Whatever would Mrs Pankhurst make of the movie business today? The statistics are undeniably grim. Last year, women comprised only 26 per cent of creative leaders – namely directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers – working on feature films in the UK.
The relevance of Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, then, is all-too apparent. Gavron’s second feature tells the story of working women’s suffrage in early 20th century London, in which Meryl Streep cameos as Emmeline Pankhurst herself. Streep has been the prominent face of the film’s publicity campaign that has inspired passionate support – as well as some “backlash” – over recent months. She is part of an entirely women-led cast and crew to mark a departure from all of Hollywood’s Bechdel-flunking fare. As a story of women, by women, it’s the collective voice of Suffragette that resonates.
To start from the beginning, I read that you weren’t interested in film when you were younger. What changed?
“When I was a teenager I wasn’t one of these filmmakers who picks up a film camera from an early age and goes to the cinema every weekend. There weren’t those kinds of influences around me. I did go and see some mainstream Hollywood films but I was more interested in drama and art. It was in my late teens, when I saw British films by Terence Davies, Stephen Frears, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, that I started to think that there’s a director behind these ideas, there’s a vision.
“I had ideas for stories that I always imagined in film, but I didn’t think about being a filmmaker until much later. It was only when I was in my twenties, and I started in documentaries, that I saw the films of Jane Campion, Mira Nair, Kathryn Bigelow, and Clare Denis – these female role models that made me think, ‘if these women can do this, I can do this.’ But it took me a while to gather that confidence.”
As a student were you doing anything with your story ideas? Or were you bottling them up for later?
“I was bottling them up. Doing an English degree is good food for a filmmaker because you’re dealing with stories and dealing with the past. There was a healthy drama environment at university too so I also got involved with the drama society. Aged 26, I’d eventually apply to the [National] Film and Television school where I made a whole lot of short films and came to fiction there.”
Suffragette was largely staffed by women both behind and in front of the camera. How was this different to working on a more male-dominated film?
“It can be a hard one for me to judge as director, because unlike the actors and the crew and the execs, I’m not so often on different sets. But certainly the statistics are bleak. Somewhere between 1 to 10 per cent of films every year are directed by women with very few women crew members and protagonists. So with this film we were reversing all that. Two of our producers were women, we had a woman writer, a woman head of production design, head of costume, head of location – and then to have that many women in front of camera is so rare.
“It was great because the cast were all very different. What we wanted to do was bring in an eclectic range of female actors who you don’t often see together. Carey [Mulligan] has this amazing ability to inhabit character. She’s incredibly truthful and intelligent and wise beyond her years. Helena [Bonham-Carter] brings a great screen presence too. It was great to work with people of that level experience besides anything else. It brought so much to the project.”
What was the atmosphere like on set?
“There was a great sense of camaraderie. Definitely I enjoyed the fact of redressing the gender balance in the crew and cast. Carey Mulligan said the whole process was ‘like being in an endless conversation’. There was an openness to ideas. I also remember Brendan Gleeson saying he’d never been on a set so ‘oestrogen-fueled’. We knew we were telling this story that hadn’t been told and we wanted to do it justice – there was a lot of excitement about that.”
Any stand-out moments?
“One of the highs of doing the shoot was when we got access to the Houses of Parliament. Not only did we get in, but we got in with a couple of hundred supporting artists and horses and period cars and stunt people. And then we staged a riot! [Laughs.]
“Helena Bonham-Carter is also the great granddaughter of Asquith, who was against women voting, so it was exciting to see her recreating history with her forefathers in a place that had excluded women for hundreds of years.”
It seems there’s a parallel between those women’s struggle and those working in the film industry today.
“The stakes were much higher for these women, but yes, there is a way in which making a film is a political act in itself. There haven’t been many female role models for women starting out, so it’s like the chicken and the egg in that way. It takes a lot of confidence to walk onto a set with predominantly men. It’s very hierarchical. You spend a lot of time from home and it’s long hours. All those factors contribute to why there’s so few women. What’s exciting at the moment is that there seems to be a key change – it’s part of the conversation now.”
Were you active as a feminist when you were younger, before it became this mainstream debate?
“No, actually, it was much later on. It was only when I began to read about the suffragettes that I realised I wanted to tell their story. At York I was reading feminist literature, though I wasn’t involved in any group. I didn’t know that there were any. But I did grow up very aware of women’s issues. My mum moved into local politics and was one of very few women in a male dominated world, and she was part of that wave of 1970s feminism. I know that now that there’s a resurgence. It’s in the ether now, which is exciting.”
Your last film Brick Lane could be called a ‘social realist’ film, while Suffragette has a working-class protagonist. Gender issues aside, what drew you to these class-related themes?
“No one’s actually asked me that before. It’s interesting you say that because I’ve never thought of myself as a social realist filmmaker. I mean, I approach each subject and think how best to tell the story. But I can see why you said that. Rather than just carrying on a theme though, it seemed exciting to tell the story through the working woman in Suffragette because we often overlook the role of working women in history.
“What the suffrage movement did was bring women of all classes together. In telling the story of an ordinary woman who had so much more to lose than her middle class counterparts we could really access something that could connect with people all around the world today.”
Did you have any films in mind while making Suffragette?
“I went for films that I might not usually have looked for as references – things like The Battle of Algiers and the work of Paul Greengrass. Action, big set pieces, chase sequences. The suffragettes’ motto was ‘deeds not words’, so they were very active – they didn’t sit around chatting. We wanted to get that sense of scale and excitement into the film.”
And those action genres rarely present ‘female’ perspectives…
“Exactly. To see action with women in skirts isn’t what you expect. There was a lot of breaking taboos and we wanted to reflect that.”
British suffrage is a new subject for cinema. How did you feel about telling the story of these women for the first time?
“Maud is a composite character drawn from a few different women we read about. Creating that character was a liberating way of coming into the story. There’s Emmeline Pankhurst and Lloyd George but we don’t really see them close up. It’s more about Maud and her cohort. We meet Emmeline Pankhurst when Maud encounters her in an important sequence in the film, but when you’re making a historical political drama you feel that you want to embed it in the historical detail of the world, to make it feel authentic and true.”
You mentioned that female role models in film were important to you. Do you see yourself as one?
“I definitely want to do all I can to help other women filmmakers, and to encourage them and campaign for more diversity behind the camera – not just in terms of gender. Films reflect our cultures and the stories around us and so I’m committed to that. I’m very drawn to female stories and there’s an abundance of stories that we haven’t seen.”
What would be your advice for those women and minority filmmakers?
“What I didn’t know at that point in my career is how much you have to keep going. After a couple of short films I thought, ‘I should have broken into the industry by now’, but it was really my eighth or ninth by the time I broke through. I just had to keep at it for years and years, and that determination is what you need, not to give up.”