Our interview with director Angela Robinson for Professor Marston & The Wonder Women
Annapurna Pictures recently released the trailer (view below) for the upcoming film Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, about the creator of the famous DC Comics character and the women who inspired her creation. At San Diego Comic-Con last night, we got a chance to moderate a Q&A with director Angela Robinson (True Blood, The L Word). Check out what she had to say and watch the trailer below.
ComingSoonnet: For those of the audience who don’t know, can you talk a little bit about the life of William Moulton Marson?
Angela Robinson: William Moulton Marston is an extraordinary guy. And my film is about a man creating Wonder Woman and two women in his life who were the inspiration for Wonder Woman, in a nutshell.
CS: And when did you get interested in the story?
Robinson: Oh, I got interested after I made my first feature about a decade ago. One of the actresses, Jordana Brewster, just knew I was this crazy Wonder Woman fan. So she got me, I don’t know if you read this Les Daniels book, [“Wonder Woman: The Complete History”], this most beautiful coffee table book, and there was one chapter in there on the Marstons which I had no idea, and I don’t think — usually just look at the pictures on my coffee table book, but I dug through it, and all of kind of — I just learned all this incredible stuff about him. And there was that he created the lie detector… which is amazing. In and of itself, even if the story was just like he and his wife created the lie detector that would be amazing enough, but then the story just went on and on. And it just kind of lodged in my brain and I became kind of obsessed with it.
CS: So, how did it how do you go from being obsessed with it to starting a script?
Robinson: It was kind of shortly after that I was having lunch with my friend, who’s incredible writer Laeta Kalogridis, and she was working on the Wonder Woman movie, one of the big, big — and P.S, how incredible is Wonder Woman, right? I mean, can we just do a shout out to how incredible that was? So, many many years ago, it had been in development for so long, and my friend Laeta was writing one of the many kind of early drafts, and we were bemoaning the fact that there was like Batman incarnations over and over and over again, and Superman incarnations over and over again and they just kept rebooting Batman and rebooting Superman — like everybody, we were like, where is Wonder Woman? [She’s] like top three. You go anywhere in the world and it’s like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. And why is she not on film? And I started telling her about the story of Marston, and I said she wasn’t — like the genesis of Wonder Woman wasn’t the same as the genesis of Superman or Batman, or any of the other comic books, and there’s this incredible story behind her. And she was like you have to write that movie. So I set about a very long journey trying to do that, which is ending today.
CS: So what was the casting process like?
Robinson: That was pretty great actually. I have to say, it’s very rare in Hollywood today that you could actually cast actors who are right for the roles and who you really want. I became totally obsessed with Luke Evans, who’s such a great actor and, weirdly from Dracula Untold. And the reason is, in a lot of the movies about Marston a kind of dialectic between men and women, and masculinity and femininity, and I really wanted an actor to play a person to play Marston, who could exude this like raw man-ness. This kind of agro man quality, but how had like a sensitivity and intelligence beneath it. You know what I mean? It was actually kind of hard to find an actor who embodied both things. And then Rebecca Hall, forget about it. I would watch her read the phone book. She’s so f*cking brilliant. So I heard that she wanted to read the script, and she was interested in playing Elizabeth Holloway. And I flew to New York to meet her, and we just had an insane mind meld. I was like, you are Elizabeth in my mind. And she’s actually done a lot of research into the story herself and kind of has found her own way to it ,and was considering adapting it herself. So, there’s been all these weird kind of serendipitous connections. So she was in, and then I met a bunch of people to play Olive Byrne. And Bella Heathcote just sent me this tape… I was just blown away… then I just started banging the drum because she’s incredibly talented.
CS: So you can see from the trailer there’s a major theme of secret identities out there. With all superheroes, of course, but it sort of plays into their lives. Can you talk a little about that?
Robinson: So everybody knows that Diana Prince is Wonder Woman’s alter ego, and she works, it’s kind of Clark Kent-style she puts on glasses, then suddenly, Steve Trevor can’t recognize her. And she works for him as his secretary at the OSS. But the Marstons — the film kind of explores their relationship — just doing a little backstory for people who don’t know — that Marston was a psychology professor in the 1920s and his wife invented the lie detector test together, and then they both fell in love with one of Marston’s students, whose name was Olive Byrne, and they ended up having a relationship together and formed a family together for many many years. They had a secret identity in and of themselves. So that eventually Marston created Wonder Woman, which was very much inspired by Elizabeth and Olive. But he wrote under a pseudonym and also Olive had different pseudonyms too. They made up that she had a husband who died and she went well by Olive Richards and Olive Byrne Richards. And so they had all these kind of masks and secrets that they kind of concocted to keep their private life private.
