SUFFRAGETTE director Sarah Gavron is a bit of an unknown here in the states, unless you happened to catch her 2007 first (and only other) feature BRICK LANE, which was also adapted in part by SUFFRAGETTE screenwriter Abi Morgan. More recently, Gavron also directed the documentary VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD about a tiny town on the edges of Northern Greenland. Strangely enough, her documentary work played as much of a role in the look of SUFFRAGETTE as any of the shorts and TV work she’s done because Gavron wanted the film to appear as if it was shot documentary style for certain sequences.
For those who don’t know, SUFFRAGETTE concerns itself with the movement in the early part of the 1900s in England to get the right to vote for women. As the movement becomes increasingly more violent, retaliation on the part of police and government officials gets brutal. The film has an incredible cast, including Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Romala Garai, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, and a fleeting appearance by Meryl Streep. I sat down with Gavron recently, and we talked about the film and how its nearly 100-year-old message is still showing signs of being relevant today. Enjoy…
Capone: Nice to meet you.
Sarah Gavron: Hi. Thank you.
Capone: These events happened 100 years ago, and yet somehow feel very relevant. Can you talk about where you see modern-day versions of these women today, and why do you think it’s important to tell this story now?
SG: Yeah, well that was really the driving desire was to make the story connect with today, apart from the act had it had never been told, and it was such an important slice of our history that felt like we ought to resurrect it, but it also seemed to have so many resonances. There were so many 21st-century issues being addressed that echoed the time of the story we were telling, from all sorts of things: The rights women were fighting for, whether they were custodial rights, sexual abuse, so many areas in which they were trying to battle, but also things like violence against women, police violence, the force feeding, which we now know is a form of torture, the police surveillance operation, which only emerged in 2003 when they opened up the archives and discovered there had been this whole wave of secret surveillance going on.
Capone: Right. That was maybe the biggest eye opener for me was that.
SG: It’s astounding.
Capone: I don’t know if they invented the photographic technology for that, but they used it for the first time to spy on people with these giant cameras.
SG: They did. They took them off the tripod for the first time and into the street.
Capone: I love that they act like that was more clandestine than a tripod, just having this giant bag.
SG: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: In modern society, where do you see a bit of what these women used to do then.
SG: Well, I just saw HE NAMED ME MALALA, the documentary. It seemed like almost a companion piece with someone like her. She’s a modern-day Suffragette. She’s just extraordinary, and what she’s up against. The fact that she, like the women in our film, was denied the possibilities of an education. The inequality just seemed to resonate. And I also saw a documentary, INDIA’S DAUGHTER, the Leslee Udwin documentary, which is so shocking about the rape and death, murder of Jyoti Singh in India. Some of the things the lawyers were saying really echoed a lot of the accounts of the British from 100 years ago.
Capone: Your primary concern might not have been how your story would resonate outside the UK, but it’s interesting because, as an American, the most I knew about this group was from MARY POPPINS. The fact that Mrs. Banks says “Votes for Women” was like “Well, they got that right at least.” Do you feel like it’s an uphill battle in a certain way to reclaim this part of history, and make sure it doesn’t get lost over the years?
SG: Yeah, totally. As you say, even in the UK, it’s not widely known. The view of it is this sanitized or slightly ridiculous view of it that’s borne out of the MARY POPPINS depiction, and there’s a much more engaging story. We wanted to reclaim that, and one that felt right for the reasons we discussed. We felt that was a really important endeavor to bring that one to light. It’s been marginalized. It literally wasn’t mentioned the whole time I was at school; it seems extraordinary. It’s taken a long time to get it into universities, and obviously it’s not been on the big screen, I think partly because we have so few female teams.
Capone: You and Abi [Morgan, writer] and your producers are female, and you have a team behind this that are all female. Was that a goal, or was it a happy coincidence that it turned out that way?
SG: Well, when we were crewing up, we met a lot of people for each job, and we chose the people who connected with our vision for it, and a lot of those were women—the production designer, the location manager, the head of costume, all of those heads of departments. We did have some great and talented men in a couple of key roles, like the cinematographer and the editor. But we reversed the balance of a normal film set, certainly, by having all of those women in front of the camera, and there was a great sense of camaraderie. The men too contributed to it. Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw were great collaborators on this and believed in the vision of the film as well, but there was a particularly good sense of camaraderie. We took our cue from the Suffragettes and their fearlessness and the way they’ve broken with convention, and there we were breaking with convention in a small way on the film set.
Capone: By doing it that way, was this a tough story to get told? Because it’s completely about women, by women, did that make it a more difficult project to get made?
SG: I think it contributed to making it a more difficult project. I think what was positive and great was, well two things: One, that as we were developing it, there seemed to be more of an appetite for it. I think partly because so much of it tied into what was happening around the world, and I think we were suddenly hearing from women across the globe who were challenging repression, partly because of the digital age.
So we were becoming aware of all sorts of plights of women that tied into the story and, in this incredible way, chimed with the story, and there was this resurgence. It’s almost like feminism stopped being a dirty word, and people were talking about it, both men and women, and women in the film industry were becoming clamorous about the balance. So we hit that moment, and we also had some great champions who really supported the story. So I think all of that helped it to get made. I’m not sure it would have gotten made four, five, six years ago.
Capone: Did I hear you shot this on Super 16 and mostly handheld? It does have a look that more approximates documentary than feature. Were you thinking, “What this would have looked like if it was shot at the time?” It doesn’t bare any resemblance to a traditional period film.
SG: Yeah, we very deliberately set out to break with that stylistically, aesthetically, because we felt like there’s a way that we look at period films; we admire them and they’re very beautiful, but it keeps you at a distance. We wanted with this film, because it felt so of the moment, to put you in the shoes of that woman and feel what her life was like in 1912. So the handout camera gave the actors freedom and energy to the camera, and a Super 16 camera is small, and you can be versatile, and there’s a grain to them that added to the atmosphere, so it felt right. We shot Alexa after dark, though, because that helped us, but then we put grain into the Alexa image to match it.
