The atmosphere got a little tense during an otherwise cheery Sunday afternoon New York Comic Con panel about the upcoming biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. The film, written and directed by Angela Robinson, follows the lives of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and their live-in companion Olive Byrne. The first question at the panel came from pop-culture scholar Travis Langley, who recently co-edited a book about Wonder Woman’s history and psychological significance. He took issue with the fact that the movie depicts Holloway and Byrne as being lovers, when there’s no public record of that being the case — it’s only known that Marston was sexually involved with both of them individually. How, he asked, did Robinson come to that conclusion?
“That’s a difficult question, because I did talk to a source who said that that was her interpretation,” Robinson replied. “I think that there’s a lot of facts that are indisputable about the Marstons, and I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation.” Later, another questioner brought the topic back up and pointed out that Jill Lepore’s 2014 history of the Marston triad — unrelated to Robinson’s film, which the auteur began years prior to the book’s release — didn’t come to the same conclusion. “I think you can kind of go back and forth, debating some of the finer points, but for me, as a filmmaker, that was what I wanted to do,” Robinson replied. We caught up with Robinson after the panel to discuss the movie, the interpretations she derived from her research, and her relationship to the Marston family, among other topics.
What were the origins of the movie?
I was just kind of a nerdy Wonder Woman fan. I directed my first feature, D.E.B.S., and one of the actors in the film, as a wrap gift, gave me a history of Wonder Woman book.
The one by Les Daniels?
Les Daniels, yeah. Beautiful, beautiful book. There was one chapter on the Marstons, which laid out the lie-detector test and the whole story, basically, in a nutshell. I was just blown away. It’s an incredible story, in and of itself. So I got kind of obsessed with it.
What research did you do subsequent to that? Because there wasn’t a ton of information out there.
There wasn’t a whole lot out there. I started eight years ago, and there wasn’t very much at the time. So I went to the Smithsonian and I read all of Marston’s letters. A lot of it was — I took a deep dive into Marston’s writings. He wrote a lot of books, especially this book called The Emotions of Normal People, which is amazing. The first line of it is, “Are you normal?” Which just kind of broke my heart, in a way; in the best way. And then I’d find as much biographical stuff about the Marstons that I could. The hardest part was figuring out the context in which they lived. I had to learn a lot about early psychology to figure out how out-of-step he was with his contemporaries with what he was doing. I had to learn a lot about the science behind the lie detector and a lot about the publishing world. They were the characters, but a lot of the research was figuring out how to write them as part of the times they were living in.
Did you do interviews with surviving people who knew them, or members of the family?
Not extensively. I really made the decision early on that I didn’t want … I wanted to kind of be able to explore my own interpretation of what the story was. I didn’t want to — I was trying to figure out — I felt like their story had been kind of hidden from history for a long time, and I kind of wanted to excavate and interpret what I found and then write the film.
One component of that interpretation that got brought up at the panel was the queer relationship between Olive and Elizabeth. Was that based on research you’d done, or was that just your interpretation?
I mean, it’s both. This is one of those things that’s kind of tricky about history, especially history that has been obscured because of the relationships and because of society and many things. But there’s certain facts that are indisputable about the Marstons’ lives, which everybody agrees on, and there are certain ones that are open to interpretation. You know what I mean? It’s how you choose to interpret those facts. So that’s how I chose to interpret them. That, I don’t know how else to say except that it’s open to interpretation.
Were you nervous about portraying those kinds of speculative interpretations, given that they were about real people with surviving family?
[Long pause.] In a way. I felt like I kind of went on my own journey, discovering, trying to do detective work, and what I came to was that the Marstons were these wonderful people with a lot of love in their life. I was especially struck by the fact that Elizabeth and Olive lived together for 38 years after Marston died. So, to me, I wanted to tell a story about that love and what I thought was happening.
What interactions have you had with Warner Bros., given that they own the character of Wonder Woman?
I recently showed the movie to [Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice writer/director] Zack Snyder and [producer] Deborah Snyder, and they loved it. Zack is gonna endorse it. You’re actually hearing this first!
How’d that come about?
We reached out to them. We’ve actually recently reached out to the Marston family, too. I’m kinda going back and forth with [William Moulton Marston’s granddaughter] Christie Marston, to see if — we’ve offered to show her the film — and to see if she wants to see it for herself. But Zack and Debbie Snyder, they watched it, and Debbie cried at the end. She was very moved by the film and Zack loved it, so that was super-exciting. We showed it to Gloria Steinem recently and she also loved the film. That’s pretty cool.
Had you reached out to Christie Marston while working on the film?
Basically, when I finished, I reached out to her. I actually reached out to her then to see if she wanted to … So I reached out and offered to show her the film, and we’re trying to set up a screening. We’re gonna see if she wants to see it.
