Sarah Gavron is in LA to promote her latest film, Suffragette. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. Focusing on an important period within the British Suffragette movement that resulted with the right to vote, I sat down with Gavron to discuss the film that took over six years to make and how times are changing for female film-makers.
Awards Daily: A lot of people aren’t familiar with the British suffragette movement here. Can you tell us what it
Sarah Gavron: It’s interesting because we’ve been doing a lot of Q&A’s. They were different, yet they were also similar. One of the big differences was that it went state by state in the US and it didn’t get as violent as it did in the UK. Under Emmeline Pankhurst, the UK movement turned to civil dispute and used militancy as a tactic. After a series of broken promises by the government, they discovered the power of being arrested and that led to them first window smashing and then later putting small explosives in letter boxes, and finally even bombing houses, it escalated. One important thing to say about that violence, while I’m on it, is they never targeted or harmed human lives. In the US it was very difference, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns went over to the UK and picked up some of the techniques of the Suffragettes in the UK and did bring them back and picketed the White House.
The other big difference was the ethnic make up. As we all know, the culturally diverse Britain of today didn’t exist in 1912, whereas in America it did. So you had lots of women of color involved in the US movement, but also many were excluded from the movement. In the UK, you didn’t have those race divisions, partly because the immigration patterns were so different. The striking thing about this movement was it did bring together women of different classes.
AD: Was it difficult to get the film made given you’re a female director and you had three female leads, it wasn’t as if you were pitching an action film to anybody?
SG: No. Although as Abi says, it took us six years to get the project off the ground and raise production finance. I’m sure part of it wasn’t really propositioned, and Abi Morgan talks about how we had to sell it as a movie with explosions and chases. Definitely the statistics year in, year out speak for themselves, it’s amazing a tiny percentage of films are made by women, something like 1% and sometimes it creeps up to 10%. There are so few women in front of the camera and very rarely an ensemble like this of lead women and with. men in the supporting role. We really were reversing it.
The thing was this story had never been told, the reason it’s never been told before is because women keep being marginalized. What was on our side was there’s a conversation now happening about the inequity in the film business, so people were aware. The story we wanted to tell had become more timely with all sort of events going on around the world with police brutality and police surveillance to women fighting inequality and their basic human rights. It seemed to become more relevant our financiers recognized that.
AD: Was it a deliberate choice then to focus on the movement side rather than Emmeline Pankhurst’s story?
SG: Yes. We were drawn to the period of these sixteen months where militancy was at its height and the state was more brutal to these women. Partly it all connected with today. We didn’t want to make a film that didn’t feel like a slice of history, but felt relevant. We hoped to remind people of the battle that paved the way for the world that we live in now and how hard fought for it was. But also that the fight is ongoing.
AD: Tell us about the cast and how they came on board.
SG: We started with Carey, she was the one we’d always wanted as our central character because it really is centered around her. Emmeline Pankhurst is in this one sequence and we were endlessly debating who should we get to play this charismatic leader in this small but vital role. We talked about getting an iconic actress to play this iconic woman. Carey rang up and said she’d been on a long walk with her mother who said, “Well, it has to be Meryl Streep, there’s no one else.” Carey was already on board, and we thought, “Can she? Will she?” So we approached her and she said yes, and it was great.
AD: You truly do have a great cast.
SG: Helena was funny, because she was the great-grand-daughter of Herbert Asquith who was the Prime Minister and was opposed to women, he’s their arch-enemy. We were a little nervous about asking her because she’s very close to her grandmother who was his daughter, but she was very interested in doing it.
AD: How long did it take to film?
SG: We had a standard but short schedule for something with this level of ambition because it did have some big sets; the riot in Parliament Square, the Derby, the bombing of the houses. We had eight and a half weeks, so we had to move fast. We tried to shoot in locations that offered as much freedom as possible and where we could shoot in 360 and have a high camera. Mainly because we wanted the aesthetic to not feel staged.
Getting the Houses of Parliament was great because no film ever had, we were delighted to get inside and shoot this anti government moment, so that was exciting.
AD: What cameras did you use to shoot?
SG: We shot on digital 16mm for daytime and HD for the night. The reason we did that was because we wanted the grainy, rough feel that you get with the 16 mm. A lot of those cameras are very forceful, so there was something exciting about doing that. At night because low light levels would make it tough to shoot, we shot on digital and then added the grain back in. We shot always in two cameras. With the derby and riots, we had three and sometimes four cameras. The actors never knew when they were being filmed. The makeup and costume designer did a very good job too in making it real. It was all very real, Carey didn’t wash her hair for weeks, we joked about touch up, we called it the rough up.
AD: The costumes are wonderful. They’re currently on display at the Arclight Hollywood.
SG: We couldn’t find a pair of shoes for Meryl. So in the end she wore the shoes she had in Out of Africa.
AD: How did you feel about the reaction to the Time Out photo shoot.
SG: It was very interesting because in a way it connects with the huge differences in the movement between America and in the UK. I think the context of the movement is really important. Here, you had so many women of color involved and it was a lot more complex story. In the UK you didn’t, you had very different associates. The first film I made was Brick Lane which didn’t have a single cast member in it. We really interrogated, and went through written and photographic evidence, and because of immigration patterns, what we found was there were two women of color involved in the movement, both aristocrats, one was actually a princess. But apart from that, there’s a photo of a group of women from India, where of course, people were fighting, but beyond that, there weren’t many women of color. In subsequent political movements in the UK, there were women of color once the immigration started moving on a bigger scale. so, I think it’s connected to that.
What I’m very keen on in the film is that the film speaks to and connects to all women across the world of different ages and cultures who are fighting inequality. The film is set within a two-mile radius in London in 1912, a sixteen month period, and is very specific, but you hope that what comes out of that is a story of universal truth that relates to everybody.
What’s really exciting is we showed it at a screening in London and we had a whole row of girls from East London, who were Bangladeshi and Muslim 16-year-olds. They all got up at the end and cheered and said they were completely energized by the film. That’s great, if we could have that kind of response, especially from young people.
AD: How rewarding is that?
SG: It is. We actually had a lot of that. I’m really excited if it means people are talking, as it’s so rare that people in the UK talk.
AD: What’s your experience been as a female film maker?
SG: Well, the funny thing about a director is you don’t spend time on anybody’s set. I certainly spend a lot of time in rooms filled with men. It is undoubtedly a male dominated industry where women are duly forming a path. I really got my courage to do it because I saw other women do it. When I saw people like Jane Campion do it in my 20’s I thought, “Wow this is a possibility. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it, but these women were doing it.”
Now is a hopeful time for the first time since I’ve begun film-making. People are really aware of the conversation, people are really aware of the lack of balance in terms of women film-makers. I think We need diversity not just behind the camera, we need to reflect our culture much more.
Suffragette opens October 23. Watch the trailer below: