Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mad Maids of Dagenham

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Mad Maids of Dagenham

(from brinkzine.com, 11/14/10)

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In 1968, at the Ford factory in Dagenham, England, the frustrated women who sewed car seats together under trying conditions went on strike to upgrade their pay-grade category from unskilled to semiskilled workers. Remarkably, this small group action resulted in the shut down of the entire 55,000-worker factory, and soon escalated into one of the most massive and seminal international labor disputes in history, culminating in the Equal Pay Act in 1970. It's quite a story but for some reason nobody has made a movie about it and hardly any of us knew about it. The heroic women were lost in the mist of history. Now that will change with the release of Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham, an engaging, inspiring new movie featuring two award-winning performances--Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady, the leader of the protesters; and Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson's Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, who made the women's cause her own. Bob Hoskins also is back in top form as the union worker Albert, who encourages Rita to lead the fight for women's rights. In anticipation of Friday's release in New York, I took part in roundtables with Cole (Saving Grace and Calendar Girls) and Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky). I note my questions.
Roundtable with Nigel Cole
Danny Peary: I was struck by a line in the production notes, in which you say, "For reasons I can never quite fathom, I'm more interested in women's stories than men's." But wouldn't that be for obvious reasons, such as women have to overcome obstacles that men don't, they're more creative when solving problems, and they're underdogs?
Nigel Cole: There's some of that, but I think it's almost more about the scripts I reject. I don't do car chases, I don't do gun battles. I think a lot of men's cinema, stories about men-- which is 95%, to 99% of cinema--have men we're supposed to feel good about because they can't express their feelings. It's a Clint Eastwood thing: the man who comes into town, he has no name, he doesn't feel anything, then he leaves. I'd be bored with that story so what's left tends to be women's stories. I don't seek them out, so it's always a surprise to me that they are women's stories. My intention is to pick the best scripts I can find, where I'm moved or laugh or respond in some way. And it's only later that I realize I picked another women's story. I'm always waking up halfway through the film going, "It's all women again!"
Q: What kind of women do you like?
NC:I like them all. I've always surrounded myself with women. Most of my friends are women and, of course, all my girlfriends have been women. I must like them! My mother was a very bored and depressed housewife. So she went back to school and got a degree and became a doctor, and really empowered herself and transformed her life. I've admired her for that and I've always been drawn to stories of women against all odds.
Q: What is it about the women of Dagenham that you particularly like?
NC: What I love about them is their lack of vanity. So many people who get involved with politics do so to draw attention to themselves and build up their own power base. These women didnt seek power, fame, or glory. They just were annoyed. They knew they were being dismissed and patronized, and wanted to put it right. And once they achieved their great victory, they went back to their families, jobs, and lives and were never heard of again, frankly. I thought there's a lot to admire in that. It was about the cause, and not about them. I thought that was a very powerful story, and I think it's shocking that this story is completely unknown--no one had heard of it in Britain until we made this film!
Q: You've lived in East London?
NC: I have, I lived 4 or 5 miles from Dagenham. Just up the road. And I'd never heard of this story. I knew about the factory because the father of a kid in my school worked there. I was well aware of what a huge town Dagenham was and that it was a Ford company town; and I knew what a big part of the British economy Ford was. Ford employed 50k men in Dagenham, 50k in Liverpool, and another 20k somewhere else. I knew what a big deal it was, but I'd not heard about the strike. It seemed that it was a great idea for film, and I felt blessed that I got to be the guy to tell it. It's rare to find a true story that's never been told and I thought I'd better do it.
Q: How relevant do you think the story is today as far as women are concerned?
NC: I think it's even more relevant in some ways. There's a sense that because of the rise of feminism through the '60s and '70s, the battle was won, when there's still a long way to go. Now in most Western countries, it's illegal to pay women a different rate than men,
yet as you know there is still a huge gap. There are "women's jobs" and there are "men's jobs," and women's jobs often have a lesser value. I thought it'd be a good time to remind people of the struggle. It's good for everybody, men included, to be reminded that it is possible to stand up and say no and fight for your rights. And sometimes, if you have solidarity with your co-workers, you might just win. We all feel disempowered and helpless against the weight of industry, of big corporations, of government, so I thought it'd be a good time to celebrate a group of women who did stand up and won. We felt that we could stimulate some debate about it and that happened in Britain, where every newspaper has run big articles about equality and women's rights. If one in a thousand people who see this movie go back to work and go, "Well, I'm going to tell my boss I'm not happy with how things are done here," then it was worth making.
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Q: Can you explain the resources that you used to make the movie accurate?
