My Hero: An Interview with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Director of Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American SuperheroinesWritten by Sara Freeman
No matter how old we get, we all have a secret stash of heroes and heroines that help us walk taller and feel stronger in our daily lives. Whether they’re sports stars, musicians, actors, or caped crusaders, we simply need their figurative presence to spark our imaginations and inspire us to be the people we want to be.
Take me for example. If you were to browse my Facebook profile, you would see that Bette Davis, Buffy Summers, Lisbeth Salander, Dorothy Arzner, Alice Paul, Amelia Earhart, and Wonder Woman are the people and characters who most inspire me.
And I am not the only person drawn to Wonder Woman. In her amazing new documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan explores the feminine side of heroism by celebrating, analyzing, and discussing the history and saddening lack of superwomen in popular culture since Wonder Woman’s original comic book run in the ’40s. By interviewing dozens of women who are heroines in their own right, like Gloria Steinem, Jennifer K. Stuller, Lynda Carter, and Kathleen Hanna, Guevara-Flanagan asks and answers some tough questions about women in the media and what we can do to make the world a more feminist place.
Sara: You interviewed so many amazing women for this doc! Any particular favorites? Did you want to interview someone and couldn’t?
Kristy: Of course certain people like Gloria Steinem, I was really in awe of them. [They are] so particularly amazing and inspiring at the same time. It was the same with Kathleen Hanna. Their answers were so razor sharp. I was surprised by Gloria Steinem’s warmth; she was very inviting and accommodating and didn’t say she had to leave at a certain hour, even though the interview went a little bit long. It’s great when you can meet one of your idols in person and interview them on top of that.
Sara: Had Gloria talked about Wonder Woman before?
Kristy: She hadn’t talked about it in the media, but actually the historical part in the movie about Ms. magazine is pretty well-documented. It’s just kind of a forgotten history at this point, but when Ms. magazine reissued some of the Wonder Woman comics, the Marston ones, they had a lot of writing in there about why they thought Wonder Woman was so cool. I had read that and came to realize how big of a character she was to them and how Gloria did grow up with her—how she grew up needing her. It was great because I wanted a perspective from a woman who actually grew up with the comics.
No matter how old we get, we all have a secret stash of heroes and heroines that help us walk taller and feel stronger in our daily lives.
Sara: Especially her!
Kristy: Yes, especially her! As far as people I wanted to interview, I tried to interview a lot of celebrities, but it was hard to get access to them, so I had to rethink my strategies. One person I thought I was going to interview was Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original Star Trek series. I thought she had such a great story that would really compliment the stories of Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner as being real forerunners for women on screen and being a woman of color as well. I thought that was a really important story to include and was pretty disappointed that that interview didn’t happen.
Sara: One of my favorite aspects of the documentary, on an aesthetic level, is the segments/transitions with cutout animation. They remind me of filmmakers like Harry Smith and Lewis Klahr and even South Park. Did you create those? What inspired you to use them?
Kristy: Well, I knew we would need something to bring everything to life because it was going to be a lot of talking heads. I wanted something that was going to be fun visually and keep it kind of primitive and not too cartoony. Something in the style of the old comics, so I worked with a few different animators to create different looks. I worked with one person who could take original artwork and bring it to life without changing the meaning of the original comic panels, which was really important to me. She did a great job and got it really quickly.
For a couple of other sections, like the Riot movement, I went with someone who was familiar with more traditional stop-motion stuff and felt like his work would be perfect for those sections. It takes a long time to do, so I couldn’t do the rest of the film in that style. He likes to divert a lot from the original form, but it was really fun to work with them and another artist to do the end credits and title sequence with original artwork. She’s a student and brought a lot of creativity to the table.
Sara: Who would you want to direct a Wonder Woman movie? Do you think Hollywood is good enough for Wonder Woman right now? Call me a pessimist, but unless someone like Joss Whedon, Nicolas Winding Refn, or some awesome unknown female filmmaker were at the helm, I’d be worried about preserving Wonder Woman’s legacy, considering contemporary film standards for female characters.
Kristy: That’s a good question. I thought Joss Whedon would have been the perfect person to write the script. It’s tough because it needs to be someone who can have some fun with it and cut through and tell a really strong story about an empowering woman. A lot of the superhero movies being made now are really dark, and Wonder Woman doesn’t quite have that darkness to her like Batman. That would be one of the challenges. I don’t know who would be the perfect writer. Gail Simone wrote the screenplay for the animated Wonder Woman movie that came out a couple of years ago, and a lot worked well in that; it had some kick and verve to it. It was still close to the original story. I thought it played well.
Sara: I guess I haven’t been too impressed with any of the superhero movies released these past few years, and, with the exception of The Avengers, I’m really sick of them.
Kristy: Yeah! They take themselves so seriously.
Sara: Did you know that Gloria Steinem is Christian Bale’s stepmother?
