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[Interview] Director Nigel Cole on ‘Made in Dagenham’

Written by on November 16, 2010 

Nigel Cole’s films are both utterly charming and unapologetically transgressive. From his directorial debut, Saving Grace that centered on a retiree-cum-pot dealer, to Calendar Girls, which focused on female senior citizens who pose nude for a fundraising calendar, to Made in Dagenham, a docu-dramedy that follows chipper female machinists in their fight for equal rights, Cole’s films are cheerful and poignant while being challenging and thought-provoking.

His latest, Made in Dagenham, centers on Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) and a group of women machinists, whose fight for equal pay drew national attention, and ultimately changed the world. The film not only tells the tale of these brave blue-collar workers but also connects their struggle to that of an educated but undermined upper middle class housewife, Lisa (Rosamund Pike), and powerful yet patronized politician Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).

Like his films, Cole is so casually winning that within moments of our introduction, we were laughing and excitedly exchanging travel tales: he of his recent trip to Rome, where Made in Dagenham met audience praise that included a 15 minute standing ovation at the Rome Film Festival, me of my day trip to DC to participate in Jon Stewart/ Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive. It wasn’t a contest, but if it was, he won easily and graciously.

TFS: Nigel, your films often center on women characters and protagonists. What is it about films about women that attract you?

NC: …The way it happens is I just choose the best stories. I read a lot of scripts and I choose the stories that make me laugh and kind of move me. And then later, usually about halfway through the process of making them, I think, ‘Oh it’s women again.’ How did that happen? You know, I don’t make a conscious [decision]. I don’t say to my agent, send me scripts about women, you know? Because there are very few of them. And I think it’s partly that they feel different automatically. So I think, ‘This is kind of different and unusual and special. I think I’m drawn to them that way.’ And I think partly because I have no interest whatsoever in making films about car chases and gunfights. I kind of – emotionally I don’t have anything to say about them. I don’t feel anything about those things. And also they are really boring to shoot. You know, I don’t want to spend a week watching cars crashing into each other. I’d have very little to do, you know? That’s not a director’s medium; that’s a stunt arranger’s medium! … I don’t seem to want to do straight comedy. I get bored if it’s just kind of gags because I need to know whom these people are. What are they feeling? And I need at least there to be a chance that I can make an audience feel something emotional.

So I think because that’s what I’m looking for [in a project] that rules out 85 to 90% of all scripts, and what’s left tends to be women’s stories, it’s almost by default. But obviously I’ve always been interested in women and I’ve always felt myself drawn to women and so clearly I do respond to women’s stories on some point. But it’s a subconscious thing I never deliberately set out to do it.

TFS: What about this particular story attracted you?

NC: Well, what I loved about this story was that A) it was a story that nobody knew about. I mean, the chance to make a film and tell a story that was such a great story, such a powerful story, an important story, but I could be the first to tell it – that was kind of cool. I thought, well, that’s a great privilege to get to do that. I grew up near Dagenham, I was alive in the late ’60s, and yet I’d never heard this story. So I thought, ‘Well, we’ve got to do this. It’s got to be told.’

I loved the way that the characters weren’t driven by political agenda. In particular, [they] weren’t driven by their own vanity. Very often people are kind of driven by their own sense of power. Or the desire to be noticed, or become famous, you know? But these women didn’t care about any of that. And the fact that their story was unknown I think is the proof of that. You know, they didn’t write books about it. They didn’t go on TV chat shows; they went back to their lives and carried on. I thought that made it very powerful that they were driven by a sense that they were right. They were annoyed, and they wanted to fix this injustice. And having done that, they kind of went back to their lives. I thought that made it very special. I thought we must tell this story.

I think I am drawn to stories about ordinary people – so-called ordinary people – who find themselves in extraordinary situations, and of course the same is true of Calendar Girls and perhaps even Saving Grace. I think I respond to those stories, partly because I think I’m going through that. I think I’m just this ordinary guy who grew up in Essex in England who found himself in Hollywood one day.

