L. A. Story
To tell a quintessential tale of the city of angels, the director of Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins, reteamed with leading man Chris Pine. Together they embarked on TNT's I Am the Night, an exploration of crime, class and race, and — fortunately for Pine — a deep dive into apple pie.
Just days before Chris Pine arrived on the set of TNT’s noir crime drama I Am the Night in Los Angeles, he’d completed a shoot across the pond that left him physically and emotionally exhausted.
“I was knee-deep in three feet of mud, swinging axes somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland,” Pine says. He plays the Earl of Carrick in the 14th-century Netflix drama Outlaw King.
“I came home on a Friday and on Monday, I was wearing shorts in Malibu.” Nice weather aside, it was anything but a walk on the beach to play a disgraced journalist who wants to reopen the cold case of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder.
Still haunted from his tour of duty in Korea, Jay Singletary is “a guy who’s been throwing himself against a brick wall for so many years and laughing. He’s got blood running down his face and a tooth missing, and he’s finding the cosmic irony in all of it,” Pine says. Jay is drugged out and desperate, but you can’t help rooting for him, thanks in large part to the complexity of Pine’s performance.
Yet when he showed up on the set of I Am the Night, he wasn’t fully prepared for what would follow.
“It was a wild process of osmosis, getting to know Jay throughout the 75-day shoot,” Pine says. And even days before the limited series premiered in January, he was still peeling back layers. “As I think about it, one of Jay’s deepest pains may be that he went off willingly to fight for his country, and when he came back, no one was looking after him.”
So why did Pine dive into the murky depths of this mentally messed-up muckraker? Easy. Signing on as both a star and an executive producer for the six-hour series gave him the opportunity to reunite with Patty Jenkins, his director on the 2017 blockbuster Wonder Woman.
Of course that film’s success, with global box office exceeding $820 million, prompted a sequel, due out in 2020. So the two were due to reunite in London a few months later. But they were determined to get I Am the Night made before regrouping for Wonder Woman 1984.
The fact that Pine’s Wonder Woman character, Captain Steve Trevor, returns from the dead to claim an even larger, more important role in the sequel is a testament to the trust Jenkins places in him. “Chris and I had a great working relationship and friendship and wanted to work together more,” she says.
Pine agrees: “I feel like she understands me well and has an interest in wanting to know me more.”
He trusted Jenkins, who directed the first two episodes of I Am the Night, to steer him in the right direction.
“On a micro-molecular level, she’s willing to spend time with an actor to get him or her to achieve the results they’re capable of,” he says, confessing that he has a deeply embedded lazy streak. “Quite often, if I can get away with something that’s mimicry more than authenticity, I’ll do it. She doesn’t let that fly.”
He points to a scene in the second episode, in which Jay’s gotten the life kicked out of him. After finishing the take, “Patty kept jabbing at me, as she does,” he recalls. “I asked, ‘Was that all right?’ She said, ‘Do you think that’s all right?’ knowing full well that I didn’t.” After several more takes, he nailed it.
“There was something that she wanted to see in my eyes. It may not come across in the scene, but she obviously found what she was looking for.”
Jenkins had planned to direct all six episodes, but when superheroine pre-production in London called, she recruited Victoria (Vic) Mahoney to helm episodes three and four and Carl Franklin for five and six. Each brought their own gifts to the table. “Franklin is someone I’d looked up to,” Jenkins says. “To me, [his 1995 film] Devil in a Blue Dress wrote the book on this genre — noir with a twist.”
Mahoney, best known for her debut feature Yelling to the Sky, added a different perspective and approach. Pine is a fan. “Guerilla filmmaking is like throwing paint at a canvas and moving on,” he says. “You don’t have time to self-censor. That’s a place from which I want to keep working.”
Nearly a decade ago, when Jenkins met Fauna Hodel, whose search for identity is at the center of I Am the Night, she was immediately taken with her tale.
“I remember the day clearly. I came home and couldn’t stop telling Sam about her, and searching the internet for more on Fauna’s life.” Sam Sheridan, her husband, is an actor, producer, screenwriter and author in his own right. Jenkins learned that Fauna was the granddaughter of Black Dahlia murder suspect Dr. George Hodel. Her mother, Tamar, had given her up for adoption as a child.
Early in I Am the Night, a teenage Fauna discovers that the woman who raised her in Reno — a bitter, hard-drinking singer-turned-maid expertly played by Golden Brooks — is not her birth mother. She then heads to Los Angeles in search of clues about her identity. (Spoiler: there are more than a few red herrings.)
“I’m such a believer in story, and this is the quintessential great story,” Jenkins says. “But I learned of it before the advent of limited series, so it was a difficult project to find a home for. Still, years later, I kept telling the story.”
Sheridan, who ultimately wrote most of the scripts for I Am the Night, met with Fauna Hodel several times in London while Jenkins was filming Wonder Woman. He also looked to her memoir, One Day She’ll Darken, for inspiration. But, ultimately, he found Fauna’s story daunting and difficult to translate into a screenplay.
“Part of it was the darkness, and part was, What’s the resolve of her story?”
Jenkins credits Pine with getting the project off the ground after she shared the story with him one day on the Wonder Woman set.
“When you’re on location for months at a time, you can talk about your workout routine and what you ate for lunch only so much,” says Sarah Aubrey, who was recently promoted from executive vice-president of original programming at TNT to head of content for WarnerMedia Entertainment’s streaming service.
“And when Patty and Sam tell the story of Fauna, you can’t help but be enthralled by it. She’s a great storyteller.”
Pine immediately bought into the premise. “I told her we should go off and make it,” he recalls. From that point, things happened quickly. With Pine on board, Sheridan got the idea to create a fictional character, Jay Singletary, who would help Fauna track down her grandfather, prominent gynecologist George Hodel (played by Jefferson Mays).
