The director returns to television to direct the first two episodes of the wild true story of Fauna Hodel.
Patty Jenkins knows a good story when she hears one. She met Fauna Hodel years ago, so bringing that search for racial identity to television had to be told with the correct emotional beats and care. Working with writer Sam Sheridan, Jenkins introduces us to Fauna and we take the journey of self-discovery with her. It’s a fascinating tale set to the backdrop of an impeccably well-crafted film noir story.
We are first introduced to Fauna (then known as Pat to her family and friends) when she is living with her mother in Sparks, Nevada, but Fauna discovers that she’s adopted when she finds her birth certificate. Jimmie Lee first appears to be an overly attentive mother who is only concerned with how her daughter presents herself to the world. She wants Fauna to find a real purpose in her life and to get out of Sparks. When Fauna starts asking questions about her true identity, however, a bomb goes off and everything changes.
Jenkins has a natural ability to connect her audience with her characters, and the same goes for I Am the Night. Jay Singletary (Chris Pine in the performance of his career) is a traumatized alcoholic holding onto his life by the smallest of threads, but we want him to get better and sober up to help Fauna realize who she is. When we are transferred from Sparks to Los Angeles, we are thrown into the deep end of a lurid world full of shadow and mystery. We don’t know what’s around the corner, and it forces you to the edge of your seat.
Jenkins famously kicked off The Killing in 2011, and she has occasionally returned to television because she knows that the medium allows for more deliberate, careful storytelling. I Am the Night is a slow burn with some bonkers, terrifying twists, and it wouldn’t be as effective if it didn’t have Jenkins’ assured hand at the helm.
You have a history with Fauna Hodel and I Am the Night. How hard was it to leave after directing the first two episodes and introducing Fauna’s story to an even wider audience?
It was hard. It was a pet project for many, many years and I was passionate about telling. Going into it, we thought that I was going to be able to direct all of the episodes. When I realized that it wasn’t going to fit, I will say it was hard, but also Carl Franklin is someone I’m a huge fan of. I’m so interested in his work. So leaving was greatly assuaged by the fact that I was getting to collaborate with someone I thought would do a great job, and we brought on Vic Mahoney as well. It was hard, but once I embraced it, I felt really good about Sam Sheridan staying on. There was continuity there. It was worth it in order for it to get the story made.
One of my favorite things about this whole series is Chris Pine’s performance.
I honestly think you’re a director who truly understands what a great leading man he is.
He’s so great.
How was it to help him tap into this desperate anger that Jay Singletary carries around with him?
I’ve always thought Chris was more of a character actor or he’s a superstar leading male. He sings at that. However, he has this side of himself that’s much more dimensional and character actor-y that most leading men don’t get asked to do. It was great because he has the skills and the chops in his pocket. Knowing him and being able to create a shorthand with him makes it exciting because I know his Rolodex and skill set and I know what characters he’s going towards. It makes it possible to tune in and how that speaks to him as a person. It’s like digging in in therapy. It’s working with a human being that you know and you’re able to hone what you know they already have inside of them.
He consistently surprised me in I Am the Night. I didn’t know he was going to go to those dark places that he reaches.
That makes me so, so happy that he gets celebrated for this.
When we meet Fauna and Jimmie Lee at home, it almost feels like a drama that we’d see on stage. It’s claustrophobic and toxic. What was it like directing them before we explode into this bigger story?
That’s a formula, I think, that I’ve done exclusively now. Monster was a small, intimate story but with the big pop of the murders to carry the flash bang over here. Same thing with Wonder Woman. ‘It’s Wonder Woman!’ but you have these other cool, interesting characters. This isn’t a genre I ever worked in before. It’s s fun to play in the wheelhouse of noir and I think it’s more inherent to that genre than most. Noir is about flawed people and what they’d do in desperate circumstances. That was great about it. You’re dealing with all this crazy human behavior and that allows you to really dig in there. I loved that about I Am the Night. Sam and I would always say, “Greatness, but at what cost?” Fauna Hodel is desperate to find out about herself and everything she discovers is the worst possible thing. But it’s all caused by a man who wanted to be great and would do anything to do it. Playing with that identity is so interesting to me. It allows you to mess around in those subtler character issues.
I had no idea that you got to film in the actual Sowden House.
Yes, we did.
That place feels like a mirage or a ghost itself. And we only see it very briefly in the first few episodes. What was it like shooting in a place like that?
