It might seem like genius marketing to release a prestigious biopic that explores the deeper meaning behind the creation of Wonder Woman just a few months after her first solo-movie has shattered box office records the world over. But in reality, Angela Robinson, the writer/director behind Professor Marston And The Wonder Women, spent more than eight years putting the film together, which began with researching the life of the real-life William Marston (played by Luke Evans). A pioneer in the field of psychology in the 1920s and ’30s, Marston’s DISC theory (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Compliance) played a vital role in his eventual creation of the Wonder Woman character — along with his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their girlfriend Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcoate).
After the film’s U.S. premiere at this year’s Fantastic Fest, we got the chance to sit down with Robinson on the exhaustive process of making the film, as well as the frustrating revelation over how little our culture has changed in the past 70+ years.
This is one of those stories that’s been hidden beneath the surface for so many years. What inspired you to put it on the big screen?
I’d finished my first feature [D.E.B.S.], and a friend of mine knew I was a Wonder Woman fan, and gave me a book on the history of Wonder Woman. And there was a chapter in there, on the Marstons, and [it] just totally blew my mind. It told the story of the lie detector test, and I was immediately struck by the Lasso of Truth, and all these kind of connections, Easter Eggs from their life, into the Wonder Woman story. And it talked about the controversy that erupted when Wonder Woman first came out, and the relationship of Bill Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive. I couldn’t believe it. I literally couldn’t believe the story, and I became obsessed with telling it.
How did you go about finding the actors to play these characters?
Oh, it’s a hard, laborious, and kind of stupid process to cast an independent film these days. I think it always has been. But I got incredibly lucky, in that I was able to get my absolute first choices in all of the roles. And I was very dogged about pursuing them. I was obsessed with Luke Evans, for a long time, and I really felt that Marston needed this combination of a palpable masculinity, but also, an intelligence and sensitivity to go together, which is a weirdly hard quality to find in a leading man. And Rebecca Hall’s just fuckin’ brilliant. I wanted her to play Elizabeth so badly, and then, she wanted to. That was great. And Bella Heathcote is just, I think, a revelation in the film. She’s such a pure performer. She’s just so authentic, her experience of watching her on film. I met with her, and she sent in a tape of herself doing the scenes. And it totally blew me away.
So with her, it was immediate?
It was immediate. I was just, “That’s her.”
You’d mentioned how so much of Marston’s work factored into creating Wonder Woman, but the film really opens up how these aspects were all connected. Were there any big revelations that came about when you were researching his life?
That Olive was Margaret Sanger’s niece, that was a big “whoa” moment for me. What other things? I got very into exploring Marston’s version of DISC theory, and his psychological ideas on human behavior. I read his book, The Emotions of Normal People, [and] the first line is, “Already normal,” and the rest is just his very convoluted defense of all of his ideas. The baby party thing blew my mind — that I did not know about before. But he and Olive both did all these studies on fraternities and sororities and spanking parties. I was just, “What? Yeah.”
Were there any interesting aspects of his work that you had to leave out of the film that you wish you could’ve made the final cut?
Oh, so much. The Marstons’ story is a sprawling, unruly epic of a story, that was very hard to distill to make a movie. So there [are] tons more to the story, that I couldn’t tell, that I hope somebody’s able to tell someday.
It’s an interesting story for sure, particularly that psychology itself was just starting to take shape as its own science as an offshoot of philosophy.
He’s considered by some to be the first pop psychologist. The first person, almost like Dr. Phil. What was really interesting, to me, was that psychology was this new thing. At the time, it was considered navel-gazing. They wanted it to be taken seriously, they wanted it to be considered a hard science. And at the time, they thought that you could measure emotion. Literally, like, how much fear, and how much anger you had. So when they were doing the lie detector test, they were initially trying to measure emotion. Then they went to deception, and then [it] evolved from there. I’m kind of a nerd about all the history stuff, but that was what was kind of interesting.
Honestly, not to detract from the movie you made at all, but I could’ve watched a two-hour movie on the origin of…
Just on the lie detector! Early versions of the draft really went more into that. The hardest challenge of writing the script was communicating what this theory was, at the same time as explaining this unorthodox love story at the center of Wonder Woman, and how it all related. This is what’s really interesting, is that it was very hidden from history. I thought that was kind of [the] missing link, as I think some people knew about their love story. And other people know about Wonder Woman, then they would do, “Oh, the love story relates to Wonder Woman.”
But I was like, “It’s his ideas!” He wanted his ideas to save the world. His ideas were what he wanted to put into Wonder Woman, in this very specific thing. And he called it “psychological propaganda.” The psychology was fresh, and they thought we could stop war if we could just get men to think differently.
Which plays directly into the plot of the Wonder Woman movie itself.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I was psyched because I thought Patty Jenkins just did this incredible job, [and] also, that the core of Marston’s philosophy, which is love, and to stop war really made it into the big Wonder Woman movie. And I feel like, a lot of times, that gets forgotten, in both Marston’s story, and Wonder Woman’s story.
Was it tricky to work around any sort of legality about how you were able to show Wonder Woman as a character in comic books?
It was very, very tricky. It was a very long, intensive legal process, to show the film that is today. You have to prepare an annotation. I had a 60-page annotation. The lawyers, they’d never seen anything like it, the history of this comic book. Michael Donaldson is the king of IP in Hollywood. From a legal standpoint, he was like, “This is fantastic,” because you have to document everything.
Having spent eight years writing the film and putting it together, now that it’s about to hit theaters, do you find yourself frustrated at our lack of progress as a society?
You know, it’s funny, ’cause I made this movie last October, and we all thought Hillary was gonna be president. It’s this crazy time capsule, to two weeks before the election. And I remember thinking, “Oh, maybe this film will be prophetic by the time it comes out, like, in a year.”
Because the world would have changed so much, not knowing that it would have changed in the other direction. We just finished the film about a month ago, so it really struck me, watching it last night, I was so obsessed with the minutiae, that last night was the first that I was able to just sit back and kind of watch the film. And I was really struck by how we haven’t changed at all. At all.
[Back then] we were marching for birth control, women’s rights, and it was really sad because they really thought that a woman president was around the corner during that time. Any minute. That’s why Marston even had Wonder Woman for President. They just thought it was gonna [be a] hop, skip and a jump to that.
To end on a bit of a more optimistic note: How do you feel about the coincidence that the Wonder Woman movie just happened to come out the same year that your biopic did? Not to mention being such a runaway success?
It’s kind of funny because I’ve been on my little road for so long. But everybody is giving me a lot of credit for my foresight to know in advance what a tremendous worldwide sensation that Wonder Woman would be, and to have timed my movie so perfectly, to come after its unprecedented success. Which is hilarious, because I didn’t even know we’d have distribution a year ago when we were making this film.
So I do think it’s the perfect time to have this Wonder Woman moment and renaissance. And that, I think she’s having such an effect because there are fresh ideas. Like, literally, the ideas in the Wonder Woman movie are new and refreshing, and I think that was why she’s resonating. And I feel like it’s the perfect time to go and explore the lives of the people whose ideas — and their ideals — created Wonder Woman, in a very literal way. I think it’s the perfect time to look at them.