Kristy: Yeah! I found that out while we were making the film.
Sara: Isn’t it weird? I wonder what she thinks of the Batman movies.
Kristy: It’s pretty wild. We didn’t talk about it, but I wonder too.
Sara: What was your favorite era to research? Were you totally blown away, either positively or negatively, by anything you discovered? For instance, I read that you conceived the idea for the doc after reading about Gail Simone, her hairdresser history, and the fact that she was the only woman to ever write Wonder Woman comics.
Kristy: That was definitely the first thing that got me thinking and energized, so I went back to Wonder Woman’s origins. I hadn’t really followed her from her original story. I have to say that when I sat down and read the original comics, I was pretty blown away. They were really wild in that someone who wasn’t originally a comic book writer wrote them. And the art form was completely new, so there wasn’t this formula to it. It was wild in the style, and I thought it was really fascinating. I would call it kind of a primitive style in terms of the drawing and writing. I did find it really adventurous and found her to be a surprisingly strong female character with fascinating relationships with other women, including her mom. Wonder Woman could lead us out of the war, and there was this message to women about how they could help out in war. I was really impressed by all that.
That sort of era is dearest to my heart because of what I discovered.
Sara: Was Gail the first person you sought out after discovering all this?
Kristy: She was just starting her run, and we were hoping we could follow Gail as a character as she was writing Wonder Woman and seeing how the story developed. When we did more research, that idea got crowded out. She’s more of a reserved person and wasn’t willing to put herself up for observation in that way. Gail, Trina Robbins (the great comic writer who has written a lot about Wonder Woman), Andy Mangels (the person everyone kept directing me to when I said I was making a Wonder Woman doc), were all there from the very beginning. It spiraled from there. I realized early on that it had to grow beyond Wonder Woman because Wonder Woman doesn’t have a big story today. I was reading a lot of books and came across Jen’s book [Jennifer K. Stuller, author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors] and thought the arc of her book would be good to fill in toward the back end. She had a very strong, thorough narrative of women in popular culture, which was exactly what I wanted.
Sara: I love Jen so much! I interviewed her for Today’s Chicago Woman/Chicago Now when her book came out, and we’ve been pals ever since.
Your Kickstarter campaigns were really impressive and just plain awe-inspiring. I remember reading the comments for both and being so happy that there were so many people out there interested in learning about Wonder Woman and the history of women in pop culture. Can you tell me about your experiences with Kickstarter and possibly give some advice on how to make one successful?
Kristy: Kickstarter turned out to be absolutely amazing. For a doc or an independent film, you’re always trying to raise money while in production, and it’s absolutely exhausting. In our case, we were always writing grants, and it was like, oh, I guess we’re not shooting this month. We were sort of able to eek out a production schedule through grants, loans, and favors, and then we eventually paid someone to sit down with the material and gave them a salary to work on it for a short period of time. So, that’s when we did our first Kickstarter campaign. It’s an amazing way to reach out to your potential audience and create some excitement and enthusiasm for a project. For us it worked particularly well, because we had a lot to show and knew we would have something more to show in less than a year, instead of making people wait four years, which was how long the production eventually lasted. We had already established a lot of contacts by interviewing a lot of people, and we were relying on their networking to branch out exponentially and reach strangers. Many people donated and were like, “I love this film! I love this trailer!” It’s super encouraging. It’s hard because with a film, you don’t get to share it with an audience for so long; you’re kind of working in this void for a really long period. It’s really nice when you can have that interaction and response and encouragement. All that is just as critical as the money you raise.
When it came time to go to the festival, which was almost a year later, we realized we needed a lot of cash to make the final everything — sound mix, print, animation, upconverting the archival material — a lot needed to happen really quickly. A lot of that costs a considerable amount of money. We were hesitant about doing it a second time, but it turned out perfect because the film was finished, and we were able to reach out to new people who hadn’t heard about it and were willing to follow us on the festival circuit by supporting and joining our team. People felt like they had a stake in it, and that’s kind of a wonderful thing as well.
Sara: Also, hopefully when the Hollywood Powers that Be actually sit down and say “Hey, it’s time to make a Wonder Woman movie,” they’ll be able to see the success of your Kickstarter campaigns because people are obviously already interested, so they already have kind of a built-in audience.
Kristy: That would be great.
Sara: Did you grow up loving Wonder Woman? Do you have a favorite issue of the comic? What other heroes, on screen or in print, have inspired you?
Kristy: I mostly grew up with the TV show, and I was a huge fan, and my friends were fans. I remember my close friend and neighbor went as her for Halloween like six years in a row in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and it had a really big impact. Wonder Woman was symbolic; we could physically enact her, and girls just hadn’t had that before. We could be the hero, which was completely new and revolutionary.
