Unsung Auteurs: Phyllida Lloyd

August 4, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: theatre powerhouse turned hit-making Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd.

British filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd’s lack of appropriate praise and recognition follows an unintentional pattern that can be applied to many others who have appeared in the Unsung Auteurs column. Firstly, Lloyd is a female director (so many fine female filmmakers have not been afforded the same opportunities and “second chances” as their male counterparts); secondly, she has found much success in another field outside of the cinema; and thirdly, she makes, for the most part, commercial, accessible, entertaining films that appeal to large audiences. The most revered female directors tend to work primarily in the indie and arthouse arenas, and this is not where Phyllida Lloyd plies her trade. But is it not a little unusual that the woman who directed the UK’s highest grossing film is not better known?

Phyllida Lloyd was born in Nempnett Thrubwell, Somerset, England in 1957. After graduating from The Department Of Drama And Theatre Arts at Birmingham University in 1979, Lloyd worked at BBC Television for five years before moving into the world of theatre, where she slowly, gradually worked her way up the ladder at a variety of the UK’s finest playhouses before eventually taking the reins on a number of high profile, successful productions. Lloyd also diversified with a number of equally successful opera productions, and in 1999 took on the project that would indirectly launch her film career. Lloyd was offered the directing job on the ABBA stage musical Mamma Mia!, which became a huge hit on London’s West End, and then around the entire world.

Phyllida Lloyd

When a film adaptation of Mamma Mia! was mounted in 2008, the producers stuck with the winning formula, and Lloyd was tapped to make her big screen directorial debut. Lloyd, however, was no newbie when it came to filmmaking: she had previously directed the 2000 telemovie Gloriana, an urgent, immediate adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s opera about Queen Elizabeth I. Gifted a considerable budget, Lloyd expertly transferred the fun and frivolity of the Mamma Mia! stage play to the screen, bringing in big names like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Amanda Seyfried (whose singing abilities were, to say the very least, slightly mixed), and timing the on-screen action perfectly to ABBA’s notorious pop hit ear-worms.

“It’s all one thing to me,” Lloyd replied when asked how she could balance serious opera with bubbly pop. “I was working on Mamma Mia! and Wagner at the same time in 1999. And people were saying to me, ‘My God, how the hell can you be in these two worlds at the same time?’ But Mamma Mia! and The Ring are both stories about a search for identity. I apply the same seriousness and playfulness to both.”

Phyllida Lloyd on the set of Mamma Mia!

Because the critics and cultural commentators looked down their nose so heatedly at the often silly but desperate to entertain Mamma Mia!, not nearly enough attention was paid to how successful the film was, and to how wholeheartedly audiences responded to it. Lloyd was also due far more recognition and praise for putting “women of a certain age” at centre stage on a major movie production, and for also telling such a female driven story. Whether you like it or not is beside the point: the success and cultural significance of Mamma Mia! is undeniable, and Phyllida Lloyd was deserving of far more praise for making it all happen.

Juggling her theatre and film careers, Phyllida Lloyd reunited with her Mamma Mia! star Meryl Streep for 2011’s The Iron Lady, a biopic on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A highly divisive and far from well-loved figure in UK politics, a biopic on Thatcher was hardly an obvious project for Lloyd, but the director mined a fascinating portrait from Abi Morgan’s unconventional script. While the casting of Meryl Streep as the British PM was not applauded by all, her performance was superb, and saw the actress awarded another Oscar nomination.

Phyllida Lloyd on the set of The Iron Lady.

“When I was sent the script, the first thing I thought was ‘Margaret Thatcher is the most significant female leader this country has had since Elizabeth I,’” Lloyd told Female.com.au. “I’ve been passionately interested in Elizabeth I and directed both a film and a play about her, so that was really my entry point. I was thrilled that the screenplay was not a conventional biopic. The biopic form is very tricky to pull off…how do you get away from that catalogue of facts? But this was a different beast altogether because of the brilliant writing.”

After The Iron Lady, Lloyd returned to the theatre in earnest, where she directed a number of acclaimed, award winning productions, including much praised all-female, women’s prison-set adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest. Filmed and released on DVD, the trilogy of plays also led Phyllida Lloyd back to the world of big screen filmmaking. As research for the trilogy, Lloyd and her female cast spoke with many women in prison. “So few women in prisons have committed a violent crime,” Lloyd told iNews. “Basically, women shouldn’t be in prison most of the time.” One of Lloyd’s cast members was so absorbed and drawn into what they learned during their research that she wrote a script inspired by their interviews.

Phyllida Lloyd on the set of Herself.

The resulting screenplay was Clare Dunne’s Herself, which Lloyd eagerly chose to direct. A tough, deeply moving, richly authentic story about a woman who escapes an abusive husband, fights against a system slanted against women, and then builds her own home, Herself was a far different project for Phyllida Lloyd. “I feel so lucky to have worked on big films,” Lloyd told iNews. “But I was beginning to think that it would be easier to align something smaller with the work we were doing in the theatre, which was politically driven.” A beautifully written, strongly performed, and sensitively but punchily directed drama about issues essential for larger discussion, Herself further affirmed Lloyd’s storytelling and filmmaking skills. And while this gifted, quietly rousing feminist voice continues to do ground-breaking work in the theatre, it would be fitting to see Phyllida Lloyd proffered more praise for her work on screen too.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Milton Katselas, Karyn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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