'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‎' Director on the Superhero's Kinky Origin Story (Exclusive)

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Lars Niki/Getty Images for Annapurna

If you saw Wonder Woman this summer -- and the record-setting $800 million worldwide box office indicates a lot of people saw Wonder Woman this summer -- then you know the story of how Diana, Princess of Themyscira, became the superhero Wonder Woman, protector of mankind. How Wonder Woman ended up on the pages of comic books in the first place is a story unto itself however, told in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: In 1941, Dr. William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans), his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their lover, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), created the character to save the world...through psychology. Director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) could never have predicted, though, that her Wonder Woman indie would arrive in theaters mere months after one of the biggest movies of the year.

"I'm getting a lot of credit for having the foresight to know that in the summer of 2017, the 75-years-in-the-making, long-gestating Wonder Woman movie would finally hit theaters and become a worldwide phenomenon," Robinson laughed during a call with ET, in which she also discussed the perfect song to play while filming a sex scene and Patty Jenkins' support.

ET: I know you've been working on this movie for something like a decade now. Is it coincidence that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is coming out the same year that Wonder Woman did so well? Or a matter of striking while the iron is hot?

It's kind of weirdly both, you know what I mean? I think it's more a coincidence than it is any sort of planning on my part...I didn't even know last fall when I was making this movie if we'd even have distribution. [Laughs] It took me about four years, nights and weekends, to write the movie in between television jobs and then about four years as an indie filmmaker to get the financing to make it. It would come together and fall apart. But I do think there's kind of been a convergence over the last four years in interest in the Marston story and in Wonder Woman, so now is definitely her moment. I do think it all started to dovetail and culminate and there started to be more wind in the sail, but as far as the perfect timing of landing right where we are landing, that's a coincidence.

The scheduling of the two movies might just be luck, but do you think that -- in the grand scheme of things, and in the current climate -- it's a coincidence that two projects were even being made about Wonder Woman?

No, I definitely think she's having a renaissance, like, a moment. Part of the reason I even began writing this movie was I was so frustrated that there hadn't been a Wonder Woman movie, that she never existed in a live action film. I was like, "There's multiple Superman reboots and multiple Batman reboots. How many times do we have to see Bruce Wayne's parents die in an alley, like over and over and over?" [Laughs] And Gotham came out and I was like, "Again?!" I was talking to the screenwriter, Laeta Kalogridis, who is amazing and she was writing one of the early drafts of Wonder Woman [in 2003], and I started telling her about Marston and she was like, "Now that's a movie that needs to be written." So I began slowly working on it, and I'm not quite sure what is in the air that finally made it happen, but I do feel that people are really desperate for the message. I think that's why she's such a huge success.

I like the order the movies have been released, because, when Wonder Woman came out, there was so much discussion analyzing the feminist subtext, and your film takes that subtext and makes it the text.

Yes! Yes! No one has ever put it like that, but that's fantastic. I think it's the perfect time to look at the story of the Martsons while we're in this resonating Wonder Woman moment and renaissance, and to be like, The reason that you love her or hate her, the reason that she is so exciting to the popular imagination, is because look at these people who were these incredible free thinkers. And they really put all of their ideas, quite literally, into Wonder Woman. And they were really specific ideas about love and peace and feminism and sex and all sorts of things that were really intentional.

These are notions that we were grappling with in the '40s and, frustratingly, still today.

Isn't it crazy? We went to the London Film Festival, I was just there -- I don't know, it might have just been, like, last night, I'm so disoriented. And I was listening in and there's the one line where they're like, "We've been marching for birth control…" And I was like, Oh my god. We're still marching for birth control. Like, they thought a female president was just around the bend. In the late '20s, they were just like, "Any day now, we're going to get our female president!" Then it's just a hop, skip and a jump. It was really landing on me. I was like, "This is nearly 100 years ago and almost seems more progressive then."

Luke Evans, Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Annapurna Pictures

I want to know what the research was like to write this. It is obviously based on the true story of the Marstons -- how much of your script was facts that you found and how much had to be your creation or interpretation?

