Janet Hetherington chats with director Lauren Montgomery and producer Bruce Timm about their fresh take on Wonder Woman in the new animated movie treatment of the classic DC Comics heroine.
"Stronger than Hercules, wise as Athena, beautiful as Aphrodite, and swift as Hermes, she is the champion of the immortal Amazons of Themyscira, their Ambassador of Peace and Knowledge to the World of Man. She is Wonder Woman."
So writes Phil Jemenez in his foreword to Scott Beatty's book Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Princess. With those mythical abilities and her magic truth-seeking lasso, bullet-proof bracelets and invisible plane, Wonder Woman has earned a place as one of DC Comics' "big three" -- a top hero alongside Superman and Batman.
That stature has also earned Wonder Woman a starring role in the latest DC Universe animated original PG-13 movie from Warner Premiere, DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation. Superman was recently showcased in Superman Doomsday (2007) ,while Batman was featured in Batman: Gotham Knight (2008).
"This time she gets her solo role, and the action spotlight is really focused on her," says director Lauren Montgomery. "So in this movie, it's really Wonder Woman in action, on her own, kicking some serious butt."
While the Wonder Woman animated film is available today on DVD and Blu-ray via Warner Home Video, fans have been treated to previews at such venues at New York Comic Con and WonderCon in San Francisco.
"We had about 2,500 very enthusiastic fans in New York, and another 1,700 in San Francisco, and they seemed to relish every funny line and every impactful blow with the same level of enjoyment," comments producer Bruce Timm. "Normally, when you produce a DVD or a TV series, it's a very solitary process because people watch your work in their homes. The premieres at the cons are really very gratifying because we, as filmmakers, actually get to witness the fans' response with a mass audience."
"And the premieres we've had for Wonder Woman have been our best so far -- which says a lot considering the response we had to the first three films," he adds.
Getting a grasp on the Amazing Amazon was as difficult as resisting the spell of her magic lasso. Wonder Woman has a long and complicated history, and it was up to the movie's team to pull all the elements of her mythology together and, in effect, to redefine Wonder Woman.
"One of the things that really intrigued us the most about the whole Wonder Woman mythology is the actual mythology of it," comments Timm. "Her character has distinct roots in classic Greek mythology, so we really played that up. The movie actually starts with a fairly long, epic battle that takes place in ancient times. It's swords and sorcery, die-hard Amazon warriors versus monsters and barbarians."
"Wonder Woman is based in mythology, but it doesn't follow it to a 'T' by any means," says Montgomery. "I really just had to bone up on my Wonder Woman version of mythology, so I could make sure that we pleased the fans. We wanted to stay true to the legend but we did eliminate or underplay some of the sillier aspects of that mythology."
"We worked hard to establish the character design, the costume details, the weaponry design and the background styling," Timm says.
"I think the action will wow the viewers because I don't think they're used to seeing Wonder Woman in moving pictures this way," comments Montgomery. "The only previous incarnations were mostly the Lynda Carter series and the Justice League series."
In this retelling of the Wonder Woman legend, Amazon Princess Diana has been living with her proud, strong, warrior Amazon sisters in a utopian civilization shielded from the corrupt world of man -- hidden away on the mystical island of Themyscira. A betrayal within the Amazon sisterhood leads to the escape of Ares, the God of War, and Diana must capture him before he unleashes global chaos and destruction. With the aid of fighter pilot Steve Trevor, Diana tracks Ares to the United States for a battle unlike any humankind has ever experienced.
"Beyond the mythology, Wonder Woman gets to play with several dichotomies," observes Timm. "It's Amazon culture vs. man's world; ancient mythological times vs. the contemporary world; and, of course, all the male and female issues. All of those conflict themes run throughout the entire movie -- in the script and visually."
Naturally, the design of Wonder Woman plays an important part in the movie. "She presents a challenge because she needs to be drop-dead gorgeous, but also very, very strong both physically and emotionally," Timm says. "She's a powerful presence and we had to find that balance between athleticism and glamour."
"We kept the designs simple enough for animation, but we wanted to give them a slightly more detailed, less cartoony look for the PG-13 content," Montgomery says. "Wonder Woman went through a lot of different versions."
Timm notes that Montgomery, an accomplished storyboard artist, skillfully took the lead on the design of Wonder Woman.
"It's not like anything you've seen from the comics, though we did look at a lot of the comics for inspiration," Timm continues. "We liked the George Perez version and Adam Hughes' version, and all points in between. But there are a lot of the things that Adam and George brought to the character that were so specific and detail-oriented that they wouldn't necessarily translate to animation. We wanted to keep the number of lines down to a minimum -- to create a relatively simple and straight-forward design.
"It was quite a challenge, but I think the design Lauren came up with is exactly what it needs to be," Timm offers. "I think she came up with a very unique approach."
"The point was to make her a different version of Wonder Woman, not the same that we've seen before in Justice League and such," Montgomery explains. "We tried to make her a truly original design, so we focused on a few different areas. She's more athletic than some of the earlier designs -- to make her look strong without looking masculine. I just wanted her to make sure that when she was in action, she would be taken seriously."
The new design also meant giving the boot to high-heeled footwear. "One of the things that we specifically liked about Adam Hughes' most recent take on Wonder Woman was that he gave her kind of baggy boots -- instead of those super tight go-go boot-type things," Timm explains. "They kind of flare out at the bottom and they're flats, not heels. That made her more athletic. It kind of planted her and gave her a solidity that we really liked. It's a minor change, but it had an effect on her design."
