NYCC2009: "Wonder Woman" Roundtable Interview with Writer Michael Jelenic
Right before the debut of Wonder Woman at the 2009 New York Comic Con, Toon Zone News was able to participate in several roundtable interviews with Bruce Timm, Michael Jelenic, and Lauren Montgomery. On the eve of the release of Wonder Woman on DVD and Blu-ray disc, we are proud to present these roundtables with the talent behind the movie.
Michael Jelenic began his career at Warner Brothers Animation scripting for Jackie Chan Adventures, The Batman, and Ben 10. Currently acting as the story editor for Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Jelenic was also able to script the Wonder Woman DTV movie. Several journalists were able to pepper Jelenic with questions about his take on the Amazing Amazon.
Q: Why Wonder Woman?
JELENIC: Well, Wonder Woman is considered one of the big three, part of the Trinity. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman. They just started off with Superman Doomsday, and then they did Batman Gotham Knight, with Justice League: New Frontier thrown in there, so it made a lot of sense for her to be the next movie and to explore her as a character.
Q: How familiar with Wonder Woman were you before you started?
JELENIC: I was not hugely familiar. My background is not necessarily comic books. Everybody I work around is the biggest comic book encyclopedia there is, so basically I learned a lot from them. I did some of my own research to bring me up to speed on stuff. It’s like I knew the basic stuff about Wonder Woman — the jet, the lasso. I had to educate myself on some of her villains and that sort of thing.
Q: Famously, the relaunch of the DCU in 86-87, brought about ….Did you guys pull in a lot of those comics as a starting point for this DTV?
JELENIC: You know, before I was on the project, Gail Simone had done some writing, and I think she gets a lot of her influence and takes a lot from the George Perez version, so I think you’re going to see a lot of that in there. His run is probably considered The Run of the characters, so obviously he influenced us a lot.
Q: He brought it back to its mythological roots, even so far as to have Diana be created out of clay.
JELENIC: Yeah, and she’s created out of clay in this story. We got the Greek gods to play a big part in it, so the film is heavily indebted to him.
Q: Did you get to work with Gail Simone at all?
JELENIC: No, I came to the project after the fact. One of the main reasons I was brought on was just that we were on a pretty tight production schedule and they needed a completed script, and I’m like an in-house writer, so it went to me and I put my take on what was already there.
Q: How much of the final script is yours and how much was what Gail had?
JELENIC: You know, it’s hard to say, “this percentage is mine, this percentage is hers.” I looked at the work she did and I basically tried to take my favorite elements of what she did so a lot of the character relationships that she set up, I put a little bit of my spin on it, but they’re very much like what she had. The character voices, in particular for Hippolyta and Artemis, those characters, I sort of followed her lead on how to interpret them and their motivations. So, you know, she put down a pretty good blueprint that I was able to follow and she has just a great interpretation of Wonder Woman, so I found that made my job a lot easier.
JELENIC: I would say Wonder Woman is very challenging. She has to have a character arc, but at the same time, I know a lot of people have miswritten the character in the sense that she comes to Man’s World and she sort of has to be tamed by man, and that was a pitfall I was aware of and I didn’t want to sort of step in. But at the same time, she has to learn a lesson. You don’t have a story unless a character goes from one spot to the next, so she has to learn something, but at the same time, not at the expense of her character. That was a bit challenging, deciding what is her arc, what does she learn.
On the flip side my favorite character is probably Steve Trevor. I enjoyed writing him just because in my mind, I’m a comedy writer (laughs), though maybe not in reality. He provides much of the humor, and that stuff is easy for me. He was pretty easy, and then Nathan Fillion is great in it. A flawed character who has to be worthy of the love of Diana.
Q: Did you know Nathan Fillion would be playing the role?
JELENIC: No, I had no idea! You know, Nathan Fillion did not even occur to me when I was writing, but once I think either Bruce Timm or Andrea Romano suggested him, and it was so obvious that that was the guy I had in my head when I was writing, even sub-consciously. That’s who Steve Trevor is, and I didn’t even know. It never occurred to me, but I was so pleased to hear the performance.
Q: You get a script into its final form, and then you hand it to the actors. Can you talk about what they bring to the performance?
JELENIC: Yeah, you know, I’m one of those people who, when they ask, “Who’s the most important: actors, directors, writers?” In live-action, I always say it’s the actors because that’s what you see. You don’t see the script page, you don’t see the lights, and if you have a bad writer or a bad director, good actors can hide all of that. Same thing with voice actors. They bring a sort of subtlety or a nuance to the roles that aren’t there, so Keri Russell, Nathan, Virginia Madsen, Oliver Platt, Alfred Molina, it’s like the casting is really insane, how good these people are, and it makes me look 10 times better than I actually am. The script sucks (laughs), but the voice acting is awesome.
