One of the more prominent and prolific female screenwriters in the last 15 has been Britain’s Abi Morgan, who has written a steady stream of television and feature film works that rarely tackle lightweight subjects. Her projects have included HBO’s TSUNAMI: THE AFTERMATH; director Steve McQueen’s SHAME; THE IRON LADY; the Masterpiece series “Birdsong”; THE INVISIBLE WOMAN; and the fantastic BBC series “The Hour,” which she created and won an Emmy for writing. Her latest writing for film is SUFFRAGETTE, directed by Sarah Gavron, for whom Morgan also wrote the 2007 release BRICK LANE.
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 became increasingly more violent, retaliation on the part of police and government officials got 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 Morgan recently to discuss the challenge of making such a vast, sweeping story a more intimate and personal story by embodying the struggle in the fictional character Maud, played by Mulligan. Please enjoy my talk with the much-in-demand writer Abi Morgan…
Capone: Hi, Abi. Nice to meet you.
Abi Morgan: Nice to meet you.
Capone: I have been a great admirer of your work over the years.
AM: That’s a really good start [laughs].
Capone: It’s so rare that the writers ever get to do the tour, so this is a rare opportunity.
AM: It’s really true. You’re absolutely right. I was at Telluride, and someone said, “This is the fourth film we’ve had of yours,” and I had no idea. It’s been a very different experience doing, this movie, in that way.
Capone: Not that your primary concern in writing this film was how countries outside of the UK might perceive or have any knowledge of this movement whatsoever, but most American’s exposure to the suffragettes is through MARY POPPINS.
AM: Absolutely. To be honest, I think Sarah and I, we all felt that we were really ill-educated about the suffragettes. My memories of coloring in some supply teacher sheet. I remember coloring in a bonnet. So when Sarah first brought the material to me, I wasn’t incredibly interested, and I think it’s probably a mark of how badly it was told during my education. But actually when I started to read the research, it was so compelling, and very quickly I threw away the brilliant MARY POPPINS, tambourine-bashing, marching around the drawing room.
Capone: At least Mrs. Banks was saying “Votes for women.” They got that part right.
AM: Yeah. Thank you, Mary. Thank you [laughs]. So I think it was an opportunity to reclaim a piece of history which we thought had been erased, and all had been tokenistically taught at school. I’d adapted “Birdsong,” and I’d researched the whole of the first world war period and brushed very briefly with the suffragettes, but I certainly haven't immersed myself. And there certainly wasn’t the kind of research and historical documentation in the same way.
Capone: Was a part of the motivation for making the film, that there are certain periods in recent history, in the last 100 years, that people will forget unless it’s somehow documented like this?
AM: Yeah. I think what’s been extraordinary about this film is the discourse around it. I think it’s been fantastic to go back in history and say, “Look, this is our version of the British UK movement. But there are so many versions that you could have done with this film. I think the historical research when we started to go back into it was so compelling, so shocking. Everything from the news articles taken from the time, when you could feel the media and the Westminster derision of the women, through to the deputations where there were working-class women talking about their working conditions, to the incredible declassified police reports that were only opened in 2002-2003, which showed the level of surveillance and intimidation of these women.
Capone: That was one of the most eye-opening things about the beginning of this film. They literally used a brand-new technology to spy on these women.
AM: Absolutely. Everything used to have to be on a tripod. This was the first time cameras could be hand-held. I mean, they look incredibly clunky today.
Capone: I was going to say, I love that they say, “This is much more clandestine.” I’m like, “Really? This giant box?”
AM: I know. It would be very difficult to take a selfie with that one, wouldn't it? Definitely, that was really fascinating. I think the more we worked on this film, it wasn’t a deliberate intention, but it took several years to get this movie made, it took several years to get the script right. There was also this incredible, growing sense of global activism going on through social media and this incredible digital age that can connect us with the human rights abuses across the world. So suddenly, all those things, all the appalling work conditions, sexual abuse and sexual violence, inequalities that were imbedded in the heart of these women’s lives and the subsequent torture of these women, incarceration of these women, police surveillance, felt very 21st century.
