Women and Hollywood: How does a person have two major movies (Shame and The Iron Lady) in one year? How did that happen and are there any similarities between the projects?
Abi Morgan: It’s interesting because both have got stellar performances that’s the strongest similarity. I was very lucky. It was an odd timing issue. I did write them virtually at the same time but I met Steve McQueen while I was working on The Iron Lady and it was a period where I had done most of the work on the script but I was still tweaking it and then I met him and we just hit it off. It was just the counterpoint of meeting a great director and deciding that I wanted to work with him. That project actually came together incredibly quickly. It was incredibly fortuitous and it was a lucky thing so both films are about great collaborations with great directors.
(Our conversation was interrupted when Phyllida Lloyd joined us. See her interview separately. We picked it up again after Phyllida departed.)
WaH: Building on what Phyllida was saying, part of the issue with this film will be the fact that you made a woman who has some very horrible policies to her name into a very sympathetic person. How would you respond to people’s criticism about that?
AM: I think there is something very complex about having mixed feelings about it. I was obviously not a supporter of her policies, if you are in the arts you are probably more inherently to be left, so for me the challenge was to try and write what it means to be a woman in power and the loss of that power and about the isolation of power. Those themes inherently I think in order for me to do them justice you have to care, you have to connect. What interested me was to have the two emotions running at once, the counterpoint to this was looking at the things she did: looking at the way she was during the Falklands War; looking at the way she was in the lead up to her downfall; looking at the way she acted with her daughter. In many ways she was so driven and such an iconic model for her daughter yet as a mother there was clearly a lot of conflict there. So for me it’s all about counterpoint.
I think it’s not so much having sympathy. You can have sympathy for the old lady. You don’t have to have sympathy for the political leader. You can have sympathy for what it means to lose that power and the invisibility. What resonates for me in the film is also that it is a study of class and what it is to overcome class. Also I think it does create a human connection. I also feel that if you have grown up in that environment you know the counterpoint that we we are still living with the effects of her policies now. So that was always running very strong for me because it was never a deliberate attempt to make an audience like her or approve of her but it was important to make a character that you would connect with, and invariably I find it a really interesting contradiction the notion that people have come out of the film saying that they are really angry with me because they were moved. And in a way my job as a dramatist is to do that.
WaH: Are there any other women in history that you could write a movie of this scope?
AM: I think the Pankhursts are really interesting.
AM: The Pankhursts were the leaders of the suffragette movement in the UK. I’m writing a film about a militant group of suffragettes in 1912. Again its a fictionalized group of women but it’s set against a strong historical event. I feel that’s really exciting for me.
It was really interesting hearing what you were talking about earlier because the big thing for me is ageism and women. As a writer you can go on and on and on, but as a woman of 43, actually the truth is I’m being asked to write for a certain age. I want to keep writing for women my age and older and so the inspiration for the suffragettes was to write an ensemble where there were five strong women in it.
WaH: I want to talk a bit about the Falklands war scene – there are not many women in history who have gone to war in this way and the part of the scene that I keep remembering is when she is in the war room drumming her nails against the table and you see her ring and hand and it’s so visceral that a woman is in charge. Talk a little about writing a woman leading in war.
AM: I think it’s fascinating and the reference point for me was King Lear. You don’t really care about his politics but you care about the fact that he’s been a vicious father, a difficult leader and now in a state of decline. So for me it was interesting to see how far I could take the Shakespearean image of her. There was a starting point in the script but there was something that Phyllida and certainly Meryl responded to. So for me the battle scene, the scenes where you see her making those really tough decisions I think it’s a heightened form, also it’s the notion of her looking back on herself so in her memory she is this kind of war horse in the truest sense. I think that’s what Phyllida tried to capture in those scenes.
WaH: What is the one thing you learned about Margaret Thatcher that was unexpected?
AM: Gosh. The actuality is the devil is in the details with her. The twin pearls, the iconic bits of jewelry she always wore and there was a lot of sentiment in her life. For a woman who could be so brutal in her policies, I think she could be very sentimental in her personal life. That was very interesting for me.
WaH: You talk about the cost of a great life lived. Do women pay different costs?
AM: Yeah I think they do if you are a 21st century woman who is having a career trying to juggle motherhood and being a career. I think that men feel it as well. There is a cost for them but it is socially more acceptable for men to be very busy and not see their children or for men to focus on their careers. I think that was very particular that the nature of being a political leader is all consuming. She talks about duty. It’s a sense that it’s a vocation being a political leader and it often took precedence over her personal life and family. More and more women are being facilitated by strong partners be it men or women. Everybody needs a partner of some kind but I think that men have always had that facilitation. There has always been a woman behind a strong man.
WaH: This year has been such a great success for you. What’s next and what lessons have you learned?
AM: I was just reading an article about David Hockney and how diverse his work has been and I quite like the notion that you can write a film like The Iron Lady and write a film like Shame in the same year.
WaH: And The Hour…
AM: Yes and The Hour, a very different piece. I’ve got an adaptation of Birdsong which is from the Sebastian Faulks novel for television and the new season of The Hour, and then in film my new film about the suffragettes with director Sarah Gavron who I worked with before on Brick Lane. And I am doing Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes which is about the sceret love affair between Nelly Turner and Charles Dickens. The most interesting thing about being a female writer is that I want to write female characters, that’s what I’m driven by. Those are the characters I relate to and that’s what I want to keep writing about.
The Iron Lady opens in limited release December 30.