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How Sarah Gavron Picked Her ‘Suffragette’

How Sarah Gavron Picked Her 'Suffragette'

Suffragette” is a hard-hitting feminist history of England’s turbulent turn-of-the-century fight by an oppressed group —women—for the right to vote. And rather than look at the well-heeled aristocrats—one, Emmeline Pankhurst, is memorably played by Meryl Streep—writer Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) and her director/collaborator Sarah Gavron (“Brick Road”) searched for the right way into the struggle. They found it in the character of Maud, a laundress who has endured horrific working conditions since she was a child, as her mother did before her. Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) enthusiastically signed to play her, and could earn her second Oscar nomination.

Mulligan carries this movie as ably as she did “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Maud is a 24-year-old workhorse who is drawn into the suffragette movement by a co-worker (the excellent Anne-Marie Duff) and local pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter). The harshness of Maud’s daily drudgery at the laundry (her shoulder is scarred from past burns), where the factory boss hits on the younger women, contrasts with her cozy life at home with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son.
Streep delivers a brief but potent cameo as wealthy Mrs. Pankhurst, who led scores of turn-of-the-century British women to protest for the right to vote. “We have been ridiculed and ignored,” Pankhurst cries. “Deeds and sacrifice must be the order of the day!” But as Pankhurst and her well-to-do colleagues urge working women to join the cause as foot soldiers willing to make sacrifices, these women are beaten and harassed by police and spouses alike. Maud’s husband can’t take the neighborhood heat when his wife keeps clocking jail time. (1000 women were imprisoned during the long fight for suffrage.)
Brendan Gleeson plays one police inspector who painstakingly explains why females aren’t made for politics and can never win. “We don’t want to be lawbreakers,” Mrs. Pankhurst exhorts her troops. “We want to be lawmakers. We have been left with no alternative. I incite rebellion!”
Director Gavron worked on this meticulously crafted period film (supported by Film Four, the BFI, Pathe and Focus Features) with producers Faye Ward & Alison Owen (“Jane Eyre”) and screenwriter Morgan over six years. Buttressed by a strong score by Alexandre Desplat, the film packs a punch for many who don’t remember this disturbing history, during a time when women’s equality is still a timely issue. 
Streep has been actively supporting the movie since Telluride and continues to wax eloquent on the subject of gender inequality in Hollywood; but she and her cast mates struck a false note with their strident T-shirts declaring “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” which got pushback in the U.S. Something about the marketing campaign has turned audiences off. Reviews are upbeat. But box office attendance so far is weak, which could hurt the film’s Oscar chances. 

Gavron and producer Owen came to Sneak Previews for a Q & A, below.

Anne Thompson: Why has this story taken a hundred years to be told? 

Alison Owen: There are a number of reasons. History is usually the story of rich, powerful men, and women’s history — particularly working-class history — has practically been erased, so it hasn’t been standing out in textbooks. There is a tendency to minimize and be reductive about women’s history, whereas mens’ are mythologized and made bigger. And, as you know, the percent of female directors is very, very low; it’s been one and ten percent at any given time. I think it took a female director and a female team to have the passion to do it. 

This movie is based on actual
stories. Over the decade-long process of putting this together, the challenge
was figuring out which story. Tell me about that process.

Sarah Gavron: We thought, for a long time, about doing a biopic on Emmeline Pankhurst, which would have been amazing, but we realized that it would be the story of an exceptional woman on an
exceptional journey. Once we started to find the testimonies of these working
women, who lost so much and sacrificed so much, they were so extraordinary, and
their voices sounded so contemporary — the issues they were dealing with: the
gender-pay gap, abuse; things women around the globe are still fighting for — we
felt that to tell the story of a woman with no platform and entitlement, to
watch her journey, would really connect with audiences today.

How did you and Abi Morgan figure out what the
story should be?

Owen: Once we had established that we wanted to puncture the popular conception of
the suffragette as prim-wearing, tea-drinking, sedate, drawing-room occupation — and
the more we learned about how kick-ass they were, we set up this website. We
were all doing research and anyone could cut and paste their research onto it.
We began to build up this body of work that Abi then delved into, to
try to decipher which was the best way to work these accounts into one
character. That’s how we assembled, and there were
some real characters in it — Davidson, Pankhurst — but
the rest of the characters are all composites. But everything really happened — there’s
nothing that’s really fictionalized — but
they were cut-and-pasted together and Abi distilled the truth from that.

You worked with Morgan a bit on “Brick Lane” before. What makes her a strong screenwriter?

