It's Her Turn: Producer Charles Roven readies Wonder Woman’s big-screen debut
The DC Comics superhero Wonder Woman famously uses her wristbands to deflect bullets. In that respect, she's a lot like a film producer.
"Never trust IMdB and never trust Variety," laughs Charles Roven, 67, the Academy Award-nominated founder of Atlas Entertainment and the producer of Warner Bros.' Wonder Woman and of such other DC Universe films as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, the upcoming Justice League and Christopher Nolan's 2005-2008 Batman trilogy, plus the acclaimed David O. Russell films American Hustle and Three Kings.
"There were a lot of different rumors going around," he adds, referring to a widely read trade story from May 2016 that said Warner Bros. felt the $870 million (now $873 million) global box office of the $250 million-budget Batman v Superman to be "somewhat disappointing"—and that Roven would no longer be the day-to-day producer of future DC superhero films but an executive producer instead.
"People have come and expressed that," he allows, "but it's not accurate. I think I have an executive producer credit on some of the movies that I was involved in script development on, if they get made," he says. "Movies I'm no longer producing."
When the original plan for a DC Universe of films was announced, Roven explains, "I was the producer or one of the producers on all those movies. But it became very apparent when, for example, we were finishing Batman v Superman in Los Angeles, we were shooting Suicide Squad in Toronto, we were preparing and shooting Wonder Woman in London and Italy, and [director] James [Wan] wanted to make Aquaman in Australia that unless I cloned myself there was no way for me to do all that and actually be present anywhere except on an airplane—besides the fact that I don't think my family would have been very happy." And despite what IMDb claims, “I am not a producer on [the announced] Green Lantern Corps and I am not a producer on [the announced] Cyborg."
As for complaints about the box office, "The good news is that, ultimately, reality does come to the fore," Roven says, "because as disappointing as the world can say that Batman v Superman was—and quite frankly, we also had [claims of] disappointment on Suicide Squad—the combined revenues, just theatrical, of those two movies was over a billion-six and helped contribute to Warner Bros.' second most successful year ever." A side note worth mentioning: For all the public second-guessing, The Hollywood Reporter, a sister publication of Film Journal International, in December named Roven its Producer of the Year.
This year for him, all eyes are on Wonder Woman, the venerable superhero's big-screen debut following a 1974 TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby, the fondly remembered 1975-1979 ABC/CBS series starring Lynda Carter, and a 2011 telefilm with Adrianne Palicki. Created by psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter in All Star Comics #8 (cover-dated Dec. 1941), from one of DC's predecessor companies, All-American Publications, Wonder Woman was the only superhero other than Batman and Superman to be published continuously from the 1940s' Golden Age of Comics to the 1960s' Silver Age—weathering a superhero downturn that saw even such hit characters as Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the original Captain Marvel, Flash and Green Lantern all fall by the wayside during the interim.
"She's always captured the eye of the public, she's always had interest about her and I think that she's both an inspirational and an aspirational character," Roven says of the warrior princess of the mythological Amazons. Unlike many male superheroes, "She uses her strength and her abilities reluctantly, only when she really needs to."
The new movie, starring Gal Gadot—an Israeli model-actress who had been Miss Israel, then spent two years getting real-life warrior training through her country's mandatory two-year army service—places Wonder Woman amid World War I. That war being far less known to modern audiences—young audiences, certainly—than World War II or even the Civil War, why did the filmmakers—director Patty Jenkins, screenwriter Allan Heinberg and story writers Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs—choose that era?
"Well, we talked about it—it certainly wasn't arbitrary," Roven says. "World War I was really the first war where you could really do mass annihilation without ever facing your enemy. We thought that that was a really appropriate setting for her to come to what we called 'Man's World,' and from her point of view see the atrocities and the tragedy that men do to each other."
In comic-book canon, Wonder Woman a.k.a. Diana Prince grew up on the Amazonian island of Themyscira, a fictional land named after the mythological city of Themiscyra, the capital of the Amazon tribe in Greek mythology, and originally Paradise Island in the comics. There she heard "these amazing stories of how her mother and her aunt were enslaved by man and ultimately gained their own freedom and the freedom of the rest of the Amazons," Roven recounts. "So she knows that her destiny is to be a warrior and to do something for those who don't have the ability to do it themselves. Something courageous. Something honorable. Something noble." She encounters downed American military pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) when he is washed ashore, and learns of the gruesome war in which chemical weapons, trench combat and the emerging technologies of tanks and airplanes created a hellscape that would ultimately kill more than nine million combatants and seven million civilians, including victims of genocide. And as Roven understates, "She doesn't perceive those to be noble battles."
Roven and his fellow producers fought their own noble battle and assigned a female director to the film. Michelle MacLaren, a veteran TV and TV-movie director whose work ranges from "Game of Thrones" and “Breaking Bad” to the sitcom "Modern Family," was announced in November 2014 but left that April over what the studio called "creative differences." Two days later, Warner Bros. announced Jenkins—who ironically had been the originally named director of another superhero movie, Marvel's mythological Thor: The Dark World (2013), but who left that project in December 2011 for similar creative reasons. Though she has only one previous theatrical feature—the critically acclaimed indie hit Monster (2003), in which she guided Charlize Theron to an Academy Award for Best Actress—Jenkins more recently has directed two TV pilots that went to series (AMC's "The Killing" and ABC's "Betrayal"), plus the network telefilm Exposed.
"There are a lot of qualities that Patty has in her history that make her the right person to us," Roven says. "You may or may not know that Patty started out as a cinematographer"—she was second assistant camera on the Lisa Eichhorn-Stanley Tucci romantic comedy A Modern Affair (1995)—"and so she has great knowledge in terms of shot selection and scope, etcetera. She also is a writer; even though she doesn't have screenplay credit, she contributed a tremendous amount of writing on the script and she had great ideas. So even though Allan Heinberg and Zack Snyder had the biggest load on the treatment and ultimately Allan got the screenplay credit, Patty really did a lot of work on helping shape her vision of the movie."
Another woman working on the movie is an even closer collaborator of Roven's—Rebecca Steel Roven, the 30-year-old daughter of Roven and his late first wife, the famed pioneering female producer and studio head Dawn Steel. After working as an assistant to her dad on four films, serving as associate producer on the comedy Revenge for Jolly! (2012), starring Kristen Wiig, Elijah Wood and Oscar Isaac, and as co-producer of her father's Warcraft: The Beginning (2016), Rebecca debuts as an executive producer with Wonder Woman.
Did either dad or daughter see any of Steel—who died of cancer in 1997 at age 51—in the title character? "You know, it's really interesting," Roven says. "[Rebecca] had a number of conversations with Patty about Dawn. She found things similar about Dawn's personality that made [Rebecca] feel that [her mother] was a wonder woman."
As for the future of DC movies, "I know that Warner Bros. is working on the big-screen Flash movie," Roven says, but for himself and Atlas, "I'd say we're focusing on [the projected] Suicide Squad [sequel]… I'm hopeful that there will be more than one Wonder Woman [film], but we don't know. And I'm hoping to do some more Superman movies, so that's a pretty full plate."
Will the upcoming films be lighter and more fun, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies—a question reflecting a common criticism that the DC films are dark and gloomy? "I believe that the [dark] Nolan [Batman] movies were extremely well-liked and I would say that the movie that got the particular rap you're talking about was probably Batman v Superman and we learned some lessons from that," Roven admits. "But we also had to take the characters to a certain place to make what happened in the story credible and for the character that survived, Bruce Wayne, to learn something from the experience of the events of that movie and be able to go forward."
Which kind of makes Bruce Wayne a lot like a producer as well.