Capone: One of the misconceptions about the movement is that it was all primarily driven by upper-class women. By making Maud someone who works in the laundries, was that your way to show that the movement went across all classes?
AM: Yes. Originally, I wrote the film for Romola Garai’s character, Alice, and I fell in love with this idea of opening at the opera, and there were several tiers of the opera that represented different classes, and I brought Maud as a character into the house. But I became more and more interested in Maud and realizing, for example, when these women were incarcerated, obviously if you’re middle and upper class, you have the finances to either bail yourself out. Those women had huge amounts of sacrifice and also experienced huge hardships, but ultimately didn’t lose their jobs, whereas a lot of the working-class women being incarcerated, they lost their jobs and couldn’t feed their children and had no one to look after their children, no one to clean their houses.
We became increasingly aware of the way the movement was organized and strategized was by the middle and the upper classes. They funded the movement, they were the vocal voice of the movement, because many of them were literate. When we started looking at the working-class women, who were seen as the foot soldiers and the women who ultimately were-very key in terms of reacting to Mrs. Pankhurst’s call to arms, really. They were the working-class women and for me it was reading the personal testimonies of these women and discovering the working conditions, the accidents, the effects of how working in a laundry house shortens your life. Maud talks about that, and that’s literally taken verbatim.
I think this is important, and it’s accessible, because in a time when we have 30 million people affected by modern-day exploitation of some form, of which 98 percent are women, that resonates. There were some very high-profile women at that time—Hannah Mitchell, Mary Kenney who was in the leadership, but many of those women, as I said, weren’t literate so didn’t write the memoirs. So it was about giving a voice to the voiceless.
Capone: As a writer by making Maud a composite character, rather than someone who is an actual person, it frees you up to include a lot of things that maybe one person didn’t embody in the history of the movement.
AM: Absolutely. It allowed us to composite a collective group of women that we could then build from that. So it was Edith Ellyn [played by Helena Bonham Carter], who was an educated woman, yet her husband owned the business. Violet [played by Anne-Marie Duff], who was living in a very abusive marriage and was tied because of the number of children she had and her economic state, and Alice Haughton [Romola Garai], who was a very wealthy woman but whose wealth had been completely controlled and assumed by her husband. And then Maud herself. So it was about trying to create this very eclectic group, and for me in a weird way, when you’re looking at a movement of 50, 60 years, you have to find a way of reigning it in.
So first we found this 18-month period, then I started to look at the historical beats, then I thought wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we collided these fictional women with these historical moments. We’ve stayed very close to taking bits from these real women. That felt more refreshing to me than what I had done before, which is try and do a biopic of, for example, Margaret Thatcher, which felt impossible because I had to leave out the miners’ strike. That’s a big moment in history that you’d love to put in.
Capone: As I was watching the film, I realized there are a lot of people in this movie that you’ve worked with before in some capacity. Was that a matter of just calling in a few favors? I imagine female actors lining up to be in this thing.
AM: I obviously worked with Carey Mulligan on SHAME, and I always loved her and loved the way she was so chameleon. She could feel so of the now, so contemporary, but I never felt jarred when she moves back in time. So she was very much in mind, so as soon as we saw the film was going to get financed, Sarah had lunch or dinner with her, and very quickly Carey was on board, and that was absolutely fantastic, because when you get an endorsement like that, then you can start to bring the other women together.
