Suffragette press conference with Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan
Opening this year’s BFI London Film Festival is Sarah Gavron’s powerful and masterful Suffragette. The Upcoming caught up with her, lead actress Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and screenwriter Abi Morgan to discuss why the film is so crucial for today’s women.
Why do you think this incredible movement hasn’t been tackled by cinema before?
Sarah Gavron: Yeah, we pondered that question for a long time. When we spoke to the academics that consulted on the film they said they weren’t surprised that today it’s still hard to get women’s history taken seriously. It took a long time to get on the school curriculum – I wasn’t taught anything about it and later read a few lines at the bottom of a history book. I think it’s partly a symptom of inequality and the fact that these stories have been written out of our history. And, also, the fact that it hadn’t been on the big screen had to do with there being so few female teams and it probably was going to be a female team that brought it to the screen.
Abi Morgan: I think when you realise that the public records that reveal the level of police surveillance of this organisation weren’t open until about 2002/2003 that you realise this has been something that has been suppressed, so for us it was a real detective job to do all the research for the critical body of the story. You come to realise that so many of these stories have been buried and, like Sarah, I was never taught it at school although I have an 11 year-old girl who went to a dress-up day and there were two suffragettes so I think that’s quite reassuring.
I understand that there was some resistance to “suffragette” as a title, is that true or is that always what it was?
SG: No, I think we endlessly debate titles, titles are very difficult! But we’re pleased that it’s called that because it’s clear!
Meryl Streep: It’s clear here, maybe but to a modern, young, unschooled audience they might think “suffragette” has something to do with suffering. People don’t understand the word.
Carey, how much did you actually know about the suffrage movement and how much did you learn through researching?
Carey Mulligan: I knew very little, like Sarah, I didn’t have much. I remember there was a small paragraph in a history book saying women’s movement and it was about four lines basically saying they got it, after a bit of fighting. I had lots of images of women sort of politely marching through the streets, holding banners so I remember reading the script and googling as I went thinking is this real? Did this happen? A lot of it was a huge learning curve and that continued through. I was attached to the film for about a year before we filmed so we had a lot of time. I remember going into rehearsals and Sarah and Faye had put together this massive archive of research and I remember taking home homework every day so it was great.
Meryl, you play a small but integral role in the film, are there any other feminist icons you’d like to play?
MS: Gosh, there are so many stories that haven’t been told. In fact, that’s a marked piece of this; there is no women’s history. There’s history, that women have been shut out of and the brave souls that raise a banner and try to do some spelunking and find out about it – you know, Amanda Foreman has a series on the BBC called The Ascent of Women and it’s a four-part series that we can’t get sold in the United States because they say there isn’t interest. I think there’s interest, but there’s not interest in the people making those decisions. So it’s a question of rousing that interest. I knew about the suffrage movement in the United States but I didn’t know about it here and I also didn’t know about the condition of women here in 1913. I didn’t know that the marriage age was 12 – that was shocking to me. I didn’t know that once a woman was married she had no further claim to not only her name, but any property she brought into to the marriage, to her children; she had no say in how they were raised, if they were educated. Or if the 12 year-old was basically sold to be married. For me it’s recent history, my grandmother was alive then, had a couple of children and was not deemed capable of voting. It’s something I’m passionate about and I think the great achievement of this film is that it’s not about women of certain class. It’s about the working-girl and I think that’s why we can sort of enter this film so easily and so empathetically because Carey plays this young laundress who looks like us.
Are there examples of modern sexism that still anger you and do you feel that women nowadays have let suffragettes down? There’s a lot of talk about feminism but not much action.
CM: I think what I always loved about this film is that it didn’t feel like a documentary about that time it felt like a film about today. I always felt its presence with where we are to mark the achievement and what they gave to us but also to highlight where we are in the world and yes, we still live in a society that’s sexist and that goes throughout our history. But I think for me it was a great moment for me to really understand what women went through for me to be empowered and to take another look at where we are today. Obviously, in this country we’re very privileged but the film does relate and talk about the rest of the world and where women are just in terms of their vote. We always felt that bringing the film back round to today to make people think about where we are now, to open our eyes and it’s really done that for me. You know I work with a charity called War Child and last night at an event a young woman they helped was speaking and she said, “Education is empowerment.” I think that just brought it home, what this film can mean to people.
MS: I completely concur. I think sometimes things are circular. Hearing the stories of women in history fighting for civil rights, so many people think this is the way the world has always been. But to make a film like this which will circle the globe and will encourage people who have very little hope, people whose lives look almost like the women of 1913, in London, yes, it’s a great encouragement. Is there sexism in the world now? What annoys me? The lack of inclusion in the decision-making bodies of every industry around the world. That seems wrong to me. If men don’t look around at their board of governors table and feel that something is wrong – something is just wrong – that half the people at that table aren’t women then we’re not going to make any progress. More than half the people that are in graduate schools in the US are women; law school, medical school, more than half are women. But do they get to decide? Do they get to write history?
How did you work together to create the solidarity we see between the women in the film?
SG: Well, we had this cast who I don’t think had ever worked together before so when we were in rehearsals for months and months they all immediately formed this bond. I had nothing to do with it, they became great friends. In fact, one of the problems was getting them to stop laughing and get back to work! There was an unusual sense of camaraderie and I wonder whether that was because one, we were telling this story that everyone was passionate about but also there was this unusual balance. We had men and we had lots of women in key positions and it was exciting! It was also exciting to have lots of women on screen together you know, often you’ll have Meryl or Carey but rarely you’ll have them in the same scene so that was all incredibly exhilarating!