Gavron: First, she’s just a great collaborator. She wasn’t only there in the six years of working on it and raising money, but also there in the rehearsal and for some of the shoot, when she could be, and she was in the edit, all the way through, feeding in ideas. It really works as a collaboration, and, as a team, we all have a constant dialogue, and what she does so brilliantly is go back and revisit. The first draft she wrote focused on a middle-class character. She created this amazing Maud character, but she wasn’t the center. 

Then Alison went, “Maud’s more interesting.” I thought, “you absolutely should write that.” So she threw away that script and told the story from her perspective, which she discovered was the way into the story. Then we kept throwing her bits of research, including the police-surveillance operation — because the archives opened up — and she wanted to feed that in, so she fed that in. It was a constant process as we researched it. 

You had Carey Mulligan as a fantasy casting choice.

Gavron: We thought of Carey for six years. We hadn’t
mentioned it to her. Then we sent the script, and people said, “Sarah,
be realistic. It’ll take her a month to respond, and I’m
going to go on holiday.” Two days later, on a Sunday, we got a
call saying she wants to meet. I met her in a café, and she said, “Tell
me how you see it.” Then she reached across and went, “I’m
going to do it.” We assembled the cast around her. Next
we went to Helena Bonham Carter, who has her own peculiar history because she’s
the great-granddaugther of Herbert Asquith, who was the Prime Minister at the
time and the chief antagonist of the suffragettes. She said, “I’m
all up for having a posthumous conversation with my own great-grandfather.”

Mulligan brought research?

Gavron: Carey found this book that I hadn’t heard of, Olive Schreiner’s “Three Dreams in a Desert.” It was an important text for them — it was a fable that spoke to them. Carey thought it would be interesting for the end of the film. She read it one day in her trailer, and we recorded it, and we decided it would work. Abi and I picked up a scene from the book and incorporated it. 

Also great is Anne-Marie Duff.

Gavron: She’s played Saint Joan, Lady Macbeth. She
can give these towering figures, and it was great to have her in the cast.

You also put together a great team of women behind the camera, which is unusual. 

Owen: We wanted to address the skewed statistics for women behind the camera, but we also wanted the best people for the job. Women have such passion for the subject that they were the ones who would come in at all hours of the day and make it fantastic. 

Female producers, writer, director — what else?

Gavron: Production designer, costuming.

Owen: So many. Brendan Gleeson said he’d “never
been on such an estrogen-filled set” in his life.

Gavron: It was funny when we were casting the male actors. With
the females, we got our absolute first choice, from Carey to Helena to Meryl.
When we started casting male actors, it was a very different story. We’d
get calls from agents saying, “Well, you know, he loves the script,
but the part’s not very big.”

Getting Meryl Streep wasn’t a small thing.

Gavron: The last piece of the puzzle we were trying to figure
out. We asked, “Who could play this small role, a
charismatic leader?” We thought we should get a charismatic
actor. Carey Mulligan was on a walk with her mom, who said, “Well,
it has to be Meryl.” We sent it off to her and she, again,
was very quick. Having her was great; she’s such a great
advocate for women in film. She was so generous with her time. She was only
there for a few nights, but she stayed an extra night — which
we hadn’t planned on — just so she could be an extra
off-camera voice for the shots of the crowd. She was so generous. With
costumes, we were using original stock, but we couldn’t get shoes to fit
her feet — so she wore her “Out of Africa” shoes.

Streep has been a huge advocate and carrying it forward. There seems to be a tipping point in the industry, where some people are finally talking. Is that true in England as well? 

Gavron: Yes! It’s really interesting: there’s this momentum that I haven’t known in my career where, suddenly, all these people are challenging the status quo and wanting to address the balance and questioning the balance in film. Generally, there’s this new activism and feminism isn’t such a dirty word in the U.K. We did a screening the other day, and a Labor MP, a standing mayoral candidate, stood up and said, “I’m going to ask a question, but first I’m going to say: I’m a feminist.” You never would’ve heard that five years ago. So there’s a change. 

Owen: Even one of my children, who’s a 14-year-old boy at an all-boys school: they had a trip to see this film, and they came back and formed a feminist’s society. Wow! 

Gavron: I just got a message. Some friends of mine were at a screening in London, and a 13-year-old boy stood up and said, “Vote for women!” 

Now, what happened with the T shirts with the Pankhurst quote? Some people reacted badly. 

Gavron: It’s interesting, because people didn’t react in the U.K. It was a marketing thing, and Time Out London did it. When we saw the response in the U.S., they felt like it was inappropriate. It’s really important to have the discourse and think about diversity and representation in film.  This is only my second cinema-featured film, and I’ve made both with Alison. The second one didn’t have a single white person in it; it was called “Brick Lane,” and at the center of it was a woman of color. In this film, a story of working-class women, it’s my mission to get people you don’t normally see onscreen. 

What I think is important to understand in terms of the U.K. and U.S. movements is that, while there were similarities, there were also enormous differences, and one of the fundamental differences was that, because of the immigration in the U.S. and U.K., you had lots of women of color involved in the movement in the U.S., but you also had lots of women excluded from the movement — like Ida B. Wells, who was forced to march in the back of the parade. Lots of divisive moments left lasting wounds. In the U.K. you didn’t have that, because you had tiny pockets of immigration; in the Britain we have today, the brilliantly diverse Britain came about through big waves of immigration. The first and second World War from the 1950s onwards. 

When we interrogated the photographic and written material, what we found is that people came together across class. There was a kind of class apartheid to Britain. You only had two women of color, and they were aristocratic: Sophia Duleep Singh, who was the godchild of Queen Victoria, and then you had Bhikaji Cama. There’s one photo of a contingent of women from India marching in one procession, which is largely part of the makeup of England at the time. Now we’ve got large groups of women of color in the U.K. who have been incredibly important; so we were reflecting that. While our film’s set in basically in a two-and-a-half-mile radius in a sixteen-month period involving a very specific group of women, we hope that it resonates with women — with people, actually — all over the world who are fighting inequality. We did a screening the other day where we got a whole group of Bangladeshi girls in, and they were really energized by and connected to it. I hope it’s got a message and that things like the T shirt don’t divert from the intentions of this film, which are to promote a positive discourse about inequality. 

It seems that any time you get into these politics, people are super-sensitive. 

Gavron: And there are good reasons to be. We’ve got to not shy away from those discourses, because it brings up important things that people need to discuss. I would love to see more diversity on all sides, and not just in terms of women; we need people from different walks of life making films. 

Owen: It also made us aware of how aware you need to be of things globally these days. It was intended for a British publication, using a British speech made by a British woman for a British audience, and those words “rebel and slave” — 

Gavron: They’ve been requoted by lots of different people of color in the U.K., because they wanted to enforce the film, so it has doesn’t have those associations. 

Owen: But we understand the sensitivity, and we obviously don’t want to cause any offense. 

This is an ambitious movie in terms of period, scale,
and scope on a relatively small budget. W
hat difficulties did you encounter? 

Owen: It’s strange. I’ve done a lot of
period movies in my time, but what people don’t expect is that it’s
much harder to do something in working-class homes than stately cathedrals,
because those have all been preserved. Go around Great Britain, and there’s
more castles and stately homes than you can shake a stick at, but try finding
an unspoiled middle-class home. So that was a challenge. Also, Sarah very much
wanted to have 360-degree sets so she could get the fluidity she wanted to have
the actors to move around, so that was a challenge. We would find locations that the production designer could build
on and use visual effects.

What was the most-challenging of the big-scale scenes?

Gavron: I would say the derby—all those set-piece sequences,
because these were women who took action. We spent
a lot of energy. We were anticipating the biggest
sequence would be the riot in the houses of Parliament, because we were told we
wouldn’t get access — and how would we find a location that
fitted in? The producers and I said, “We’ve got to be
suffragette about it,” because no one’s had access to the
House of Parliament to film.

So the location manager went back, and, eventually, they did say
yes, and they took our request to let in 300 supporting artists, stunt people,
and horses to stage this sequence of rebelling against the government. [Laughs]
To their credit, this institution that had barred women for centuries, there we
were and allowed to do it. The Prime Minister visited, and we had lots of the
descendants there, so it felt exciting to recreate history in the place it
happened. That was an ambitious sequence as well.

When Mulligan spoke in front of the House of Parliament, that was
the first time anyone had filmed there, right?

Gavron: Ever. She walked into that committee room, and the
production designer told me the Pugin wallpaper is 300 pounds a roll, so if we
wanted to put it anywhere, we were lucky to get in the real committee room. The first take she did of this room filled with men was the
take we used.

How did it work, budget-wise, to condense your ambitions? You covered a lot of ground.

Gavron: You had to do a lot
of cutting of supporting artists. Also, filming very quickly; we had a very
tight schedule. We had two cameras and we worked very hard and the actors were
never aware of when they were on-camera.

Owen: And prep, because prep money is much cheaper than shooting
money. We had a lot of prep in order to plan out how to use every penny to the
best ability, because we were determined to paint this on a large canvas and
not have it be a small, intimate arthouse movie. We wanted to make it kick-ass.

Where did all of Maud’s clothes come from? She’s camping in the cathedral and often looks swell. Where was her wardrobe? 

Gavron: We did have a moment where she was shown taking clothes, because they gave each other clothes endlessly, in the movement. We wrote something and we put a scene in where they give her the clothes, and somehow it didn’t work in. [Laughs] You’re the only person to have ever asked that!

What are you ladies doing next? 

Gavron: More films about people who don’t normally appear on the screen. We’d like to do more things together, and I’d like to do more things about women through time. 

Owen: It’s given us all an impetus to make more female films, and to see things through a female lens, because there’s just simply not enough out there. For young women, we really believe in the “you’ve got to see it to be it” philosophy, and we think that to hold a mirror up and show the women being reflected onscreen, the better that’s going to be.

Gavron: And good for everybody. 

Audience member: How did British education laws work? She was
extremely literate, and a U.S. woman at the time probably wouldn
’t have those abilities.

Gavron: There were. The late Victorian Era brought in part-time
education. Not everybody went to school, but they were supposed to have a
decent level of schooling; they went part-time after 12. We found working women
who were literate and those who were pretty illiterate, but they became more
literate by being involved in the movement.

Audience member: Before the movie proper started, I think I
saw eight production logos. Could you talk about putting the money together?

Owen: Like a lot of independent films, we pieced our money
together. Pathé were the main financiers, but we also had Film 4, the BFI,
tax money, deals, every bit of money we could stitch together to make the most
of our budget.

Was it difficult to acquire that?

Owen: Well, we had our supporters very early on. Development was
not hard, to get the development money, and I often think it’s
easier and better-off to get it in the U.K. than here. We have Film 4, BBC,
BFI, where it’s possible to get development finances, particularly for
this subject — and you can get your money without having to sell your
first-born. You don’t have to give everything away. You
simply get money in return for U.K. free TV rights, so it’s
a brilliant situation. I think we’re better off for development, and you
guys are better off for production money, so it’s a sort of
double-edged… we had support in the early days. The difficult thing was keeping the scale of the film. We could’ve
made the film much earlier and quicker if we had settled for a smaller film,
but it was keeping the scale that took the time.

I would think you could’ve used even more money to go the extra mile.

Gavron: Yeah, no, we could’ve used more money.

Audience member: I wanted to know your budget and number of
shooting days.

Owen: The budget was £10 million, $14 million. We had 45
days, initially, and then we added some.

Audience member: Was Inspector Steed meant to be sympathetic?

SG: Yeah. He was based on two Irish policeman we read about.
We talked about having these nuanced, complex mens. Obviously not all men were
villains, and some were very supportive — like
Carter’s husband, and some not. They were all based on real
characters. The idea was that he was upholding the law — that
was what he believed — and he had experience with handling
anarchy before, but then because he was getting so close to these women, by
observing them, he began to understand the brutality of the state.

Audience member: What happened to the jockey who was on the
horse that killed the woman?

SG: The jockey survived and went to the funeral of Pankhurst,
which happened three weeks after women got the vote. The flag was picked up by
a man in the crowd, and he wrapped his newborn baby daughter in it, and went to
Emily Davies’ funeral.

AT: Do you know much about the American movement? We weren’t as violent. This was you.
[Audience laughs]

SG: Yeah. Afraid so.

AT: We think of you guys as being

SG: Polite.

Audience member: The timing of this is interesting, since we’re looking at a time when women’s rights to choose and the pay
gap. Do you hope to raise a conciousness in general, and could you relate that
also to Britain?

Owen: Absolutely. We want our film to be taken literally and
metaphorically for fighting for women’s rights in every area, and we’re really
lucky that our film has landed in what you might call a feminist moment. If the
film had come out two years ago, I think “feminist” was
still a dirty word, but there so many things happening all the time: the equal opportunities commission speaking out; Jennifer
Lawrence talking about equality in Hollywood; Tina Brown’s initiative for
Women of the World; Beyoncé, Emma Watson, and Taylor Swift all
standing up and saying they’re feminists — all
these things happening at once give us hope that, finally, with so many people
pushing against the door, the door might open and stay open for once. We hope
our film contributes to that, and that’s why we’re really glad that
it’s landed at this moment and can hopefully be part of that.

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