a DP and the visual effects supervisor or the artists. It seems like, at least on our site, a lot of people that read our articles and stuff like that are under the impression that the DP doesn’t really have much to do with shots that are primarily CGI. But in reality, you do have a lot to do with those. What are the conversations like, or what is the relationship between say like you and Bill Westenhofer, or whoever the visual effects supervisor may be?
Yeah. A guy like Bill, or any visual effects supervisor, is as integral to the process as any of the key department heads. Creative departments, production designer, the costume designer who I work very closely with. He’s right in the mix. Often, because I’m having to light environments that they are then going to have to light in a CG world, we have to be in sync about what the backgrounds look like, what the environment is like, what time of day it is. So we’re always communicating those ideas.
Then, okay, the magic lasso, what color is that light? You need it to interact with the people on set. Me and the electric department and the props guys are going to build an LED rope, essentially, that lights up in the color that we want it, so that the actors can hold it. Are you then going to replace it, or do you need us to make it more shootable, or are we going to do a pass with the prop and then without the prop? It becomes very detail-oriented in terms of the technical side, but then it also becomes about visualizing, for example, the whole final battle with Wonder Woman and her foe, Ares. So much of that environment is green screen and a CG world. So we had to come up with where the light’s coming from, and if things are on fire, where the fire is in actual distance, and how close they are, and would they be actually lighting the scene or are they just background? Those are the conversations that you have.
If I tilt up here on this building, are you going to extend this rock face and make it more bold? For example, the throne room on Themyscira, that’s only partially built on a stage. It’s got a whole huge world around it, and we had to figure out where all the holes were in the rock in the CG world, so I would know what kind of light to put in there. Would the sun be coming through this hole, or would this just be this sort of ambient sky light? Is there water running behind the throne, and if so then is the light reflecting on to the cave walls? It gets very, very detail-oriented. So yeah. I think Emmanuel Lubezki kind of proved with Gravity that where the DP and now where effects are they’re very much aligned. I think that’s becoming more and more the case as visual effects continue to break the mold and break ground in terms of what they can do. So we have to be involved in lighting those CG worlds, too.
“I didn’t really have the opportunity to go back and double back on myself and to doubt what I was doing.”
You had 12 weeks to prep for Wonder Woman, in London. Well, that’s both a long time and also doesn’t seem long enough for prepping a movie of this magnitude, but I’m sure there were moments of fatigue and some sort of creative block. Did you ever experience anything like that, and how did you break through that?
Yeah. I certainly don’t remember that on Wonder Woman, because I felt like it was so little time to attack a movie of this magnitude. I felt like I was playing catch-up the whole movie, so I really didn’t have time to be blocked, you know? I just had to get answers to things. The great thing about the infrastructure of a movie that size is that I could continue to do tests all the way through that prep time, so I was constantly trying out an idea. Thinking of an idea, trying it out a couple days later, putting it on film, and then working with it in the digital intermediate and in the color suite. Kind of figuring it out, and then getting Patty’s response. I was building the whole time. I didn’t really have the opportunity to go back and double back on myself and to doubt what I was doing.
So in many ways the television discipline came back, even on a movie on this size. I just had to kind of hone in on what I was trying to achieve very quickly. Because once I come up with the idea, then I have to relay it to my grip and lighting teams, and they have to get it going on the sets and put it into a practical reality.
“Generally, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, how are we going to get this done?'”
On the day, what are you thinking during rehearsals? You’re there with Patty and the actors. What are you looking for? What are you kind of wary of?
Hopefully, I’ve already got a clue as to what the emotional content of the scene is. That’s comes from my conversations with Patty, and then reading the script, and kind of my own intuitive sense of where the story’s going. Hopefully, I’m already tuned into that, and then on the day really the blocking rehearsal becomes about where are the actor’s moving, where are the key moments, where are they going to play something that I think is important, and how do they move about the space. So I’m thinking about how’s the camera going to relate in conjunction to them, you know? Or I guess just relate to them. Then really how to light it dramatically to capture the mood of what’s going on. Yeah. Generally, I’m thinking, “Oh my god, how are we going to get this done?” Is usually a thought that occurs at some point, so yeah.
