Damian Jones & Abi Morgan The Iron Lady Interview

Damian Jones and Abi Morgan The Iron Lady Interview

Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Producer: Damian Jones
Writer: Abi Morgan
Running Time: 105 minutes

Synopsis: The Iron Lady tells the compelling story of Margaret Thatcher, a woman who smashed through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world. The story concerns power and the price that is paid for power, and is a surprising and intimate portrait of an extraordinary and complex woman.

Release Date: December 26th, 2011

Interview with Abi Morgan

Abi Morgan's plays include Skinned and Sleeping Around (Paines Plough); TinyDynamite (Traverse); Tender (Hampstead); Splendour- which won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000, and Fugee(National Theatre). Her television work includes MyFragile Heart, Murder, Sex Traffic - the multi award-winning drama for Channel 4, Tsunami - TheAftermath, White Girl and Royal Wedding. Her series The Hour aired on BBC 1 in 2011, and has been commissioned for a second series.

Her work can next be seen on cinema screens in Shame, written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen, and directed by award winning director McQueen. The film was honoured at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, winning the Fipresci Prize for Best Film. Her script of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane was filmed in 2007, and the production of her script of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsongwill be shown on BBC television early 2012.

Question: How did this all start for you?

Abi Morgan: I was approached by Pathé, who wanted to do a project about Margaret Thatcher, brought to them by producer Damian Jones. We tried lots of different takes on her, as she has had a vast life, but it became apparent that we wanted to have this tension between the past and the present. So I started work on what has become the finished film.


Question: Can you outline the structure that you used?

Abi Morgan: I loved the idea of seeing someone in the last stages of their life. I think what's interesting about Margaret Thatcher is that there is the public and the private and the tension between the two. The more you research her life, the more you realise how incredibly well recorded it is, and yet it feels like the most recent history, the last 20 years since she left government, is less documented. And so I got very enamoured with the idea of writing something set now, about the shadow of the former leader we knew as the Iron Lady.

I wanted to explore the idea of what it is like to be a King and to lose your power. The idea of a King who now has to make his own breakfast, shine his own crown, was very intriguing to me. Then it opened up wider questions about the notion of power, age, so thematically the film became something richer than simply a biopic.


Question: What are the key themes for you?

Abi Morgan: I think a key theme is the journey to power and the reconciliation once that power is lost. But it is also about the essential quality of aging and loss, which can be professional and personal. A public figure such as Margaret Thatcher is so iconic and her life was based on such high stakes as a global leader, but the notion that eventually we all have to die and turn to dust is a great equaliser. There is something fascinating about someone who has come from nowhere, who has really achieved the peak in her career, and yet, inevitably is like anyone else; she is mortal and she fades. Her legacy may live on, but she still has to deal with her present, not only her past. The alchemy of the film was the tension between the past and the present.


Question: Was it ever a love story to you?

Abi Morgan: At the film's heart there is a love story. When I looked at the idea of Denis as a ghost I realised that he is not a literal ghost; to me he is a manifestation of her memory of her travelling partner, one she never let go of. Although Margaret has lost Denis, that relationship has never died for her.

When I started to research his life, it was obvious he was loyal, dependable and, although very traditional, he was very modern in his role of taking a back seat to her. When you see him in his own context, as a successful businessman, a divorcee who was older than Margaret, you understand that he felt very secure in his position. That was one of the reasons he was able to be her partner, her guide, her confidante. To me there is something mythical that the relationship was sustained for such a long time, and a curiosity that any marriage, particularly a political marriage, survived. When you research him, there is a very clear image of his constant presence, as he is quoted as saying, "Always present, never there." So there is always a detachment, a part of him that kept his life removed, although he could play the part of the political husband. He was independent, and at the same time utterly supportive of her. I was intrigued by that relationship and felt it was a good vehicle in which to view the whole context of her life.


Question: Is the fact that her life is so well documented, with vast amounts of material available, a hindrance or help to you in telling this story?

Abi Morgan: The first thing you have to do is recognise that the film is a work of fiction. Any storytelling, even a biopic, is a work of fiction; we weren't there. When you read the many political biographies of the same time you realise that every one of them mythologizes and has a different take, looking from their own perspective. This film is very much her point of view, so for me it was about trying to get into her head and trying to be true to the character that I was creating. You have to choose carefully, because everyone has an opinion on her, and you are trying to find an authentic take on how she must have been feeling. She was a conviction politician who didn't believe in consensus; she believed in herself as the absolute voice of authority. It is fascinating to look at what it means to be the one person who takes that global decision which can affect the world, and how isolating that is.


