“I was a bit resistant at first,” admits screenwriter Abi Morgan during our recent webcam chat (watch below) when recalling her initial conversation with director Sarah Gavron about “Suffragette,” a film that chronicles the early days of the feminist movement. They had previously collaborated on the BIFA-nominated “Brick Lane” (2007). So, what changed her mind?
“When I started to do the research, it was so compelling, particularly the tiny little testimonials, the tiny asides of all these women talking about their working lives," she explains. "It suddenly felt very contemporary, and I think in a digital age where growing social activism is everywhere, and we’re at this time where we know about global inequality, it just sort of chimed.”
The film centers on the fight for women to be given the right to vote in England, focusing primarily on a fictional character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a life-long laundress who is at first slow to join the movement. “I was curious about what happens when you watch a person go from a place of ambivalence to a place of militant activism,” says Morgan. “I’m a complete coward in life. I donate rather than protest, and I was thinking, what would make me protest?”
Yet Maud wasn’t always the central character. “I’m embarrassed by how many drafts I wrote,” admits Morgan. She describes an opening scene set at the opera that was later taken out. “It was very much from the perspective of a slightly daft world where everything is going on below stairs…in the middle of it, I created this character of Maud, and the more I started to read up about the laundries in East London at that time, the more horrific I realized they were. When I started to realize that some of these testimonials reflected back on what it meant to be a domestic slave at the time, I thought, let’s focus on that character, let’s focus on Maud. So five or six drafts in, I really threw away the script and started again.”
Although the events of the film take place 100 years ago, “Suffragette” still holds relevance to the ongoing fight for women’s rights around the world. “Films take so long to get made sometimes, you don’t necessarily time it,” explains Morgan. “It was more about being excited and connecting with this material, and then this global thing happening. Again, I think it’s because of the digital age, and the kind of social activism we’re seeing online, and that’s making us engage with things that perhaps we’ve been able to deny or ignore. So it sort of feels very relevant.”
She relates the fight for equality to the film business, crediting several other titles in this years awards race — from “Carol” to “Room” to “Freeheld” — as being apart of “a growing engagement with the fact that we want to see more women center stage, in front of the camera and behind. I think there’s been this growing activism both within the industry and out to start to change and make sure equal means equal. So I think that’s why now it’s important, if only to have this discourse.”
Morgan is a Emmy award-winner for her work on the miniseries “The Hour,” and has also won two BAFTA TV Awards for “Sex Traffic” (Best Drama Serial) and “White Girl” (Best Single Drama). In 2011, she received two BAFTA Film nominations: one for Original Screenplay for “The Iron Lady,” and one for Best British Film for “Shame.”
Watch out our full interview for more about her work on “Suffragette.” Then make your Oscar predictions beginning with Best Original Screenplay at the bottom of this post.
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