What did you most connect with in the Marston story?
There was this incredible love story at the origin of what Wonder Woman would come to be. The Marstons were psychologists, and they really thought that if you could change hearts and minds, you could change the world. Marston called Wonder Woman “psychological propaganda” to try to get young boys and men to respect powerful women and find their power attractive. And he had this notion that if women ran the world, the world would be a better place.
The Wonder Woman aspect of the story seems an easy sell. But the kink and the three-way relationship less so. Did you think you would have trouble getting this made?
I spent many a night arguing with myself, being like, “Why are you even bothering to work on this because it will never see the light of day.” But I became obsessed with telling it, whether or not it would come to fruition, because I became enchanted with the characters and the process of writing it. I really wanted to tell a very organic love story without any editorializing or winking. I didn’t want to otherize the experience of what they were doing. I made the decision, very overtly, to tell the story using the conventions of a classic prestige biopic. I thought the content in and of itself was so potentially controversial that I wanted to just treat their lives the way you would treat anybody else’s life. I feel that kink is often portrayed in the movies as scandalous and dark or transgressive. But in their case, I didn’t think it was. In the film, it’s linked to this notion of fantasy versus reality. In this fantastical world, which ultimately leads to Wonder Woman, they can be their truest version of themselves.
Frequently female filmmakers will make one independent film and not make another for years, if at all, while men may make an indie and then be given a franchise. As a black lesbian director, you made the short film “D.E.B.S,” got studio money to make a feature of it, then got to helm a movie in Disney’s “Herbie” franchise the next year. How did you defy the odds?
Nina Jacobson was running Disney, and she was an amazing mentor to me, and I don’t know if I would have gotten that job if Nina wasn’t running the studio at that point. But she loved “D.E.B.S.” and was a really big supporter of mine and gave me the job.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is your first feature since “Herbie” in 2005, although you frequently work in television. Did you find it hard to get another movie off the ground in that time?
It was less like I feel like I can’t get my movie made. It was more the stories I wanted to tell. After “Herbie,” I tried to set up a bunch of projects, and they always had strong female protagonists. I would sell them to studios, but I realized they were never going to make them. I think the actual executives wanted to, but the machinery of the industry was like, these kinds of movies with female leads flop.
But I had worked as a writer of the first season of “The L Word” and [the series creator] Ilene Chaiken said, “Why don’t you come and direct a few episodes?” It was just fantastic because there were all these strong female roles in cable. It was just when the wind really started hitting the sails of this kind of cable television revolution. And I feel like I was, if not on the ground floor, on the second floor of that.
How did you decide you wanted to make movies?
I originally wanted to be a theater director. But I remember a long time ago I was marching in the gay pride parade in Manhattan. And around the same time the “Friends” episode with the lesbian moms had aired. I remember thinking how many people am I reaching walking down Fifth Avenue? Thirty million people saw a positive portrayal of lesbian moms through their friend Ross. And how much does that move the dial? So I became very interested in how pop culture can really move forward political progress.
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