NC: When I first heard the story, I just assumed it didn't happen that way, that it wasn't as big as it was made out to be, that a picture wouldn't be so spectacular. There were several women in their eighties and the producers videotaped them. I sat and listened to their stories--and there it all was! Still I thought that maybe they kind of exaggerated it in their minds over the 40 years, so I went through the diaries of Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson. the prime minister, and they said the same thing. What struck me most of all, and was really the inspiration for the whole film in many ways, was how funny they were about it! Their natural English-working-class humor flowed out of them. They made me laugh hysterically as they spoke about putting up their umbrellas when it rained on the picket line and stripping off their blouses when it got hot in the factory. The excitement they felt then, they could still feel forty years later. I thought that's something we can capture in the film. I didnt think the right thing to do was to make a film that was bleak and miserable--a complaint, a moan. We wanted it to be positive and uplifting, and inspiring. And we didn't need to exaggerate because this is what it was like for these women. One of them said to me, "I didn't sleep for three weeks during the strike but I was never tired." I would use this phrase with the cast. It was like a school trip. a field trip on a bus, when suddenly your friends are funnier than they usually are, and everything's more exciting. They had a very exciting time.
Q: Were there any other challenges in getting the story right?
NC: It's hard recreating a historical period on a very small budget. I had only five weeks to shoot this film. That meant we couldn't build stuff, we had to go find it. The factory was a real problem, because the real Ford factory has changed; a lot has been knocked down. We found this factory in Wales that had shut down a week before, and we took it over. It was a washing-machine factory, and of course we had to dress it up. I employed over a hundred women who'd worked there as my extras, so in all those early scenes in the factory where Albert comes down the stairs, we had women being played by women who had really just lost their jobs in the factory where we were shooting. It felt nice to be able to at least give them a couple weeks work and make them feel a bit special for a while.
DP: Listening to you, I'd think Albert is almost your stand-in. Is he a real person?
NC: He's a real person. His real name is Bernard. I met him, and we based the Albert character on him. Many times I thought he and I were quite similar. When he tells the story of being brought up by his mom, and what a big influence she was on him, that was something that was very particular to me too. He's almost a director as well, just encouraging the women strikers and being there to support them. That, in fact, is how I work with actors. What's amazing is that Bob Hoskins was the most supportive of the whole cast. I've watched Bob for many years play hard men and gangsters, tough men. But when I first met him, the first thing he said to me was, Nigel, you dont have to persuade me to do this movie, I want to do it. I read the script and cried. Can I persuade you to let me do it? He was brilliant about it. I'm also a bit of Eddie [Daniel Mays], Rita's husband. I think we are all in a transitional period in history; we're tying to work out how were all going to do this, and be equal. I'm married and have kids and on a daily basis I struggle with trying not to be like my father and not expect dinner to be on the table, and not expect to be looked after, and not expect to have automatic authority because I am a man. I think it's difficult for men around at the moment; we have very few role models, and it's confusing. I like the way the writer, William Ivory, portrayed Eddie. He's trying to be good, he's trying to do the right thing, but it's not easy for him, and he's having to re-adjust and rethink everything he knows. All of us men understand that, and I think we need help in working out how we're all going to live differently.
DP: There's a theme in movies like Norma Rae and Salt of the Earth: if women grow, the men, including husbands, grow with them. Was that a theme you were interested in?
NC: Yes, I think so. I think Eddie reaches the realization of what his wife has done and learns from her. I think that was a very important part of the film. The weird thing is, I've never seen Norma Rae. I feel like I have now, because everybody tells me about it. I claim innocence. It's one of those films that passed me by and I never caught up with it. I thought about watching it before the shoot, but then decided I didnt want to be confused. I'd just do the best I knew how and not worry about repeating things.
NC: Can you talk a little bit about the character of George [Roger Lloyd Pack]?
Q: Britain in the 1960s was still very much suffering from two World Wars. This is something I knew from my own background--my father lost his brother in WWII, and never recovered from it, and his father, who had been gassed in WWI, lost his son, and never recovered from it. We were all struggling, even as late as 1968, to deal with that. There were many men who were broken by it, so I thought the George side story added a bit of texture to the film. His wife Connie [Geraldine James], who is close friends and works with Rita, is representative of women who carry the burden of the supporter. Theirs was a story that I couldn't allow to grow too much and overtake and swamp the rest of the film, so it was very difficult for me to find a way of telling it simply and economically. I thought the important thing for me was to show was how Connie is struggling to look after her husband and hold down a job--and then participate in the strike. By the way, Roger Lloyd Pack is a very popular television actor in Britain.
Q: Have any of the people you interviewed for the film seen it yet, and if so, what has been their reaction?