Question: Which historic moments are highlighted in the film?

Abi Morgan: There are so many to pick from, and so much light and shade to her that, knowing there is an expectation of how she is going to be portrayed, it was really important to me to create a very rounded character.

There are many telling moments.

Very early on, she was a very ambitious young woman, guided and mentored by her father. He was unique in many ways; he saw the political animal in her and encouraged that, and watching her father in Grantham when she was young, hearing him speak during the War, were significant influences on her. The War was a backcloth to the story. She had seen really iconic leaders like Churchill, and later she becomes that kind of iconic war leader during the Falklands conflict.

Arriving as a lone woman at Westminster, you see and understand that it's a male bastion and also ageist, to a certain degree.

In her reaction to the Brighton Bomb, having seen many of her colleagues injured and killed, you realise that it is pretty incredible that she survived and within hours stood up at the Party Conference and rallied everyone to be united.

You see her in moments of conflict - looking at the reality of what is happening during the poll tax riots, the Northern Ireland bombings. Then you see her decline of power, and the astonishment, outrage and keen sense of betrayal she feels when her Cabinet turns on her and she is ousted.

In terms of her public life you see incredible variation, and then her private life is counterpoint to this. In a way, the family is a metaphor for her role as leader. She was an incredible multi-tasker, a great timekeeper and an exceptional homemaker. In many ways she was very successful as a mother and a wife, but you can see from the research that there was huge sacrifice and a fallout that added to a sense of isolation. You see that sense of isolation through the course of the film.


Question: When you were writing the script, did you realise that everyone would have an opinion on this piece of work?

Abi Morgan: Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministerial period was intrinsic to my growing up, so I knew the film would cause a stir. I grew up in the North of England and saw the effects her policies had in the mining industries; I remember at university in 1990 there was dancing in the street when she left power, so I knew her legacy and that she was someone who was hated.

What has been interesting for me has been to adjust, revise and reconsider my opinion of her through the research I've done. As a result of working on the film, I can't help but have incredible respect for her, realising what an incredibly strong leader she was. Her conviction was astonishing at times. To put her life in context has given me a much more balanced view of her than I had.


Question: Do you think that the media are expecting the film to be a left wing fantasy?

Abi Morgan: I think I wouldn't be true to my job if I didn't try to create a character that was rounded. I hope that it is an interesting examination of her life, but it's not definitive. You know, everybody knows her legacy. Everybody knows what she did to the country, but I also feel that this is more than that. Of course it's a study of Margaret Thatcher but fundamentally it's a study of power and the notion of being a leader. You can probably take any leader and see them in relief, examining both the darkness and the light of the role. For some people she was an incredible leader, for others she was truly hated.

And I think, for me, her blessing is also her curse. Her absolute self belief was an incredible strength but it also, I think, brought about her downfall, because later in her life it made it much harder for her to consider other opinions. Her rule became very autocratic by the end. That was my own personal conclusion. The Iron Lady is a study of power, not so much the corrupting nature of power, but the inherent pressures that it brings, and also I think it's a study of old age.


Question: When you were writing, did you know that Meryl Streep would play the lead role?

Abi Morgan: I think everybody has a dream actress in their head and she was absolutely my dream actress, but I think it was really the chemistry and the brilliance of Phyllida Lloyd coming on board that kind of sealed the deal and made me think, of course, she'd be wonderful for it. So I didn't write it specifically for Meryl but she was very much in my mind when I had to think of who I thought would be truly wonderful to play this part. She was absolutely the forefront for me. She has been a hero of mine since Kramer vs. Kramer, which was one of the first films I saw her in as a kid. So I just feel that she's an incredible actress to be playing this part and I don't think there's a better actress who could have served this.

Both Phyllida and Meryl are brilliant, and they've worked together before, so they have a strong bond. One can only learn from that and try to keep up.


Question: What do you think Phyllida Lloyd's best attributes are as a director?

Abi Morgan: She has an inherent strength, she is very calm and she's got real clarity of vision. When you're navigating yourself through a complicated film, dealing with multi locations, dealing with so many different time zones, she holds onto a central organisational principle. I think she is a phenomenal theatre director, and managed to reinvent herself as a film director so brilliantly with Mamma Mia!and now with a completely different genre of film. She has great visual sense and a real ambition that comes from her theatre background, and she is unafraid to bring that to film. The script has grown and grown since she took it on board, andwith Meryl Streep, who is integral to dialogue and development, it has been really fine-tuned. Phyllida and Meryl are really good collaborators because they both work from the inside out. It is really exciting to watch.


