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Cross-Cultural Family: The super duo behind TNT’s limited series “I am the Night”

27475_003 One Day She'll Darken - 102 - CE

She sat easily, confidently in the director’s chair — discussing the finer points of the scene’s essence with her lead actor, Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot. They nodded, both apparently pleased with the brief conversation’s outcome. As Gadot strode away, the director turned to focus on the large black screens in front of her. Just then, a reassuring hand cradled the small of her back and she turned to find herself the recipient of an unexpected and ever-so-slight kiss. A simple, yet sweet conveyance of love at what otherwise was close to the end of a long day, the culmination of months of filming in an all-too-familiar, yet foreign space. “Hmmmm,” she hummed, with a joyful lilt at the close, almost like a silent “thank you.” As she raised her gaze to meet his, he glanced deeply and lovingly into her eyes and walked away. Nothing more needed to be said.

India Eisley plays Fauna Hodel alongside Connie Neilson playing Corrina (Huntington) Hodel in episode two (Phenomenon of Interference) of TNT's limited series "I am the Night."
India Eisley plays Fauna Hodel alongside Connie Neilson playing Corrina (Huntington) Hodel in episode two (Phenomenon of Interference) of TNT’s limited series “I am the Night.”

“Wonder Woman” Director Patty Jenkins and Screenwriter Sam Sheridan are Hollywood’s culturally-fluid power couple. From the outside looking in, it’s the stuff of which relationship dreams are made, resulting in concrete outcomes like the ability to be together ALL DAY. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. Working, living, rearing their tight-knit family with nine-year-old son Asa, glimpses of sweet moments like this abound. Their son is the recipient of these subtle and unexpected expressions as well. This is one piece of the duo’s formidable superpower, one piece of what adds to the inherent intuition with which they create: the empathy they bring to their art — emboldened to even greater heights when their work comes together as one. What could have been anyone’s guess,however, is the depth of this couple’s inherent understanding of straddling culture and how it would make them the perfect team to tackle an enormously complex topic on many levels.

Screenwriter Sam Sheridan and Director Patty Jenkins on the set of  "I am the Night."
Screenwriter Sam Sheridan and Director Patty Jenkins on the set of “I am the Night.”

Illicit Beginnings

For the first time in a major production, Sheridan and Jenkins collaborated on screen to conceptualize, create and produce the noir thriller, “I am the Night,” a six-part limited series on Turner Network Television that debuted Jan. 28. The series is inspired by the real life of Fauna Hodel, whose juxtaposition in race, identity, class and family led her on a search to discover her origins. Little did Hodel know that search would yield more than any person could imagine. A roller coaster of experiences resulting in shocking discoveries and emotional upheaval led the real life Hodel to cultivate and continuously spread a message of love to anyone she touched. The light she exuded among the darkness she encountered along the way is part of why Jenkins was intrigued by and championed the making of Hodel’s story.

“I just super adored her [Hodel] as a person, but where her story started going, I was absolutely shocked. I have heard a lot of stories and I’m a connoisseur of good stories, but this one, I was stunned by,” Jenkins shared. The thing that grabbed and stuck with the prolific director was the potential impact of one of the more taboo themes in a story rife with taboo themes. She could then understand the desperation of one of the main characters“ to be a great man,” encapsulating the“greatness-at-what-price-vibe” of this real-life character who was George Hodel — Fauna’s grandfather. Hodel was a famous, or infamous (depending on one’s outlook), Hollywood gynecologist accused of the 1940s-era Black Dahlia Murder in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, here was Fauna, whohad gone in search of her identity andfound out the worst about her lineageyet still chose to live in love and light.“There’s something about the journeythat people are on to find their identityand the fact that the person who foundout the worst possible thing rose abovethat. And there was this incrediblyhappy, at-peace-with-herself, person,”Jenkins mused with a bit of incredulity,still, at the idea of someone being sojoyful among all the disfunction.

Keeping It In The Family

Both Jenkins and Sheridan studied oil painting during their undergraduate years. An avid artist, Sheridan was enthralled (or used to be) by the work of surrealist painters — a perfect link for the unbelievable story his wife soon would bring home. “The surrealist thing with George Hodel and his ‘greatness at any price’ — looking at those surrealists again and realizing just how misogynistic and hateful of women and sort of destructive it was and how aggressive,” remembered Sheridan. “Like all of Dali’s stuff is toward women — it was a shock and I was very intrigued because those guys were held on pedestals as these genius great men who should be indulged and here was this clarity of how misogynistic it was.” Digging deeper, Sheridan was appalled and fascinated at the idea “of this guy who may have killed the BlackDahlia as an art project.” This guy beingFauna’s grandfather, the elder Hodel.

But  the project was a daunting one — with it came not just the possible intrigue of an unsolved murder, but an inbred tale of abandonment, deception, denial and ultimately, a search for true identity. It was a lot to tackle.

Finding The Key

“So Patty had talked to Chris (actor Chris Pine, of “Star Trek” fame) about  it on the set of “Wonder Woman.” Then Chris wanted to be involved and the question was, who is he going to be — is he going to be George Hodel? Then my breakthrough came when I thought if there’s a classic noir foil — you know either he’s a detective, or he’s a reporter or a drunk or whatever — where’s that guy? Now I can see a way to structure the story that’s not just darkness and also has a flow.” Sheridan emphasized the importance of infusing levity into a story as dark and heavy as it was conveyed in Fauna’s book of her life story, called “One Day She’ll Darken.” “You need something to balance, so you have to find a way to lighten that and keep the story going,” he cautioned. “So I was daunted until Chris’ involvement, and then it unlocked it for me.”

