It’s been 12 years since Angela Robinson directed a film – 2005’s Herbie: Fully Loaded with Lindsay Lohan — but in the interim she’s kept busy as a director and producer on shows like The L Word, True Blood and How to Get Away with Murder.
She’s returning to movie theaters on Oct. 13 with the amazing film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a biopic about Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans) that shows his life as an academic and the inspiration he received from two women, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their lab assistant Olive (Bella Heathcote), with whom they were involved in a three-way relationship.
The Tracking Board sat down with Ms. Robinson when she was premiering her new movie at Toronto, and we got to find out how she found out so much about this little-known story, as well as learning about her next film project, an adaptation of Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise.
I was really impressed with the film without knowing who directed it, so how did you find this story, was it just one of those out of the blue things where you just found an interesting story and decided to explore it?
I’ve just always been a Wonder Woman fan. A friend of mine knew it, and after I did my first feature, just as a wrap gift, they gave me this awesome book by Les Daniels, and it was a beautiful coffee table book about Wonder Woman, and then there’s one for Superman and Batman. There was one chapter on the Marstons and I read it and the story just blew my mind, and it lodged in my head and I became kind of obsessed with it. Then, a couple of years later, a friend of mine was writing one of the many incarnations of the big Wonder Woman movie. And we were kind of bemoaning the fact that there have been multiple Superman franchises and multiple Batman franchises, and how crazy it was that Wonder Woman had never been in a live action film in her 70-some year history. I told her the story of the Marstons and she was encouraging me to write that movie, so then I just kind of started on nights and weekends doing a bunch of research and telling the story. It took me about four years to write it off and on, and then another four years to get the movie made.
What kind of research could you do on this? Did the Marstons have any kids that you can talk to about what happened?
There wasn’t a lot of … I started this so long ago, and in the last four years or so, there’s been this explosion of interest in the Marstons, and several books have come out that were really exciting. His theories have kind of been re-embraced. Like Grant Morrison did this great graphic novel called Earth One. That one kind of re-embraced Marston’s theories, but when I started, there wasn’t that much information, so I just kind of did a lot of primary research. I went to the Smithsonian and read his letters, and I actually really immersed myself. He wrote a bunch of books; my favorite was a book he wrote called The Emotions of Normal People. At first, that was my alternate title. I always thought it was so incredible, The Emotions of Normal People, and the first line is, “Are you normal?” Which I use in the film, then I just read everything that I could get my hands on.
It’s interesting to see that the Marstons come from this academic background, which is different than the Siegel and Schuster story or other comic creators. As you were researching this, was there a place you could go to fill in any major gaps or was it fairly easy to find stuff on them?
It just was kind of a really long process. I became really obsessed with his ideas on women, and gender and sex, and pop culture and sexuality. I became really intrigued about how, as I was digging, I found this love story, basically, was at the core of it for me. I was like, “Oh my gosh, they were living this really incredible life in secret.” I started researching how that became reflected in the pages of the Wonder Woman comic so I was most interested in how this kind of unconventional love story was mirrored in the pages of Wonder Woman, what connections you could find in the early Wonder Woman comics. He wrote it for the first seven years, and then it changed. They kind of stripped it from a lot of his more overt imagery and theories that appear in the first seven years of the comic. So, that was what became fascinating to me, is how their core relationship showed up in the pages of Wonder Woman.
Had any of the three of them written about their lives and relationship in some way?
Not in the first-hand … there’s no, like “I was there, and did that” deal. No, it was a lot of sleuthing, and the story is definitely my interpretation of the facts that were available and kind of combing through and finding anecdotes of other people about the characters. A lot of it came from Marston’s own writing. Among all the other things; he created the lie detector, he created Wonder Woman, but he was also one of the first pop psychologists. He wrote a bunch of books trying to popularize psychology, almost like in a kind of self-helping way. So, I read his writing extensively and he’d write in his first-person voice.
Had you seen Luke and Rebecca in anything that made you instantly realize they’d be good to play the Marstons?
Yes, I was kind of obsessed with Luke Evans. I was really tracking his career, cause I thought he was so immensely talented. For Marston, it was really important to me that the character have this unique combination of this intense masculinity that was very palpable, but also, an intelligence and sensitivity in conjunction with it. Because I thought that’s how Marston was really like. I thought that Luke had all of those qualities, and so I just began tracking him ever since Dracula Untold. I had gone to see it for him.
Did you watch their junket interviews and stuff like that?
