Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan On Carey Mulligan, ‘Suffragette’
Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, takes a sobering look at gender inequality through the eyes of the trailblazing suffragettes of early-20th-century Britain. Carey Mulligan stars as Maud, a fictional composite of several women and experiences of the time. A working woman, wife and mother, Maud gets swept up by the suffragette movement, changing her life forever as she becomes a militant activist for women’s rights. Evading the authorities in their fight for equality, the suffragettes’ crusade puts a strain on their home lives, with the future of Maud’s family hanging in the balance as she’s scorned by her disapproving husband.
In a roundtable interview we spoke to Gavron and Morgan about Suffragette, which also stars Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Grace Stottor, Romola Garai, Meryl Streep, Ben Wishaw, and Brendan Gleeson. The film opens today in select cities and expands wide on November 20th.
What inspired the project?
Sarah: It was a long genesis for me. I wanted to do it for about ten years. I grew up with a mother who became a local politician. I watched her agency in a very male world. We haven’t learned about suffragettes in school. We just knew the very sanitized Mary Poppins version like everybody did. It’s not a widely known story. There was a really good TV series called Shoulder To Shoulder that made an impact. So, people were discussing it, but there wasn’t a big screen version of it. It seemed extraordinary and such a timely story, overdue in terms of telling the story. But also, it seemed to resonate with the world we live in in so many ways. The two producers, Faye Ward and Alison Owen—it occurred to them at the same time. They had a conversation about doing a film about this, and it made sense for us to talk to Abi because she was the writer who had worked on Brick Lane.
Abi: From my point of view it was very exciting because I had done biopics before, but this felt like a different way of looking at a biopic. We started to focus in and think, “Okay, we could do ‘The Extraordinary Life of Miss Pankhurst’ or Emily Wilding Davison.” But those women will have at one point have a film about their lives. I hope they do. But when we started to hone in on the lives of the working women, there were surprising details everywhere we looked. The police surveillance records, which were only opened in 2003, where you’d see a tiny bit of an interview. Or you would read a testimonial of a woman who had been taken when she took the deputations to the House of Parliament. These women are really interesting because the jeopardy on their lives is so profound. So many of these women were being appallingly treated at work. Their working conditions were just chronic. They tried to manage having working lives and children and they didn’t have a wealthy husband or family wealth. They were fighting for equal pay and dealing with sexual violence. There were so many issues they were dealing with, and they were so profound and so 21st-century.
I started to think, what if we took a woman who was outside of that, in a place of passivity, who didn’t realize just how downtrodden and difficult her life was. And then, through engagement with the movement, moves towards militant activism and change, realizing it’s the ordinary women who change history. Then we though, that might be a story for us all. I think that was when we started to feel like it could be a proper movie.
Talk about Maud. She’s a composite of many women.
Abi: Originally, she was a character I put in the house of Alice Houghton, played by Romola Garai. I had this idea that the lady upstairs was going to fall in love with the maid. Through that, they would emancipate each other. But when I started doing more research and we started looking at the world of the laundries in East London, you started to look at the extraordinary working conditions and the ailments and the injuries these women had. There seemed to be a contradiction from the photos you would see of these laundries, which actually looked quite clean and civilized. It’s like, okay, this is interesting. Then, within that, you realize some of the women in these places joined the movement. When they were in incarceration, they couldn’t pay their bail. They lost their jobs and sometimes their children. That story started to have a real sense of jeopardy.
Sarah: Maud was drawn from these working women. Many of them didn’t write their own stories, but there were some who wrote their own stories, or other people wrote their stories, or you could piece together their lives from police records. Hannah Mitchell was a working woman, Annie Barnes, Annie Kenney—you could find Mauds in the research. It was about being liberated from the biopic.
Abi: It allowed us to kind of create this ensemble of women, so you could find the Edith Ellyns who had perhaps been educated, but at that time weren’t able to pick up their degrees. [They would] marry into relationships where they were really the brains of the relationship and would have entitlement to a business. Someone like Violet had a very abusive relationship, which you couldn’t talk about. It might be talked about when noticing someone’s bruises, but there was no refuge, nowhere for these women to go. I worked on an adaptation of Nelly Ternan’s life, who was the lover of Charles Dickens. I’d already looked at Victorian East London 40-50 years earlier, and to look back at 1912 and realize that so many of these issues that Charles Dickens was drawing upon are still affecting women today, I thought, this is interesting.
How important was it that the protagonist be the total package—be married, be a mother, be someone who has essentially accepted her lot in life and only gradually begins to see that it doesn’t have to be her lot in life?
