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Friday, October 30, 2015

Sarah Gavron Takes Us to Suffragette City

Posted By on Fri, Oct 30, 2015 at 9:29 AM

click to enlarge Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) fights for her right to pick a party in director Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, which opens Oct. 30. - STEFFAN HILL / FOCUS FEATURES
  • Steffan Hill / Focus Features
  • Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) fights for her right to pick a party in director Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, which opens Oct. 30.

is a movie about women, made by women, for everyone. Chronicling the violent struggle for women's suffrage in the UK, the action-packed period drama opening Oct. 30 and starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep demonstrates how hard-won women's rights were, and with a national election looming in the US, where candidates continue to argue about a woman's right to choose, just how precarious these rights remain. SF Weekly spoke to Suffragette director Sarah Gavron about her kinship with her mostly female cast and crew, the controversies that have plagued the film and what she hopes audiences of all genders take away.

You first worked with screenwriter Abi Morgan on 2006's Brick Lane. Why were you excited to collaborate with her again on this film? 

Abi is one of the great screenwriters and theater and television writers in the UK at the moment. She's someone who I collaborate with really well. On a film you repeatedly revisit scripts and edit them, and she's someone who can endlessly redraft and come up with interesting new ideas for the script. She's so amazing. We fed her research all along as we discovered new aspects, delving into the archives, and she wove them into the script. She's a great running partner through what is often a quite tricky journey.

You've spoken at length about the gender imbalance in filmmaking. How did you remedy that on the Suffragette set?

The statistics year in, year out don't change profoundly — it varies from one to 10 percent of films directed by women. But on this film, we found ourselves recruiting a lot of women as heads of departments, which is unusual in a film to have that many, and there was a great sense of camaraderie and a huge commitment from everybody to make this film and tell this story that had never been told. Also, having so many women in front of the camera was exciting and so rare. I felt emboldened by what the suffragettes had done to challenge every convention and break every rule, and there we were in our small way challenging convention in terms of filmmaking.

Why tell the story from the perspective of composite character Maud Watts instead of one of the many historic suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst?

We thought long and hard about the best way into the story. We could have told the story from the perspective of the leaders of the movement like Emmeline Pankhurst, and that would have been the story of exceptional and privileged and educated women. And what we felt was really engaging when we read the accounts of these working women who really were at the vanguard of change and sacrificed so much and had voices and raised issues that sounded so contemporary, such as the pay gap, parental rights and sexual abuse in the workplace, and then once they became more active, they were talking about police surveillance and brutality of the state — these were all issues that chimed so well with what's going on globally today. We've got people all across the world challenging oppression and fighting inequality, so it felt like the way in to make the story resonate with the world today and feel timely. 

Why was Carey Mulligan the appropriate choice to play Maud Watts?

Ever since I saw her in her first early roles up to this film, I love the way she so fully inhabits her characters. There's something really truthful about her performances. She has an incredible ability to convey an internal journey.  In working with her, I realize that she has this amazing internal barometer.  We kept carrying on with takes until she was happy, and she is a wise soul and knows when she's got it right. She certainly works very hard and is religious and committed. The other thing about her that was great on this project is she read so widely about the subject and  contributed many ideas that we ended up incorporating into the finished film.

click to enlarge (L to R) Actress Anne-Marie Duff, actress Carey Mulligan, actress Helena Bonham Carter, director Sarah Gavron, and actress Romola Garai on the set of Suffragette. - STEFFAN HILL / FOCUS FEATURES
  • Steffan Hill / Focus Features
  • (L to R) Actress Anne-Marie Duff, actress Carey Mulligan, actress Helena Bonham Carter, director Sarah Gavron, and actress Romola Garai on the set of Suffragette.

You took what could have easily become a stuffy period drama and infused it with so much action, which I think expands the audience.

It was a movement that had been around for 50 years that they began peacefully protesting and they got nowhere and got tired of broken promises, so they turned to civil disobedience, as many political movements do, to get their voices heard. The motto that Emmeline Pankhurst gave them was, 'Deeds, not words,' so it was a film filled with action. But everything was based on historical events, like the breaking of windows along central London streets, to the bombing of [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Lloyd George's house, they were women who embarked on deeds, not words, and that was compelling for cinema but also reflected what they did. It felt like it was surprising and shocking, and we felt that story needed to be told. Not only what they did, but also the brutality they faced at the hands of the police.

What would you say to a man who asks, 'Why should I see this movie? It's a chick flick.'

At its core, it's a human story. It's about fighting inequality, and equality is good for everybody, men and women. It's well proven that if you have equality in society, society flourishes, and if you have inequality, it doesn't. So it's good for everybody. I think any man with daughters will relate to that, but I also think men, generally. Also, because it speaks broadly to anyone fighting inequality — men and women. 

Suffragette has already been plagued by plenty of controversy. There was a public outcry about the 'I'd rather be a rebel than a slave' campaign and what was called your whitewashing of the suffragette story, and finally complaints that trailers misrepresented Meryl Streep as having a bigger part in the film. How do you respond to these charges?

I think all the issues that it raises in various ways are important issues to have discourse about. We need to have more conversations about representation as well as the imbalance in terms of needing more women behind the camera and in front of the camera, and the diversity factor.

In terms of the representation of women of color in the film, just to put it in context, the first film I made, Brick Lane didn't have a single white person in it. It was all people of color. It's my mission in life to put people on the screen who don't get normally represented. In this film, it was working women who'd been marginalized in history. But when you look at the UK in 1912, unlike the US, we didn't have immigration on the same scale. In the US, there were many women of color involved in the movement, and also many excluded. In the UK, the issue at the time was class, not race. Immigration happened significantly around World War II and even later with the Commonwealth Immigration.

There were two Asian women who were involved in the movement and they were both aristocrats, who were treated very differently. But we were looking at working women, so they didn't enter our story. We were telling a specific story happening in a two-and-a-half mile radius in London in 1912, and we wanted it to resonate with everyone. What I'm very keen on is that nothing divert from the positive discourse the film provoke about inequality, because there are so few films that deal with these issues. So I hope it could be a force for good. 

How would you like this movie to inspire men and women?

I hope it's a reminder of how hard-won those rights were and how precarious they are and easy to lose, and with an election in the US coming up, how important it is to stand up and be counted and also empower women to speak out and challenge inequality.

I hope also because it's important to address this imbalance of women making movies that if we want more films about women shaped by female voices, to send a message to commissioners that these films get an audience. I hope this film does get an audience to pave the way for more films about women and by women. The box office on opening weekend is very important, so I want to tell everyone to take their friends in organized groups and go see it and dress as suffragettes if they like. Put on your bonnets and your sashes and go.

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Joshua Rotter


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