The Perfect Team

They’d done it — found the perfect foil and birthed a digestible way for the public to consume this story’s thrilling, timely and needed subject-matter while being thoroughly entertained. Along the way, they also had become good friends with the younger Hodel, who, unfortunately, succumbed to cancer right before filming commenced. Fauna and her adult daughters, Yvette Gentile and Rasha Pecoraro, had always considered Jenkins their Wonder Woman. ThoughFauna worked diligently with Sheridan to convey her life’s detail, intrinsically, deep down, she always knew Sheridan and Jenkins were her people.

Growing Up Military

Fauna was intersectional in many ways: race, class, culture and more. She’d eventually find that within her own identity was contained an unprecedented level of dimensionality. Jenkins too shared a hidden diversity and dimensional multiplicity. As a military B.R.A.T. whose mother was a military B.R.A.T., Jenkins and her sister grew up crossing cultures from birth.

Born on a U.S. Air Force Base, at six-months-old, Jenkins began a plethora of moves that started with a trip to Cambodia, ended in high school with Washington D.C., USA, and included Thailand, Mississippi, New York, San Francisco, Kansas and Germany in-between.

“So a long story short was for me, even though I was one of the lucky ones who had a good split in a place, I never belonged.” Jenkins lived 10 or 11 years in Kansas, but she always was aware that it was temporary. “My best friend was a Polish immigrant and my next best friend was a French immigrant — we were all people who were all like, ‘I know I’m not from Kansas.’” We were always there in a transitory way and we knew we were going to leave.”

As with many who grow up in a cross-cultural lifestyle, honing an adaptability to situations, people and places, Jenkins had friends of many ilks, but they usually didn’t mesh together. “I’ve mostly had one individual friend in each direction — never cliques of friends because we were never all alike — so it’s ‘I like that girl and I like this girl and I like that girl,’ but I was never in a pack of friends, because there was never a group of us. I had a different relationship with every friend I had.

 

“Sam is unusual in the fact that he is one of those friends but he comes from a stability that I had never needed before, technically even though he’s super not that way. He has this kind of wary understanding, and he has the qualities of my most-damaged and experienced and transitory friends and I’m not sure why. I always have been like where do you get this from?”

Culturally Fluid Beginnings

Meanwhile, Sheridan shared an equally transitory, though not necessarily migratory, upbringing. At and early age, his family moved from rural Mass., USA, to Boston and Sheridan garnered friends from prep schools, international friends who spoke English as a third language, wealthy elites, and farmer’s kids. Though he stayed put for a long time, within the diversity of his world, he learned a sort-of cultural code-switching while forming his own identity that would serve him well in future careers. From studying art at the Slade School in London, to becoming a Merchant Marine at age 18 (and daring a friend to cut off his hand — yes, that happened), to sailing the world as a professional sailor for three years — it all fed what would eventually lead him to be a fighter in Thailand, working for “Men’s Journal” and eventually becoming a best-selling author. Oh, he also was Wildland Fire-Fighter and a Hotshot (forest first-responders who get the most dangerous assignments) somewhere in there. No Joke.

All of this, however, also is probably why he excels as a husband. This macho, world-traveling, dare-you-to-hurt-me, adventure seeker also embodies the empathy to provide his son with unbridled attention as well as provide his wife with relationship-kindling intimate moments without smothering her larger-than-life persona.

“I think my work as a nonfiction writer for the last 12 years turned me into a cultural journalist. But at the heart of that kind of journalism has to be empathy, the ability to put yourself in other shoes (and to acknowledge what you cannot understand).” It’s probably also helpful as son Asa grows up a Third Culture Kid (TCK), reared in the USA and the UK as Jenkins films for “Wonder Woman.” No doubt their backgrounds, and their daily work helps inform how to provide stability within mobility between two worlds.

The series is inspired by the real life of Fauna Hodel, whose juxtaposition in race, identity, class and family led her on a search to discover her origins… that search would yield more than any person could imagine.

The empathy Jenkins and Sheridan bring to the table, plus the fluidity learned in their upbringing, made them the perfect team to take a daunting story and make it consumable for the masses. “I think Fauna’s story is universal,” said Sheridan. “Patty taught me that every screenplay needs a universal truth at its heart; I think Fauna wondering ‘Who am I?’ is something that everyone knows and has felt.”

Bringing It All Together

The duo was so honorable in trying to tell a story worthy of the younger Hodel’sdecades of striving and wishes for the world shone through in every aspect of this project. As Sheridan finished the script after filming began, two directors were hand-selected to continue episodes four through six, as Jenkins could only squeeze in the first two episodes before leaving for London. Victoria Mahoney(who has directed episodes of “Power,” “Claws,” “Queen Sugar” and “Grey’sAnatomy”) and award-winning CarlFranklin (with a long Filmography since1986 including “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “House of Cards”).

Sheridan considers the two directors friends and emphasizes how much he learned from watching them work. As a first-time screenwriter and showrunner, he absorbed a lot in the process. “The other directors were also great on this project, albeit all in very different ways. It was such a wonderful classroom for me in visual storytelling, just to be there and watch such talented people work. Vic Mahoney is an exciting visual stylist, an innovative filmmaker; and Carl Franklin is a legend with good reason, a massive talent and deeply committed filmmaker with profound understanding of what he’s about. Carl’s forgotten more about filmmaking than most directors today ever know.”

As for his wife, Sheridan added, “Working with Patty is a joy. She is a genius. She’s working on levels and with ambitions that most people don’t even realize exist.”

Though he admits he would have relished another six months to write the series, “I feel like we did a good a job as we could have done in the time we had. I’m very proud of what we did. I think all the directors did some good stuff. Beautiful moments. I feel like it’s good. For sure it’s good. I think it’s good. Is it great? I think it has moments of greatness.”

 

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