I had the honor of interviewing director Sarah Gavron about her film “Suffragette.” Gavron was in Savannah to show her film at the Savannah Film Festival. The movie is about Maud (Carey Mulligan) who has worked at a laundry since she was 12. She is married to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) who also works in the laundry, and they have a young son named George (Adam Michael Dodd). It’s hard, dangerous work that is filled with long hours and unappreciative bosses. Maud believes that her workplace is unfair, as the women do the toughest work but make half of what the men make. She starts listening to friends about the woman’s right to vote movement and starts getting involved with the cause. It’s a path that will cause her great pain and anguish as she soon will have to choose between a cause that is dear to her heart and her family who needs their mother and wife. “Suffragette” comes out on Friday, Nov. 6th playing exclusively at the UA Tara Cinemas 4.
Why did you want to do this film?
Sarah: Well, there never has been a film about this time in our history. These women changed the course of history. It was a story that was overdue but also felt timely with issues that we are dealing with in the 21st century. There are women across the globe that are fighting for not only the right to vote but just simple human rights. The film felt relevant to today’s struggles.
I think that people will be shocked by how many women were beaten and arrested by the authorities. It shocked me that more than 1,000 women were arrested in the fight for women’s rights.
Sarah: I know. I found that shocking too. The brutality that they faced from the government. People were being beaten up at rallies, imprisoned and then force fed, which we now know is a form of torture. Some of these women went through these multiple time was imprisoned nine times and force-fed forty-nine times.
Did you pick your screenwriter, Abi Morgan, for the film or was she already signed on?
Sarah: We picked her. I had the notion of doing this film for a long time, and then I talked to producers Faye Ward and Aliso Owen, who had come up independently with the same idea. We were all very passionate about bringing this story to the screen. So we approached Abi Morgan about the project, and she very quickly became committed to the project. Then it became a six-year journey to get the script right.
You must have been pleased to get her on board because she has written a lot of films with very strong women in the lead roles. Films like “The Invisible Woman” and “The Iron Lady.” That must have been very important to you to find that type of writing voice.
Sarah: Yes, not only is she a brilliant writer, she is a great collaborator. She was there through those six years developing the script, but also she was there with the rehearsals, during the filming and then in the editing phase. She’s a person who can completely wade her way through the mountains of research and find the heart of the story.
One of the things I noticed looking through the credits that a number of women worked on the film. I am assuming that was one of the goals when making this film, to get as many women involved with the film?
Sarah: We were excited to address this. In a way, it was just instinctive. We met a lot of people for those heads of department roles, and we just gravitated toward the women. Perhaps because they were passionate about telling this story. We did have some men in some critical positions, but we did have many more women in leadership roles than you normally have on a film, as well as many more women than normal in front of the camera.
One of the remarkable things about this film is that you have such an incredible cast. Talk about casting this film and especially Carey Mulligan.
Sarah: We set out to get Carey to play the role of Maud, a working woman. She felt to me that she could inhabit this role and take it on an epic emotional journey. Abi Morgan had worked with her before on “Shame” and knew her. I admired her work, so we approached her. We we’re very grateful that in a matter of days, she committed to the role and really responded to the script. We then built the cast around her, getting quite a range of great British actors. And then we got Meryl Streep to play Emmeline Parkhurst, the charismatic leader of the suffragette movement. We wanted an iconic actress to play that role, and Meryl certainly is that. It was exciting to put Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Maire Duff in the film, working with Carey Mulligan in the film, creating such a good alchemy there.
I thought it was very interesting that Helena Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of the Prime Minister who was in power during the key years of the suffragette movement. Did you talk with her about that?
Sarah: We did. We we had trepidation about approaching her because we knew that her great-grandfather was the Prime Minster of the time, H.H. Asquith, and was the chief antagonist to the women’s movement. He was the enemy for women fighting for their right to vote. Helena Bonham Carter is a spirited and intelligent actress who was all up for what she called a “conversation” with her great grandfather. She found it fascinating that he was such a part of this history, and here she was playing one of the more committed women trying to get the right to vote.
This is the first movie in history to be shot in the Houses of Parliament. How did that come about?
Sarah: The Houses of Parliament were where a lot of the battles for woman’s rights took place, and women had been barred for centuries. I told the location manager, another woman, let’s be very “suffragette” about this and keep trying until they let us in. So she kept going back. We were also lucky with the timing because the Parliament was considering opening up to filmmaking. They let us in, and then we put in a request to stage a protest with three to four hundred extras, and they let us do that. I thought it was an important marker on how far we have come.
Speaking of protests, at your London premiere, you had women protester’s cuts in domestic violence programs. That must have been an interesting sight.
Sarah: Yes, we turned up to the premiere in our cars to see these smoke bombs going off in green and white, the suffragette colors. And then we saw women lying down on the red carpet from “Sisters Uncut” a feminist direct action group that opposes cuts to women programs. It felt very appropriate that they were taking advantage of the press at a premiere of a film called “Suffragette.’
So what do you want audiences, especially woman, to take away from this film?
Sarah: I hope that it’s a reminder of how hard fought the road to get women the right to vote was. How we should cherish the right to vote and just how recently it was won. And a reminder that you should exercise your right to vote and stand up to be counted. In addition, just how remarkable and inspiring these women were. Get inspired challenged by these women.
That’s one of the things that you do at the end of the film. You show a list of the major countries of the world and when women in those counties got the right to vote. I was amazed because there are some countries that were quite recent, so this is still an ongoing fight.
Sarah: It absolutely is. The women in this movie were dealing with issues that are still out there, and it’s important that we keep up the fight.
Well, thank you for talking to me today.
Sarah: Thank you. If people go and take their friends to see this film, then there will be more films made by women about women in the future.
“Suffragette” starts Friday, Nov. 6th. playing exclusively at the UA Tara Cinemas 4.
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