Growing up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Matthew Jensen knew his destiny was to work in films. As a young man, he took the Metro into the heart of democracy to watch and study films at the Smithsonian. He also cruised the pages of the Washington Post, seeking out revivals at theaters in Georgetown and word of AFI screenings at the Kennedy Center.
“In Georgetown there was always some theater that was showing a double feature of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Scanners’ that I would go to,” Jensen told me recently from his home in South Pasadena, California. “I had a lot of opportunities to soak in movies.”
Jensen’s family eventually left the capital area for Hawaii, where Jensen finished high school. He was then admitted to the prestigious film production program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
But unlike most of his classmates, Jensen was more interested in becoming a director of photography versus directing, which he said paradoxically made him more in demand when other budding filmmakers needed someone to shoot their films.
“I geared all my education to shooting,” Jensen said. “Luckily I had a lot of opportunities because everybody who went to film school…needed somebody to shoot their films.”
Jensen graduated from USC in 1994 with a demo reel showcasing his talents and abilities behind the camera. But before he would ever become a DP on over thirty television shows and the recent comic book flick “Woman Woman 1984,” first came years of low-level production jobs, including driving scripts around Hollywood for a short-lived program starring Gene Wilder. In those pre-cellphone days Jensen was paged in the middle of the night to come into the Warner Bros. studio, where the writers handed him new pages to then deliver to talent and executives.
“It was not a cool job by any means,” he says now with a cheery chuckle. “I would drive the scripts all over the city, putting them in people’s doorsteps […] long before the days of email.”
However, Jensen got to know his adopted city much better—as well as got rather intimately acquainted with early-morning talk radio—as he drove L.A.’s notorious freeways during morning rush hour.
“Those were the kinds of struggles you go through in trying to hang around long enough to get opportunities to do what you want,” he said.
But Jensen persevered, and offset trips around town delivering scripts with work as a gaffer on various shoots, as well as often unpaid labor for graduate students back at USC. This gave him more hands-on time with cameras and lighting equipment, and each small project helped him grow as a budding director of photography.
“You don’t make any money but […] it was another credit to put on my reel,” Jensen said. “Over time I amassed enough work, and I knew enough people, that the corner started to turn for me.”
It took him the better part of a decade, but the phone started ringing. Jensen was recruited as a DP [Director of Photography] `for various music videos and small films. An executive at Showtime liked his work and hired him to work on the cable network’s “Sleeper Cell.” Soon followed work lensing the TV show “Numb3rs” for CBS and episodes of “CSI.”
“I never looked back,” Jensen said, adding that it wasn’t long before he no longer had to chase down work—enough so that he was able to choose the kinds of projects he wanted to work on.
His professionalism with the camera attracted the attention of Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “American Beauty” and creator and showrunner of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” Ball hired Jensen for many of the early episodes of his subsequent vampire series, “True Blood,” on which Jensen was able to imprint his own artistic stamp as DP.
“The look of that show evolved from my conversations with Alan and production designer” Suzuki Ingerslev, Jensen relates, adding that Ball was encouraging of his artistic choices when it came to camera work.
That led Jensen to being asked to be the DP on several episodes of “Game of Thrones.” He said he and the other cinematographers respected one another and collaborated on the look of that long-running fantasy series.
Perhaps Jensen’s biggest break came in 2017, when Patty Jenkins hired him to be the cinematographer on the big-screen adaptation of “Wonder Woman.” The flick grossed over $800 million worldwide, all but ensuring a sequel. Jenkins called Jensen back for “Wonder Woman 1984,” which would be set, and shot, in Jensen’s former haunts in Washington, D.C. Jenkins too had spent time in the nation’s capital, which thrilled her DP.
“It was so exciting to come back and shoot in D.C. But it was mixed with a dread of” understanding how difficult it would be to film Gal Gadot and Chris Pine not just in the nation’s capital, but on streets and cars dressed up to look like the mid-eighties. Fortunately Mayor Muriel E. Bowser was a fan of the franchise, and helped the production along.
Although most of Jensen’s family and friends had long since moved out of Washington, during location scouting he was jazzed to again walk the streets of Georgetown, where he had seen double bills years before. He visited some of his favorite restaurants of yore, including Clyde’s, where he ate chili he recalled from his youth.
Although Jensen had a love of Georgetown due to all the double bills he saw at theaters there, partly on his recommendation, Diana/Wonder Woman’s home was moved from Georgetown to the Watergate complex, which would be more cinematic, he felt.
And as the film took place in 1984, a key scene called for finding a mall that matched the neon aesthetic of the Reagan era. Because much of the interior work on “Wonder Woman 1984” was shot in England, the production scouted several malls there, but none matched the look and singularly all-American feel that they were looking for.
“No mall in the U.K. equals that kind of mall [aesthetic] from the eighties,” Jensen said.
Due to the exigencies of the covid-19 pandemic, the producers of “Wonder Woman 1984” weren’t able to return to D.C. for a big premiere late last year. Instead, the film went straight to HBO Max, and will be released on Blu-ray at the end of this month.
Even though he also shot three episodes of the Star Wars show “The Mandalorian” for Disney, Jensen says that, thanks to the pandemic, he didn’t work for a year. However, he has been hired to work on some commercials and looks forward to returning as a DP on more films and television projects to come.
“I think we’re all waiting for the next couple of months to see if it’s safe to work and travel to faraway locations,” he said.
“Woman Wonder 1984” will be available on Blu-ray on March 30.