A bold and illuminating true superhero origin story. It is also a tale of invention, perseverance and courage against the forces of oppression.
Writer/director Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston & The Wonder Women is the incredible true story of what inspired Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston to create the iconic feminist superhero Wonder Woman.
While Marston’s groundbreaking character was pilloried by censors for its sexual frankness, he was living a secret life that was equally controversial. Marston’s inspiration for Wonder Woman were his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and their mutual lover Olive Byrne, self-empowered women who defied social conventions while they helped Marston advance his prescient behavioral research.
If behind every great man there is a great woman, Harvard psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) had the good fortunate to have two: his wife Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and their mutual lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, the women in Marston’s life aided him in his forward-thinking human research studies and inspired him to create the feminist superhero, Wonder Woman, a barrier- breaking, iconoclastic heroine, beloved by millions for the past eight decades.
According to writer/director Angela Robinson, Marston’s life is the story of “three unlikely rebels who dared not only to love each other but form a family together and how their collective experience led to the creation of Wonder Woman, one of the most enduring feminist icons of all time.”
But there was a price to pay for the Marston’s family’s unconventional ideas. Professor Marston and his wife Elizabeth were banished from academia, financially hobbling their research and compromising their economic livelihood. In spite of these problems, the family persevered and Elizabeth and Olive’s defiance and courage in the face of adversity moved the Professor to create his dream woman, the first comic book superhero Wonder Woman, a phenomenon as well as a lightning rod for the censors.
Like most individuals born ahead of their time, Marston and his wonder women are a testament to survival against the dark undercurrents of repression that continue to plague society to this day.
Stranger Than Fiction
Almost a decade ago, writer/director Angela Robinson (True Blood, The L Word), was leafing through a coffee table book about Wonder Woman, of whom she was a lifelong fan, when she came across some startling facts about the origins of the comic book superhero. “There was one section that blew my mind,” she recalls.
The chapter centered on the superhero’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, who was also responsible for the lie detector test. (Marston invented the systolic blood pressure test, which he then combined with the polygraph, after his wife, Elizabeth suggested a connection between emotion and blood pressure). Also contained in the chapter was a discussion of the sexual bondage controversy surrounding the Wonder Woman comics in its early days and Marston’s polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth and one of his college students, Olive Byrne.
The information was bare bones, but after some careful sleuthing, Robinson unearthed a trove of equally fascinating information. Robinson read Marston’s treatise “Emotions of Normal People,” in which he propounded his “DISC theory” that all human interaction is broken down into four behaviors: dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. She also discovered that the character of Wonder Woman, which debuted in the early 1940s, was created as psychological propaganda. “Marston believed that women were the superior sex and they should be running the world,” Robinson notes. “When I shared all this information with my friends, they all said, ‘you should write this as a movie.’”
Her initial impulse was to create a Marston biopic, “but the more I learned about Elizabeth and Olive, the more I realized that I couldn’t understand him without understanding the role they’d played in his life.”
In particular, she was intrigued by the fact that Elizabeth and Olive (by whom Marston had two children each), continued to live together for thirty-eight years after his death, signifying a bond of affection and commitment beyond their connection to Marston. “Elizabeth even named one of her daughters after Olive,” Robinson mentions. “This wasn’t the story of a wife and a mistress living together. What I was looking at was a love story between three people.”
Angela Robinson is a celebrated filmmaker who explores and exposes the breadth and complexity of humanity in an extensive body of work across both film and television. Filtering her storytelling through the multi-faceted prism of identity, Robinson uses the power of her unique voice to intelligently and empathetically bring compelling, intersectional stories— specifically those of women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals—to the mainstream in a way that is entertaining, emotional, and thought-provoking. Moving fluidly between film and television, Robinson has an overall deal with ABC Television Studios and recently served as a Consulting Producer on ABC’s hit series How to Get Away with Murder. She previously both wrote and directed as an Executive Producer on boundary-pushing series for HBO including Hung and True Blood, as well as on Showtime’s groundbreaking The L Word. Currently, she is also in development on a series for EPIX and Annapurna Television exploring the intersecting lives of Golden Age stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
In writing about a polyamorous relationship, Robinson contends, changing point of view became an essential element. “Viewing the relationship from multiple perspectives was crucial in order for us to understand why the three of them stayed together.”
