Suffragette Q&A with Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Sarah Gavron & Abi Morgan
We had the pleasure of attending the press screening and conference for the BFI London Film Festival‘s opening feature, Suffragette.
Leading ladies Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep were in attendance, along with the film’s director, Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady).
Here’s what the panel of smart ladies had to say about history, feminism, and those controversial t-shirts.
Why has this part of history not really been addressed in cinema before?
Sarah Gavron, director: We’ve wondered about that for a long time, but when we were talking to the academics who were advising on the film, they said they weren’t surprised. It took ages to get women’s history to be taken seriously by the Academy, it took a long time to get it on the school curriculum – I wasn’t taught anything about it – and I think it’s partly a problem of inequality, that these stories are being written out of our history. Also the fact that it hasn’t been on the big screen must have something to do with us having so few female teams [in the industry], since it probably had to be a female team to bring it to the screen.
How much did you know about the Suffragette movement before embarking on the film?
Carey Mulligan: I knew relatively little – like Sarah, I wasn’t really taught about it in school. I remember one little paragraph of about four lines, saying ‘they got [the vote] eventually after a bit of fighting’, and so I had images of lots of little women politely marching down the streets holding banners.
Reading the script, I remember Googling everything as I went along, thinking ‘did this really happen?’, such as the hunger strikes, the police brutality, and the surveillance, which was another huge surprise to me, and that continued throughout making it. I was attached to the film for about a year before we filmed, so we had a lot of time to research, and we went into rehearsals and Sarah and Faye [Ward, producer] had put together this massive archive of research, so we were taking home homework with us everyday!
Meryl Streep: I knew a great deal about the suffrage movement in the United States, but I didn’t know much 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 twelve. That was shocking to me. I didn’t know that, once a woman was married, so had no claim – not only to her name – but also to any property she brought to the marriage. That her own children were not hers. She had no say, really, in how they were raised, if they were educated, or if the twelve year old was basically sold. I didn’t know those things.
And to me, it’s recent history! My grandmother was alive then, had a couple of children, and was not deemed ‘capable’ of voting. I’m passionate about it. It means something to me. And I think the great achievement of this film is that it’s not about women of a certain class, like Emmeline Pankhurst, who worked as an abolitionist, and was a pro-labour supporter of the rights of working people, both men and women. Instead it’s about a working girl, and I think that’s part of why we can enter the film so easily, and so empathetically. Carey plays this young laundress, who looks like us, and yet the circumstances of her life are out of her hands completely. So this is such an important movie.
How does the movie engage with sexism in the world today?
CM: What I’ve always loved about this film is it doesn’t feel like a documentary about a certain time – it feels like a film about today. I’ve always felt its resonance with where we are now. It’s a film to mark the achievements that these women made, and what they gave to us, but also to highlight where we are in the world. Of course 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 to really understand what women went through to get the vote, and to feel empowered.
Obviously in this country we’re very privileged, but the film does talk about the rest of the world and where women are. And that’s just in terms of their vote – it’s not in terms of their living, their wages, the way that they’re treated, and the marriage laws etc. We always thought that getting people to think about where we are today and our society now was the most important part of the film. Giving them an idea of the history and helping them to understand, but also to open our eyes, and it’s really done that for me.
MS: I completely concur with all of that. I mean, sometimes things are circular. The less you see of the stories about the civil rights movement in the history of what they achieved, you don’t see them, you are disheartened, and think that this is the way it always has been. But to make a film like this, it will encourage people who have very little hope – people whose lives look almost like the lives in 1913 in London. So I’m really excited.
And what is an example of modern sexism that really makes you angry?
MS: The lack of inclusion in the decision-making bodies of every single enterprise in the world. Like deciding what to do with refugees – why are half the people making those decisions not women? And within the Church, as a body. There are two places that women can’t vote in the world; Saudi Arabia, and The Vatican. That seems wrong to me.
If men don’t look around the board of governors’ table, and feel that something is just wrong when half the people there are not women, then we’re not making progress. But we’re making progress from the bottom up. In the United States, more than half the people in graduate schools, law schools, medical schools, business schools… more than half are women. But do they get to decide? Do they get to write history? No.
Looking around the world, who do you think are the Emmeline Pankhursts of today?
MS: Malala Yousafzai.
SG: Yes, we watched a documentary about her when we were all together in America, and it was striking how there were echoes. She’s endured so much, and she’s so brave. In terms of her outlook, and her language, and her determination, there are many echoes.
How do you respond to the backlash surrounding your ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ photoshoot?
Abi Morgan, screenwriter: I think what’s been fascinating for me, and I’ve just spent the past month in America, is to compare the difference between the British Suffragette movement and the American Suffragette movement. Certainly in America we have a huge debt to the many diverse women who helped the movement. In the UK, without a doubt, there is that association.
However, it would be a pity if the negative connotations of that conversation – which is a very important conversation – overshadowed the true and sincere intentions of the film, which was to empower all women globally to be worthy of equality. So for me, that really is the most important narrative. But I think this kind of discourse is really important, and I hope that we don’t negate either side of that discourse, because it is vital that we keep talking about it.