Q: I don’t think Oliver Platt has done an animated feature before, has he? This is one of his first ones, if not his first.
JELENIC: Yeah, he might be new to it. He was in New York and we recorded him by telephone. At first, it sounded like he hadn’t done it before, but at the same time, he was awesome. He plays a pretty creepy character, and so he’s great. He’s one of my favorite actors, too. He’s a pretty funny guy. Someone asked me if I would have written things differently if I knew who was playing him, and I normally say no, but maybe for Oliver Platt. But maybe I’d have written Hades a little different.
Q: So you didn’t actually write for any of the actors, then?
JELENIC: No, all the casting happens after the script was done.
Q: One of the things that Steve Trevor has trouble with as a character is that he’s kind of like the male Lois Lane, in that his job is to scream and get rescued by Wonder Woman. Did you run into that?
JELENIC: You know, part of the take was that this was going to be like a romantic comedy, just because it seems like obvious territory to mine. You’ve got a woman who’s been isolated from Man being introduced to Man’s World, so I wanted Steve Trevor to be flawed, but at the same time worthy of the love of Wonder Woman. My earlier, earlier thoughts of the character, I almost wanted them to have like a competition throughout the script, where they were topping each other. I backed off that idea because it was a bad idea. Wonder Woman…well, she can’t be topped. But in the final version, he proves competent, and at the end of the movie, he sort of saves part of the day in his own way, if Wonder Woman saves most of the day.
Q: Did you draw any kind of inspiration from His Girl Friday or any of the classic comedies where male and female characters were definitely equals to each other?
JELENIC: Yes. Well, the classic comedy that I drew heavily from is Ninotchka. I very much wanted the feel of that movie. It’s so charming, and I wanted that charming feel to be in this one. I even quote the movie. There’s a quote I have in the movie from there, so if you can find it, look for it. If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But it’s a great, great movie.
Q: Most of what you’ve done before in the DC animated world has been The Batman or Legion of Superheroes, where you had Broadcast Standards and Practices.
JELENIC: Well, we had ratings, though. I will say this: there was a version of the film that was even more violent than the one that is out, but, it’s still pretty violent, and we do have to make it PG-13. I think the early script was probably rated “R.” There’s definitely some things we had to watch out for, but if we stay away from blood or cuss words or whatever, we can get pretty mature themes. Some of the stuff between Hippolyta and Ares is pretty mature, so that’s fun. Also, when I do my Saturday morning stuff, you can’t do beer or anything, so there’s a big scene in the movie where Steve Trevor tries to get Wonder Woman drunk, and I can do that.
Q: This is something I actually asked Bruce Timm about, but the DTVs all run about 70 minutes. Did you ever find that was an issue for you, writing to that amount of time?
JELENIC: Yeah, I mean it’s difficult writing something that’s longer, because you’ve got act 2 to fill, and that’s the hardest part of writing any script. You know how it’s going to start, you know how it’s going to end, but what’s the interesting stuff that happens in the middle? That said, when I wrote everything, it was just a little bit long, so there were some scenes that had to go that I wish didn’t have to go, or parts of scenes that left, but the biggest challenge in writing something that long is making sure everything tracks, and making sure you tie up any loose ends and subplots. It’s a lot more challenging than a 22-minute episode.
Q: So, actually, you found it harder to go from 22-minutes to 70 than saying, “Oh, I wish I had more time?”
JELENIC: Well, the format for a 22-minute episode is a lot easier than a format for a movie. I’ll often write a 22-mintue script that ends up being like it could have been 40- minutes, but it’s just a different structure that goes into something that’s longer, and has to have a different feel and a different pace. So, yeah, it’s definitely harder to do something longer.
Q: The current Wonder Woman that most people know in the comics and the DC animated universe moved away from the Invisible Jet. Why did you bring it back for this one?
JELENIC: I realize that some people hate the invisible jet, and I can understand why. I’ll say that up front, I understand why it’s hate-able, but it’s interesting. It really is. I mean, it’s like, how do you define a character? How do you define Batman? Batman’s the Batmobile, Batcave, Alfred…so what’s the interesting things about Wonder Woman? It’s the Invisible Jet, it’s the lasso of truth. You may feel that it’s corny or there’s some weird explanation, but if you boil everything down, everything about superheroes is corny and weird, but that’s why it’s so great, because it’s escapism. I think it’s fun. I think it’s fun to make a character like Batman as realistic as possible, but it’s also fun to sort of embrace that other side. Yeah, Wonder Woman has an invisible jet. It’s not supposed to be funny.
Q: The only thing is that if it’s an Invisible Jet, it should make everything inside the jet invisible, too. That’s the only problem I’ve ever had with the Invisible Jet.
