Suffragette Interview: Sarah Gavron on Women’s Stories

Sarah Gavron on the set of Suffragette

Sarah Gavron on the set of Suffragette

Suffragette tells the story of the women’s voting rights movement in England. Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a worker who didn’t intend to get involved in the suffragette movement. She tried to keep her head down and get by, but management, the law and her own husband pushed her too far.

Sarah Gavron directs from a screenplay by Abi Morgan. She captures violent protests and dramatic heartbreak in Watts and the suffragettes, even including actual footage of a funeral attended by the real suffragettes. I got to speak with Gavron about Suffragette, which is now playing in select cities and opens wide Friday, November 6.

Nerd Report: I said Suffragette was Suffra-great. Think you can get them to use that in any of the quotes?

Sarah Gavron: That’s good, I like it. I noticed some people have picked out you can say “rage,” Suff-rage-ette. There’s the word “rage” in the middle of the word.

Nerd Report: In what context are they using that?

Sarah Gavron: I walked pas a shop and Marc Jacobs had done a line of clothing, not connected with our film. Just this year because it’s in the ether, and it said Suff-RAGE-ette.

Nerd Report: Why does it never get easier? People don’t recognize that today’s struggles are exactly the same as what people resisted years ago.

Sarah Gavron: I know, it’s amazing, isn’t it? There’s a sort of cycle. In some ways, what this film reminds of us is how, in certain parts of the world, how far we’ve come. When women got the vote, there was a slew of legislation in the UK that changed their lives profoundly. It didn’t go far enough but it allowed them to sit on juries, to become solicitors, to have parental rights, to have some control over money. Things that we now benefit from. I think we have come a long way but there’s still a long way to go. What is exciting about the moment we’re in now, and I hope it lasts, is that there seems to be this resurgence. There’s another wave of people questioning gender inequality. Perhaps  that momentum will get us further.

Nerd Report: We’ve come along way for women’s rights, but then a new issue comes along like gay rights. Why do people think we changed civil rights, we changed women’s suffrage but we can’t let this new thing happen?

Sarah Gavron: That’s been the same with everything and it’s really interesting looking at the rhetoric around things like gay marriage because it’s very similar to what was being said around women getting the vote. It’s all about fear and people are fearful of change. It’s just extraordinary.

Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) opposes the suffragettes

Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) opposes the suffragettes

Nerd Report: It is fear. Do you almost feel sorry for people like the men in this movie, whose worldview is so fragile that allowing a woman in it would shatter it completely?

Sarah Gavron: Yeah, it’s a good point actually. It was interesting because we wanted to show all shades of men, because of course they weren’t all villains. They were just caught in the conventions of their time. Someone like Sonny, it’s threatening that his wife is going on this journey. He’s being shamed in the community. He’s been cast out in the community as a result of his wife’s actions. That’s why he’s behaving the way he is. Whereas you’ve got someone like Hugh Ellyn who’s married to Helena Bonham Carter’s character who is supportive of her. There were some men who did actively support the women in the movement.

Nerd Report: Even the men who meet in the dark rooms, literally a darkroom at one point, they think women can’t think politically or hold office. Their view of how the world works is so fragile that if one woman came along, they would be broken. 

Sarah Gavron: Yeah, and the family structures would break down and nobody would have kids and they wouldn’t vote for wars. Those were all the reasons given.

Ben Whishaw as Sonny in Suffragette

Ben Whishaw as Sonny in Suffragette

Nerd Report: With Sonny, he divorces and then puts his kids up for adoption because he can’t raise them alone. Is that a case of he’s not evil, he’s just making really bad decisions?

Sarah Gavron: I think he’s responding to the pressures put on him. He’s behaving the way that’s expected of a man in that period from that background. It’s painful to him. I think he’s not strong enough to resist it.

Nerd Report: Should we have compassion for that opposition, rather than vilify them?

Sarah Gavron: I think it’s not useful to vilify them because they were half the human race and they can’t all be villains. I think it’s interesting to understand the complexities and the nuances and what drove them, what their motivations and reasons were.

Nerd Report: Does it also speak to something we still see, where if the media won’t cover their peaceful protests, they just have to do something more drastic?

Sarah Gavron: Yeah, that’s right. I think for 40-50 years they petitioned peacefully and there was an effective press blockade. They were ignored by successive governments. I think it was that that drove them and it started gradually, but it drove them to civil disobedience.

Nerd Report: Where did you find the funeral footage that’s in the movie?

