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Interview with Phyllida Lloyd - director of The Iron Lady

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by Melissa Silverstein
December 30, 2011 10:20 AM
3 Comments
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Donald MacLellan

Women and Hollywood: This is a very different biopic of a leader because it is of a female leader.  What about this films makes it different in terms of leadership?

Phyllida Lloyd: First of all it's not a biopic.  It's all told from her point of view.  We're experiencing how did it feel to be there not objectively, but how did it feel to be the first female leader of the western world coming from a very lower class background coming into this world of privileged, entitled men.  It's how does it feel to walk into a room of men who all fought in the Second World War to be the person who is in fact in charge of a war knowing that all the men are looking at you.  Of course she's not had any experience with this so we're trying to put ourselves in her shoes using our own experience of the workplace. 

WaH: I read that you said that this movie could only have been made by a female team.

PL: Not that it could only have been made by women but I think it is a personal project for all three of us.  The kinds of themes in the film that we identify with in terms of being a woman in largely male dominated world. Abi's screenplay takes a very particular look at -- she's very interested in details, fragments and there are a lot of details in the film that we see and feel that perhaps are not the obvious territory for a film about a politician.  But because we notice little things that to us are significant.  That's all to do with the fact that it's a film about memory and I think it's definitely three women's idea of a woman's journey.  Do you agree Abi?

Abi Morgan- Yes very much so.  Also because it's a film about memory, it's about a woman who is being hijacked by memories so that way we can come in very left of field again through the details through the random moment that you remember.  So you may remember what you were eating but you don't necessarily remember the nature of the conversation but you remember that there was a sort of atmosphere when you were eating and we kind of went in in that way.

WaH: Did you do research on dementia?

PL: Yes.  We are all interested in dementia and in the insignificance of an old lady.  When Meryl Streep went out into the street when we were shooting her journey from the shops she said she couldn't get anyone to make eye contact with her that either she was invisible or perhaps she was so unwelcome as an old person on the street that nobody really wants to look at an old person because it is a kind of reminder of who we're all going to become.  That's something we all felt an empathy for and wanted to put there on the screen.

WaH: It's incredibly bold to make a movie from an older women's perspective.   Meryl talked about the film as three days in the life of an old lady who happened to have been the longest serving prime minister in the western world.  We never have those kinds of conversations of women and power.

PL:  As a woman I think Margaret Thatcher felt she had to be ten times more prepared than the men.  For example if Abi or I had refused to turn off our mobile phones on a flight and then run to the bathroom and locked ourselves in playing games on our iphones and the flight had to be grounded and we were dragged off  I think questions would be asked whether we were crazy and whether we should be given another job in the movies.   We have to be quite vigilant to still not be thought of as crazy and to be thought of as responsible.  We have to be more cautious, more vigilant, work harder not get shreikey like Margaret Thatcher.  Margaret Thatcher is regarded in Britain by a certain big part of the population as a she-devil, a witch and as a monster.  People are waiting to dance on her grave.  Now Tony Blair is a politician who contributed to the decimation of half of Iraq and he's a statesman. I don't think they are planning parties for his death.  There is something about gender and from my point of view this is a feminist film.

WaH: We here in the US have female politicians like Michele Bachmann who say the same types of things that Margaret Thatcher did in the UK.

PL: Hang on I'm going to pick you up on that.  Margaret Thatcher here would be considered almost to the left of compared to your Republican politicians.  Margaret Thatcher was pro-choice.  She voted to decriminalize homosexuality.  Was not profoundly religious.  She was very liberal on social issues.  Her economic policy in terms of austerity and public spending cuts etc would be somewhat aligned with the Republicans but in terms of social attitudes towards abortion and sexuality this is somebody who is much more align with a Democratic side.  That is something you could mention because there is an assumption that she would be Republican so she would be like Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin but not at all.

[Editor's Note: I looked into whether Margaret Thatcher was pro-choice and pro-gay rights.  From my research (and thanks to folks who sent me material) Thatcher was pro-choice based on her views of keeping government out of people's business, but her stance did not seem to come from any perspective of supporting women's rights. 

As for gay rights -she was not for them at all.  Her government introduced Section 28 which "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."  This was in effect until 2003 and it was one of the reasons that actor Ian McKellan came out and founded Stonewall.  See Love The Iron Lady, Not Margaret Thatcher.]

