TIFF 2017: Angela Robinson on PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN — Pam Grady Interviews (Exclusive)

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angela robinsn headtiff logoOne of the happy surprises of Toronto International Film Festival 2017, Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Women, may share the same DNA as Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster Wonder Woman, but it is an altogether different animal. This erotically charged, real-life drama spins the tale of how Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston’s (Luke Evans) muses, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), led him to create the comic-book superheroine. The film is a fresh, sexy take on the origins of Amazonian warrior Diana. Writer/director Angela Robinson tells us her own origin story that starts with the gift of a book about a childhood favorite, as she reveals the wonder of William Moulton Marston and his women. Continue reading…

For actors Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote, making Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was an opportunity to listen to their favorite music whilst in the midst of shooting. Their three characters share any number of intimate scenes and music is the strategy writer/director Angela Robinson developed to set her cast at ease.

Setting the Scene for Intimacy

“The actors were so wonderful and committed,” she says in conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival where Professor Marston and the Wonder Women made its world premiere. “They trusted me and they trusted each other. I have a personal theory about filming sex scenes in that I feel that what kills them is the silence. When you’re physically shooting them, it’s silent and it’s so self-conscious. It’s such a foreign, awkward way to do anything. It looks really sexy on screen, but the actual, physical making of the scene is really awkward and choreographed. So, I came up with a strategy in my TV work, which was basically to make a playlist of songs the actors love and then I play them deafeningly loud over the scene. I got rid of the silence and kind of got rid of the self-consciousness with it. But, also, the actors have agency, because they picked the songs.”

“It should be fun,” she adds. “I feel like everybody always represents sex like it’s the most like so intense … but most people they feel like they have a good time.”

Fortuitous Timing

angela robinson prof marston posterThe timing is fortuitous for Professor Marston in coming out not long after Patty Jenkins’ Hollywood smash Wonder Women, but the seeds for Robinson’s drama, limning the lives of three extraordinary people and how their relationship led to the creation of the comic-book superheroine, were planted long ago. Robinson’s fascination with the character began in childhood with Lynda Carter’s TV take on the Amazonian, which led her to the comic books. A friend who knew she was a lifelong fan gave her a book about the character as a present when Robinson wrapped her first feature D.E.B.S. (2004). There was a chapter in it about the Marstons and Robinson was hooked.

“It just blew my mind that there was this incredible love story at the origin of Wonder Woman, and that nobody seemed to know about it. It had been kind of hidden from history,” says Robinson.

Revealing Hidden History

Robinson was in the middle of a very busy television career as a writer, director, and producer, amassing credits on such shows as The L Word, Hung, True Blood, and How to Get Away with Murder. But the Marston story got under her skin. She threw herself into research, reading everything she could find on the subject including the early Wonder Woman comics, Marston’s letters, and his books. (In addition to being the creator of Wonder Woman, Marston was a psychologist and the inventor of the lie-detector test.)

“I read everything I could get my hands on, but I wanted to form my own interpretation of what I thought the story was,” Robinson says.

She spent four years working on the script, devoting nights, weekends, and periods between TV jobs to the task. Then it was four more years before she could make the film. The project came together several times, only to fall apart again. But Robinson knew she was onto something and remained passionately committed.

“What really struck me is how contemporary a story it was, even for now,” Robinson says. “He was very open in his writings, so ahead of his time.”

Professor Marston’s Powerful Pop Psychology

“One of the parts I wasn’t able to fully render in the film was that he was one of the first pop psychologists. He really thought there was power in pop culture and in popular things and outside of academia. So that’s why he saw the comic book, which was the hugest publishing phenomena since the Bible. It was like apps or something. It wasn’t here one day, and then everybody was using them. I do think he was kind of able to look at all sorts of different popular culture content and form—but it’s what he saw in ever
ything. This theory was his life and he saw it in every interaction, in everything. He didn’t put a high/low value on things like comic books or porn and academia—he wanted to marry the two. He thought it was more powerful. That’s why he chose comic books, because he thought, ‘This will actually reach people.’”

A Polyamorous Love Story

But the creation of Wonder Woman is only one facet of Doctor Marston and the Wonder Women. At its heart, the film is a love story as Marston and Elizabeth become besotted with student Olive. It was important to Robinson to portray the polyamorous relationship as no more or less unusual than any other intimate relationship.

Angela Robinson on set with Bella Heathcote and Rebecca Hall.
Angela Robinson on set with Bella Heathcote and Rebecca Hall.

“I didn’t want to ‘other-wise’ their experience, I didn’t want to be like, ‘Oh, look at those people over there, let’s watch what they’re doing,’” she says. “I wanted it to be really accessible and to feel like how you feel when you’re falling in love. The content itself I felt was so radical that I kind of wanted to pair it with some accessible conventions that would just treat it like any other love story.”

After working so hard on her film for the past eight years, Robinson is aware of her serendipitous timing with her movie coming out at a time when there is so much interest in Wonder Woman. Besides Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster and the comic book, there is Grant Morrison’s Earth One, and Jill Lepore’s 2014 Marston biography The Secret History of Wonder Woman. After decades of obscurity, Professor Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive are having their moment in the spotlight.

angela robinson on set with camera

“I think there is this kind of incredible Wonder Woman moment happening, and it’s been gathering steam for three or four years,” Robinson says. “I feel like the Marstons’ story was hidden for 70 some years and now I feel like there’s been kind of a reembracing of Marston and his ideas. I do think there’s something in the air that’s making it all happen at the same time.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on Wonder Woman and related news on AWFJ.org, click here.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.