The journalist character helped Sheridan structure the narrative. “We were trying to put pressure on it to be only Fauna’s story for a long time,” Jenkins recalls. “But Jay became a wonderful way to get a different view of the world than this 16-year-old girl has.” Sheridan, who’s also an executive producer on the project, wrote all but one episode; writer Monica Beletsky penned episode five.
Aubrey recalls the day in 2017 that Jenkins and Pine came to TNT’s offices in Burbank, California, to pitch I Am the Night (they are both executive producers of the series, as well as Sheridan and Michael Sugar).
“When that kind of team walks in the door, your ears certainly perk up,” she says. At the time, the network was in production for its first major limited series, The Alienist, the period drama based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name. Aubrey was betting that the project’s star power would catapult TNT to the next level in terms of attracting talent. Her bet paid off.
The noir genre made sense for a limited series, she believed. “I think mystery wants to be limited,” Aubrey says. “That’s the lesson we’ve learned from all the shows we love from the U.K. You have this very satisfying conclusion, rather than baiting and switching the audience from season to season.”
Genre and period costumes aren’t the only elements I Am the Night shares with The Alienist.
“Paramount tried for 20 years to make a film adaptation of Carr’s novel, but there was just too much content. Still, it was perfect for a limited series.” Similarly, Jenkins says she never envisioned I Am the Night as a feature: “It’s so complex, and the crimes are only one part of it. You’re talking about this woman’s story, race, identity and art. I had six hours, and I barely felt that was enough.”
Another aspect of Jenkins’s pitch that Aubrey loved was her desire to turn the noir genre on its ear. “In these stories, women are typically the femmes fatales , the victims. Here, Fauna is the detective moving through this very murky, murderous world. The ending of the piece isn’t about catching a killer. It’s about her defining her identity apart from a poisonous family.”
For Jenkins, the greatest challenge was creating a Fauna who captured the story’s electricity. “Getting someone who could convey wide-eyed innocence but wasn’t a pushover was important,” she says.
Enter India Eisley. Working with Jenkins had been a dream of hers ever since she stayed up late as a child to watch Monster, Jenkins’s 2003 directorial debut.
“I was very young — much younger than I probably should have been,” Eisley admits. “But that movie sparked my desire to do great work.” Eisley came to fame playing Ashley Juergens in ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager from 2008 to 2013.
She says portraying a character as complex as Monster’s Aileen Wuornos (which earned Charlize Theron an Oscar) was a goal that Jenkins helped her to accomplish.
Interestingly, Jenkins mentions Wuornos and Hodel in the same breath when describing the pressure she felt in making both projects. “With Monster and I Am the Night, I was dealing with a real person’s story. I had to find my own passion and connection to it while staying true to theirs.”
Initially, Eisley felt a similar pressure. She had difficulty relating to Fauna Hodel’s circumstances. But after talking to Fauna’s daughters, Rasha and Yvette, who were on set throughout filming, Eisley found ways to connect. “There was a part of Fauna that always felt like an outsider looking in,” she says.
“I could relate to that greatly.” It helped that Rasha and Yvette were very encouraging — “especially considering they had lost their mom [to cancer] just a few weeks before I was cast,” Eisley says.
Her screen time with Pine, which started in episode three, helped loosen her up. “He has a very childlike, playful energy on set,” Eisley says. “It takes a lot for me to be goofy, but he helped in that area.”
In one scene, Singletary, trying to gain Fauna’s trust, takes her to an all-night diner for pie. “That one was a nightmare to film,” she recalls. A nightmare? What could be so horrible about digging into a warm slice of apple pie with Chris Pine? “We ended up eating three entire pies — each! We finished an entire slice per take.”
Pine admits he had far too much pie that night. But only after he’d watched the playback of the first take, in which he says he was “trying to do some very, very actor-aware pushing of crust around my plate. Then I said, ‘Goddamn it! It’s going to be about me eating fucking pie!’”
The budget for I Am the Night was comparable to The Alienist’s reported $5 million per episode, TNT’s Aubrey says. “Anytime you want to get a big-budget filmmaker doing period, you’re going to get a price tag that goes with it.” And from the first dailies she viewed on her desktop, Aubrey knew the outlay was worth it.
“Patty’s opening shot is this epic push-in with really dramatic music over a huge landscape that then zooms into a middle-class house, into a kitchen, where an African-American woman is doing the hair of a younger, light-skinned woman. It’s a very domestic moment,” she says.
“These women aren’t usually the stars of the show.” Later in the shoot, when episode six took longer to film than anticipated, Aubrey was sympathetic. “With something this ambitious, when you’re trying to capture the feeling of the Watts riots and you want to do a fight in prison and wrap the show up, it’s a beast,” she says.
Worrying about finances and securing locations turned out not to be Pine’s favorite responsibilities during his first outing as an executive producer. “While those things influenced and rounded out my knowledge, what’s wonderful about having the EP credit is that Patty and Sam had to listen to me, and I take pride in having a voice and working collaboratively.”
Is it tricky for Jenkins and Sheridan to balance their personal and professional relationships? “You know what’s funny? That’s not our problem,” she says. “Since the day we met, both having studied art, we always work together, even when we’re not working together. To both have official roles rather than just listening to the other’s problems is great.”
As for the other woman in their life throughout the shoot, Sheridan addresses the ghost in the room or, more specifically, on the set — Fauna Hodel. While she didn’t live to see Jenkins’s and Sheridan’s vision materialize, he says, “She would have gotten a kick out of it.”
“The spirit of this person was very much on set,” Jenkins recalls. “We were trying to tell a story bigger than ourselves. That united all of us.”
Viewers can catch up on I Am the Night on Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2019
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