With Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, director-screenwriter Angela Robinson avoided making a stuffy and self-important biopic by focusing on the poignant, compelling (and at times quite sexy) love story at the center of Wonder Woman’s creation story.
Set in the 1940s, the film explores who and what inspired Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) to create what would become one of the greatest superheroes of all time. Sure, this Amazonian princess sent to man’s world to end war was born of Marston’s theories about pacifism, feminism, bondage, and more, but she was also inspired by the two women in his life: His brilliant wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), a psychologist in her own right and with whom he developed the lie detector test, and their mutual lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).
In fact, the movie — which is framed by Marston being interrogated by about his controversial and sexually frank comic — is primarily interested in the development of this unconventional relationship; from the moment Olive first catches Marston’s eye, to when the three of them finally give into their attraction and have an immensely fun threesome behind the university’s stage, to them building a family together and experimenting with bondage. The actual creation of Wonder Woman takes up relatively little of the movie’s running time, which is by design.
“I do feel that some people think it’s just going to be a biopic about like, the publishing world and the comic book industry,” Robinson tells EW. “The Marstons have such a sprawling kind of story that I kind of really honed in on this love story that I feel like was actually thematically at the core of who Wonder Woman is. For the movie, the focus is really on the love story being the origin of Wonder Woman, how he was inspired by Elizabeth and Olive, and how this life that they form together was reflected in the comic book pages and kind of became their ideas and ideals and how that infused Wonder Woman.”
Below, Robinson walks us through how she cast the movie’s leads, what she did to make the sex scenes less awkward, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Luke, Rebecca, and Bella have this incredible chemistry throughout the entire movie. Can you walk me through how you landed on these three actors?
ANGELA ROBINSON: It’s really hard to cast an indie movie because so often what dictates it is not who’s right for the role. I spent so much time thinking about the Marstons and writing these characters and writing this script that I was kind of insane about getting the perfect people to play the roles. I was obsessed with Luke Evans for a long time. I think he is such an incredible actor, but what really attracted me [to him] for Marston specifically is I needed somebody with a really palpable masculinity — a lot of the movie is about men and women and masculinity and femininity — what I called almost this agro-man-ness, but also combined with sensitivity and intelligence. I kind of had in my head like Harrison Ford at the beginning of Indiana Jones — rugged, sexy, but [the actor also] had to have this kind of intelligence and sensitivity to play the role. I’d been tracking [Luke] for a long time. I kept going back to his agents and they were like, “He’s not available.” Then, they called me and said, “He has an opening in his schedule, and if you can do it…” We shot this movie in 25 days. This really intense, amazing experience.
Then, Rebecca Hall, I feel is just hands down one of the most brilliant actors working anywhere, anytime. I have been kind of equally obsessed with her. She actually had considered adapting the Marston story herself, and that didn’t end up working out. But I think she heard about my project and read it and really liked it. So, then I heard through [my agent] — we’re both at [William Morris Endeavor] — that she had kind of sparked to it. I just freaked out because if Rebecca Hall is interested in being in your film, you run, don’t walk, to Brooklyn to meet with her. She was Elizabeth to me. She’s so intelligent and so brilliant, like an incredibly brilliant person. I almost didn’t want her to act — she did, it’s just an incredible performance — but she is just so charismatic and intelligent and so good at her craft. Elizabeth is a very tricky character and she did it with such grace and humanity, and so that was just f—ing awesome.
Then, Bella Heathcote: I met with a ton of actresses to play the role of Olive, but the role of Olive is very deceptive, because at first blush she’s just the ingénue. What I loved about the film as I was writing it is that Elizabeth and Marston kind of have all of these opinions about who they think Olive is and kind of their notions about her, but then she actually has one of the biggest arcs in the film and is the soul of the movie. She’s grounded, powerful, and actually the strongest person in the film. So, [I needed] to find an actress who embodied that strength underlying this vulnerability so that she could be both things at the same time. Bella actually sent me tape of herself doing the scenes and I was just blown away. She was so complex and had this incredible grounded soulful quality that I think you see in this film. It was important to me to explore the two sides of Marston’s conception of how women get kind of divided and has all these opinions about femininity, that this is this type of woman and that’s that type of woman but that they kind of come together. I think Bella is a revelation.
Did you do anything with them to build that chemistry that comes across on screen?
A lot of people have commented on their chemistry, but what was really amazing is that we had no rehearsal time. We had one table read before we started rehearsals where they all came together, and they were so committed to playing the roles that they just showed up and, literally, it was just kind of an explosion [with] the three of them together. The process of making the movie was literally the process watching them fall in love. It was very organic. As a director, I did some things where I became obsessed with the notion of consent that we would be tracking with the camera, playing all the notes, all the small moments in between of this exchange of power and this very long, intricate foreplay. I wanted the movie to feel like it feels like when you’re falling in love, to feel extra beautiful but where you’re so totally zeroing on someone’s intake of breath or the kind of minute moments where they’re just super keyed into each other.