Yeah, no I always do that. Yeah, totally, I totally watched the junket interviews, so I was chasing Luke’s agents, and he wasn’t available and he wasn’t available, and then an opening opened up in his schedule and they called me, and they were like, “If you could make the movie in this window, then Luke wants to do it.” And so, I was super-psyched about that. And then Rebecca Hall is just so brilliant and I’d been following her forever. When you hear Rebecca Hall wants to be in your movie, you jump for joy and I ran and I went to meet her. She had actually considered adapting the story herself and had kind of done a bunch of research, so she actually knew a lot about the Marstons and their story when I went to meet her about playing Elizabeth. This was probably last summer, so we totally had a mind meld, and that was how Rebecca came on board. I actually met with a lot of actresses for the part of Olive, and deceptively, it’s a very difficult role. Believe me, I think it kind of represents initially as an ingenue, but she has this huge transformation to go through, and I was really looking for an actress who first of all, was a brilliant actress, but also could do Olive’s entire arc. Do you know what I mean? The transition starting, as this 22-year old and then to the woman that she grows into. I met with Bella and then she sent me a tape of herself doing a bunch of the scenes, and I was blown away by her performance, and it was just her initial run at it, but she had so much depth and complexity and then this very vulnerable. She was able to be, it was just exquisite, vulnerable, and incredibly strong simultaneously.
Is she British too?
She is Australian. Luke is Welsh, Rebecca is British, and Bella is Australian, so it was a, I called it an “accent soup,” but they all did great American, so it was great.
There’s just so much to this film from the love story to how these two women gave Marston inspiration, a lot of stuff that people just didn’t know about William Marston beyond the fact he created Wonder Woman. How did you find out about that stuff?
I do think the Marstons and Olive actively worked to keep their lives a secret, so that was that, but Marston was very open about his ideas and wrote extensively about DISC theory and how he very specifically created… he called Wonder Woman psychological propaganda to be a vehicle, and he was really trying to save the world with his ideas. He was really committed to this idea that the key to peace in the world is… he thought that men were inherently violent and anarchistic, and women were inherently loving and nurturing, so he thought the pact to peace would be to have women run the world. Yeah, but he didn’t think men would give up their power voluntarily, so he created Wonder Women to be this ideal feminist icon that men would also enjoy watching and that then, boys and men would learn to respect and revere a powerful woman. So that was his purpose. His purpose was kind of overlaid to create a pop culture phenomenon that could bring his kind of message of peace to the world.
I’m fascinated by your own transformation as a director from your earlier films. I haven’t seen a lot of the television work you’ve done, but has working in TV all these years made it easier for you to get a movie like this made or does it seem completely separate? This does seem very different from the comedies you made earlier in your career.
It’s interesting that someone is asking me this, because basically, in ten years, D.E.B.S. is the only other movie that I’ve written and directed, because when was that? 2003 or 4…
It was right when I was starting as a critic, and I hate to admit this, but I kind of hated D.E.B.S. although I probably should go back and watch it again, as it’s been a while.
Oh, that’s so funny! I would. I mean it’s interesting, because D.E.B.S was intended to be a satire, and I feel like, some people got that, and some people didn’t. Some people love it, some people hate it, but to me, there’s a continuum, that I’m very committed to strong female protagonists, and the exploring multi-layered narratives with strong female protagonists. I do think that if you were to watch some of my TV work in between, there’s a really direct line from D.E.B.S, through The L Word and Hung and True Blood, and all of the projects, where like Marston, it’s this kind of merger of my ideas about gender and sexuality and race in a very pop culture format. Do you know what I mean? I always think that that is the most powerful place to effect change, is to insert my ideas and worldview in a very accessible package. That’s what D.E.B.S. was about, and when I worked on The L Word or True Blood, or these different things, so I feel like the exploration, it’s also me ten years later.
Have you started thinking about what to do next? Do you have any scripts over these years you’ve wanted to do and might hope to get back to now?
Oh no, I have a lot of passion projects in the wings. I’m really excited because I’ve always wanted to … I think we are allowed to announce it. I’m working on this comic called Strangers in Paradise. It’s this graphic novel by this guy Terry Moore. It is amazing, so I’m working with Terry, and we’re adapting it. I just don’t know if they have some announcement thing planned or if I can announce that yet. (Note: It was announced a few days later.)
No, I know the comic, I love the comic. It’s a great comic. It’s a long huge story, so good luck.
Yeah, yeah, I know, exactly. It might have to be a trilogy.
It’s so good to meet you after all of these years and maybe I’ll go rewatch D.E.B.S.
Go rewatch D.E.B.S!
Then I’ll reread my review because I’m sure I’ve changed a little bit as a critic and writer myself in 13 years, so maybe I won’t agree with my own review as much.
Or maybe it doesn’t stand up. I haven’t watched it in a long time, but it’s become such a cult hit. I met these two white straight guys a year ago, and they are like, “You know D.E.B.S.? We have D.E.B.S. day!” And I was like, “What?” Once a year, they get together with all of their friends, they get crazy stoned and they watch D.E.B.S on the loop all day.
Robinson’s latest film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women opens on Friday, Oct. 13.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor