Last month POWFest’s Executive Director, Tara Johnson-Medinger, got the opportunity to chat with Sarah Gavron about her new film, Suffragette, which opened in theaters on Friday, October 23rd.
Tara Johnson-Medinger: I’m really excited to speak with you. I had the pleasure of seeing your film yesterday, and watched it with a lump in my throat the entire time. It hit me on so many levels. I’m sure readers of our newsletter and those who follow our film festival are just as ecstatic about this film coming out. What really drew you to telling this story of the suffragettes in the early 1900s?
Sarah Gavron: What I thought was so striking was the fact that that no one had ever made a cinematic film about it. And it seemed so overdue, and so timely in a way — you know, a hundred years on. There were so many aspects of this battle that were unknown: the lengths to which the women went, the brutality they faced, the plea, the fact that they went to prison, the hunger strikes, they were force-fed, there was a police surveillance operation; and all with such personal cost. These women lost their jobs, they lost their homes, their families. It seemed so shocking, and it seemed to echo what was happening around the world while developing it. We were struck by stories of Malala, Pussy Riot, new activism in the U.K., and awareness of the repression around the world of women, women still fighting for basic rights in other countries, as well as how far we’ve come. It seems like the film was having its moment. It was the right moment to tell this story, and I was very passionate about it. Also, it lends itself to cinema, because it had villains and heros and action and at one point you saw it was a little historical drama. We only know Mary Poppins, our version of suffragette. So we wanted to blow that apart and show you what it was really like.
T J-M: I was struck by the statistics you had at the end of the film about when women’s rights came into play at various countries, and some that are still unfolding today. It really connects back to this moment in the early 1900s, yet a lot of us do really have that Mary Poppins lens. I really appreciate you pushing forward these historic moments and pushing them onto film. Can you talk about the importance of portraying historic events like these, and finding that balance between historical content while ensuring you are also providing a good story?
SG: Absolutely, that’d be six years I worked with the writer and the producer because it was so much research and so many ways you could access this story. One of the decisions we made that sort of unlocked it for us was to go in through the working woman, as the woman who worked the laundry and her journey toward activism. What was so striking about the movie is that it brought together women of all different classes. Working women often are the vanguard of change, and they’re often not recognized for that. We wanted to tell that story because we felt that it would connect with women today rather than tell the exceptional story of an exceptional woman. You know, like a leader or a biopic. And it was a relief to kind of make her a composite based on three women that we read the unpublished diaries and letters of. But you could find more. You can find what happens in her life now. And they sound so contemporary; they sound so resonant of issues of today, whether it’s abuse in the workplace or women fighting pay gap, you know, all sorts of issues regarding education and not being allowed access to jobs in areas. We felt like that was our way in.
And we tried to be truthful. With historical fiction you try to imbed it in the period and the time. But you take some license with the order of that to make a narrative that’s compelling and carries you emotionally. But essentially, you’re adhering to the facts of the period and the feeling of it.
T J-M: Right. And you can see that in the character of Maud being so relatable at many different levels to women today and reflecting the women that were the unsung heroes of the movement. But I also appreciated putting in those very poignant moments of Ms. Pankhurst addressing the women. It’s these sort of moments that people have in their historical reference of the time, and you delicately put them there, weaving them through so that people get the strength of the movement. It was executed so well by using Maud as the central vehicle and her story. It’s so strong.
SG: We really wanted that. We really wanted it to have that effect. And the vote is symbolic, but the vote means the universe for people who don’t have any right. It’s so critical as a way of being counted.
T J-M: Sometimes stories like these can be highly criticized in terms of just accuracy, but Maud is a great way to mediate that.
SG: Yes, it casts off the biopic scenario.
T J-M: Let’s talk about your casting. Talk about a phenomenal cast! What an honor for you and the story to be told by such a strong ensemble of women.
SG: Yeah, it’s beautiful! I think it’s really fortunate for the story that those actors wanted to do it. And we’ve got everybody we wanted. What we aimed to get was an eclectic range of the best female actors and put them together. You never see those women together on the screen. There’s something very exciting about that, and you rarely see women playing anything more than the girlfriend or the wife or the sidekick. So we wanted to put them in full fury and see the ensemble. We deliberately cast women who you don’t normally see together. I mean, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep from that era and age — it reflected the range of women who got involved in the movement. That was huge, exciting.
And with Carey, we wanted her to play Maud. We had her in our mind writing it. She’s one that just inhabits it fully, and is watchable. You know her internal life vividly when she’s on screen. We went after her. She agreed very quickly, which we were delighted by. I think she saw the potential, and we built the cast around her. And then Helena Bonham Carter was excited because she’s a great actor and all, but she’s the great-granddaughter of Asquith. He was the Prime Minister who was the nemesis of the suffragettes. He was their enemy, who was the entrenched Prime Minister who refused to give them the vote and broke all his promises. So there she was, the great-granddaughter playing out this history. And then Anne-Marie Duff is an actor from the theater. I’d seen her play St. Joan, she’s played Lady Macbeth. She’s got incredible skill and heart and rawness and energy, exciting casting for Violet.
And then Meryl… we were thinking, who could play Emmeline Pankhurst? And it was actually Carey Mulligan who suggested it. An icon for an icon. She’s only on the screen for a short sequence, but she’s got to light up the screen and light up those women’s lives. Meryl Streep is so the woman who can convey that in a short time. She was so generous to us. She came on, and she’s an advocate for women’s rights in film and beyond. She couldn’t have been a better person to have as part of that scene.
And then the men too! I mean Brendan Gleeson, who I really love as an actor and was really into the part of Steve. There was a couple of Irish policemen in the National Archives who revealed the police surveillance operation. Those are the two Irish policemen on whom he based his character, so that was exciting. He talked about how he had never been on such an estrogen-filled set. He enjoyed it, and was very into telling that story and all its dimensions. Then there’s Whishaw, who’s another actor I love. I feel like in that role he conveys the constraints of a man at that time and the pressure he’s under to conform and how difficult it is in their own way. And they you’ve got Helena’s husband Simbalinch, a pharmacist who’s supportive of the cause. We wanted to show a kind of range and shades of those actors. Getting them all in one ensemble is hugely exciting for me.
T J-M: I bet! And I really loved how it was constructed in terms of the story where the men had these very poignant roles but they didn’t shadow the women’s movement. They were very supportive. And also, Maud’s husband… you could see that tenderness of their relationship and the struggle that he was having in terms of those traditional values of the time. I appreciated it because sometimes men can step in and sometimes sweep away the story. I think that you did a wonderful job of it, and I thought it was a very important to maintain the focus of the story on this incredible ensemble of women. Which is so rarely seen in film.
I think you’ve created the quintessential film that women in film are striving toward: to have a strong ensemble of women cast, incredible actors, along with such a strong female crew, the writer, producers, yourself…
SG: I have to say, it’s very rare, sadly. The statistics are bleak. There’s so few films directed by women and so few films with female protagonists. For me, it’s all about role models. For me, when I saw women making films in my early twenties, I thought, “Wow. It’s possible.”
I think what’s important at the moment is starting the conversation. There’s an awareness. Women are talking about it. Cameras are saying, “Whoa, what’s going on? What’s happening?” I mean, we’re half the population and we want to see our stories reflected. We buy over half of cinema tickets that sell these stories. Let’s get them made by women and refracted through the lens of women I think that’s so important. We want to show that people go and see them. That’s why it’s great to have support for this film. It’s time.
T J-M: It is time! When I left the theater, that was one other thing that struck me. I was passing this gigantic display in the theater lobby for your film, and I was thinking, “Wow. Not only are all these great things happening on the screen, but there’s great support behind this film to get it out to the public.” That is another hurdle for any filmmaker, but women filmmakers specifically. So to see the industry behind you, behind your film, supporting the vision and obviously releasing at a good time for awards season.. I’m so excited for you.
SG: And I’m so grateful to people like you, the champions of film made by women. It’s so wonderful, and just so critical.
T J-M: Before we end, I wanted to talk about your directing style and some of your technical choices that you used on the film. I noticed you shot on Super 16, and the production design was just so lush and so bleak at the same time. What were your considerations as a director, not only for what we as viewers see on screen but also working with your team to execute something like that.
SG: One thing about this film is that we had a great team. The production designer Alice Normington really worked hard on this. The controlling idea, and we came to it with this premise, was to make it not a slice of history that you watch at a distance and be admired. We wanted to satiate in the shoes of these women. Really feel like you were walking through it and experience it. That filtered down in every respect, and made it look so real and true and believable — not heightened, like those heightened and stylized films, which didn’t feel like the way to approach this subject and make it feel relevant. That permeated into all departments.
With the production designer, we talked about having a 360 set where you could look in every direction. She built it—it worked! We filled it with seeds. We put the supporting artists through a sort of boot camp, and we often got supporting artists that were connected to the idea, people that had been trained with the police. We just filled it, filled it as real and authentic as possible.
And then the costumes: We used a lot of actual stock, rather than have costumes made. And more costumes were worn by women a hundred years ago, and she would have been wearing fourth-hand clothes.
And then the camera: We shot Super 16. It’s got that kind of rough quality you see and you can do a lot of handheld. We pretty much always had two cameras and sometimes three or four for the big set pieces, and we tried just roll the action slightly like we were doing a documentary action rather than staging it for the camera. So the actors had quite a lot of freedom in terms of their movement. So it was really kind of an overall philosophy that we had to apply throughout.
T J-M: It was lovely! I loved how you were just moving with it so much, especially in the scene with the horse race where you’re going through the crowd with the two actors… it built that emotional element to it. And it didn’t feel staged. It felt very natural. It seemed like the actors didn’t know which camera you would be using at any moment.
SG: Yeah, and we got access to some great locations. We were the first crew to get access to the Houses of Parliament. We could be in the real places where history had happened and re-create it. That was unusual and that was fantastic.
T J-M: Thank you, and best of luck with everything. I’m sure the next six months will be transformative for you, and I wish you all the luck with the film.
SG: Thank you very much, great to talk to you.
T J-M: Thank you, Sarah. take care!