'Suffragette' and Women's Right to Vote: An Interview with Director Sarah Gavron

'Suffragette' and Women's Right to Vote: An Interview with Director Sarah Gavron

Shakefire spoke with Sufragette director Sarah Gavron to talk about the film, which centers around the women's rights movement in the UK. She discusses with us the history of the movement, casting choices, and why it is still an important subject today.


Shakefire (SF): How did you become involved with the film?

Sarah Gavron (SG): I had actually wanted to do a film about this story for many years. I do research and reading about it. Then I had a conversation with our two producers, Alison Owen and Faye Ward, who serendipitously had the same thought and mentioned it to me and I said, “Well I’ve always been interested in that.” So we decided to go ahead and approached Abi Morgan, who we’ve all worked with before, and asked her to write it. Then it became the long process of delving into an enormous amount of research, and it took six years from the point of that conversation to us making the film.


SF: Wow, it seems like like now is the perfect time to release the film, too. Even though it takes place in 1912, it still feels very timely.

SG: Yes, that’s what we hoped. In a way, when we were researching it and working on the script it felt like it was becoming more and more timely as we were getting together ideas and themes in the story to resonate with what’s going on around the world. Whether it’s the pay gap, to sexual abuse, to looking at activism and turning to direct action, and just sort of the general growing awareness and focus on sexual inequality and the resurgence of challenging repression in different parts of the world. New activism, even in the UK, it seems like it’s suddenly on the agenda and that’s the dirty word and has been for the last decade or so.


SF: The story is based on true events, but Maud Watts, Carey Mulligan’s character, is fictional. What was the reasoning behind creating a character rather than focus on a real person like Emmeline Pankhurst?

SG: We thought for a long time about doing a biopic about Emmeline, and what we felt in the end was that that would have been a story of an extraordinary character and really an examination of what it would be like to be privileged and in a position of power. When we read these accounts of working women, and really Maud is fictional but she’s a composite of a number of women we read about in our research. You can find Maud in there or women like her. It was these working women who had so much to lose and sacrificed so much for the cause who were really at the vanguard of change. Somehow their voices felt very contemporary. They felt very relatable to a contemporary audience to tell the story of this woman with no platform and what drove her. Those women are so often marginalized we decided to bring those women out of the shadows, and we read a lot of accounts, and that felt like an exciting way to go.


SF: The film has such a great cast, too; Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter. Meryl Streep makes a brief but strong appearance. How was the casting process?

SG: It was great. We were lucky and delighted. I think they were drawn to the material; they responded very quickly to the script and story, so it wasn’t difficult getting them. We wanted this collective range of great actors What this movement did was bring forward together women of all classes from all walks of life. It’s exciting to have a film where you put women like Helena Bonham Carter alongside Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff and Meryl Streep. You don’t often see a group of women all in important roles on the screen together. It was a real joy to work with them. They were all committed to this project in such an extraordinary way. There was this great sense of camaraderie on the set. There were lots of women behind the camera and an unusual amount of women, compared to most film sets, because you had lots of female heads of departments and then all these women on the screen, as well as men who are incredibly committed like Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw. There was just a real camaraderie.


SF: That’s something you don’t see much of unfortunately, but it seems to be getting better these days in Hollywood.

SG: Yeah, I think it is. I’m really hopeful that there is a change happening. I think there’s an awareness that there had never been before. It feels like a good moment that people are talking about it.


SF: The end credits show the dates when various countries gave women the right to vote, and as it goes down the date becomes more and more recent. Obviously this is still an issue all over the world. How important was including that information at the end of the film?

SG: As we were researching the film we started looking at when different countries got the vote. It felt so surprising and shocking and made you think about how hard these right were fought for and how recent, even in the UK, it was. It brings it home. But also, the film is more than just the voting system, but I hope that what you get is that with the vote comes changes in the law, and how it’s just so important. How representation is, and how unequal women have been and still are. There are always on-going issues that go beyond the votes even now. Across the world 62 million girls still don’t get an education. One in three women experience sexual violence. There are still so many on-going issues.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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