Q&A: Angela Robinson, the Director Behind This Year’s Other Must-See Wonder Woman Movie
Eight years. It took writer/director Angela Robinson eight years to make her film about Wonder Woman’s origins. In that time Wonder Woman went from one of the few mainstream DC Comics characters not to have a standalone movie to being a bonafide box office powerhouse. In that time Robinson went from thinking she would never get her movie made to filming it during a hectic 25 days in October 2016, when her cast and crew thought America was about to elect its first female president. Eight years. A lot can happen in eight years. And yet, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women feels like it’s right on time.
Robinson’s movie isn’t the common Wonder Woman origin story. Diana Prince doesn’t speak of being created by Zeus, and Steve Trevor never crashes on Themyscira. Instead, Professor Marston, as the title suggests, focuses on William Moulton Marston, the Harvard-educated psychologist who invented the polygraph and created Wonder Woman in the 1940s as way to indoctrinate young men with ideas of female dominance. But more than that, it’s the story of the two women—his wife, Elizabeth, and Olive Byrne, who lived with them for much of their lives—who helped inspire his iconic hero.
In the movie, Robinson explores the (possibly real) polyamourous relationship the three had before, during, and after Marston’s comic creation. Throughout, it creates narrative ties—Robinson calls it a “dialectic”—between the throuple’s experimentation with bondage; Marston’s development of his “DiSC” theory of personality (dominance, influence, submission, compliance); the public scrutiny of his work and personal life; Elizabeth’s struggles to be recognized in academia; and how all of those elements influenced Wonder Woman’s creation. In this Wonder Woman movie the Lasso of Truth and Bracelets of Submission signify exactly what you think they signify, no allusion necessary.
The struggle for female equality, queer rights, a call for female leads (and leadership)—is this the 1930s or 2017? In Robinson’s film, it’s all of the above. “One of the lines that really kills me in the movie is when Marston says “We marched for birth control,” she says. “I’m like, this was 100 years ago and just the other day they started pulling back [access]. I just feel like it’s resonating in such a real way. All these issues are so fraught right now, especially in light of the election.”
WIRED sat down with Robinson during New York Comic Con to talk about her incredibly prescient film.
WIRED: It took you a long time to make this movie, but I would imagine you’ve been a fan of the character even longer. What’s your history with Diana Prince?
Angela Robinson: It’s funny because I keep trying to find my original Wonder Woman moment. I can’t really remember, but I think I had a lunch box?
Or maybe you saw Lynda Carter somewhere?
Right. But I remember being a Wonder Woman fan when I was a kid and then I was really into the Lynda Carter TV show. I wanted to be a superhero and Wonder Woman was the only girl. Ever. It was just her. I identified with wanting to be a superhero and with Wonder Woman. Then I directed my first feature, D.E.B.S., and one of the actresses in it—Jordana Brewster—knew of my fandom and gave me this history of Wonder Woman book as a wrap gift. I read a chapter in there on the Marstons and it just blew my mind.
That wasn’t Jill Lepore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman, right? That wouldn’t have been out yet.
No, it was a book by this guy Les Daniels. It’s a beautiful book about the whole history. It talked about [William Marston’s] creation of the lie detector test, that he was a psychologist, that he had these these theories on human behavior and DiSC theory, the bondage controversy, and how he lived with Olive and Elizabeth. It went on and on. It was an incredible story.
So what happened after that? Did you have your own research process?
Then I went and tried to learn everything I could the Marstons. There wasn’t that much when I began looking. It took around four years, nights and weekends, to write. And every year there’d be a new kind of trove of information. It was a process. First I read everything I could that Marston actually wrote and I went to the Smithsonian where his letters are kept. Then I started doing detective work and figured out the Margaret Sanger piece—that was huge.
And it’s one of the best lines in the film. When William Marston says “Your aunt is quoting Margaret Sanger” and Olive responds “My aunt is Margaret Sanger.”
[Laughs] It’s so wild. There’s what you know about the characters and what happened to them, but for me as a writer it was equally, if not more, important for me to know the context of what was happening at the time. Actually the preponderance of my research time was spent learning the history of early psychology and trying to figure out where Marston’s theories were in relationship to his peers. Was he in line with a lot of what was going on at the time? Or was he an outlier? And figuring out where Elizabeth was within academia. Even just figuring out the lie detector and figuring out the mechanics of what they were trying to do. Of course it’s super simplified in the film like everything is. It’s funny, the biographical stuff is—people always think that’s what your research is about, but actually that was much easier to figure out. But really, the world through which they were moving—that was hard.
Right. You have to understand so much about something to make it sound simple.
Totally. Thank you! That was the hardest part.
Obviously this is coming at a very fortuitous time because of the Wonder Woman movie. Was that a happy coincidence?
The short answer is “yes.” [Laughs] It’s funny to me because I’m getting a lot of credit for my miraculous timing to have known eight years ago that the 75-year-gestating Wonder Woman movie would actually, finally really hit in the summer of 2017 and that it would be a worldwide phenomenon.
It took about four years to write between TV jobs and about four years to get made. It came together and fell apart a bunch of times. Sony’s Stage 6 finally pulled the trigger and gave me the financing to make the film, but we didn’t even know if we’d have distribution. That’s a rarity these days for an indie film.
But I do feel like there’s been a convergence of Wonder Woman and interest in the Marstons and the final coalescing around the Wonder Woman movie, so I don’t think it’s a total coincidence. Like, Jill Lepore’s book came out and a bunch of other books.
And there was the Wonder Women! documentary a couple years ago.
Right. And Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka both did Wonder Woman stories. But even last October, when we were shooting, it was not a foregone conclusion that Wonder Woman was going to be a big success at all. There was a lot of naysaying; there was a lot of fear. So the one-two punch of the success of the movie and it landing, that was the coincidence.