JELENIC: I will tell you in my early drafts of the script, there were jokes to that effect, that Steve Trevor has to try to fly the invisible jet, but he can’t see any of the instruments. (laughs) It’s no longer there. I think just part of the staging just so you know, you can’t have an invisible jet that’s really invisible because the audience has to see something, even if it’s just an outline. So that’s a little challenging in production.
Q: You just mentioned that you had to cut some stuff. Can you talk about one of the things that, if you could go back, you’d really, really really want to get back in the movie?
JELENIC: I’m pretty happy how everything sort of turned out, but there is one scene. It’s probably the best scene in the movie, which was a scene that was in Gail’s early work that I sort of adjusted and added to. It has Wonder Woman teaching a little girl how to fight. About a third of that scene was cut, and I find that scene so charming that I wish that third was still there. But that’s it. I’m used to writing lots of stuff and having lots of stuff cut out. That’s just part of it.
Q: When we were talking with Bruce, he said that Wonder Woman is the best movie yet. How does it feel to get praise like that? It hasn’t even premiered and people are saying best yet.
JELENIC: Well, he has to say that (laughs), because it’s the most recent. I have a feeling the next movie to come out will be “the best yet.” (laughs)
Q: Well, hopefully, that means the quality is improving with each one.
JELENIC: It feels very different from New Frontier, and obviously from Gotham Knight, which was an anthology, and Doomsday. And it’s the first completely original story, so I think it’s very good. Lauren’s directing work is amazing, and the voice acting is also amazing. If anybody screws this up, it’s me (laughs). It’s the truth.
Q: One big thing that figures into all superhero stories are the fight scenes, the action scenes, the big punch-ups. How do you approach those? Do you beat them out? Or do you put in a page that says, “And then they fight for 10 minutes”?
JELENIC: Well, every writer is different on how they approach the fight scene. I literally will write “Director Embellished Fight Scene Ensues,” which would make director Lauren Montgomery so, so angry (laughs). But the fact is that I could write something I think is so awesome, and it’s not going to be awesome because I’m just a writer. I don’t know how to see things. I can’t visualize, but, you know, Lauren and her crew will do awesome stuff from the fight scenes, and stuff I could never think of. I’m really working with the best animators in the business, so why am I going to board it out when they could come up with something more interesting? And, plus, it’s easier for me just to write “Director Embellished Fight Scene Ensues.” (laughs)
Q: How many times have you seen the finished, fully-edited film now?
JELENIC: I don’t even know if I’ve watched this latest version all the way through, yet. We had a previous cut, but it was cut a little bit more, but I saw that.
Q: Did they cut it down to a PG and then bring it back to a PG-13?
JELENIC: Well, it was probably an R that they had to bring down to a PG-13. People say, “I want to see the R, I want to see the R” version, but somebody told me that a lot of the violence sort of distracted them from the story.
Q: Was there anything in the more violent version that was really story-based, like the way they did Return of the Joker?
JELENIC: No, nothing story-based. Some of the fights are trimmed, but story-wise, nothing was affected. I will say that originally, there was going to be a PG version of the movie. There’s a bar scene in this movie, but there is supposed to be another version of the bar scene for the PG where they’re eating dinner. It’s completely different, same sort of tone, but it’s funny, so I would be curious to see if that ever comes out and see which people like better.
Q: Like sort of the Cartoon Network version of it.
JELENIC: Exactly. It’ll probably be on Cartoon Network, that scene.
Q: Are there any superhero characters that you haven’t had a chance to write yet that you’re dying to write?
JELENIC: Well, I started off on Batman, so it’s like (laughs) seriously, where do I go from there? Plus, I’m on Brave and the Bold now, so with that show, I pretty much have written every single character DC’s ever come up with. I personally like when someone brings a character I’ve never heard of, and you find out why that character was popular, even if it was just for 2 years in the 50’s. There’s something interesting about discovering these characters.
Q: So no thoughts on what you want to do next, or what movie you want to sink your teeth into?
JELENIC: You know, I would love to get another opportunity to do another of these DTVs. I prefer to do an original story as opposed to adapting someone else’s work. And I’m doing another season of The Brave and the Bold, and that really is fun. It’s the most fun I’ve had working because it just has to be fun. It doesn’t have to be logical or anything. And it’s funny, and I like to laugh.
Q: Have you ever thought about doing a comic book?
JELENIC: I would love to do a comic book. I don’t have that skill set, to be perfectly honest. I don’t know what it takes to write a comic script. I’m respectful enough to what they do to know that the first 20 I do probably will suck, but storytelling is storytelling, and I would love the opportunity at some point. We’ll see, if I have time and someone asks me, I’d love to do it.
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