‘Suffragette’ Writer Didn’t Set Out to Make a Feminist Film

Abi Morgan discusses women's empowerment in the industry and the hurdles female-driven films face.

Emmys Winners Gallery

As detailed in this week’s column, 2015 is a strong year for female-driven narratives on the big screen, particularly films making noise in the Oscar race. One of those films is “Suffragette,” written, produced and directed by women, with a story about voting equality at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a project years in the making with Emmy-winning writer and playwright Abi Morgan (“Brick Lane,” “The Iron Lady,” “The Hour”) crafting the little-known history into dramatic form on the page.

Morgan recently talked to Variety about the state of female empowerment in the industry, the hurdles “Suffragette” and other movies like it face every time the number crunchers get involved and the fact that she didn’t set out to specifically make a feminist film.


So I’m sure you’re dealing with this line of questioning a lot lately, but I wanted to pick your brain on the state of female-centric storytelling in the industry and equality behind the camera as well.

I don’t get bored of talking about it. The thing that’s been interesting is when I look at the sort of champions in my career, there have been a lot of women, certainly in the UK. Tessa Ross, the former head of Film4. Christine Langan, head of BBC films. There are a lot of women in the film industry in the UK who are very supportive. Alison Owen, Debra Hayward — key female producers. I’ve felt very supported and very surrounded by women. But we know the statistics don’t stack up. This film was generally born out of curiosity of the storytelling and less about, “I want to do a feminist film.” There is a sort of growing sense of social activism about human equality across the globe and how that reflects in every industry, not just the film industry. So for me, this film’s become part of the discourse. And if that’s useful, that’s great.

I write because I’m interested in the story, but I also feel quite excited about the potential of, “What can you do in your lifetime?” And one of the things I think I can do in my lifetime is stop to remind myself that — and keep affirming that — women can sell movies. We know it’s being done brilliantly in comedy. We’ve watched Amy Schumer and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and we see those great ensemble comedies and everyone always cites “Bridesmaids,” and I’m really excited about “Ghostbusters.” Steve McQueen’s doing “Widows.” So we know that those films are coming. But I think within pure drama you have to keep affirming that. “Actually, can I have more than one female lead in this? Can I have two great female leads?” So I feel quite engaged with it at the moment. I don’t know whether it will be a fickle thing and it will pass and I’ll get over doing this movie and then I’ll be, like, “I want to do a Scorsese film.” But at the moment I feel like it’s a good time to advocate and part of that is having someone like Meryl Streep on board. She’s an incredible advocate in the industry and she’s quite vocal and she does it with such grace and yet is always very present and that’s been quite useful. And you think, “OK, so there is a way for us to be political and talk about this and recognize that it’s not a one-gender thing, it’s a two-gender thing.” We both need to be on board on it.

Why has this discourse become so enlivened as of late, do you think?

I think it’s probably so many things. It’s top-down and bottom-up. I think at its base level, we’ve had a number of women stand up and expose — we had the Sony hack expose the differences in pay. But I think bigger than that has been the digital age and the rise of social media and growing sense of global activism and a growing sense of female inequality across the world. If you Google it you can see a woman being stoned in the Middle East. You can see the aftermath of a woman being gang raped on a bus in India. You can see the abuse of trafficking women into the UK. So we know that those stories exist and I don’t think we can ignore them in the same way. Everyone talks about this magic “17%” number in the U.S., where it seems like 17% are women in the board room, 17% are women in the law firms, and so it means that somewhere we’ve plateaued a little bit. So I think now there’s two things going on, which is an acknowledgement of the statistics, the reports that are starting to be done. And then this social media age, which is making the next generation of feminists and feminism re-engage with all the things that my mother was fighting for, my grandmother was fighting for — or not. There have also been women who don’t want to say, “Oh, I’m a feminist.” It’s uncomfortable. But really feminism is just about equality and that’s all. It’s just saying equal rights.

Yeah, Shailene Woodley stepped into that a little bit with her comments on not being a feminist.

But I think it’s fine. She has every right to say that. I saw Marion Cotillard said, “I think it’s a separating thing to call yourself a feminist.” I think it’s fine that she says that. Because if nothing else it allows someone else to go, “I don’t agree.” So it’s keeping that discourse going.

But it does seem ignorant to what it is, no? It’s very explicitly not a separating thing.

One of the hardest things about this movie was casting it, because all the women signed up, but we couldn’t get men to play supporting parts. I think it was, like, “Okay, so we’ve watched millions of films where women are playing supporting parts. Can they still be complex?” And so that’s what we’ve tried to do in this film. We’ve tried to show that, you know, Brendan [Gleeson] and Ben [Whishaw] and Finbar [Lynch] and Sam [West], who play the four very different points of view of the kind of male perspective at that time, I tried to make them as complex as possible. And as actors they were fantastic because I think they were really engaged with this project. So it never felt like a separate thing. It felt like we were absolutely striving for the same thing. But more than that I don’t think any of us said, “Let’s make a feminist movie.” I think we kind of went, “This is exciting. We never see women blow up buildings. We never see them militant. We never see women at the forefront, being the ones who leave the husbands at home while they go out and fight for a cause.” You don’t see that very often.

I guess I can only talk about my own experience on this film. And I can only tell you about my experience in the industry. I’m aware of the everyday sexism that goes on but it’s made me re-engage with it. Fundamentally I hope the film stands on its own as a piece of entertainment. I hope you don’t get an audience saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s that female film,” or, “Just women go and see that.” Because I’ve got a 14-year-old son and I’ll take him and I’m curious to see what he thinks of it.

To your point about people standing up and saying something, it’s interesting that two years in a row Oscar winners — Cate Blanchett and Patricia Arquette — have taken to the mic with their feelings on the status quo.

Yeah. And Jennifer Lawrence just got paid $20 million for her next movie. I don’t know if that would have happened before the reveal in the Sony hack. I understand this fear of the word “feminism” and I understand the fear of saying it, because it becomes as divisive as “sexism” has become. But I know a lot of male feminists. It wasn’t just women that marched to Seneca Falls and demanded female equality. It was men as well. Feminism isn’t just for women. It’s for men. You’re a guy in the 21st century. You’re married. I hope you’re equal to your wife. I’m sure you are. You’re going to have children. And that was one of the things at Telluride that was incredibly moving was that I kept on getting all these kind of old guys coming up, and I’d slightly brace myself because I’d feel like they hated it, but they’d come up and go, “I’m going to take my kids to see it. I’m going to take my grandkids to see it.” And that was really — I mean, hell, it’s a movie. It’s not going to change the world. It’s a movie. But it’s…

It’s a story that wasn’t being told.

It’s a story that wasn’t being told, and in a way it makes you interrogate all the history and go, “What else can you talk about?”

It’s interesting, though, to see progress happen in such oddly truncated ways. For instance, there was the shortlist of potential directors for the “Tomb Raider” reboot, and it was all women: Kathryn Bigelow, Catherine Hardwicke and Mimi Leder. And there was also Elizabeth Banks getting the gig directing “Charlie’s Angels,” which is all great on its face. But it made me sort of wonder if Hollywood was saying women can only direct girl power content in that context. In the interest of progress, it’s as if the industry still keeps things in a box.

I think that’s really smart, to be engaged with that and have that discourse. But I still think, “Great, she’s making a big movie.” If all those women are making those big movies that men normally make, great. I hope men will keep making those big movies as well. It’s not about saying it’s one or the other. My mother was an actress and one of the other issues that really depresses me, and I think it’s global, is ageism, and that goes on in the industry as well. It is weird when you have, you know, 65-year-old men still able to play against a 25-, 30-year-old love interest, and yet it would be seen as weird [the other way around]. But you’re right, actually. I hadn’t thought about that. I think it’s the tokenism. But one of the issues for women when they go on set is they face a male crew. I’ve watched male crews, when women actresses are having their camera tests, and I can feel that sometimes it’s tricky when you’ve got, like, eight or nine men staring at every detail of your body. Of course, most of them are incredibly professional, but it is just in itself intimidating. Can we get women behind the camera? Can we get women being the grip? Can we get women being on the dolly? Can we get women being the focus puller? Can we not just be a rarity? Let’s open those numbers up.

And by the way, there are, happily, a number of female-driven films this year: “Carol,” “Truth,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Room,” “Freeheld,” etc. The lead in “Our Brand is Crisis” was even rewritten for women.