How much resistance did you encounter in bringing the project off the ground and onto the screen?
AM: Sarah and I have been on this project for the last six years, but it’s truly been Sarah’s passion project for the past decade, so that gives you some idea. Film does take time, however I think a film where it’s fronted not by one but an ensemble of women, and they’re not being funny, is hard. So I think that became a huge obstacle. We have a team of great producers, Faye Ward, Alison Owen, and our ‘man’, Cameron McCracken, and it really has taken both men and women to take this to the screen. It’s very complex and I’d love to talk more about it, and I will be talking more about it, so it will be an ongoing conversation.
Meryl, why was Emmeline Pankhurst given so little screen time?
MS: My question entirely!
AM: Hey, I gave you Iron Lady!
SG: Well we talked about a biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst for a while, and there would be an amazing story to be told – I hope that out of this subject of a huge movement that spanned decades there will be many more films. But we thought if we told that story it would be the story of an exceptional woman. What we were interested in was the story of an ordinary woman; the woman with no platform, and no entitlement. Working class women who were so often at the vanguard of change, who rarely get talked about. We thought that to follow that woman would make it connect with women all over the world today.
MS: History is written by the privileged class, and the interesting thing about film is you can dig deep into the lives that weren’t written about, and imagine what they were like, knowing what we now know about their conditions, and what they suffered. So the way in to connect with a modern audience is not to have people wearing big hats and corsets who look almost alien to us, but to have girls that we more easily identify with.
The men seem to be relatively sympathetic. We don’t see wife-beaters, but instead see what starts out as quite a loving relationship, between Maude and her husband Sonny. How did you decide on the balance of the male characters?
AM: When we came to cast this film it was very difficult, because we kept getting calls from agents saying the male parts weren’t big enough. So it’s a huge tribute to Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Samuel West and Finbar Lynch that they took on these parts. One of the things that I really wanted to try and do was, although they are smaller and supporting roles, they are complex. Yet one of the criticisms we have actually been getting is that there aren’t any sympathetic men.
I think one of the things that’s really interesting is they are all going on their journey. Certainly for Ben, he’s a man out of his time; for Brendan, he’s a man trying to uphold the law, who then starts to question the law; for Samuel unfortunately there’s very little enlightenment… but I do think it’s very clear that he’s a man who controls the world through his wife, and her wealth. And with Finbar Lynch, I wanted to create a man who would’ve been in the Men’s League at that time, who found his principles to be strained by his emotional love towards his wife.
SG: Finbar Lynch’s character and his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter is based on the evidence that there were three very well-known couples where the men supported their wives, and a few did go to prison, and went on hunger strikes. So there are all shades of men, as Abi said.
MS: And the most sympathetic character in the entire movie is the little boy [Maude’s son]! Oh my god..!
Meryl, people have expressed disappointment at you for disassociating yourself from being a feminist. How do you respond to that?
MS: There is a phrase in this film that says ‘deeds, not words’. That’s where I stand on that. I let the actions of my life stand for what I am as a human being. Contend with that, not the words.
And what about the continuing inequality in the film industry?
SG: Well I’m excited that at this year’s London Film Festival there are forty-six films directed by women. We know that women are more than half of the population, they buy more than half of cinema tickets, and have an appetite for female-centric films and films made by women. But I’m optimistic that so many people are now talking about it, and people are receptive to the idea of employing more women in film, so hopefully the tides are turning!
MS: In our business, part of it is driven by buzz. So I am always thinking, what creates buzz? What controls that? In the United States, when people go to watch a movie, they go to something called Rotten Tomatoes. So I went deep, deep, deep, DEEP into Rotten Tomatoes, and I counted the contributors; critics and reviewers and writers and bloggers. There’s a set of strict criteria that allow you to be a blogger or critic on Rotten Tomatoes – and of those people who are allowed to rate on the ‘Tomatometer’, there are 168 women.
So I thought ‘that’s absolutely fantastic’! And if there were 168 men, it would be balanced. If there were 268 men, it would be unfair, but we’d be used to it. If there were 300 men, if there were 400, 500, or 600… But there are 760 men who weigh in on the Tomatometer.
I submit to you that men and women are not the same. They like different things. Sometimes they like the same things, but sometimes, their tastes diverge. If the Tomatometer is slighted so completely to one set of tastes, that drives box office figures, absolutely. So who are these critics and bloggers? I went to the site of the New York Film Critics. The New York Film Critics have 37 men, and 2 women. And then I started to go on all the sites, and the word isn’t ‘disheartening’… It’s ‘INFURIATING’. Because people accept this as received wisdom; this is just the way it is. And they’re taking every single issue of feminine rights in the world, and examining it under the same rubric. It isn’t fair. We need inclusion. Tomatoes, it has to be equal. Half and half.
Well everyone, the queen has spoken!
Check out Suffragette when it hits UK cinemas on October 12th, and stay tuned for our full review on TV Daily.