From essaying the former British PM Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady to pulling the curtain back on Charles Dicken’s secret lover and muse in The Invisible Lady, screenwriter Abi Morgan’s films have always been filled with fascinating female characters. That’s definitely the case with her latest film Suffragette, which chronicles the burgeoning women’s movement at the turn of the century in Britain. We had the chance to speak to the screenwriter from her London home about her initial hesitations in telling this story and how it re-engaged her as a feminist.
You previously worked with Sarah on Brick Lane. Did she approach you to write Suffragette?
When we were coming to the edit of Brick Lane, Sarah was talking about what her next film would be and the suffragettes had been a big passion for her for several years. Initially when she approached me, I was a bit resistant because I had a preconception about what the movie would be, but I was really keen to work with her. When I started to look at the research, it was so surprising to me because it was a piece of history I really didn’t know much about beyond the nominal ideal of ladies in wide brimmed hats giving out flyers. I didn’t have much of a memory and certainly the Mary Poppins view of Sister Suffragette was a touchstone for me. I certainly didn’t realise this was a movement that brought together women from all the classes. Also, the issues that the women were facing at turn of the century Britain didn’t feel so far removed from many of the issues that we’re dealing with today.
It was quite shocking to see the brutality and the growing extremism of the movement.
Yeah, our research was really extensive, and newspaper articles at the time really exposed how the women had been primarily peacefully protesting for forty years plus. You could track the way these women were being represented in the press and see how they were being ridiculed. You can see the progression from peaceful protest to activism. For myself and Sarah, when we opened up the police records, which were only declassified in 2003… those were the ones that were really shocking when you saw the level of surveillance and intimidation of these women.
In terms of all this research, how did the character of Maude emerge?
It was very tempting to focus on a true character as there are incredible stories around the real women particularly Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily. I have no doubt there will be fantastic biopics of those women but what resonated for us was the working class women. So many of these women were illiterate and really uneducated. They were caught in situations where they had nothing to lose because their lives were incredibly hard, but they also had everything to lose in terms of the stability of their home and jobs. Unlike middle class women who were arrested, they couldn’t afford to be bailed out and were reliant on their income. From Carey’s point of view, what was fascinating for her was when she started to research and realised that although Maude was fictional, she was a composite of real women. Carey brought a lot to the table herself. She is meticulous in her research.
You’d written Shame and that was such a great part for Carey. Did you work with her at all on Shame, and was she in your mind when you were writing the character of Maude?
She was absolutely in my mind. She’s a very present actor. There’s something inherently contemporary about Carey, and yet you never doubt she could be in a film that’s set in another time. That’s what I love about her work from An Education, The Great Gatsby and Far From the Madding Crowd through to Never Let Me Go, which was more futuristic. She always just feels very natural. On Shame, I met her during shooting, but I wasn’t involved in the rehearsal process in the same way I was with Suffragette. It was a great opportunity to build on the connection that I had made with her on Shame, and it was great to work with the ensemble of women in rehearsal this time because I could really make the work fit them.
In terms of casting Helena Bonham Carter, given her family’s political ties and personal background [her great-grandfather was former conservative British PM Herbert Asquith], was there hesitation in approaching her for this role?
Helena always seemed like such an inspired choice because she’s such an extraordinary character actress. What I love about her character Edith is there was something quite contained and shut down about her, and I thought that was a very different role for Helena. I know there was a nervousness on Sarah’s behalf, but from Helena’s point of view, it was an extraordinary opportunity to have this discourse with her past.
The film is a celebration of what these women achieved, but it’s also a powerful reminder of the inequality that still exists. Did you have that approach in mind from the outset or did that contemporary aspect come through organically?
No, it was very organic but in part because it took us six years to make this film. The story took a long time to find and we were working on the film in this incredible digital age where we are so connected and the power of social media means we’re unable to ignore global inequality in the way that we have done in the past. Yu can check on YouTube and see any type of video and there’s rolling 24 hour news. We’ve gone through huge periods of change – we looked at extraordinary events like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and a huge protest against gang rape of women in India and we’re reminded of oppression of women across the globe, and it really fed into what we were doing. It started with the voices of the working class women of 1912, but we soon realised that the issues of equal pay and education and sexual violence, are still very in play today. For all of us, working on this film has made us reengage with our own feminism and social activism. More than that, it’s contextualised 21st century equality and made us look at our own industry, and we know those figures are pretty shocking. So because it took such a long time to write the film, we caught up with a history as much as history caught up with us.
You’ve written films with terrific female characters including Shame, The Iron Lady and The Invisible Woman. Are they stories you’re naturally drawn to or do you consciously feel a responsibility to put female stories at the centre of your stories?
When I look back at my work, I’ve tried to write strong female roles, but it wasn’t a conscious thing. Women were just at the centre of worlds that I happened to be interested in. But what happened as a result of engaging with the issues of our industry is that I kept finding this magical number of “17%” in the US, where is seems like 17% are women in the board room, in law firms, on film and television sets. And it made me go, well why is that? And as a writer who is in a position where I am getting my work made, I started to think, well how can I change that? So I am very conscious now with wanting to ensure that my work does have women at its core, and also to engage with times where perhaps I’ve made women take off their clothes more than men or I’ve allowed a woman to sit in a kitchen while her husband goes off and saves the world. You could say, I’ve become more conscious of it.
I spoke to Catherine Hardwicke and she told me that even after the huge success she had with Twilight, she still wasn’t allowed to pitch for certain films because of her gender. Have you felt a similar bias as a female screenwriter?
One thing about being a writer is that you can sit and self-generate. If I want to write a story, I’ll write it and I’m a great believer that if you put it in front of the right producers and if it’s good enough, you’ll get that job. But it’s shocking when you look at the incredible legacy Catherine Hardwicke left with Twilight that she hasn’t been asked to make a bigger film. That said, with films like The Hunger Games and Insurgent, we’re starting to see young strong female heroines coming through in what was traditionally a male domain. I hope that will give confidence to studios and bring about opportunities for women directors to be directing those big movies. There are brilliant young male directors who seem to make their first relatively small feature and then make that big leap to bigger budget films, and women aren’t given those same chances. People often ask about the financing of this film and one of the things that is interesting is not that we couldn’t get the financing, but just holding onto the breadth and desire of this to be epic. We’re dealing with a $14 million budget, which isn’t huge, but we had to resist it being reduced and turned into a small film. That was the thing we were constantly fighting.
It does have these really big set pieces and riot scenes that are unusual for a female-led story.
I think there was a genuine desire to make this film feel quite kick-ass. It was a desire to keep pushing for that and not allow ourselves to have boundaries in that way. The thing that’s been exciting for us is that the film’s done brilliantly at the box office. I think it’s a chicken and egg scenario. If you can’t show that there are women-centric films that sell, then they won’t get made. It’s about engaging that 51% of the audience, which women are, and saying come support these films because it increases the potential of what we can shoot and the budgets we can get. Many male directors and producers I have worked with have been really supportive about this kind of work. I don’t think there is any darker agenda here, but it’s about just being aware that when we look around the set or the crew, it should reflect the world we’re in.
Suffragette is in cinemas December 26.