Amazing. I think it’s just reflecting the world we’re in. I sometimes don’t know if it’s chicken and egg. There’s a playwright in the UK, Sarah Kane, who said, you know, “If you say I can’t write it then you say it can’t exist.” And I think about that quite a lot, which is, is it that when we start to show those people on screen that it starts to affect the world? Or is it the world that starts to affect what we show on screen? I think it’s sort of a mutual thing. And I had heard that about “Our Brand is Crisis,” that it was a male part and Sandra [Bullock] said, “Well, why can’t I play that?” I think you could interrogate a lot of films and go, “Could a woman have played that part?” I think you could also interrogate history and go, “Well, why do we always look at that whole period of the Second World War through the male perspective? What would happen if we did it through the female perspective? And what does that mean?” The next movie I’m doing is “Ashley’s War,” which is about a group of cultural support women who went out and supported the rangers to gain intelligence from Afghan women. That, traditionally, would have been a “Band of Brothers,” but it’s a “Band of Sisters.” So it’s reflecting what’s happening. It’s reflecting changes in the military that are going on now. I think that’s what you just try and do, is just reflect the world you’re in.

Sorry to belabor all of that.

No, no. I’m really glad. You are, like, the first person who’s asking me those questions.

Really? That’s surprising.

Yeah. I mean I’ve had the token questions but you’re the first person who’s interrogated them this way. It’s good for me because I’m learning on the job. I’m trying to work it out.

Well let’s talk a little bit about the movie. What kind of road blocks did you hit along the six years of trying to get this made?

We were supported early on in the development period, which is the low end of the budget. You’re paying for the script. You’re paying for the research. But certainly over six years you start to amass money. So I think we all started to realize that this wasn’t going to be a $5 million budget movie. And I think what became harder is, you know, if I was going to say to you, “So we’re going to do a movie and it’s going to have a huge riot scene. It’s going to have a scene where there’s uproar in the street and civil unrest. It’s going to have enormous derby scene at the end and it’s going to have a series of large group scenes and demonstrations. And it’s got a group of men in it,” I think the budget would have gone up. I think when we said, “It’s going to be women doing all of that,” it was like, “Okay…” It still was a relatively low budget. I knew that when it came to writing it and we were starting to cut things. It was about how much money we could get. It wasn’t so much about getting the movie made and certainly as time went on there was a growing support for the film and the concept of the film from Cameron McCracken, who’s head of Pathé, and certainly from Focus; James Schamus was originally behind it. So they’ve always been incredibly supportive. I think it’s about how much money you give films like this. And so definitely, Sarah [Gavron] had to do a lot with very little money. Again, if this film proves itself at the box office, it just means you’ll get that much more money to make those kinds of films again.

Was there much of a detailed history to pull from on a micro level? Obviously you have the high-water marks of Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, but within that there had to be a lot of compositing. Did you find much to really investigate?

Masses. When the film started to hone in and we were like, “Right, let’s do it about the working class woman” — originally I wrote the film for Alice, the Romola Garai character, so it was just a completely different world. But when we started to hone in on that character, there was Hannah Mitchell, a dressmaker and a seamstress from Darbyshire who actually wrote a book about her experience as a suffragette. But there were not a lot of suffragette memoirs from those women because a lot of them were illiterate and couldn’t afford to take the time to write. They were working. And also I think it was about confidence and being educated enough to feel you were allowed to enter the literary domain in a way that the more iconic figures of Pankhurst and Davison were able to. So they haven’t been the focus of biographies in the same way. We drew upon an incredible range of material from things like the original testimonies that we see delivered to David Lloyd George. When they opened up the records in 2002, 2003 — the public records — that was when all the police surveillance operations were revealed, and so we were able to look at some of the interviews with the women. There were a number of meetings through Parliament and we were able to look at news footage to see the kind of huge chorus of disapproval within the media. There’s also masses of propaganda at that time, so you have all the kind of historical research. And we have a number of postcards. We had a thing running through the drama, which was that the women originally used to send notes in code to each other. Originally we had a whole code thing going on [in the script], which, I proved to be such a bad code maker that I had to ditch it. But we did have it for a while because one of the things the women used to do was they would send postcards about their activities to each other. And, you know, the postal system at that time was going three or four times a day. So when they chose to blow up those pillar boxes and, you know, cut telegraph wires, it was like blowing up the office of Google or, you know, bringing down communication lines. And then you also have the women’s library. Although they’re not very public in terms of the way they promote the suffragettes, certainly — it’s not something that’s taught a lot in schools — they do have the objects.

