It was about eight years ago that a friend gave Angela Robinson a coffee table book on Wonder Woman. The director had been a lifelong fan of the female superhero, and it was a perfect gift for her. But what she found on those pages triggered an immense desire to make a film about the man who invented Wonder Woman. The Harvard educated psychologist William Moulton Marston hid a polyamorous relationship with his wife and mistress from the public, and therefore led a double life. Robinson began extensive research, and the juicy result is the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which opened this week. BUST spoke with Angela Robinson at the Toronto Film Festival about why she put the Marston family story on screen.
How did you come across the story?
I was always a fan of Wonder Woman, since I was a kid. First it was the Lynda Carter TV show; I came to the comics later. When I was reading this coffee table book on Wonder Woman, I stumbled on this chapter on the Marston family and I was like, “What? They invented the lie detector? And they were polygamous and they lived in this house together? And he was a psychologist and he put all this bondage imagery in Wonder Woman?" I just kept turning the pages being like, I cannot believe this story. I can’t believe I didn’t know about it. I can’t believe everybody doesn’t know about it. I became obsessed with it.
Has it been difficult to get it made?
Yeah. Well, like any indie, it took me a long time. I wrote it over the course of four years on nights and weekends, and then it took another four years to get it financed.
It is pretty good timing — after the success Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman.
Totally. [Laughs] I wish I could say that I planned that eight years ago when I started on this journey. I do think there is kind of a Wonder Woman Renaissance right now. Over the last three or four years, this interest in Wonder Woman and the Marstons has been growing and growing, culminating in the Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman film this past summer, which was so amazing.
Why do you think that is?
You know, I’m not sure. My own personal opinion is that Wonder Woman has always been part of the big three: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. If you go, to this day, anywhere in the world and you say, “Who are the biggest superheroes?” People will say, “Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.” And yet, Batman and Superman have multiple reboots and franchises, and I was like, “How many times can we see Bruce Wayne’s parents get killed in the alley?” Wonder Woman had never been in a live-action film in 75 years, ever. And that was part of my impetus to start writing this story.
A friend of mine was writing one of the early drafts of Wonder Woman and she said, “Why is this so hard?” Because Wonder Woman was created for a totally different reason. Marston called it psychological propaganda, but he really wanted to teach a generation of boys and men to love and respect powerful women, because he thought that women could save the world. He thought men were going to drive it into a ditch, and that women were inherently loving and nurturing and they should be in charge. This was part of his work to do that.
How did you choose your cast?
I got really, really lucky in that it’s very difficult as an independent film maker to get your top choices in a small movie. I’ve been tracking Luke Evans for forever. I was just obsessed with him and I felt that Marston really needed a palpable masculinity, but also an intelligence and charm and sensitivity. So, I just harassed Luke’s reps. [Laughs]
With Rebecca Hall, one of my producers, Amy Redford, ran into her at Sundance and she called me, saying, "Rebecca Hall is Elizabeth.” I was like, “Rebecca Hall is Elizabeth. You’re so right.” And then I heard that Rebecca had been considering adapting the story herself and had done a lot of research. We had a mind meld, and she’s so freaking smart and incredible.
I searched for a long time for the right Olive Byrne. When I met Bella Heathcote, I asked her to put some scenes on tape. She sent me the tape, and she was just a revelation. It’s very hard to find somebody who can be very vulnerable and strong simultaneously, and she had that quality. Then I had my three!
The movie deals with a polyamorous relationship, and it is also a very strong feminist story — really surprising for that time, especially for a man. How accurate is it to the actual events?
I do think it's very accurate that they were very actively involved in feminism. Olive Byrne's mother and aunt were two of the foremost feminists in the entire history of feminism. One of the things that was really exciting and sad about the research was that it's all so contemporary — we’re still fighting the same battles. As far as the characters, there are a lot of facts in the Marston’s life that everybody agrees on; and then there are a bunch of facts that are open to interpretation. This film is definitely my interpretation of my research. Like any historical biopic, you want to condense timelines, and there are some composite characters. But I really feel like the spirit of feminism is incredibly accurate.
Speaking of feminism, why do you think it’s important to keep putting strong female multifaceted characters on the screen?
It’s hugely, hugely important to me. I feel like the one — some people have commented on the difference between my first film [D.E.B.S.] and this film, but I feel like the thread through all of my work is trying to render complicated, interesting, strong, complex female characters. I kind of am similar to Marston, in that Marston put his ideas into a pop culture package because he thought it was the best way to change the world, and I feel similarly. If you can tell really entertaining stories, but put in what’s important to you to literally change hearts and minds, I feel like it’s really important. Because it still is absurd that women are 51% of the population, and yet represented on screen as just a tiny, tiny fraction of that.
Marston was subversive with what he put into the comics — the bondage, for instance. Your film is going to be released during a very conservative time in America. How do you feel about releasing the film into that kind of climate?
It’s really interesting to me, because I was watching some of the EPK [Electronic Press Kit] footage that we shot last October aout two weeks before the election, so it’s almost like a time capsule. We all thought we’d have the first female president when we shot it. It’s actually kind of incredible. Luke’s interviewing, and he’s like, “We’re about to have our first female president.” The ironic thing is that I was like, “Maybe by the time the movie comes out it will be passé and we’ll be past all this.” And then it was distinctly the opposite. I do feel it makes the message of tolerance and love and peace and having the kind of freedom to be who you are against society, or any type of adversity, even more important and relevant.
What are your main challenges as a female director?
I think that it is hard across the board. I was going to say in mainstream Hollywood, but I think it's true almost anywhere, for female directors, writers, actresses — but especially directors. I do think that there is an entrenched system that’s not super hospitable to women, and that there’s a lot of institutional misogyny baked into Hollywood. [Note: At the time of this interview, the assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein had not yet come out.] It’s funny; I feel like with a lot of my frustration with Hollywood, I was able really to relate to Elizabeth in her pursuit and her frustration and the glass ceilings. I feel like a lot of what the movie also talks about is white male privilege and entitlement, and it really struck me that for all intents and purposes — Elizabeth, she had three degrees, everyone said she was smarter than Marston, but she, because she was a woman and the time she lived in, hit certain glass ceilings and she couldn’t get the same degree. You experience a lot of her frustration, and they talk a lot about the entitlement. And also, Elizabeth and Olive have been almost completely erased from history in that Elizabeth was not credited in the work that she did on the lie detector test, and she and Olive were hidden as the inspiration for Wonder Woman. It was important for me to reclaim them as people and characters, so that they could be recognized for their contribution.
Stills and trailer from Professor Marston & The Wonder Women
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Julide Tanriverdi is a freelance journalist who loves to write about movies, TV and anything pop culture