AM: It is rare to have such a long rehearsal time for a film so it gave us time to get to know them but also, you start to listen to them because they’ve spent so long in character. And one of the things that is very interesting to me is that the great quote we use was no genius moment on my part, it was actually Carey Mulligan who found it. That’s when great work really happens when you truly start to collaborate with the genius and brilliance of actors. It was really amazing.
Who do you see as the Emmeline Pankhursts of today?
MS: Malala Yousafzai.
SG: I got to meet Malala in America and it’s striking how there were echoes – you know she’s endured so much and she’s so brave – but there were echoes in terms of her language and her outlook and her determination.
There’s been a bit of backlash over the “rather be a rebel than a slave” t-shirts, was it true that Mrs Pankhurst borrowed her rebel/slave quote from the antislavery movement and would that acknowledge the involvement of non-white women in the movement?
AM: I think what’s been fascinating for me – and I’ve just spent the last month in America – is to compare the difference between the British and the American suffragette movement and certainly in America we have this huge debt to the many diverse women who were involved. I think in the UK without a doubt there is that association but I think it would be a shame if that conversation – and it is an important conversation – overshadowed what I think is the true intention of the film which is to empower all women globally.
How much resistance did you face getting this project off the ground?
AM: Sarah and I have been on this project together for six years but it’s truly been Sarah’s passion project for the past decade, that gives you some idea. Film takes a long time. However, I think a film fronted not by one but by an ensemble of women when they’re not being funny or romantic is hard.
SG: Yes, as Abi says it’s never easy but we wanted to stick to our guns and we pushed through all the obstacles but we did have champions. We were lucky to have those people around us.
Why was Meryl’s character, who was crucial to the movement, only in the film for such a short time?
MS: My question entirely!
AM: I gave you Iron Lady! Come on!
SG: Well, we talked about a biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst and it would be an amazing tale – you know, it was a huge movement that spanned decades and I hope there are many more films – but we thought if we told that story it’d be the story of an exceptional woman, we wanted to tell the story of the ordinary women. The women with no platform, no privilege, the working-class women who are so often at the vanguard of change but rarely get talked about. There are all these extraordinary accounts with such a contemporary feeling and we thought to follow that woman would basically connect with all women of today.
MS: I agree. I think sometimes history is written by the privileged class and the interesting thing about film is that you can look deep into lives that weren’t written about and imagine what they were like given what we know about their positions.
The men in your film are – with one or two exceptions – actually quite sympathetic, how did you decide on that?
AM: Well, when we came to cast those parts we actually ran into problems because we kept getting call-backs from agents saying the parts weren’t big enough so it’s a huge tribute to them that they took on these parts. One of the things that I was trying to do with these parts was that, although they are smaller and supporting, they are complex. I think it’s really interesting that you say that, actually, because one of the criticisms we’ve had come up is that there aren’t any sympathetic men. I think they’re all on their journeys – for Ben he’s finding he’s a man out of his time, for Brendan he’s trying to uphold the law and starts to question it, Sam West we see very little enlightenment but see very clearly that he’s in control of the wealth of his wife, and then with Finbar Lynch (Hugh Ellyn) I wanted to create a character who would have been in the men’s league, at the time and the conflict of that. You know, and we do see men like Taylor who is very much an archetype that we kept finding in research, the man who sexually abused his workers from a very young age. It’s a very important facet of the film.
SG: And the Finbar Lynch character who’s married to Helena is based on these three couples where the men supported the women and there were a couple of men who did go to prison and even one who hunger striked so we wanted to show all shades of men.
Carey, having immersed yourself in research now do you think you’d be a rock-thrower or a leaflet-er?
CM: One of the most shocking things to me was suffragettes who went into museums and slashed works of art and I think that is just so terrifying and to have the guts to do that is just astonishing. I’ve been so lucky to grow up in an environment where I haven’t had to fight but I suppose we fight for all equality and for those not as privileged. So, I don’t know if I would throw rocks for myself but I would like to think that I could throw rocks for someone else.
Meryl, people have expressed distaste that you choose to distance yourself from the label “feminist”, do you stand by that?
MS: There’s a phrase in this film that says, “deeds not words” and that’s where I stand on that. I let the actions of my life stand for what I am as a human being and I’m content with that, not the word.
Are you not just baffled by some of the industries – film being one of them – that see women as secondary to men?
SG: Yeah, it is baffling, you know, just talking as a director I’m excited that in the London Film Festival there are 46 feature films directed by women. Women are half the population, they buy more than half of movie tickets and there is an appetite for female-led or female-made films so I’m optimistic! So many people are talking about it and it feels like finally when I walk into a room people are receptive and, yes, we do want to employ more women.
MS: I think partly in our industry it’s all controlled by buzz. Who creates that? In the US when someone wants to find a movie to watch they go to rottentomatoes.com. So, I went deep, deep, deep into rottentomatoes and I counted how many contributors were women. There are 168 women and I thought that’s absolutely fantastic and if there were 168 men that would be fair. If there were 268 men, it would be unfair but I would be used to it. If there were 300, 400, 500, 600 – actually there are 760 men who weigh in on the tomato metre. And I submit to you that men and women like different things. Sometimes they like the same thing, but sometimes they diverge. If the tomato metre is weighted so heavily to one set of tastes that drives box offices. So who are these critics? The New York film critics have 37 men and 2 women. So I started to go on all the sites of these critics and – the word isn’t disheartening – it’s infuriating. We need inclusion.
Suffragete is released nationwide on 12th October 2015, read our review here.