NC: We showed it to about thirty of them. They loved the film and we were so relieved. It's very scary to take peoples lives and put them on the big screen, because it would be awful if they think you got it wrong. I would hate that.
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The two aspects they were pleased we got right were the humor--they were irreverent and funny and joked around--and the complexity of the situation. Before we made the film, they were worried that it would be about women who set out from the start to fight for equal pay, which wasnt the case. They had a local dispute about how lowly they were graded in their particular factory. After several months that they realized they were being ignored because they were women and they opened up and the dispute grew into a fight. The women were pleased that we portrayed it that way. I'll tell you what was the most moving thing about showing the film. These women brought their children and their grandchildren and when the lights came up at the end, there was a big round of applause for the women! As I wandered around, I could hear all these children and grandchildren go, "Why didnt we know you did this? We never knew, you didnt tell us!" I don't think they ever told anyone what they did. They went back to their lives and just carried on. Their children, most of whom are in their thirties and forties, and the grandchildren, many of whom were teenagers or in their twenties, were in tears, going "Granny, why didn't you tell me you did that?" That was lovely to feel that we allowed them to pass their story on to their children. We took two of the women to the Rome Film Festival. Neither had ever left England before, neither had been abroad, and there they were at the festival, walking down the red carpet with the photographers and the press, and it was just brilliant to see. At the end of the screening, I introduced them and brought them up on stage, and they got a 15-minute standing ovation. They were crying, I was crying, the producers were crying, because forty-two years after this thing, they finally got acknowledgment for what they accomplished. It was one of the great moments of my career. Three hundred Italians standing and cheering, and the women just stood there blinking and crying. I thought that that's why we made this film, so they could get some applause. I say this a lot, but it's so true. The film is supposed to be a celebration of them. It's their victory parade, and it's a chance for us to say, well done!
Q: Who is the audience for your movie?
NC: I wanted the story to be heard by the largest possible number of people. I had no interest in making a little art film that preached to the converted, that played only to feminists and the political. I wanted people who don't think of themselves as political to be inspired and be a bit more active. I thought we could make a film that would be fun to watch, and humorous and exciting, as well as powerful and emotional. It was listening to the women's stories that really made me feel that was possible if we captured their spirit, then we'd have a movie that would entertain people. I'm hoping the message slipped past the audience unawares. There's a long tradition of making films about social issues, particularly in Britain. They're great pieces of work, but they tend to be bleak and miserable, and I didn't want to do that.
DP: Talk about Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson.
NC: Sally had expressed an interest in the film before I got involved; when I heard she was interested, it was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I think she's a great talent, and I wasn't disappointed. She was amazing. I've never worked with anyone who has impressed me so much. What's remarkable about her is that it just flows naturally from her; she's an unstoppable force. Yet at the same time she works so hard at it. I think all great artists have that combination--they have a natural talent but stay up all night worrying about getting it right. I'd say to Sally sometimes, "You look as if you've been up all night," and she'd laugh. She was so determined to get it right. Actors will often say to directors, "Can I just have one more take?," and usually as a director you think, "Nah, you've had your fifteen takes and it's getting worse, so there's no point in spending more time." With Sally, it got better every take, every time. I could have given her sixty takes, and the sixtieth would have been better than the fifty-ninth. That was remarkable!
I've wanted to work with Miranda for twenty years. Because of the tone of the film, I tried, all through the casting process, to find actors who could bring humor without losing the reality and the emotion, and Miranda is a master at that. She's a master comedian and she's one of our great actresses. Also, the rest of the cast was scared of her! She's Miranda Richardson! That was perfect for the scene in which Rita, Connie, and two other women visit Barbara Castle's office. They are in awe meeting Barbara Castle, just as the actresses were in awe meeting Miranda! It made those scenes very easy!
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Roundtable with Sally Hawkins
Q: Nigel Cole says you are a natural performer but stayed up at night worrying about your character. What did you worry about?
Sally Hawkins: A lot kept me awake--in a good way. Invariably, when you're acting, doing the performance, you can only be in the moment, but at the other end of the day, you wonder if you did that right. And then you have to think about the next day. It's a bit of a curse. If I'm working on something I love and am passionate about, I want to get everything right. You just want to do the best you can, I suppose; you just want to make sure you're hitting all those notes. With this, you want to make sure you get the story right, get the tone right. Rita is at the beginning of an extraordinary fight, and she's worried and there's a lot for me to worry about.
Q: In your own life have you ever felt that you're being valued less as a woman?