Certainly with Meryl, I was like, “It’s a five-minute scene. We can’t ask her.” And actually, Carey’s observation was that this woman, although she comes on for a very short period of time, we have to believe in her charisma. We have to believe that these women will follow her in what she does. When you bring someone like Meryl in, who has been such an incredible advocate and been so long in the industry and really understands the issues this film raises, she does more than just the brilliance of having us believing that these women would throw themselves in front of the horse for the cause. She actually becomes someone who’s very important to the selling of the movie. And then everyone else came to the movie, I love Ben Whishaw. So yes, absolutely, I was the one that said Ben. But everyone else went, “Oh my god, of course Ben.” And Romola, again, I worked with her on “The Hour.”
Capone: I love that show so much.
AM: I will forever mourn that I was ready to write the third series—it all looked good to go. So I never got the chance to fulfill and carry on writing for them.
Capone: I didn’t realize that.
AM: Yeah, I really wanted to write the third series. I absolutely loved it. I really would have loved to have gone on.
Capone: You mentioned Ben; he maybe has one of the trickiest roles [as Maud’s husband] in terms of tone, because he seems like a good man, but at the same time, he’s almost forced to do some really terrible things to this family. When you’re writing the male characters, and some of them are just outright evil, did you have to try to constantly find a way to not demonize all of them?
AM: Absolutely. I never think it does anybody a service to make anyone a monster. You want to show the complexity of them, otherwise if you make someone a monster then they have no agency. You infantilize them, I think. One of the things that was very funny when we came to cast this was obviously the agents were going, “Well, they’re supporting roles. They’re not big enough.” Although they are definitely supporting roles to the women, we tried to make them as complex as possible. And also, it’s a combination of the brilliance of the actors we brought on board—Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Sam [West] and Finbar Lynch—but also Sarah and I were very keen that we showed the very different kinds of men who were in the movement and outside of the movement and affected by the movement.
So you have Hugh Ellyn, who absolutely would have been in the men’s league of which there were a number of men who supported their wives, believed in it on their own; George Bernard Shaw was a leading vocal advocate, George Lansbury was an MP who lost his seat as a result of his support for women. And then you have someone like Sonny [Whishaw’s character] who is a man who’s very conflicted, born out of his time, but at that time, for your wife to be a suffragette in that area of society you were an outcast. There was a huge anti-suffragette movement with a lot of women who didn’t believe that they should get the vote. So there was a community who were disgusted by what the women were doing. Then of course we have Brendan Gleeson, a man who actually upholds the law and then starts to question the law.
Capone: That character is interesting, because by the end of the film, there is a bit of compassion with him.
AM: Totally. He says “This is becoming barbaric. My fear is there will be a loss of life. There will be a death.” He knows what is coming. I think part of the construct of making his Irish is, he was a man who had come from a troubled place. He knew what conflict looked like. He knew how hard women would fight for a cause. So that affected his understanding of the movement. He was based on a composite of two detectives of the time who had worked in Liverpool and Glasgow fighting Fenians. He understood the repercussions of this great militant activism would mean.
Capone: When you tell a story like this, 100 years after it happened, you have to see relevance in telling this tale today. Where do you see places where these women might have stepped in in today’s society?
AM: Well, I suppose Malala Yousafzai is undoubtably a suffragette. I recently saw her documentary, which blew her away. But what really shocked me is when you see this image of an 11-year-old girl who has been told how dangerous it is to go to school, stand up and be interviewed on television and stand up at rallies and go, “I’m not going to stop. I’m going to go to school,” and then as a result gets shot. I had assumed that she had been shot and as a result of that had found her advocacy for education, but no. She had been an advocate before, so I would say she’s a brilliant example of the modern day suffragette.
Also in the UK alone, two to three women a week are killed by their partners or ex-partners. There are women in the UK fighting for the rights for women, there are women fighting globally for the rights for women. The global inequality that we see present every single day from gang rape in India through to our own sex trafficking in the UK. We can’t deny that the battle goes on. We can’t deny that the women fought to get us the vote, and that’s the most important thing. I hope that’s what a young, female audience takes away, which is use your vote because you’re a dwindling population.
Capone: Abi, thank you so much. It was really wonderful to speak to you.