As the discussion about gender equality in both Hollywood and otherwise grows, Sarah Gavron, director of the Carey Mulligan lead Suffragette, has created one of the most timely films of 2015. She also, in this writer’s humble opinion, has created one of the most powerful films of the year. I got the chance to speak with her about the film, about her start as a female filmmaker, and about getting the chance to be the first film to shoot at the Houses of Parliament. Check out the interview below and make sure to support the film in theaters.
TYF: So, to kick it off, how did you get into film-making?
Sarah Gavron: As a teenager, I was really interested in drama and art, and I saw Hollywood, mainly mainstream films, I wasn’t a film buff or someone who had their Super 8 camera around growing up. But it was when I was in my late teens I started to see films by British filmmakers like Mike Leigh, Terrence Davis, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach and I thought2 “Oh gosh these are the films about the world around me”, and I started to just have ideas for films, stories I just saw as moving images, but I didn’t think I could be a director, or it didn’t occur to me, until in my early twenties when I saw films by some women, Jane Campion, Mira Niar, Kathryn Bigelow, Clair Dennis, and I suddenly thought “women are doing this”. I thought “wow I could do this” and then I dared to tell people I wanted to train to be a film director and I applied to National Film Television school and by then I was 27.
I made a lot of short films, it was really by the ninth short film that got me out there [laughs]. Then on the basis of that I got meetings of making longer form projects. I got a television films called This Little Life which won me a BAFTA and got me agents, got me into meetings for other things and then I did Brick Lane which was my first cinema film.
TYF: And Brick Lane you did with Abi Morgan (writer of Suffragette)-so was it exciting to get to team back up with her for Suffragette?
It was great, really made sense actually and she’s someone who’s in rehearsal and she’s there for the shoot and the edits and so we have a short hand…she contributes throughout the process.
TYF: What initially drew you to this project? I know that it was in development for quite a while.
No one had ever told this story on the big screen and also in Britain, it’s not very widely known. We know the Mrs. Banks, Mary Poppins view of it and that’s about it. So it seemed like overdue to tell it and also timely because of how much is going on in the world today that resonated with the aspects of the story we were telling-police surveillance and violence against women, abuse in the work place and all sorts of rights issues, gender pay gap, things that still resonate in the 21st Century.
TYF: I was actually thinking when preparing for the interview that I don’t remember being taught about the Suffragette movement in school either and I could only think of Mrs. Banks, and I kind of pride myself on trying to seek out stories and films about women. Do you think there’s a reason why this story hasn’t been told when there are other historical events told multiple times, sometimes in the same year?
I think it is to do with the fact that it’s a symptom of inequality. Men write the history books and men make the movies mostly so women’s history is being marginalized with stories that haven’t had a light shined on them and I think that there are so few female filmmakers, and it was going to be a female team that would make this. It’s only just gotten into the school curriculum in the U.K.
TYF: It’s a story about women, made by women, produced by women-did you go into the process knowing that that’s how you wanted this story to be told?
It was kind of instinctive and natural because we met a lot of people for the different heads of department roles. We all support each other and there’s an understanding there and we shared a passion to tell this story. We gravitated towards Alice Normington, the head of production design, and then the costume designer (Jane Petrie), the location designer (Barbara Herman-Skelding)…there were lots of heads of department that were who were passionate that were the right people for the jobs. We did have some men in positions, but we had a lot of women and we really reversed the usual balance on a film set. I think being surrounded by so many women and having so many women in front of the camera was great for me, it gave me confidence in the creative atmosphere, everyone was very committed to telling this story, we felt we were being very Suffragette about it.
TYF: How much research goes into a movie like this? There were parts of the film that shocked me (such as a portion about the hunger strikes in the prison). Was there anything you learned that shocked you?
So much surprised me because I knew so little about it. Really the thing that surprised me the most were the lengths the women went to and the brutality they faced. I knew a little bit but the means they turned to civil disobedience at the end…they even were putting explosives in houses and destroying property, not peoples lives which is important to remember. They faced violence at the hands of the police. They did hunger strikes and were force fed, Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) was force fed 49 times. I mean, we now know it was torture and it was even worse than today because the equipment was so basic and then it was at such personal cost. Many of them lost family and friends in the process it was really understanding getting into their minds to what drove them to that point to be prepared to risk and sacrifice that much.
TYF: How important was it for you to show that these women kind of saw themselves as the foot soldiers of this movement (in regards to the civil disobedience) and that they were actively out there, making sure their voices were heard no matter the consequence?
We didn’t want to shy away from the rough edges of it and the detail of it, it felt important to show the violence they endured but also the violence they committed and the consequences of their actions and what the personal cost was. We don’t expect that of women, and I think it’s telling about how unequal they felt and how repressed the were that they were willing to fight so hard.