CS: And they had sort of an interesting life during a time when that was dangerous. How did that work into the story?
Robinson: At the time it was really interesting when that comic book phenomenon hit, it just exploded. People didn’t know what comic books were and then they were everywhere. It was like the internet or something like that. I feel like it was the biggest publishing phenomenon since the Bible and parents were like, what the hell is this? What are my kids reading, and everything was unregulated. So there was this kind of intense backlash against comic books at the time, and there were comic book burnings, and it was this really kind of intense time in history, where there was a kind of clamping down. And also, I don’t know whether the Marstons themselves would have called what they were doing poly. Or how we would kind of discuss it now. But it was definitely frowned upon… the relationship that they were having have been I think illegal in many parts if not all the United States. So it was very dangerous, and he really they did encounter — they were kind of like turfed out of academia and make some sacrifices in order to love each other and be together.
CS: He had some interesting philosophies – I mean I know everyone’s seen or heard about the bondage and all that stuff, but he had some interesting theories on women and on submission.
Robinson: Yeah. [laughs] So I took a deep dive into Marston’s writings. And he had this theory called DISC theory, which is still in use today. And it stans for dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. To super, super crazy reduce it, he basically did all of these studies and he basically came to the conclusion that men were inherently violent and anarchistic. And women are inherently loving and nurturing. So he thought the path of peace on a planet was if women ruled the world. And, I think he was kind of on to something. [laughter] And so he wanted what he called him Amazonian matriarchy to come about. And he kind of created Wonder Woman to what he called to be psychological propaganda to teach a generation of boys and the man to love and respect powerful women and to do that. He used, as a metaphor, a lot of bondage imagery. There is a lot of debate over whether it’s metaphor or literal, but part of that is what the movie explores.
CS: So how much backlash did he get?
Robinson: It was really interesting because he was very adamant — he wrote the first seven years of Wonder Woman and the film kind of dramatizes a battle he had with this woman, Josette Frank, who was head of the Child Studies Association of America, who is one of his most vocal critics. It was actually really interesting because a lot of the debate that we’re still having today about feminism and sex positivity and censorship and all sorts of very, very current topical stuff, they were engaged in. You know… earlier this year when they gave Wonder Woman the U.N. ambassador pick and then two months later were like, no. Sorry! And those women protested and it’s like, it’s Wonder Woman, right? Lynda Carter was sitting there, but then a bunch of women turned their backs on her… it’s still deep in our culture. That core argument that they were having the film traumatizes is still going on today.
CS: And what sort of challenges did you have in terms of doing this as a period piece?
Robinson: Not enough money! [laughs] That was basically it! We shot in and around Boston 25 days, like it was really, I have to just give a shot out to that incredible crew and the production designer Karl Price and everybody we go they make it look like a gagillion more dollars than it actually was. But you know there’s a lot of there’s a lot that goes into, like, can’t they just call somebody?
CS: So what sort of source material did you go to?
Robinson: I just read everything I could get my hands on. I took a deep dive. And a lot of what was important to me was learning about the history of early psychology, and reading all of Marston’s books and really trying hard to understand what he was talking about. But I needed to conceptualize him with the kind of early psychology movement that he was a part of, to figure out how left of center he was his contemporaries. And so a lot of my time was spent trying to put that into context ,and then tried to kind of figure out – they have an expansive incredible story. And then my job as a writer was to try to figure out how to tell it in two hours.
CS: Was there anything you found out during your research that surprised you?