Why isn’t it taught a lot?

I think because it’s been unknown history. I think it’s starting to change but certainly when I was growing up, and certainly the women who’ve been on this film, we all talked about how little we knew about the suffragettes. I knew about women chaining themselves and I knew about force feedings. I had seen “Shoulder to Shoulder” in the early ’80s, which was a TV drama about the movement and the Pankhursts. And actually one of the things that I found really moving was holding Emily Wilding Davison’s purse, which was just tiny. It’s got a coin in it and it’s got a stamp in it and it’s got her return ticket. And everyone has always thought the return ticket meant that she didn’t mean to kill herself.

I’m glad you brought that up. Was making her martyrdom a willful act difficult?

It’s difficult because it’s not definitive. And historians argue on it. I think what I have tried to make is a moment of reckless protest. I think she realizes in that moment that there is a potential loss of life. What I haven’t made is a suicide. So I think I’ve tried to get into the mindset. When she turns around and says, “Never surrender, never give up the fight,” I think it’s her way of going, “I’m going to do this and I don’t know what the end consequence is.” They did a documentary in the UK recently where they used CGI to recreate the position of where she was and what you can see in that CGI is her taking out that ribbon to raise it to try and put it on the horse. So I think she really thought she could do it. I think she just didn’t realize the speed, and I think you really get that in the film.

Was it filmed differently from how you presented it on the page?

It was a lot better. I mean it was very similar to the way I’d written it but that end point was much better because I think Sarah’s done the intercut — you know, it’s a beautiful editing job. My little girl was in the crowd that day, so I spent three days there during the filming of that. And seeing the kind of body of Emily Wilding Davis like that was incredibly upsetting. It was really moving.

I need to look at it again because it did seem to me like—

An act of suicide. Yeah, I mean, I can totally see where you’d see that. I think probably if I’m honest, what I’m coming down on is it’s a woman who knew that it could cost her her life. But I didn’t want it to ever look like she was going, “I’m killing myself. I can’t bear this any longer.” Some historians would argue she actually did. But I think in the same way, she thought, “Well, if I can get the colors on the horse in that moment, they’ll see that and it’ll get photographed.” And that’s what I believe happened. And also, you know, she’d said to several people, “I’ll see you at the dance on Saturday.” She’d arranged meetings. She had a stamp, and the reason why the women carried stamps is that they could then inform a relative that they were in prison. So she expected to be incarcerated. But also the return ticket was the cheapest ticket. So you could have argued that she wasn’t necessarily going to come back.

Finally, to bring it back around, I read an interview with you where you were talking about changing the perspective that female films don’t make money, and the algorithms that go into determining that kind of thing. A lot of the rhetoric comes at this issue as being sort of insidious, a “let’s keep women down” kind of thing. But really it seems to be more about an industry averse to risks and the unfortunate fallout of that.

Coming from the UK film industry on the whole I’ve worked on relatively low budget movies. I’ve started to move into sort of bigger, mid-range budget movies. One of the things that’s fascinated me is that I have been in those studio meetings where they bring out the timetable and they’ve got the last 10 films and they show exactly how much they made, what was their box office, what were the correlating — this is factual data, which is broken down, how much they project the movie is going to make. I mean it’s how they decide marketing budgets. They’ve already probably worked out how much “Suffragette” is going to make somewhere. I think it can be incredibly limiting and can stop people from taking risks. One of the challenges with “Suffragette” is that, you know, it is a great year. There were some great movies out there and that’s the way it should be. And I’m really glad about that. But the flip side of that is that it will also get lost. And so one of the challenges is to prove that we can make money at the box office, because if you prove that then you do shift the algorithms. And I guess that’s what you’re trying to do. I mean I can’t work out the maths. I don’t even know quite how an algorithm works. But I do know that it sort of correlates somewhere that it may start someone saying, “We can only give you this amount for this film. This is all that it’s worth,” and that does have an on-going effect. So it’ll be those mid-range films [that change things]. It’ll be those mid-range dramas.