Question: Which scenes were the most challenging to write?

Abi Morgan: The breakdown is very challenging because one wants to be true to dementia. I've experienced dementia in my family so I've observed it. It was very interesting for me to try to find a balance between the voice of someone who's suffering dementia and yet also someone who's very coherent and is still able to access the past. So I think the balance between past and present was quite difficult. The scenes between Denis and Margaret were just a joy to write, and particularly when you start to think of it as being Jim (Broadbent) and Meryl (Streep), then that becomes really exciting.

The film is trying not to judge and give an opinion. That's not to say that one doesn't have an opinion, but film has so many layers of input, that to a certain degree the story starts to tell itself.


Question: How do you think audiences will react to this movie?

Abi Morgan: I have absolutely no idea. I hope that it will be an absorbing and an intriguing study of power. And I hope that it's judged as a work of fiction and not as a piece of fact because I think that's quite limiting, because then I think people have huge expectations of how you deliver. She was an iconic public figure but inherently, that's a very different figure to the private woman. For me it's a creative approach to her life.


Question: Were you aware that you're not going to be able to please everybody?

Abi Morgan: I'm sure there will be criticism. I'd love to be one of those people who never read their reviews, but I read every one and they're really painful. Frank Skinner said a great thing, saying a bad review is like wearing a wet blanket, you just have to wait for it to dry off. I think that's true.


Question: What do you think the reaction from strong supporters or family members of Margaret Thatcher, or indeed Margaret Thatcher herself will be?

Abi Morgan: It's quite inhibiting to think about it when you're writing it, but I would be naive to say I'm not aware of the response it might get from those close to her. I hope it's a respectful portrayal of her and I hope it's a heartfelt portrayal of her and I hope that it is a fair portrayal of her. I think it's a sensitive issue writing a film about someone who's still alive. But she was a public figure and she was an iconic leader and also I genuinely think it's a study of power. She's such a significant British leader, the most important British leader since Churchill, or certainly the most remembered. And so I hope it's a powerful tribute to a life. It was always meant to be a dramatic interpretation of her life rather than a biopic. It's not a documentary; it's a work of fiction.


Question: What's been the best part of working on this film?

Abi Morgan: It's been amazing to write this, because it's such a huge animal for me, and to write something that has a strong, dramatic narrative and yet manages to navigate its way through a lot of events in a hugely packed life. From a writing point of view, it is a dream come true to get Meryl Streep saying your words. There's a moment, from a filmmaking point of view, where the writer's work stops and it now becomes the world and the baby of the director and the actors and the crew, so I'm genuinely excited to watch it as a film. But also it's just been phenomenal to spend so much time with her, i.e. Margaret Thatcher, without ever actually meeting her. Having read so many memoirs and biographies and seen so many interviews, it's been really fascinating walking in the footsteps of someone's life.


Interview with Damian Jones

Damian Jones' feature film credits as Producer include Mat Whitecross's unconventional biopic of Ian Dury, sex&drugs&rock&roll; Nicholas Hytner'sThe History Boys; Noel Clarke's UK teen hits Adulthood and Kidulthood; Michael Winterbottom'sWelcome to Sarajevo; Danny Boyle's Millions; Gridlock'd starring Tupac Shakur, and Greg Araki's Splendor. Other credits includeStraightheads, Thunderpants, Very Annie Mary, Some Voices, Dancing at the Blue Iguana andA Texas Funeral. He received a BAFTA in 1990 for Peter Hewitt's short The Candy Show.

His next film, sports drama Fast Girls, is currently shooting.

Question: Could you tell me where The Iron Lady began?

Damian Jones: About six years ago I came back from America where I had been living for ten years, and I thought that if Margaret Thatcher had been an American there would have been countless movies made about her. I set it up with Pathé, who had made The Queen, and worked with them and ultimately Film4 and the BFI to perfect the script. Meryl Streep was always our number one choice to play the lead, but at the time, that was a pipe dream.


Question: There is so much source material and so many books have been written about Mrs Thatcher. Was that daunting?

Damian Jones: It's an intimidating mass of material that lesser writers may not have been able to overcome, but Abi Morgan, our screenwriter, did a fabulous job. One always has to pick and choose what part of someone's life story and their experiences one wants to tell. There are obviously iconic moments that are portrayed in the film that will transport people back in their memories.