Sarah Gavron: That was a great find because it was the archivist, James Hunt, who we’d employed to root out lots of archive for a number of reasons. We could have reference material to know what the suffragettes looked like and how they behaved, because of course it was the burgeoning of cinema at that time. Everyone was into newsreel and recording what they were doing. They were even making short films at the time, satires of the suffragettes. He was finding a lot of material as reference for us and then he rang up the producer and said, “There’s a reel of film that hasn’t been developed. It will be costly because it’s an old reel of film.” But she agreed to it and it turned out to be the closeups of the women at the funeral. It could’ve been blank but it was lots of closeups of the women at the funeral.

Ben Whishaw and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette

Ben Whishaw and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette

Nerd Report: If I go back and watch your previous films, will I be able to tell they’re from the director of Suffragette?

Sarah Gavron: I think you might. The first cinema film I made, the one I made before this with the same team actually, was Brick Lane. It was the story of a woman in a Bangladeshi community, a marriage in a Bangladeshi community in East London. It’s really the story of a woman finding her voice in a rather controlled and difficult environment. So there are similarities in terms of having a female protagonist. That was a film with all people of color, not a single white cast member. This is a film about working class women so certainly it’s my mission to put people you don’t normally see on screen, on the screen.

Nerd Report: And you did a documentary?

Sarah Gavron: After that I did a cinema documentary called Village at the End of the World which you can watch on Netflix. My husband came along and my kids came along. We went to the Arctic more or less for a year and we followed the seasons and told the story of a small community that was really dying out through globalization in the arctic. Before that I made a TV full length film called This Little Life which went to all the festivals as well. And before that, I made nine short films, and before that I worked on documentaries.

Nerd Report: In the world of press you’ve done for Suffragette, has it been evenly balanced between men and women?

Sarah Gavron: I say about but there are more women than I usually talk to because we’re talking to women from women’s sites that we might not otherwise access.

Nerd Report: Are we post gender enough today that it doesn’t matter if you talk to more men or women, or is it significant that you talk to both?

Sarah Gavron: I don’t know how much this is true, but there are a lot of film sites that I think men go to and apparently, as I understand it, women go to less often. So with a film like this, we want to reach men but we also want to reach women. In order to reach everybody, we’ve been trying to access those female sites that don’t often talk about films so that they can talk about this film because it’s got so many issues it brings up.

Carey Mulligan in Suffragette

Carey Mulligan in Suffragette

Nerd Report: What were the most difficult protest scenes to film?

Sarah Gavron: It was a film with these big set pieces so it was ambitious. When you see my other work, you’ll see that it’s all quite small. It’s three people in a room talking. It’s not on the scale of this. I did meticulous preparation for those big set pieces and looking at lots of references and storyboarding them with a storyboard artists. The derby was a huge challenge because it’s stunts and horses and 300 extras per day and recreating that. It’s out there on YouTube so there’s a reference for it. The House of Parliament, we were the first film to get access and that was hugely exciting but we had to petition them to get access. We had to be suffragette about it. Then we put in our request to stage an anti-government riot and they let us do it, this institution barred women so that was exciting. Actually one of the big challenges of shooting that scene along central London where we smash the windows, because we looked everywhere for a street we could close down. In the end, we were only allowed to close that street down for a short day and we had to dress it overnight and then we had to build shopfronts to smash and put them in a parking lot. Also you have visual effects everywhere because there’s one building there [that has to be removed]. For me it was a big learning curve.

Nerd Report: Were there any great stories you couldn’t include in the movie?

Sarah Gavron: There’s a nice story of a woman called Lady Constance Lytton who is an aristocrat and who became very involved in the movement. What she discovered was that she was not treated like the working women because she was an aristocrat. So when she was arrested, she was always let out and she was treated incredibly well even in prison. So she dressed herself, cut off her hair and dressed herself as a working class woman and renamed herself Jane Warton and got treated like everybody else, terribly. Then there’s a great story of the police surveillance. They ordered these telecentric lenses and went out into the streets and took cameras off tripods for the first time ever. The police archives opened in 2003 revealing that. There was one photograph of this woman Evelyn Manesta. In the initial photograph, it was a policeman’s arm around her neck holding her so they could take the photograph of her. Then they photoshopped out the arm in the period and put in a scarf so when they were distributing that photo it didn’t look like they were strangling her. Early photoshop.

Nerd Report: What are you going to do next?

Sarah Gavron: Well, I’m spending a lot of energy that I want to spend on getting this film into the world and then I’m working out what to do next. I’d love to work again with the same team and I’d love to do more stories about women because I think men and women I hope would like to see more stories that reflect our society so I’m hoping to do more of them.

Nerd Report: We do. They just all have to be as good as Suffragette.

Sarah Gavron: Oh, well, that’s nice to hear. I hope if people see this film then it will say to people there’s an audience for these films. Make more.

Nerd Report: But not just to compliment your movie. It’s true, they still have to be good.

Sarah Gavron: They have to be good. They have to earn their place, yeah.

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