The director of the blockbusting Wonder Woman talks about her military dad, fantasy superpowers and how she’s still waiting for her first big payday
Wonder Woman became the first film directed by a woman to make more than $100 million in its opening weekend. Are you surprised?
I’m stunned by the success of the film. But I’m also surprised how rare it’s been.
How long until we can stop pointing out women’s achievements because they’re not surprising anymore?
I can’t wait till enough women filmmakers have had a chance to make movies of this size and scale and those movies have been successful. There will still be conversation about smaller issues. But it will be nice that they can just be filmmakers making films.
It’s not like we haven’t seen female action heroes before in Divergent or The Hunger Games or Tomb Raider or Underworld. Why Wonder Woman?
There was a very difficult time when a female hero was a man in a woman’s body. Hunger Games really changed that: a woman leading a non-woman’s film in the action genre. I think Wonder Woman does that on a very big scale.
Wonder Woman has always been a proxy for America: scarily powerful, but a force for good. Did you make love her superpower with current affairs in mind?
She always has stood for truth and love. Her genesis was based on Artemis. However, I do think that it’s very important right now to celebrate exactly that quality.
Our fantasy of a hero is that he’s the good guy who is going to shut down the bad guy. That has got to change if we want to deal with the crisis that we’re in. There is no bad guy. We are all to blame. New kinds of heroics need to be celebrated, like love, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, diplomacy, or we’re not going to get there. No one is coming to save us.
Your dad was an Air Force F-4 fighter pilot who was awarded a Silver Star in Vietnam. Did his experience of war color your thoughts?
Yeah. My father wanted to be a hero. He went to the Air Force Academy, was valedictorian, and then he found himself strafing villagers in Vietnam in a war he didn’t want to be in and didn’t understand. He was extremely conflicted about the line where he went from being the good guy to possibly being the bad guy.
What did you do with your first big paycheck?
I’ve yet to have one. One day. I’ll tell you when that day comes.
Your last film was Monster, about a female serial killer. Is there a through line here?
I’m as interested in exceptional characters as men are. It’s very easy for me to be curious about what it’s like to be [killer] Aileen Wuornos, just as I am about what it’s like to be Wonder Woman. And in both cases, I think it’s about what you do with power.
You have a reputation for being very exacting. How do you get the best out of people?
I want greatness. To me, aiming for greatness in a day might mean you work 20% harder, but you make that day worth it 10 times over.
Why have you banned the word cheesy?
When artists, who are supposed to speak freely, are afraid to be earnest and do beauty and sincerity, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. Cheesy makes people afraid to be emotional. And I won’t have it.
Your husband [Sam Sheridan] is a martial arts fighter?
He fought as his way in, but then from there he’s really become known as a writer about fighting.
If you had to settle a duel, what style would you choose?
Boxing or mixed martial arts, probably. I’d rather not do it, but at least I understand those.
This appears in the June 26, 2017 issue of TIME.