Pretty crazy because for all the years that I’ve thought about this story and told this story, I’ve always talked about that house. I’ve always wanted to go in there. So not only were we there, but we were spending huge amounts of time shooting there. It’s insane. It’s interesting to be inspired by this space. These stories are real and this real thing happened right here. And yet that house is everything that is symbolized. At one time it’s comfortable and fine and normal and on the other side, it’s bizarre and crazy looking. And sinister.
It’s such a beautiful place on the outside but then when you’re in there you can tell something isn’t right. You’re thinking, ‘Oh it’s so cool…but it’s creepy…’
Freaks me out just thinking about it, to be honest.
Doesn’t it. You’re right!
You keep coming back to television. Is there’s something that pulls you toward the medium or is it just the stories that we get to tell now?
I think it’s the second. I love the idea of telling all these different kind of stories. On television, you get to tell a longer, more complicated story. I don’t care what the medium is. I just want to do stories that delight and interest me. I think TV was more of an exercise for me early on, and now it’s a place where you can really blossom big time work that you believe in even though it ends up on the smaller screen. I’m excited about this period of time for that reason. You can tell however long a story you want to tell. Or short. There’s a place to put it.
That bias towards television is falling away now.
I Am the Night does dive into some deeper issues. You have that personal connection with the real Fauna Hodel, but the series delves into police corruption and brutality and racial injustice. Was that the other pull for you to direct the beginning of this show?
I watch true crime all the time, and I ask myself what it is about it. I’m not a particularly dark person. I want to know what draws me in. I think what it is you’re watching what people do in the most exceptional circumstances and what length they are willing to go to. This story, and watching how it culminates, you have to remember that yes, it is noir. But it’s real noir. It’s the real noir that was inspiring all the noir. This story had such a huge influence on Chinatown and Chinatown now has the ability to influence back and finally be told. Telling that work is slightly less pop and simple than the noir and the 50’s. Getting to dabble in that world and to tell the real stories that are what inspired that whole genre is great.
I’ve watched the show twice, and I’ve never thought of it that way. You can pick up on a lot of Chinatown in I Am the Night and there’s a lot of Hitchcock in there.
Even though I knew it was based on a real story, I never thought that these real events were inspiring movies we’re been watching for decades. Literally decades.
It’s crazy, isn’t it?
This is the first time you got to work with Sam Sheridan. What was that like?
It was great. When Sam and I met, he was writing books and I was working on films and writing scripts. We’ve always been writing and therefore collaborating, but nothing has come to production. So, in a way, it’s nothing new. We’re both artists and always talking to each other about our work. On the other hand, this is a genre that is so in his wheelhouse and he has such great skill at that it was cool that I was getting to play with watching him. And adding to it. So it’s kind of the dream with getting to do the work but the work wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the other person.
I can get that sense immediately, because the first two episodes go by so quickly. I knew they were an hour long, but I found myself saying, ‘Oh, that’s it? It’s over already?’
Oh, good! That’s so awesome.
You still hold the record for the highest grossing film directed by a woman. This particular time period—with so much corruption and so much chatter about who has what power, especially men—did it remind you how far Hollywood has come and how far it has yet to go?
Yes. It always amazes me. I was born in the 70’s and the 60’s weren’t that long ago. You’re definitely aware of the version of the 60’s that I grew up around. As time passes and goes forward, you look back and remember the events that were happening were so close to your own lifetime. It’s stunning every single time. I’ve been having such an interesting time myself. Somebody was asking me about hearing about something that was male-dominated and if it surprised me. Well, no, it doesn’t, because that’s how everything was. Always until super recently. I’m so used to it that I don’t notice it. I’m more surprised that more people are noticing it and bringing it up now because that’s what’s new. I feel like looking back on any period—especially the 60’s—and digging into stuff like you’re black so of course you wouldn’t come to this side of town. I notice it a lot with race. Gender, too, but the race issue with Fauna oscillating between white and black is radical. Who she is and what she could do if she was white and who she is and what she could do if she’s black is night and day.
I thought of that as I was watching!
That is so interesting to look back on. When she would tell me her life story, it felt like she could almost go undercover as a white person and walk into the environments that she never thought she could see in her lifetime because she was passing as white. Or thought she was passing as white. That is such a trip that those were all such givens so recently.
I Am the Night is streaming now.