The opening sequence to the PG-13 Wonder Woman animated movie is one of director Montgomery's favorites. "It was very difficult because it was a huge epic battle between the Amazons and Ares' forces of evil. It required a lot of pencil mileage," Montgomery says.
"As always, we have a large crew who do a lot of behind-the-scenes work," says Montgomery. "Our BG [background] designer, Jevon Bue, came up with an amazing array of environments -- like the entire Themyscira palace and this magnificent battlefield. Our BG painters -- Chun Liu and Wei Zhao -- did the vast majority of BG painting, and they really are stunning.
"My secondary character designer, Lynell Forestall, did pretty much all the extra Amazons, all of Ares' guys in the battles, and every character that wasn't a main one," Montgomery notes. "We have Lynell to thank for all those incredible crowd scenes and battles.
"Craig Cuqro, our color stylist, did all the character colors and making sure they fit into their environments," Montgomery adds. "Wonder Woman has a very luscious palette, and that's all thanks to Craig.
"We wanted the film to be vibrant, but we also needed our characters to fit into their settings," she says. "Craig used colored filters to set the characters into their backgrounds, and our overseas studio Moi added a lot of diffusion, which gives the characters a really nice kind of glowing look -- especially during the scenes in Themyscira. The soft diffusion throughout the scenes in Themyscira makes everything seem much nicer, like a paradise. The style adds a lot of quality to the overall look of the film."
Montgomery also enjoyed sequences that reflect the humor in Michael Jelenic's script. "Another favorite is the interrogation scene, where the Amazons question Steve Trevor," she says. "It was a lot easier to do because it was more dialogue and less action, so there weren't as many poses. But what made it even more fun was that the scene called for me to do more comedic things with the drawings and the acting, and we deal with action so often that we don't get to do comedy much. So that was fun."
The Amazon Voice
As dialogue director Andrea Romano told Animation World Network in July at the 2008 Comic-Con International in San Diego, the animated film needed a voice actor who could express both strength and innocence. Keri Russell is the voice of the re-envisioned Wonder Woman while Nathan Fillion voices Steve Trevor.
Other voice actors include Rosario Dawson as fellow Amazon Artemis, Virginia Madsen as Wonder Woman's mother, Hippolyta, Oliver Platt as Hades, David McCallum as Zeus and Alfred Molina as Wonder Woman's adversary, Ares.
"The main aspect of Andrea's job is that she needs to get performances out of the actors that the producers and directors want," comments Timm. "It has to fit our vision of the scene and the film. As dialogue is written on the page, you could have 30 different line readings of any individual line -- it really depends on what else is happening in the scene or the intent of that specific line of dialogue. But Andrea has an obvious natural instinct for the meaning of the line. Most importantly, she knows how to translate that information into actor-ese to get that performance. She can put our thoughts into words so that the actors can understand where she's coming from and what's needed for the scene."
Like Wonder Woman, Romano also possesses an Amazon spirit and the swiftness of Hermes. "One of the things I love about Andrea is that she's fast," Timm suggests. "She just cuts right to the chase, never goes down blind alleys, and she physically talks fast. It's funny because when I first started working with her, I didn't think I was going to be able to keep up. She's just so full of energy, it's like she must've been mainlining Red Bull before every session. But that's great for me, because I'm very ADD myself. She doesn't equivocate; she's just right to the point -- attack, attack, attack, get it done."
The Wonder Woman animated film is going beyond direct-to-DVD and Blu-ray with its availability via OnDemand, Pay-Per-View and download. However, Timm says that the different delivery systems are not a problem. "None of that really figures into our production process or quality," he says. "Our production standards are pretty high already. High-def and Blu-ray already open that door. Unless we're shifting from the TV screen to the big screen, the process shouldn't shift."
Still, Timm says that there are some items of special interest on the DVD. "There are two behind-the-scenes documentaries that should be of interest to any fan of Wonder Woman. I hope our voice commentary is of interest. We like to have fun with those and, at the same time, give some information you wouldn't hear elsewhere. We've included a few Justice League episodes that feature Wonder Woman."
Timm hints that the "defining new look" for Wonder Woman may be carried over into other movies that feature her. "I would hope so, at least in future films that would be Wonder Woman-based animated stories," he says. "I suppose that will depend on the fan reaction, but so far the response has been tremendous."
Montgomery and Timm are now hard at work on the new Green Lantern animated movie. "Green Lantern: First Flight -- we're working on it right now, and it comes out after Comic-Con in late July."
"Lauren and I are coming right back as director and producer of Green Lantern: First Flight," agrees Timm. "It's the first-ever full-length feature starring Green Lantern. We're using Hal Jordan, and we pretty much get the origin story over before the opening credits -- so it's more of a first adventure for Green Lantern.
"Fans will get a full helping of the universe of Green Lanterns, including one notable villain in yellow," he says. "We've got a good cast with Christopher Meloni of Law & Order Special Victims Unit as Hal Jordan, and Victor Garber from Alias and Eli Stone as Sinestro. Plus Tricia Helfer is our Boodikka and Michael Madsen is Kilowog."
And while she may be concentrating on the hero in green for the moment, Montgomery had a blast working on Wonder Woman and has not ruled out working on another super heroine -- or an undersea hero. "I would be more than happy to do any female lead character because, for super heroes, I like girls more than boys.
"And that being said," Montgomery notes, "I'd also like to do an Aquaman movie, because he's the closest thing in superheroes to The Little Mermaid, which is my favorite movie."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and artist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton, and a ginger cat, Heidi.