The script begins on Marston, then shifts to his wife, Elizabeth, and finally, to Olive, the object of their desire. Further, “all the scenes examine a facet of Marston’s DISC theory,” says Robinson, “looks and body language through which thoughts and intimacy are communicated. The power exchange was an important component of the story.”
In order to explore the bondage element of the Marston triangular relationship, Robinson met with female dominatrices, “because I wanted it to be explained from a woman’s perspective and to include the emotional and intellectual reasons Marston found it attractive. My consultants explained that the submissive person is usually in charge, the guide to what’s happening, which added another layer to their behavior.”
The script she produced won high praise, but Robinson could find no takers. “Part of it was because independent movies are hard to make, and frankly some people just didn’t get it,” she observes. “I mean, after all, I’d written a love triangle in which the principles get involved in bondage and, along the way, one of them creates Wonder Woman, and I was asking audiences to root for their love. That’s a pretty tall order.”
Another factor was that Robinson was ahead of the curve. No sooner had she moved the project to the back burner than there was an explosion of interest in Wonder Woman and its creator. Part of it had to do with the scheduled appearance of the Wonder Woman character on film for the first time ever in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in order to build anticipation for a long in development Wonder Woman stand-alone feature film. Then, in 2014, Jill Lepore’s book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” which was excerpted in the New Yorker, became a best seller. Other similarly themed books followed.
During a social encounter with producer Amy Redford, Robinson mentioned her long cherished project, and Redford expressed interested in reading the script.
For Redford, it proved to be love at first sight. “The script was timely and well-constructed and moving and interesting and strange,” she says. “I couldn’t believe this story hadn’t been told before.”
Not only were the female characters original and multi-faceted, Redford continues, but the male lead, Professor Marston, was a complex character as well. “You don’t usually get the combination of fascinating male and female characters in the same story,” she observes.
What separated the script from standard biopics, says Redford, was that in examining how the three central characters forged ahead with their lives in the face of opposition, “it invites us to reevaluate what we consider a family, and how that family can be made of up different constructs, something we are just now beginning to embrace as a society. Not only were the main characters’ love for one another daring for the time, but so was the fact that Elizabeth and Olive were trying to have careers for themselves. They were true pioneers in that respect.”
Another facet that stood out in Robinson’s script, according to Redford, “is how it delineates the architecture of the Wonder Woman character through the experiences and lives of Marston, Elizabeth and Olive. We get to peer behind the curtain and discover where the essence of comic book superhero came from as well as her iconic symbols, the costume, the bracelets, the tiara.”
And it was this last element that vaulted the project from script to actual production, mentions producer Terry Leonard. “The Wonder Woman aspect of the story proved to be our strongest selling tool in raising financing,” he says. “And once people read the script they became passionate about it.”
Professor Marston & The Wonder Women was shot in Massachusetts–mostly in the Boston area– over a concentrated twenty-five days. The time and budgetary constraints necessitated a strong team spirit and a hit-the-ground-running enthusiasm.
Fortunately, says Rebecca Hall, writer/director Angela Robinson had provided them with a fascinating, in-depth script that cogently explores the dynamics of a three-way relationship. “It was all right there on the page,” Hall enthuses. “It presented everything that is potentially glamorous and exciting about the idea, but also the problems and complications.”
In a peculiar way, Hall found that the film harkened back to classic Hollywood romantic comedies, but with a very modern twist. “The story is very colorful. These characters have rich fantasy lives. They’re very playful. But it’s all rooted in an intellectual reality, which allows them to be quick-witted and verbose. It’s a great deal of fun to play such intelligent characters.”
Casting The Characters
The realization of writer/director Robinson’s vision of Professor Marston & The Wonder Women rested squarely on the shoulders of its three protagonists, the eponymous Professor, his wife Elizabeth and their lover Olive Byrne.