I was into her and some other TV shows, like Electra Woman and Dyna Girl and Bewitched.I was a kid of television more than anything. I grew up absorbing a lot of TV and strong woman and girl characters always stood out to me. That’s what I wanted to watch. It wasn’t until I was older that I started reading comic books. I wasn’t reading superhero ones as much as the more independent ones, like Love and Rockets and Hate, and there were some really interesting women writers at that time. I loved the sequential art form, and I loved how they were mocking traditional comics, and the plotlines were often simple and banal. That’s what I grew up with. I had to do a lot of research to get to know the superhero comic and what it meant to people.
Wonder Woman was symbolic; we could physically enact her, and girls just hadn’t had that before. We could be the hero, which was completely new and revolutionary.
Sara: In addition to being an awesome documentarian, you are also a film professor. Did your students help you make the doc or did you screen segments for them to critique? Did you have students in mind when you were making the doc or a different kind of audience?
Kristy: That’s a good question. I’ve always had interns and taught in some capacity, and I think teaching greatly informed the making of this film. I work with young people everyday and am privy to the way they see the world. I see what they’re obsessing over and mulling over in their work, and I definitely wanted to reach out to them. I feel like I still have a lot of boys in my classes and struggle to get the girls to really embrace the technology. They can be really shy about it. They always stand in the background and sometimes only act in the projects. I always try to challenge them, and they in turn challenge me in surprising and interesting ways that help me as an artist and filmmaker.
I really wanted to make something for that age group that was interesting and accessible to them. I teach at a community college, and my students oftentimes don’t have a lot of higher education; they’re just out of high school or going back to school or floating around. I have a lot of GI students who were in Iraq or Afghanistan, who don’t know anything about feminism, and they don’t think about media literacy. They haven’t learned to be analytical or critical yet, and those are the skills they’re learning and developing in school. I think that was one of my primary audiences while making the film, definitely. It informs my approach to it. I haven’t shown them rough cuts, but I’ve kind of taught them the business and practical sides of making the film throughout the process and what comes with that.
Sara: What are your plans following the release of the films? What are your hopes and dreams for it?
Kristy: We hope to have a big outreach campaign and talk to community colleges and groups about the issues in the film and inspire people to be more aware of women in the media and the need for more women behind the scenes. We hope to kind of push back a little bit by showing that we don’t have a lot of strong female characters to pull from in terms of the big screen and hope to show that we’re a viable audience, and our voice matters. I hope to do festivals and do some community events in different cities and hope to do a broadcast. I hope it gets seen by as many people as possible, and it’s a real discussion starter.
Sara: Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? If so, did Wonder Woman help you come to that realization?
Kristy: I do consider myself to be a feminist. I like to think there’s room for multiple interpretations for what that means, that there’s no single hard-line of what a feminist is. I think making this film made me a stronger feminist. I don’t know if it was Wonder Woman per se; it was more talking to all these amazing women and doing all this research. I feel like it’s time for women to embrace feminism, and women just don’t like to call themselves feminists. We’ve gotten all this flack for the last couple of decades and women in general have kind of backed off on it, and their sons and daughters are shier of that term. I think it’s time to bring that word back and claim it and sort of redefine it the way we see fit. It doesn’t have to be the ’70s version of it; it can be our own brand. I hope the film reignites our imaginations around reclaiming the word and redefining it.
Sara: And showing that it’s not a scary thing!
Sara: Would that be your superpower? To turn everyone into a feminist?
Kristy: Yeah! I’d have a big “F” on my chest and everything.
Sara: Have you ever fantasized about having a superpower?
Kristy: I haven’t since I was a kid, but a few people have asked, and I asked a lot of people on the street what their power would be, so I came up with something. It’s a little undramatic, but something where you could lay your hands on someone and de-stress them and make them calm for a few minutes. We live in a world with so much stress and anxiety, and I think we’re a culture that seeks out ways to decompress with yoga and going to the gym and all that, but there’s obviously still a need for people to relax and find some inner peace from the kind of stress that’s always encroaching on us. I envision a lying on of hands, and a mark is left on their forehead where they’ve been touched and just some moment in the day where they can just lay out. I’m not even that good of a person, and it’s funny I came up with this. I would do it to myself first!
Sara: And, last but certainly not least, what message do you ultimately want audiences to walk away with after seeing Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines?
Kristy: Well, kind of what I already said with reigniting our imagination with the word “feminism.” It’s about making people aware of the purchase power we [women] have, as well as putting and getting more positive images of women out there. And when they are out there, it’s about supporting them and supporting women as directors—and for young people to be inspired to create their own heroes, narratives, and stories, and to find interesting ways and new technologies to go and do that, whether it’s video, online, or interactive, or some crazy mobile device.
Nevada City Film Festival, August 16 – 19, Nevada City, California Saturday, August 18, 8 p.m. at the Miners Foundry/Osborn & Woods Hall
New Orleans Film Festival, October 11–18, New Orleans, Louisiana TBA