Sarah Gavron returns to the director's chair for her second live action feature film Suffragette, which chronicles the early years of the movement's fight to get the vote for women.

Sarah Gavron

Sarah Gavron

Suffragette is the first time that we have seen Gavron at the helm of a movie since documentary Village at the End of the World back in 2013 and her first live-action film since she made her debut with Brick Lane.

We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about Suffragette, why she has already wanted to make a film about this movement, and what lies ahead.

- Suffragette is about to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a bit about the film?

Suffragette is the story of Maud, a laundress in the East End of London in 1912 who works in terrible conditions. One day, she goes to the centre of London and witnesses a protest, where women are throwing stones through a window on a central London street; they are Suffragettes.

At that point, she stops but doesn't know what it is about. Through a fellow laundress called Violet Miller, played by Anne-Marie Duff, she becomes drawn into the suffragette movement. By the end, she is a full activist but that comes at a great personal cost; she loses her job and sacrifices her marriage.

- Suffragette is the first live-action film for you since you made your debut with Brick Lane in 2007. Where did the Suffragette project start for you?

I was there at the very beginning and it was producers Faye Ward and Alison Owen and myself who approached Abi Morgan to write the script. I had really been passionate about telling this story for about ten years because it felt timely and overdue, in the fact that there has never been a film about this subject.

It is the biggest social movement of the 20th century, a movement that changed the course of women's history, that had an enormous impact and that story is not only not well known within society, but it has never had a big screen version. I think that it is a story that lends itself to cinema, it is a dramatic story, it is an extraordinary and it is quite timely, in terms of the issue; there's still inequality today in our society. It felt like the right story for now.

- The Suffragette story is one that spans many years and yet the movie really does only focus on the early days of the movement. Why did you decide to focus on this area of their fight to get the vote?

The movement spanned fifty years and we captured the sixteen months from 1912 to the middle of 1913. This was a time when militancy was at its height and the government was at its most brutal. It climaxes with the death of Emily Wilding Davison, which seemed like an iconographic moment to end on because it summed up how far the women were prepared to go in the fight. It was the moment that had a huge impact on the movement.

We looked at it through that prism because, it was such a huge movement and it was hard to tell it all, so we wanted to find a period that we thought encapsulated the heart of the struggle. We also decided to tell... rather than do a biopic or go in through one of the well-known figures - many of whom were privileged women - we decided to tell the lesser known story of the working women who were at the vanguard of change, did so much in this movement, and came together to work alongside the middle and upper-class women. Despite all that, their stories are not so well known.

I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of the ordinary women, rather than the women that are more entitled. We chose Maud, who is a composite of three different women that we read about; we read these testimonies of working women and she really is drawn from them. We decided to create this character so we had a bit more artistic license to put her in the time period that we chose.

- I was actually going to ask you about this. Emmeline Pankhurst is one of the most recognised figures in the Suffragette movement and yet, she plays quite a small role in this film. How early on did you decide not to focus on figures like her and on the working women instead?

It took a long time to come to that decision. We circled the idea of doing a biopic for some time. It was only when we read these accounts of the working women, their voices felt so contemporary and the issues that they were dealing with felt so resonant today, and we felt that we wanted to bring them out of the shadows and tell the stories that you don't normally hear.

- Can you talk a bit about the research that you did for the project? Did you find out anything about the movement that perhaps you didn't know about?

There were lots I didn't know. I hadn't been taught it at school but, like everyone else, I knew about the most famous figures and some of the more iconic moments. I did not know anything about the extent of the hunger strike and the force-feeding, which we now know is a form of torture. I didn't know that they had been subjected to such violent tactics by the police, who beat them up in various rallies.

I also didn't know how long the struggle had gone on for, how many promises had been broken, how intransigent the government was and the lengths to which the women went. I hadn't realised that people had lost jobs, homes, and families in the fight. That was all shocking and showed how extreme the situation was that they were prepared to sacrifice so much.

- Carey Mulligan takes on the central role of Maud Watts, who is a fictional character, so what were you looking for when you were casting the role? What did you see in Mulligan that you thought would be perfect?

We had wanted Carey Mulligan for a long time, in fact, during the whole process of writing the script, we were thinking of her but we didn't approach her. I think she is so able to inhabit a role, she is so truthful and we wanted this character to feel visceral, connected, and real and she was able to do that.