Let's see... I'm not sure, like, a percentage. There's basically a ton of information out there about the Marstons that everybody agrees on and it's pretty indisputable, and then there's a lot of stuff about the Martsons that's open to interpretation. So this film is definitely my interpretation of their story. I did a ton of research and actually, Martson wrote a bunch of books -- This is incredible. He wrote this book called The Emotions of Normal People and the first line of it is, "Are you normal?" which he says in the movie, which is kind of a motif. And the next 500 pages are a defense of himself and his ideas, basically why he's normal and you're not. [Laughs] But he wrote all sorts of books, so I did a deep dive into those. I went to the Smithsonian, where there are a lot of his letters. As a writer, it was a combination of figuring out all the facts and then the hardest part, actually, was figuring out the context. I had to learn a lot about early psychology, to see how out of step he was with his contemporaries, and learn a lot about the publishing world in the '40s. It's actually like the biographical part was simpler than trying to really understand his theories and the world in which they were trying to live their lives.

In terms of his personal life and this triad relationship he had with Elizabeth and Olive, was he writing about them in his books?

There's nothing like -- they were really closeted, I guess. They didn't actually have these terms. I'm kind of careful not to describe the movie from a contemporary analysis -- like, we say poly or BDSM or bisexual -- but those terms didn't exist then. They were kind of doing what they were doing, you know what I mean? So, he'd say things in his book like, "Lesbians make great moms," or something. [Laughs] But he wouldn't talk one-on-one about, "This is my life..."

But what was really interesting about him is he had this very playful, hiding-in-plain-sight thing. He put all sorts of things in the Wonder Woman comic book that related very literally to his real life, like Olive would wear silver bracelets or the Lasso of Truth connects to the lie detector test that he created with Olive and Elizabeth's help. There were all these Easter eggs of his life and as I kept doing my research, I kept finding myself going back to the Wonder Woman comics in this loop, where he was describing himself and his world. You know, Wonder Woman goes to Holliday College and the baby party sequence in the movie -- that was directly from the Wonder Woman comics and that was an actual study he did in The Emotions of Normal People.

There is also a sequence where Olive wears a burlesque outfit during a rope play demonstration, which seemingly inspires Wonder Woman's classic costume. How did you come to that?

I wanted to, directorially, hit on these tableaus that provoked Wonder Woman and the fantasy of it all. There's a lot written about how Wonder Woman's look was inspired by a combination of Olive Byrne's looks and the qualities of both Elizabeth and Olive, but also how it was influenced -- depending on your source -- by pinup girls of the time or, some scholars say, Victorian pornography. There's a lively debate when you get into the research of the influences of how her looks came to be. That was my creative way to sum it all up.

The sex scenes in this movie are, well, very sexy! They're beautifully shot and feel quite intimate. As a director, do you do anything specific to create a mood on set or a space for your actors to perform?

I do, as a matter of fact! I worked with the cinematographer on this idea of the female gaze, that I really wanted to shoot it in a non-exploitative and not gratuitous way that really focuses on the women being in charge of the experience and tracking their desire as well as Marston's. But technically, actors get very nervous whenever they have to shoot a sex scene, because they're usually really miserable experiences and it's like, deathly quiet and they're sitting there naked and there's all these people standing around and the boom operator with the mic over them. It's just a miserable experience for everybody.

I worked in cable television for a long time, and I realized that I think it's the silence that makes everybody so uncomfortable. So, I created a playlist and I asked the actors, "What songs do you want to have sex by?" [Laughs] I play really, really loud music over the scenes, so that it gets rid of the silence and then the actors have to loop the moaning and groaning later. And that was really liberating and I played a little joke on them, because I could tell they were really all geared up from the start knowing they had this three-way love scene coming. So, I put them in the positions just to start the sequence and then I turned on Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." The opening chords of that came over the loud speakers, and they just burst out laughing. And them laughing is in the movie, when they’re smoking and drinking at the start of the sex scene. We had quite a playlist going on on that one. It really helps. Then they can just lose themselves in the act, instead of worrying about how artificial the experience is.

Do you remember any of the other songs on that playlist?

I do. There was a Billie Holiday song. Actually the song that ended up winning the day was "Ball and Biscuit" by The White Stripes, which was towards the end there. It's always a surprise to me what songs seem to set the mood, because they're never like what you'd actually play in the movie. There also was The Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know?" For a difference sequence, there was some Beyoncé.

Rebecca Hall, Angela Robinson in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Annapurna Pictures

I was vaguely aware of the psychosexual and bondage elements of Wonder Woman's origins, but it's made explicit in your movie. You're able to be a bit R-Rated and taboo with the subject of a PG-13, big studio tent pole, but was there any pushback or concern from Warner Bros.?