Abi: I think those are the strains that feel very familiar to us all. I was trying to create a character who was identifiable. I don’t think you have to be a woman who is married. The film is about empowering women to say, globally, there are these huge inequalities we deal with. For Maud, we wanted to create a woman who was not even yet engaged with how unhappy she was. This is a woman who’s been institutionalized from an early age. She’s been abused by her employer, her mother was most likely abused before her. Maud has a scar on her arm, and the idea was that she was there when her mother was burned to death at the laundry. You’re meant to realize this woman has a huge legacy that she has just suppressed and suppressed. Engagement with a group of women who say, “We’re equal. You no longer have to deal with these conditions. Your life can change,” that’s the thing that activates her. It was very important that we created all of those pressures women of today have. They have to bring in money, raise their children, deal with sexual violence or sexual intimidation. They have to find their voice, and the whole point of the film is trying to give these voiceless women a voice.
Sarah: By looking at a marriage at the center of it, we were able to explore the politics of the marriage in terms of the power balance and the parental rights issue and the lack of economic power within a marriage.
It also raises the stakes so much higher.
Abi: Absolutely. And that’s a good point. The film couldn’t just work [politically]. It had to work as a piece of genuine human drama. We were trying to consecrate that jeopardy. That’s something Sarah worked really hard on.
Brendan Gleeson’s character is interesting. I think his conversations with Maud are important.
Sarah: The police archives opened up in 2003 and revealed this undercover surveillance observation, which was so extraordinary because it showed the level of threat the government perceived these women posed. They took this cutting-edge technology to the streets, and it all seemed so intriguing. There are these two Irish policemen we honed in on, and Abi drew on them for Brendan Gleeson’s character. What was exciting was that he was a character who wasn’t single-faceted. He changed and had many dimensions. He was upholding the law, but the very act of surveying those women meant that he was seeing them up-close and understanding their dilemma, actually.
Abi: In fact, that was what was so great about working on this film together. It was actually Sarah who found those two detectives. That’s amazing. We’d be working on a police officer and he wouldn’t feel fully rounded, so Sarah would go and research. I’d written it as an Irish character, but when Brendan came onboard it really made sense. He had his own history he was bringing to the table. So many of the techniques used on these women went on to be used in Northern Ireland. There were so many layers to that journey of making him, and it really is about the fusion of a great actor who brings his own baggage to the table and a director who’s constantly going, “Let’s shape, let’s shape, let’s shape.”
When I was watching the movie I thought about the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.
Abi: It was more about the metaphor. These women wash and clean and restore and get rid of the dirt and stains of London, starching men’s collars. They send them out clean again only for them to come back dirty. It was this relentless cycle these women were in, always trying to maintain order, and yet there was this underlying chaos. You’re always looking for a visual metaphor to somehow have a relationship with the themes of the film. I think the laundry was really important.
The costumes and locations are extraordinary, but the film doesn’t seem concerned with showing them off like other period movies are.
Sarah: We did want to embed it in the period and make it feel very real. We chose a lot of real locations and didn’t do set builds whenever possible. We closed off a central London street for that opening sequence where they smash windows in Central London. We got access to the House of Parliament, which was exciting because it was a place no film crew was ever allowed to film in. We petitioned like suffragettes and they agreed. [laughs] Just to be in that place where history had happened felt like a marker of how far we had come. But also, as you say, we didn’t want to make the locations a character or foreground them. We wanted you to follow the characters through their world, glimpsing life as they did. We created a 360 degree world so we could capture their actions instead of staging it.
What kind of homework did you give the cast?
Sarah: They’d never had so much homework in their lives! [laughs] We gave them these packets. We got the whole team assembled for weeks and were feeding them stuff from the minute they committed. We fed them books and background and took them to laundries and police cells—whatever we could do to really bring the world to life for them. We created these research packages for each aspect of [the story], and that was great. We had Carey on for months and had a three-week rehearsal period.
Abi: What’s great is that the Olive Schreiner quote we used at the end of the movie is from her book Dreams In A Desert, and the book became very important to Carey. There were a few scenes we had to end the movie, and we suddenly realized we needed something that truly symbolized the fact that the fight goes on and that it’ll be the next generation they’ll pass it on to. She found that quote. We wrote a scene where Emily Wilding Davison gives her the book. That’s what was great—she could really go in and participate in that way.
It feels like it’s the right time for this film to come out.
Sarah: We hope so. When we were developing it, it strangely felt like it was becoming more timely, or at least the world was becoming more receptive to these themes and ideas. Abi honed in on this period that felt particularly resonant, so there was there was the police surveillance operation, which echoed all the issues around surveillance. Violence and protest and this journey towards activism, custodial rights, sexual violence. We were also hearing from more women around the world, probably because the digital world was allowing those women to be heard. It seemed the time to tell it. Feminism has also suddenly become less of a dirty word. Hopefully not a dirty word. [laughs]