She was also able to take you on a big emotional journey and we needed someone... Maud is slow to get involved with them, she is someone who is keeping a lid on things and you need to read into her. There is such an internal life going on in Carey that you can read so cinematically that I felt she would be right for this role. Working with her was a real joy because she is so full ideas, so intelligent, and she read widely around the subject and researched it.

The research took place on many levels as we talked to academics who had worked in the field and studied that movement for years and years. We also talked to the descendants of the Suffragettes themselves - including Emmeline Pankhurst's great-granddaughter Helen Pankhurst.

Helena Bonham Carter is also the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, who was the Prime Minister at the time and the arch-enemy of the Suffragettes, so she had the perspective of the other side (laughs). We also went into the archives of Museum of London and read unpublished diaries and accounts, as well as the published books.

- Anne-Marie Duff, Helen Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson make up a magnificent cast, so can you talk about the casting process and bringing all of these great actors together?

Firstly, we got Carey and then we assembled the rest of the cast around her. Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff came on board and we really wanted an eclectic of some of the great British actresses to reflect the different kinds of women who did join the movement. Then we got Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw to play those parts as we wanted the men to feel nuanced and complex and not just straightforward villains; of course, not all men were villains.

When we were looking to cast the role of Emmeline Pankhurst, we talked about getting an icon to play an icon; someone who could convey her charisma and her power in that sequence where she appears on the balcony and rallies the women to follow her.

- How unusual is it to be part of such a female-driven project - you are in the director's chair, Abi Morgan has penned the screenplay, Faye Ward and Alison Owen produced and the majority of the cast are women? How was that experience?

It is unusual as only 1-10% of films are directed by women each year; this year it is something like 7%. Not only did we have a female director, writer and producer, but we also had a female production designer in Alice Normington, costume designer Jane Petrie and the make-up designer and location manager were also women.

Then we had that big ensemble of women in front of the camera. So it was very unusual but it was exciting and there was a great sense of camaraderie and there was a feeling that we were doing something that broke with convention, just like the Suffragettes.

- We have touched on this slightly, but there's still a lot of talk about inequality for women in the workplace - and in the film industry - so how relevant do you think the Suffragette story is today?

I think it is really relevant actually. Just looking at the fact that sixty-two million girls across the world are still denied an education. Countries like Saudi Arabia have only recently been given the vote, but they cannot drive themselves to the polling station.

One in three women still experience sexual violence and we have only got 22% of the world's parliaments that are women. We still have a long way to go globally and some countries are much further ahead on gender equality than others. We really do have some way to go.

- What do you hope people will take away from this film when they see it?

I hope people realise just how recently and fought for these rights are, how precious they are and how important it is to exercise your vote. One of the really encouraging things is that young women have gone to see the film and have come out and said on social media 'I will never not vote again.'

They have realised how important it is and I think that it is so vital to stand up and be counted and speak out again inequality; I hope that it is empowering in that way. It is a critical reminder of an important moment in our history that has been overlooked.

- During you career, we have seen you move between live action projects and documentary features with Brick Lane, Village at the End of the World and now Suffragette. How do you find moving between the two genres and how does working in one help the other?

It is always important to remind yourself what real life is like and the wonderful thing about documentary is that you go into the world and you get confronted with worlds that you might not encounter. I made a documentary about Greenland, went into this tiny community, and I discovered a community that I would never have come across. It is like exercising a different muscle I think.

I did try and bring some of the documentary feel to this project because I wanted Suffragette to break with the conventional period drama and feel very real and connected; we had a hand-held camera and we decided to not stage the action but capture it, let it run, and have a number of cameras running at the same time. There was also a freedom with the actors in a way that you would have with a documentary where you are much less in control. It was merging those two in some ways. I find it interesting to move between the two as I think it is a great way to stay connected.

- Finally, what's next for you as we head into 2016?

(Laughs). I am working on a number of things but I am not sure yet. I am very keen to do another project that is focused on women's stories as I think there's such a lack of them in our cinema and we need more of them. Women buy more than half the cinema tickets and cinema needs to reflect our culture in a more balanced way.

Suffragette is released on DVD & Blu-ray on 29th February.

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