We portray the power of the personality, those moments on the national and international stage which she is still remembered for. I think it's fair to say that, love her or hate her, most people respected her.


Question: Tell me about the story structure.

Damian Jones: The challenge of the movie was always to try to tell something new about Margaret Thatcher. What was behind The Iron Lady? What was behind the mask? In the research we did with the people we met who worked with her, no one could actually tell us who she really was aside from what we knew already. And I don't think they were being evasive or defensive either; I just don't think they knew, even those who had worked with her for 30 years. She was very English in that way and probably the only person who really knew her was, of course, Denis who is no longer with us. So, the challenge was how to humanise her and allow us access to a world that we didn't know. Abi brilliantly came up with the idea of setting the film in the present, with her and Denis looking back.


Question: How did director Phyllida Lloyd come on board?

Damian Jones: Abi had written a wonderful screenplay and Phyllida was suggested by Pathé. I knew her theatre work and, of course, Mamma Mia!, and she really sparked to the script. She knew I was very keen on Meryl, and so we approached her when we felt the script was right. A film about a great female figure of the 20th century, written, directed and performed by extremely talented women.


Question: You've assembled a wonderful who's-who of British acting talent around Meryl Streep, including Jim Broadbent, who plays Denis Thatcher.

Damian Jones: Jim Broadbent is amazing and charming and very funny at certain points in the film. Obviously having Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher does attract the level of talent Jim Broadbent represents. They're superb together; he brings a real humour and charisma to the role. And behind him, you know, we have Olivia Colman as Carol and Roger Allam as Reece, and Richard E Grant as Heseltine. It really is the great and good of the British acting community, who all found working with Meryl such a pleasure.


Question: Tell me about the love story that is the pivot of the film?

Damian Jones: The backbone of our story is the relationship between Margaret and Denis. He was happy to be in the background and once the press had decided he was a bit of a buffoon he thought it was easier to allow them to keep that image than to reveal his true self. If you talk to her advisors and consultants, he was very sharp, and advised her a lot. In a way, I think he was more right wing than she was.


Question: Tell me about the level of detail employed in telling a story over so many time periods?

Damian Jones: When you are portraying real events, you need to get the detail right, so the preparation is meticulous, across all the departments. The art department, the costume department and hair and makeup department were dealing with five different decades, from the Fifties onwards, with particular emphasis on the 70s and 80s. Fortunately, MPs are not known for their fashion style, or the costume changes would have been much more complicated!

Phyllida and I took Meryl to the House of Commons, to watch Prime Minister's Question Time, and it was an eye opener for her. One of her comments was that in America, the idea that politics would be conducted in such a manner is unbelievable. She found it fascinating. We had been the guests of Government Whips that day, and they offered to act as advisors when we were shooting scenes in our Houses of Parliament. One sat with the Tories and one with Labour Party, and gave our actors and extras the correct words and insults to yell at each other, to accurately depict the riotous assembly that is Prime Minister's Question Time.


Question: What are Phyllida Lloyd's qualities as a director?

Damian Jones: She has a vision and she knows her own mind. Obviously her theatre background feeds into working with actors, but she also thinks visually. There are some wonderfully stylised moments in this film, straight from her imagination, touches that I wasn't expecting and have taken my breath away. She has been very impressive, and in control of all the different elements of film-making.


Question: Do you think audiences will be surprised by the story?

Damian Jones: I hope so; I certainly am. I think people will be absolutely mesmerised by it. I hope it is an acknowledgement of an extraordinary human being who spoke her mind whether you agreed or disagreed with what she said. I think audiences will be attracted by two icons - Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher. At the beginning of shooting we released a photograph of Meryl as Mrs Thatcher, and the response was staggering. I knew it would create interest, but it was on the front page of every UK newspaper, plus NY Times and newspapers throughout the world. It confirmed to me we were right to be making the film. Meryl Streep is the best actress in the world and people will be fascinated by her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.


Question: Why do you think she has endured as such an icon?

Damian Jones: I think she is bloody-mindedly British. I think there are traits in her that, whatever your politics, people acknowledge as being part of our national character.


Interviews:

Meryl Streep The Iron Lady - www.femail.com.au/meryl-streep-the-iron-lady-interview.htm
Damian Jones & Abi Morgan The Iron Lady - www.femail.com.au/damian-jones-and-abi-morgan-the-iron-lady.htm
Phyllida Lloyd The Iron Lady - www.femail.com.au/phyllida-llyod-the-iron-lady-interview.htm
 

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