Because I worked a lot in cable television, I’ve directed a bunch of love scenes and I found that they’re always really uncomfortable for everybody. Having done a lot of them, I have narrowed it down to — I think the discomfort comes from the silence. You hear the squeak of the dolly and there’s a boom guy standing there. It’s just really hard, and I think there’s so much kind of fear of doing it that I think a lot of times you’re going along and doing the movie and then they stop and shoot the sex scene — like everyone stops acting during the sex scene and just wants to get it done and then they move on. For me, it was really important that a lot of story could be told [in these scenes]. For me, the sex scenes weren’t about sex; they were about liberation and freedom and fantasy, so that they were the most fun. Basically, I made a playlist. My solution was to play really loud music over the sex scenes, and I let the actors pick songs to add to the playlist. I just played deafening music so that they would be able to lose themselves, and then it would be fun and joyous. There’s a dialectic in the movie that’s about reality and fantasy, so I told them that the lie detector scenes are about sex to me and the sex scenes are about fantasy and freedom, and when they put on the costumes and put on the roles, they’re able to be kind of their truest selves and have the most freedom. I feel like that is really communicated in their performances and I think it makes it really sexy, but also I feel like that kind of liberates the actors to play something besides have sex.
What songs were included on that playlist?
Actually, when they were smoking and drinking before, I put on “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye to make everybody laugh, which was hilarious. But the song I think that ended up winning the day [in the backstage sex scene] was “Ball and Biscuit” by the White Stripes. It’s not even period music or anything. That scene took like eight hours to shoot, so there were a lot of songs, but that’s the one I remember.
One of my coworkers noted that the interesting thing about Elizabeth is that she’s initially presented as the most radical of the bunch, the one relishes defying social conventions, but also as the movie goes on, you realize that she’s the one who cares the most about what society thinks about this relationship. What conversations did you have with Rebecca about the role?
Rebecca rendered the character so beautifully. When we [first] talked about it, it was interesting — she got Elizabeth, she got her on every level. I remember when we first talked about it, we had this really great conversation — in my head, I call it the “to all the brilliant women” conversation — and I talked about so many women that I knew who were brilliant and who, just for whatever reason, haven’t been able to live up to their fullest potential, maybe it’s because of work, and how frustrated they are. We talked about glass ceilings and entitlement and what kinds of opportunities are built for men. It was more about this emotional frustration and also that Elizabeth is the one who understands the consequences. Olive and Marston are dreamers, but Marston can afford to dream. He keeps getting chance after chance, but Elizabeth is the one who’s like, “No, you don’t get it. There’s a cost to be paid and I’m the one that’s going to be paying the cost,” and it’s real. For all intents and purposes, she was as, if not more, brilliant than Marston, but she’s been erased from history for a large part until the last couple of years, and even now, she’s just starting to get some credit for contributions on the lie detector test and her existence. So, we kind of had a toast at the end of our dinner to all the brilliant women that Elizabeth was kind of dedicated to. I think it really comes through in the film how palpably brilliant and exciting and dynamic a person she is, but then life happens, and I think that’s very real and we wanted to portray that.
While you were filming, were you worried about what Wonder Woman‘s success or failure would mean for your movie?
It’s kind of interesting because a lot of people, when I’ve talked to them, have commented on the kind of extraordinarily good luck on the timing of this film. It’s funny to me because it’s taken me like, eight years to get a movie on the big screen, but like four years to actively try to make it. The convergence is just incredible timing, but back last October when we were shooting, we didn’t even know if we’d have distribution. We did know that the movie was happening, and I felt, very personally, that people were desperate to see Wonder Woman and really love her and that it would be a huge success, but that wasn’t necessarily the conventional wisdom at the time. People were really unsure of how Wonder Woman was going to do and there was a lot of fear around it. What was important to me is that I knew the movie was coming and I’m the hugest Wonder Woman fan — part of why I wanted to make this movie was my frustration that it had taken so long for there to be a Wonder Woman film — and I really just wanted to honor and respect the character — that was really important to me — and respect the fandoms that love her because I do. So, my worry wasn’t necessarily about whether it was going to do well or not well and how that would impact the film I was making, but what I was very cognizant of is approaching the movie as a Wonder Woman fan and approaching the story of the Marstons with respect and dignity and care that I felt like was appropriate to the storytelling.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is in theaters now.