Robinson: Yeah. For me the process of writing – I started trying to write a standard biopic of Marston. I just, like, straight ahead. And early on I read this core detail which was that I went in thinking that Marston had a wife and a mistress, and they were kind of all living together in the same house as the wife and mistress. And I was like, what’s that about? And then I read that Olive and Elizabeth lived together for 38 years after Marston died, and that night I was like woah! And there’s been a kind of explosion in writing about him four years, but this was before any of that was out. And so then I read further and I was like wait, Elizabeth named her only daughter after Olive. I was like, wow like there was so much love there and I was like I’ve been thinking about this totally wrong. So that kind of readjusted my prism of how I was looking at the story, and then I started finding out more and more. But that was – their secret identities. There was layer upon layer of stuff but to me, this was the core thing. This was a love story. That’s what I most wanted to communicate.
CS: Was there a particular challenge in taking his life and turning it into a film?
Robinson: A lot of it was to present their story in a loving and respectful and grounded and kind of emotionally honest way. And I feel like the danger with the material is that people really want to be like it’s super kinky! It’s really crazy or scandalous or sordid, and it really wasn’t to me, and it became kind of my mission to figure out how I could not shy away from the kind of eroticism of sexuality that was baked into Marston’s theory, but also portray it in a way that showed how much love I felt like there was with their family and how they really, I think, communicated them respected each other.
CS: Do you have a favorite on screen Wonder Woman?
Robinson: Lynda Carter! [laughs] Come on! But hat’s off to Gal [Gadot]. But, OG!
CS: It’s sort of interesting because the way that Wonder Woman was portrayed through the decades, every decade she seems to reflect where women are. She’s Rosie the Riveter in the ’40s, and it’s love stories in the ’50s. What do you think Marston would have thought about it? What all of them would have thought?
Robinson: They were super bummed! To me, it’s so crazy that the first seven years that he wrote – and who anybody who hasn’t actually read the comics, they’re insane and imaginative and beautiful and radical. And then they stop. He dies and the last one that was wrote was crazy and phantasmagorical. Like this big explosion of women, basically. And the minute that he died, they just kind of pull back and there’s that famous cover where Steve Trevor is holding the new Wonder Woman. she’s not wearing boots anymore and she’s got these dainty shoes and there’s a little river and flowers on it, and Steve Trevor is carrying her across. It just breaks my heart. I feel like she totally got stripped of her powers. She did stripped of her powers and they took them away. They made them an Avengers spy. She did martial arts. She had some dude telling her what to do. I do think that once he died, Wonder Woman lost her way a little bit. She was just this reflection. And a lot of political things… that’s why I was so gratified. Patty Jenkins totally got it right with this new movie and I think it’s really hard to get Wonder Woman right. I was psyched.
CS: Is there something from the comics you think people should read?
Robinson: The Holilday girls arc is kind of incredible. It’s really incredible. So that’s what I would say if I had to give a pick.
CS: So before we wrap up, is there anything else you want to tell us about the film – something that we are really excited for people to see.?
Robinson: I’m just excited to kind of bring the story. I feel like it’s really incredible that Wonder Woman is having this renaissance, having this moment. And I really feel like the Marstons’were also kind of heroes in their own right and really should be honored and respected, because with their ideas and inspiration that is why we love this thing, and their story has been kind of swept under the rug for so, so long that I’m just really excited for people to to know about them.
The upcoming film stars Luke Evans (Dracula Untold, Beauty and the Beast) as Dr. William Moulton Marston, Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Iron Man 3) as Elizabeth Marston, and Bella Heathcote (The Man in the High Castle, The Neon Demon) as Olive Byrne. The film also stars Connie Britton (Nashville, American Horror Story) and Oliver Platt (Chicago P.D., X-Men: First Class) and is directed by Angela Robinson.
Professor Marston & The Wonder Women is the story behind the creator of Wonder Woman and his unusual relationships that inspired the iconic super heroine. In a superhero origin tale unlike any other, this is the true story of 1940s Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the lie detector and creator of the iconic Wonder Woman, who defends his feminist superhero against charges of ‘sexual perversity’ while at the same time maintaining a secret that could have destroyed him. Unknown to others, Marston’s inspiration for Wonder Woman was his wife Elizabeth Marston and their lover Olive Byrne, two empowered women in the field of psychology who defied convention, building a secret life together with Marston that rivaled the greatest of superhero disguises.
Are you guys excited for Professor Marston & The Wonder Women when it hits theaters on October 27? We want to hear from you! Leave us your comments below or tweet us @ComingSoonnet, and stay tuned for more news from San Diego Comic-Con 2017!