The titular character was particularly risky. In the wrong hands, Marston could come across as insensitive and exploitative. The choice of Luke Evans, an actor who is as comfortable in period epics like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Beauty and the Beast as in contemporary action and drama like The Fate of the Furious or The Girl on the Train, struck the perfect balance.
What fascinated Evans about the project is how the three main intertwined characters managed to survive at a time when their relationship was not accepted or understood. “They sacrificed a lot to be with each other,” Evans observes.
Marston’s feelings for Elizabeth and Olive expanded his world view, Evans believes. “There was a lot of love there. And though at times, their problems tore them apart, he fought for that love and pulled them back together. Marston was one of the country’s first vocal male feminists. He believed women were more loving and nurturing and if they were running the world it would be a better place. And I think this all grew out of living with two women and watching the love they had for each other and for their family.”
Marston himself hailed from an upper-class historical Boston family. He was a scholar and researcher whose invention, the lie detector test, as well as the character of Wonder Woman were influenced by his DISC theory, says Evans. “He believed that all human interaction was broken down into four emotional categories, dominance, inducement, submission and compliance, and he stood by it his whole life.”
In studying those theories, Evans discovered “how much fun it was to dig deeper into the mind and life of someone who actually existed on this planet and left his mark in two extraordinary ways. It wasn’t difficult to slip under the skin of a man who lived his life to the fullest. He was extremely intelligent and loved his wife and Olive immensely. He had an enthusiasm for living and for discovery. He was also brave, unafraid to reach out and grasp at the unknown.”
For the witty and brilliant Elizabeth Marston, Robinson zeroed in on actress Rebecca Hall who has shown her range in films as varied as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town and The Prestige.
After reading Jill Lepore’s 2014 article in the New Yorker about the genesis of Wonder Woman, Hall had herself flirted with the idea of making a movie about Marston. “Until that time, my understanding of Wonder Woman had been that she was a token female superhero, who had been sexualized, objectified. After reading Jill’s article, I realized that actually, she’d been written as feminist propaganda, a tool to convince young boys that it was acceptable for women to be powerful. When I explored getting the rights, I learned that Angela had been working on this story for several years before Jill’s article was written. Six months later, I heard they were looking for someone to play Elizabeth, and I immediately phoned Angela.”
Olive Byrne, the third member of this unorthodox triangle, was a character that required an actress who could balance youthful innocence with sexual curiosity and daring, since it is she who declares her intentions to both Marston and his wife. All those attributes were found in actress Bella Heathcote, who recently co-starred in the erotic hit Fifty Shades Darker, and before that, The Neon Demon and Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
In preparing for the role and discussing it with Robinson, Heathcote came to realize that in many ways she had the easiest part to play. “Olive’s arc is right there in Angela’s script,” she said. “The other two characters sometimes play games, but Olive is always honest. She wears her heart on her sleeve. There’s a lot of me in her, an openness and vulnerability.”
Heathcote describes the three-way relationship as a tripod in that it needed all three legs to work in order to survive. “Olive and Bill try to manage Elizabeth’s feelings, and Bill and Elizabeth make Olive feel safe. And both women love Bill despite his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them.”
In addition to being a three-way love story, and a record of the man who invented the lie detector test and Wonder Woman, Heathcote sees the film as “a coming of age tale. All three characters grow so much over the course of the narrative, especially Olive. At the beginning, she is just a student, very unsure of herself. But over the course of the narrative, she figures out who she is and becomes comfortable with her sexuality. Her sense of self becomes more concrete.”
For Luke Evans, the movie tells the origin story with depth and resonance. “It’s the perfect moment to tell the story of how Wonder Woman came to be. You see, there’s a reason that Wonder Woman has withstood the test of time. She represents female strength and the power women can have. She’s different from Superman or Batman. She possesses attributes and energies and techniques that men fail at, miserably so. She doesn’t use her super powers to defeat. She uses them to make people tell the truth.”
In conclusion, Robinson believes that Professor Marston & The Wonder Women has something of importance to impart to audiences. “It’s a powerful message about the nature of love and acceptance and having the courage to be who you are. Wonder Woman’s mission is to stop violence, to stop war and to stand for peace. That’s what I took away from the experience and I hope that’s what everyone takes away.”