WaH: No one mentions that about her.

PL: It's interesting because those are not the issues we focus on in the movie.  What has attached itself to her is that she did not bring many women into her cabinet so people felt she did nothing for women but the fact of her being there did something for women.

WaH: I wanted to read something that you said to the Hollywood Reporter: "Women are being given the opportunity on the independent circuit, but there are very few who are given the reins of a big studio movie. I don't think it's necessarily a lack of faith in the vision of a woman, it's just not trusting them with the big pot of cash," she says. "On the other hand, it could be --and I feel this myself -- that women are drawn to the kind of stories that don't fit into an automatic prepackaged genre."  Does our culture devalue women’s experiences?

PL: Or is it that at the moment nobody has quite worked out how to market the stories to turn them into franchises.  I've been told that boys of a certain age are the ones who drive the opening weekend and from that comes holding onto the movies theaters.  So they are the first people we need to consider.  So I don't know the answer I just know the kind of stories that excite me are not necessarily franchisable.

WaH: Could there be a sequel to Mamma Mia?

PL: There could be yes but that a very curious one because it was already a product before.  We already had millions of people who were Mamma Mia fans.

WaH: That's what the boys do.  Batman had built in fans before the movies.  But that narrative that they have created in Hollywood is actually a lie that they perpetuate to keep women  because they don't really want women to get power.  Remember women buy half the tickets and boys are now playing video games and not going to the movies...

PL: But the good news is that Jennifer Yuh just directed Kung Fu Panda 2 knocking me off my perch [as the top grossing female director] and I am thrilled for her.

WaH: If a guy had directed Mamma Mia and had grossed a half a billion dollars he would have gotten scripts every day - Did you get scripts every day?

PL: I was quite hammered for Mamma Mia.

WaH: Hammered meaning?

PL: I was critically bashed for Mamma Mia and I'm sure in some respects deservedly but i think it was partly -- sorry this is a whole different point.  I think I wanted to do something that retained the improvised chaos of Mamma Mia the theatre show which set it apart from all the slick packaged productions.  It was more about you and me and I've had too many beers so I'm going to get out my dv cam and chase you down the beach and film it and we'll be kind of singing at the same time.

It was wanting to do something that was very anti the sort of preconceived notion of what a hollywood musical was.  It was about people who couldn't get their leg up above their head and that was the point.  It was about people who were really too old to really be behaving that foolishly and the fact that the songs didn't fit.  It was all about a kind of I'm not going to say anti-hollywood but it was deliberately imperfect.  I'm sure in some ways it was accidentally imperfect and that was my rockiness but it was a deliberate choice to try and make it feel imperfect.

WaH: A male director would have gotten many scripts no matter what the reviews were based on the box office.

PL: I did get offered some work but I don't know how it compares, but I felt vey lucky to do it and I have to say and it was an incredible project and if I hadn't done it I wouldn't have met Meryl.

The Iron Lady opens in limited release today.
 

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3 Comments

  • fahan | April 25, 2012 6:32 PMReply

    hi

  • Kathleen | December 31, 2011 2:32 PMReply

    Regarding Thatcher's social views, we should not forget that she supported women's ordination in the Church of England and said that the Bible did not prohibit women's leadership in the church. Thatcher's conservative supporters were shocked but she did not relent.

    That one act certainly doesn't make her a feminist, but it hardly puts her in a league with Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin.

  • Barbara Glickstein | December 30, 2011 10:29 PMReply

    I saw Iron Lady earlier today and want to address how artistically sensitive the issue of dementia was addressed by these artists. They provided an intimate window into the mind and feelings of Margaret Thatcher brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep. Her fears create a tension that is relieved for her (and this viewer) by visits/hallucinations by her husband Denis played by Jim Broadbent. When memories get triggered for Ms. Thatcher he arrives to stand by her side with a dance, a drink, some silly humor and unconditional love. This visual hallucination functions to keep her grounded and survive. She is cognitively intact enough to have that terrifying understanding that her dementia is progressing. She’s a woman living on the edge. My 87 year old mother is living with mild dementia. I don’t know if she has ever experienced hallucinations but after seeing this film I plan on talking to her about it. I know she plans on seeing this film. I wonder what her take will be on this issue was handled. There were many issues dealt with in Iron Lady, tonight I am seeped in this aspect of it but know tomorrow I will think about it again and it will stay with me.

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