But you hadn’t been in contact while you were making the movie?
Was that a conscious choice?
Yeah. I didn’t actually talk to … It was a conscious choice because I really just wanted to have my own interpretation of the story.
Are there legal ramifications for that, because of life rights or anything?
No. I went through an extensive legal process with the film. I had to legally clear everything that I say with the film. And I went through that process.
And you’re good?
And we’re good! Yeah!
I want to talk about the scene when Olive is backlit in the burlesque outfit that ends up being the prototype for the Wonder Woman costume. How’d that come together in your mind?
For me, there’s certain tableaux that represent Wonder Woman, and it’s kind of a dialectic between fantasy and reality. So there’s the scenes where they’re exploring their sexuality by putting on costumes in this kind of roleplaying and being other people. So, to me, it kind of represented not only Wonder Woman, but being the truest versions of themselves in a place where they could really be free. So I thought a lot about that tableau. There’s the first tableau when they’re hooking up and you see [Olive] in the toga, against the pastel sky. That’s really signature Wonder Woman iconography. Then I talked about how I wanted to create these moments that were powerful where you felt Wonder Woman that weren’t literal. But I worked with the production designer on a comic-book-inspired backdrop and worked with the cinematographer to create the aesthetics of the silhouette appearing. Actually, we gave a ton of thought to — Donna Maloney was the costume designer — to Olive’s outfit. I didn’t want it to literally be a red-white-and-blue anything, because it’s subjective to them. I just wanted it to be inspiring but not literal. So in that moment, we kind of chose this slate-gray outfit, but that there’s a red light and a blue light. There was a lot of work to create that one moment in the film, which is evocative but not literal, at the same time.
My knowledge of the Marstons mainly came from Jill Lepore’s book about them, and one thing that struck me about how she interpreted William was that she seemed to think he was a bit of a grifter and exaggerator. That doesn’t seem to be your view. Do you feel that Lepore’s interpretation was unfair?
[Long pause.] I think there’s a lot of different ways to tell the Marston story. I really do. I feel like they lived an expansive life. He’s a polarizing person. I think, for me, it’s which choices, which version of the story do you tell. I came at it as a Wonder Woman fan, with a character that was deeply important to me. I really wanted to respect the character and respect the fandoms of people who love her. So I chose to tell the story of what I felt like was the core, which is this love story, and his theories, and how he created Wonder Woman to be, really specifically, a vehicle for his ideas. They thought their ideas could save the world in a very literal way: They thought they could change hearts and minds through psychology, through this pop-culture phenomenon, to help end war and bring about peace on the planet. I do think there’s a way to … I think it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, they’re so kinky’ or, ‘Oh, he’s so messed-up.’ I do feel like I give his ideas a rigorous airing. I surround him with strong female characters who are constantly taking him to task and challenging him about how problematic a lot of what he … Which I feel, myself, as a person, in how contradictory his ideas are. I tried to talk in the movie about his own misogyny and how it’s embedded within his feminism. Also, men and women: that Elizabeth and Marston aren’t playing on a level playing field, and talking about entitlement. There’s a lot of ideas within it, but ultimately, what I took from spending that much time thinking about the Marstons is that they were good people who loved their kids, who were free thinkers, who created Wonder Woman.
The artist who drew the first Wonder Woman stories, Harry Peter, isn’t really in the story of the film. Was that an issue of time constraints?
I wish … Honestly, the hardest part of the whole story was winnowing it down to an hour-and-45 [minutes] playing time. You could make a whole miniseries or TV show. There’s so much to the story. I would’ve loved to go more into the intricacies of the publishing world and Harry Peter and [comics publisher] M.C. Gaines and [comics editor] Sheldon Mayer. There was a whole world there, but I just didn’t have time.
To what extent did you want to tell a story that was a positive depiction of polyamory?
I’m really happy that it’s being embraced by the poly community and that some people are telling me it’s the only positive depiction they’ve seen. I didn’t realize that when we were making it. We have all this contemporary language to describe what the Marstons were doing, like poly and kink and BDSM. But they didn’t have that language then. Lesbian was barely an identity at the time. The word had just been created in that usage. So, to me, they were just doing what they were doing. They didn’t have any of this. It was just that they fell in love and they had to figure out how to be together, quite literally, in the world.
In other words: “Now that we’ve found love, what are we gonna do with it?”
[Laughs, starts dancing.] Exactly!
What did you think of the Wonder Woman movie this summer?
I loved it so much. It was really an emotional experience for me to see it. I’ve talked to a lot of women, young and old, at this point, and they were like, ‘I totally cried through the Wonder Woman movie and I did not expect to do that!’ I thought it was just me! But now I’ve realized that was a lot of women’s experience. I thought Patty Jenkins just killed it. It was so powerful and she got Wonder Woman so right, which is no easy task.