I bet that was especially for the ballroom scene in the castle. Reading about that gave me so much anxiety.
Yeah, you should’ve been there. You should’ve been there. Yeah, that was a few days of just being pitched up from the moment I got out of the car to… really till I would see the dailies the next day, and then it would start all over again. Yeah. That was very nerve-racking, a very difficult location to work in. A very important scene in the movie, and so the logistics combined with sort of what the scene was. Then how technically I was so limited in that location, that it really was tough.
“I’ve never even thought we have a superhero at the center of our movie”
Yeah. I always like asking the question to DPs, is there a shot in the film that you used a technique that you think no one would notice? Like I’ve gotten stretching pantyhose over the lens, or not locking the lens onto the camera, that kind of stuff. I know that you used a Chinese lantern to give Gal some dimension. Is that your unseen camera trick, or is there another one that’s even less visible?
Yeah. I mean, that is definitely one. If you think about that dance sequence, they’re moving and so is the camera, and it’s swirling 360 degrees. If you really look carefully, their key light is moving with them. You can’t see it because it just looks like they’re lit and the background is swirling, but literally that light is kind of locked to them as they twirl around. Yeah, I mean, that’s just a simple little thing. Gosh, that is a really good question. This is where I wish I was a little closer to finishing the movie because I’ve tended to forget a lot of those things. Yeah. I can’t think of anything offhand. I apologize.
That’s okay. Well, maybe we can interview you for your next film and we can get a real juicy tidbit.
Have you been talking at all about Wonder Woman 2? Do you know anything about that?
I know that it’s happening. Yeah, that’s about all I can say at this point.
Okay, well, that’s exciting that it’s happening, and hopefully more to come.
Yeah. One interesting thing I learned in researching for this interview is that the only three superhero films to receive best cinematography nominations at the Oscars were Warner Brothers films.
Oh, that’s interesting. Really? I guess it’s all the Batman movies: Batman Forever, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.
Have you thought about that? How does it feel to be in that lineage of both a franchise that really cares about cinematography with DC and a studio that really cares about cinematography with Warner Bros.?
Well, I mean, look, if I’m lucky enough to be included in a category of those movies I would be kind of overwhelmed and extremely proud, and consider myself very lucky. I mean, Stephen Goldblatt shot Batman Forever, so he’s one of my mentors. I’m a huge fan of Wally Pfister’s work, and particularly his work with Chris Nolan. It’s incredible. It’s interesting, we’ve heard a lot of talk about like, “Well, superhero movies don’t normally get nominated.” It’s funny, but I’ve never even thought we have a superhero at the center of our movie, I never went in thinking that we were making a superhero movie. I really thought we were making a classic adventure movie. In many ways, there’s been a long history of the Academy nominating genre movies, adventure movies, so I think we kind of fit the bill as far as that goes, at least in terms of how the movie is perceived as a genre or as an entity. So I think there is a precedent.
Never in a million years did I think that when I took on this movie that we would be having a conversation about this being an Oscar contender, you know? To be a part of a movie that’s been so well received and has the kind of crazy fandom and the box office results that it had is just… it’s just beyond my wildest expectations. It’s just great.
This website’s called Film School Rejects. What’s the most valuable thing you learned outside of film school?
Having done this now for over 20 years, I think what is really valuable to know about the industry and making movies is that it tends to be all-consuming, and it’s a lifestyle that is not suited for everyone. I think it’s important, if you really want to be able to control your career at some point, with the content and the things that you’re involved with, you have to be able to choose your projects, and you have to have the ability to say no, even when you’re starting out. I think it’s important to kind of curate your career, not only with the projects that you choose but the people that you’re involved with. That requires a certain amount of discipline, which is keeping your overhead low, and being okay with not planning vacations, and canceling vacations, and having a last-minute opportunity intrude and get in the way of your personal life. So I think you have to be tremendously resilient and committed.