Capone: When you get to the end, with the horse track sequence, and everyone’s dressed up, and it looks brighter, it’s a huge contrast to everything we’ve seen up to that point. Was that intentional? It’s startling to see what the rest of the world outside of this movement is up to.
SG: Yeah, the thing is, Britain were these contrasting worlds, and we wanted to show the hard scrabble life of the laundry, which was so dark and difficult and full of disease and poverty, and then the beating heart of Westminster. We were the first crew to get access to the houses of Parliament, which was very exciting. And then you get the glitz and glamour of the Derby, which was the biggest social occasion of the year, and drew people obviously dressed up to the nines. It was a June day that Emily Wilding Davison was at the Derby, and it was a beautiful June day. We shot it in March, but we were very lucky with the weather.
Capone: One of the other misconceptions about the Suffragettes was they were largely upper-class group of women. Certainly, that’s where they began, but you’ve made your lead character and the person whose eyes we see this journey someone who’s working class, from the laundry houses. Why did you want us to see it through those eyes? She goes from having this on the periphery of her life to her being about as fierce as supporter as anyone else.
SG: Maud is a composite character. She’s drawn from a number of different working women. There were a few better known working women, but as you said, like there was Annie Kenney, who was in leadership, and there was Hannah Mitchell, who wrote the biography that Carey Mulligan actually carried around with her. You can find Mauds in the research. They’re there. We thought it was exciting telling a working woman’s story, a woman with no platform, no sense of entitlement, and watching her journey to activism, so that you could access what might drive someone to that point.
You can connect with women all over the world today rather than telling a story of an exceptional woman in an exceptional position, which would have been the Emmeline Pankhurst story. And also what was striking about this movement was despite this rigid class apartheid in Edwardian Britain, women from all classes united for this cause, and it was inclusive in that respect. They brought together women from all walks of life and they fought together alongside each other, and as is the case in many political movements, the working women—or the working people—are at the vanguard of change, and they’re often marginalized in the history books, and we thought to draw them out of the shadows and shine a light on these women who sacrificed so much, who had more to lose than their middle-class and upper-class counterparts, and that would connect with today, we felt.
Capone: With the jailhouse scenes, you made a choice to make them as graphic and awful as possible. Somebody at the screening last night even said the combination of the handheld camera and what we were seeing was making them like ill, which I think is good [both laugh]. I think it’s a compliment. But that’s a decision you make to show the force feeding, which is maybe the worst thing I’ve ever seen. You could have tempered it, but you didn’t.
SG: We decided it was really important actually to show the consequences of their actions, the brutality they faced. It was shocking when we read the research, and there were these very vivid accounts written by the women of what they’ve been through, and really vivid accounts of the force-feeding. We know now that force feeding is a form of torture, and it’s still going on today. Emily Wilding Davison was force fed 49 times, and she wasn’t alone in that, and it seems extraordinary that they’d survived that, that they’d endured that, that they were prepared to go through that.
Capone: In my mind, I would imagine that the female actors would have been lining up to be in this, because how often would they every get a chance to play people this historically significant? A lot of the actors in the film are people that Abi has worked with before in other things. But talk about getting Carey on board and everybody else falling in line behind her.
SG: Well, we wanted this eclectic range of great British actors, well, great actors, and not just female actors. I think it’s a testament to the material, and also as you say, it’s sadly rare that there are so few important women’s roles, protagonist women’s roles. It was exciting to get the actors we got. Carey, we had in mind for years, in fact. We felt like she was an actor who could inhabit and take you on this epic emotional journey. We were really excited when she responded so positively to the script. She came on quite a long time before and really immersed herself in the research and contributed a lot in terms of ideas for the film. And also, it was a crosswalk how we were casting the people around; we built the cast around her. We had Helena Bonham Carter, who has such a different energy and feeling, which was exciting to us, because the movement brought together women of all ages and all types, and she’s the great granddaughter of [former British Prime Minister] Herbert Asquith [who was very much against votes for women].
Capone: That’s what I read. That must have been weird for her.
SG: Yeah, very weird for her.
Capone: Especially with Brendan Gleeson’s character, by the end, he’s starting to understand these women a little more and understand that what the police are doing is not going to work. Ben’s character seems like a very nice guy, who is pushed into a corner, and it’s terrible what he ends up having to do with their family. How important was it for you not to demonize all the men?
SG: Yeah, it was really important, because that makes it more interesting, and there’s more at stake and there’s more depth to them, and of course that represents the situation at the time where absolutely not all men were villains. They were products of their time, they were battling against the conventions of their time, and we wanted to reflect that whole range. You’ve got Helena Bonham Carter’s husband who is an active supporter of the cause and is incarcerated, and then you’ve got, as you say, Brendan Gleeson who is sent out to uphold the law, and then begins to question the law. And then Ben Whishaw’s character who yeah, exactly as you described, has an enormous amount of pressure put on him to act in a certain way, and it’s devastating how he has to act. He probably doesn’t want to act that way, but he’s under pressure. So it was really critical to me that we reflected that range of characters and had some empathy with those men.
Capone: When he says to her,“Why have you shamed me like this?”, I felt that across my face, because I had never considered for a second that it had anything to do with him, really.
SG: Yeah, I think respectability was held as such a high marker, and to fall from respectability, particularly for working people, I think, who felt it was quite precarious and so important. “Shame” was a key word when we looked through the research. It came up again and again. This is a time where you could be put in the madhouse for having a child outside marriage. We forget the period we were in.
Capone: It was really wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much.