I went through a really extensive legal process on my own with the film, but no. Actually, I showed the movie to Zack Snyder and Debbie Snyder about a week and a half ago and they loved it! Debbie Snyder cried at the end and they were both very moved and I was so relieved, because I'm a big, big Wonder Woman fan, so it was important to me to be respectful to the character, be respectful to the fandom. We haven't heard from DC corporate or Warner Brothers corporate, but Zack was very enthusiastic about the film and I totally respect and admire him and his leadership of the DC Universe, so that was really cool.

What about Patty Jenkins, did you ever reach out to her or do you know if she's seen it?              

I did. We know each other a little bit, Patty and I. We were actually cutting our first features down the hall from each other a decade ago, so early in the year, we exchanged emails about how crazy it was that we both found totally different paths to Wonder Woman in the same year. We wrote each other words of encouragement and I sent her how blown away I was when I finally saw the Wonder Woman movie. But I don't know if she's had a chance to see the film yet. She's been kind of busy! [Laughs]

Gal Gadot's portrayal will be many people's defining take on Wonder Woman. You've now become a foremost expert on the character, what do you think that movie and that depiction got exactly right?

I just loved it. I thought they killed it. It was a real emotional experience watching it, actually, and I thought it was just me, but I talked to a lot of people at this point and they're like, "Yeah, I was crying through the No Man's Land sequence." Like, Wonder Woman is the only superhero who was created to stop war. There were literally fresh ideas in the film that I think people are really craving and I think that's why she's such a worldwide phenomenon. And I think they really got the feminism right. It's interesting, we showed the film to Gloria Steinem, who was really pivotal in bringing Wonder Woman's superpowers back and putting her on the cover of Ms. magazine. She gave us a lovely quote, but Gloria Steinem wrote that one of [Wonder Woman's] superpowers is that she can speak in 200 languages, so I really feel like they got it so right. I think Marston would have just loved it. I think his whole family would've. And I did.

Is there anything about the character that wasn't addressed in the film that you wamt to see in the sequel?

I mean, I loved the whole film, but I really loved Themyscira. Paradise Island, in Marston's point of view. I was sad to leave there, even though I f**king loved the rest of the movie. I don’t know! I'm just excited to see her continued adventures, to see what they do with her now. I think they have a lot of opportunity, so I'm excited to see how they use it.

Jenkins is signed on for the sequel to Wonder Woman [set to hit theaters on Dec. 13, 2019], but if you could be handed the reins to any other superhero to make their big, blockbuster film, who would you pick?

Batwoman, definitely.

Joss Whedon has Batgirl, so Batwoman should be up for grabs!

Yeah, he has Batgirl. Not Batgirl, Batwoman. Big difference. If they decide to do Batwoman, then they should call me!

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Poster
Annapurna Pictures

Lastly, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein news, women in Hollywood have been speaking out about not only sexual harassment, but the general harassment and belittling, bullying, interference they face in this industry. As a female filmmaker, not to mention a queer woman of color, have you combatted that in your own career?

I'm so glad that the conversation is happening and women are speaking out against what is really, I think, an epidemic -- sexism -- that's really rooted in the industry. I feel like it's just starting to come out and women are starting to find their voices around the subject and really starting to call out things. For me, I feel like, of course the behavior is awful, but what I feel like needs to be equally addressed is the legal and PR structures around protecting the type of behavior, especially the nondisclosure agreement and especially the high-power legal teams that go after the women. Because it really enforces not only the blacklisting that could happen in Hollywood, which is a very real thing, but that makes it -- even if you're 100 percent right and you can prove the person is 100 percent wrong -- you can be bankrupted by a powerful legal team if you don't have the money or power to fight. It's a very real thing that you can suffer severely for, and it's kind of put this structure in place to stop it. I just try to speak out whenever I can, and you have to just stay true to yourself and keep fighting, even if you encounter resistance or sexism or misogyny. I feel that the more of us that can speak out and join forces and really hold people accountable, I think that's how change is going to happen.

That feels like a very Wonder Woman message.

It's so true. Wonder Woman's about living your truth, and I think these women are speaking their truth and I think that is really powerful. And that is what Wonder Woman is all about.