How did your cast come together?
I was just obsessed with each and every one of them. It’s a nonsensical process casting a film. There’s all these criteria about foreign box office et cetera. Like, whether the person is right for the role or not, for the purposes of getting your movie made, it was first on my list and 20th on everybody else’s list. There was no room for error in any of the roles. So I had to fight really hard to assemble that cast. But I was obsessed with Luke. He was my Professor Marston. If you’re not engaged with Marston, or you may not even like him—he was a really charismatic guy in real life, but he also had a lot of controversial theories. I also needed somebody with a really palpable masculinity, but who also had a sensitivity and intelligence, and be sexy. It’s hard to find that all in one actor these days.
Rebecca Hall, forget it. She’s one of the greatest actors working today. And she actually considered doing her own version of the story, and when that didn’t work out I think she heard that I had a project on the Marstons. And then I heard that she heard. My producer Amy Redford ran into her at Sundance. And Amy came back and was like, “I think Rebecca Hall is Elizabeth, like is in real life.” And I was like “Oh my god.” And then I started bombarding her agents and flew immediately to Brooklyn. She just really loved the script and we had a mind-meld about Elizabeth. We gave a toast to all the brilliant women that hadn’t been able to live up to their potential. That was my inspiration: I know so many brilliant women who haven’t been able to because of, well, life.
Speaking of, what’s your stance on where we are right now with female directors? Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman was a big deal, but still only the beginning. What do you think of the efforts that have been made to hire more women filmmakers and how much further do you think we have to go?
I have a friend, Alex Cohen, who has a show on KPCC, and I’m a person she calls every year when the abysmal statistics come out. When the next USC study comes out. Then I go on her show and I’m like, “Yeah, still sucks!” [Laughs] But I feel a slight, very slight, give in the machinery that I’ve never felt before—and I’ve been at this a long time. It always felt like an immovable, atrophied, impenetrable wall. And now I feel it shifting, just a little bit. I don’t know if it’ll keep, or just stop.
“People need to keep going to the movies. Wonder Woman was successful because it made $800 million, not because people want to support women’s rights in Hollywood.”
Yeah, you don’t want it to become a situation where it’s like “Welp, a woman made a blockbuster movie. We fixed it!”
Right. But seeing the Wonder Woman movie was a really emotional experience to me. And I talked a lot of women, young and old, who were like “Yeah, I was crying through it and I wasn’t expecting to.” I think it was because you didn’t even realize how much you wanted the representation. Which is so … depressing, and amazing at the same time. Right? It just really brought into focus that Wonder Woman is one of the top three superheroes in the world, anywhere you go. And the reason I started writing this movie was that I was so mad that Batman has multiple franchises and reboots, over and over, and there was no reason to not have a Wonder Woman movie. I mean, Ant-Man, lesser superheroes have gotten movies. Why do they get a movie before Wonder Woman? There’s no other reason besides sexism, pure and simple. And now people are like, “Wow, it’s this wild success!” and I’m like “Yeah.”
I really hope that it keeps going. But ultimately it’s going to be about money. People need to keep going to the movies. It’s successful because it made $800 million, not because people want to support women’s rights in Hollywood.
Right. No one went in saying “Here’s my feminist $15!” … But to that end, it also seems like we’re having a good year for queer films between your movie, BPM, and Tom of Finland is about to come out…
I really want to see Call Me By Your Name too. What I’m really excited about … Well, actually, so I’ve been on—because I’m a black and gay woman I’m always on a panel. [Laughs] But I think it was like five years ago, I was on this panel and the topic was moving from coming-out stories to the next movement in queer cinema, and I kind of feel like that’s happening. What I tried to do with this film, they’re never trying to figure out “Is it bad or good what I’m feeling?” Do you know? There’s definitely self-acceptance in the film, but that’s not what the drama is circling around. It’s circling around This is what we’re doing, how do we live our lives?
So tell me about the Easter eggs in the film. I noticed that Olive wears the bracelets that inspired Wonder Woman’s. Did you do those things for fans who would catch them?
Yes. Part of what was fun just when I first began this story is that all those things were there. Marston was very literal in the comics books. The Wonder Woman iconography I put into the film but Olive did wear those silver bracelets. So there are a lot of Easter eggs. There’s a dialectic between fantasy and reality in the movie, so when they’re kind of exploring their sexuality, they find this world they can create together with costumes and things, so I tried to thematically infuse these moments of self-discovery with also discovering Wonder Woman. So Olive is seen in a toga, and one of the more subtle Easter eggs is the cheetah coat that Elizabeth wears. That was for the hardcore fans. Then there are the burlesque outfits and stuff, too.
And some of it is in the dialogue. Like the moment when M.C. Gaines says that stories led by women flop.
Yeah, “female leads, they flop!” The first time I showed my agents—three women—the film, the biggest laugh was when that line came up.
What do you think about the impact this movie could have now? You shot it before the election, so I imagine you might have thought you would be releasing it into a world where Hillary Clinton was president.
Yeah. That’s what we thought it was going to be. It’s so crazy. We finished two weeks before the election and I was recently watching [behind-the-scenes] footage and it’s like a time capsule of what we all thought. Everybody is talking about how we’re about to have our first female president, that this will land in a Hillary presidency.
I kind of had a fear when we were making it that it would all be passé. You know what I mean? But now I feel like it resonates a lot. All these issues are so fraught right now, especially in light of the election.
And now the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations.
Yeah. Or even the death of Hugh Hefner. There’s been all this really baseline discussion. And, like, Marston wrote “Wonder Woman for president” as if a female president was around the corner. Like, any day now.