SH: I think we all come across that discrimination or lack of respect, whether in the workplace or in our personal lives. It's something that affects us all as human beings. We come across this all the time, power struggles within all relationships personal or professional--and when you don't hold your own in that situation it can become coercive. In every industry it's something that you come across. Sadly, men have ruled my industry for quite a long time. I think it's changing, and there are some incredible and enlightened men in this industry--and other industries--that are making better things possible for women . For instance, it's great that there are a number of female directors, including last year's Best Director Oscar winner. You do come across inequality at work or in your every day life, but it's not often talked about, That's why I think its great that there are films like this, that stir up debates.
Danny Peary: Early in the movie, Rita's tongue-tied trying to talk to the arrogant schoolmaster. Why do you think she's able to transcend that and later stand up to many male authority figures?
SH: I think that's a very important point. The scene with the schoolmaster happens quite early on. I think it's good that she experiences that because when she walks away she realizes that she didn't say anything and felt powerless. It's so humiliating because she didn't stand up to somebody who is abusing his power. I know because I had a similar situation in my own life, where I didn't step up. That experience is important, because it fuels the fire. She realizes that she didn't do it then, but she will now. By the end of the film she's a different creature, she's learned so much, and I think if she were presented with that situation again with the teacher, she'd be able to hold her own.
DP: But if she is the type who backs down to the teacher, why do other people, particularly Albert and the other female sewing machinists, realize that she is capable of being strong and defiant and persuade her to lead the strike?
SH: I dont know if they,re actually savvy to the fact that she,s the right one, or that she just happened to be there at the right time. I think that can be true of so many people who go on to do great things. She learns on the hop, and I think Albert also learns a lot during the film. I don't think he realizes quite to what extent this would go on, and I think that's what's so beautiful and made it so lovely to play: all the characters are learning as the film progressives. Especially Rita. She's propelled on this journey, and finds herself having to think very fast on her feet and having to hold her own and having to find this language with which to communicate. Her way of thinking and seeing things is completely different from very early in the movie, when she's taken to that meeting with the union and she realizes she's got all this stuff in her bag that she can use to make her point that the women aren't unskilled workers, as Ford thinks of them. It's nothing that was planned prior to the meeting, and that's quite important. These women didn't realize--how could they?--that they were going to have an effect like wildfire. As their world expanded, so did the debate. It was having an effect in America! I don't think they really knew. I think Rita was picked because she was sensible. I think what's great is that she wasn't one of the loud ones, the one you would push to the forefront. Perhaps she was chosen because she was one of the quiet ones. You always have to look out for the quiet ones.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you saw the script?
SH: I wanted to do it for me.
Q: And why did you decide to speak to the women on whose struggle it was based?
SH: It's always useful as an actor to have as much material as exists to tap into, so I did want to meet them before I started on the script, to gather as much as I could, whether it's just a gesture or something that they say.
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Three of the women were kind enough to make me a cup of tea and have a chat. I'm so hugely grateful to them that they took that time. I grew up in Southeast London, but Dagenham is east on the outskirts, so I had done only a few trips there. So I went to Dagenham, and I found it surprising that the women still lived there and were still friends--they'd just gone back to their lives. They aren't political animals and didn't want to be seen in that way. They're very normal women. What I got from them, what struck me the most, was their friendship--without that, they wouldn''t have been able to have as much strength as they did. They were all looking out for each other. The issues of this fight, very particular to them, showed in their everyday lives. As soon as one of them started talking, they all started talking. Then Liverpool got involved, and it went global. But it was their friendship, that close-knit thing, and also their humor, that struck me. It's history we can still touch. We're fighting similar issues today. That monolith of the factory is still there, and it's quite sound, actually. That's why people are still worked up about it.
Q: What do you think of the fact that around the time you're filming this movie, the U.S. auto industry was going through a major crisis, the bailout. What do you think Rita would say about that?
SH: I don't think she'd be surprised. I dont know what Rita would say, I'd have to slip into character! It's interesting that when you're working on something, you notice everything that's related to it, everything that speaks to you, whether it's images or stories in the newspaper, or in your own life--everything seems refracted. I was very aware of what was going on in America. It helped me as an actor, but it was very sad that these tiny towns were absolutely destroyed by the car industry and other industries. There will always be greedy people trying to make a lot of money. In the U.K., in America, everything's being turned on its head, and we have to re-think the way we think about the way these industries are set up. The fact that were talking about it, that's the most important thing. When things are clouded in secrecy, that's when the most damage is done, whether it's about equal pay or something else
DP: I'm a big fan of yours because I like how you really care about your characters.
SH: Doesn't everyone?
DP: No, most care about their parts, but you care about the women you play.
SH: Oh, thats really nice, thank you. I have to fall in love with them, even the dark ones.
DP: That definitely comes across.

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