TFS: So this is kind of your story too.

NC: Exactly. I think I’m a bit like that. I’m just an ordinary guy who got to be interviewed and got to be on TV and it kind of feels like me. I think I respond to that. But I think what really killed it for me – what really convinced me – was I went to meet the surviving strikers. They’re all women in their eighties, and they just made me laugh! The way they told their stories was so funny and irreverent and they told it without anger without bitterness or cynicism. They just told it with enormous humor, and the sense of excitement that they had felt when they were doing it really came across very strongly. And I thought, ‘We should capture this! We should make a film [that] is unusual in pictures about working class strife.’ It’s not a bleak and miserable film about failure. But we can make a film about success.

There’s a part of British character that does treat difficult situations with humor from the two world wars, and on account of it. We’re famous for it, and we’re good at that. In some places it could be a weakness. You avoid humor. But I don’t think I could have wanted to make a film that was a complaint or a lament…I thought that the story was so important and so powerful that I wanted it to be seen by a big audience and not a little art house audience. And I thought, well, we can make a film that’s accessible and maybe even popular.

TFS: Is that why the film ends on a very up note as opposed to trying to draw it to any particular issue today. I mean, here in the US the wage gap is still a problem with women generally making ¾ of what men make. Is that still an issue in the UK as well?

NC: Yes.

TFS: What led to the decision to not put some kind of title card –

NC: Yes, there’s no “but.” Well, we thought we would stimulate that debate anyway. And we have in Britain. There’s been an enormous amount of press about the pay gap and workplace equality – you know, all spectrums of major articles about it. So we thought, well we’ll do that anyway. But I think it came as much from desire to celebrate what these women did. Because they’d gone uncelebrated and unrecognized for forty-two years, we wanted to throw a party for them. And it just seemed – we tried it in the edit – our way of saying, “Ah, but the battle continues,” you know? And it seemed rather disingenuous. I just felt like this is not what the audience should be thinking right now. What I wanted the audience to think at the end of it is: “Maybe I could do that. Maybe I could stand up for myself. Maybe I could say, ‘No, you can’t push me around!'” And I think in 2010, even more than in the 1960s, it’s important to remember that. I think we all feel a little powerless. The world seems so kind of powerful and big and the forces against us so enormous there just doesn’t seem any point in complaining. It’s like that March that we were talking about. It’s like actually if you do stand up and go, “I’m here! And I have a point of view,” it’s actually surprising how people do listen. I think we’ve forgotten that. And so I really think the whole point of the film was to say to an audience, “Why don’t you try this – ’cause look what a success these women had. And look how much they enjoyed it as well. How there were hard times. There were difficult times. But in the end, it made them feel good about themselves.” You know, that was something they remembered the rest of their lives.

TFS: You sound like Bob Hoskins’ character, Albert. It’s not his problem, but he empathizes wholeheartedly. Does he serve as a double for you?

NC: I am Albert, yeah definitely. (Chuckling) I’m taller than Bob and I’ve got more hair. I really felt great empathy for the character Bob played. He’s based on a real character — Bernie Passingham is the real [man] who I met. I felt great empathy for him. The story that Bob does so brilliantly about how [Albert] was brought up by his mum, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s my story too.’ I had a father, but my mother was the kind of dominating force in my life, so I am that guy. Also I’m Eddie [Rita’s husband] ’cause … I think most of the men I know, we want to do the right thing. We want to be different from our fathers and we know, we appreciate, we accept it that the world is a different place and there should be equality for the sexes. Women are not there to make us our dinner and bring us our slippers, but I think it is tough. I don’t think we know how to do it; we don’t have any role models. The way we were brought up is very very different. Even your generation – I think it’s going to take several generations before we work it out. And I think with my wife and my family – we struggle with it on a daily basis. How are we going to do this? … I think it’s a long road. And I think men need some understanding that it isn’t easy and we’re working it out and we’re going to get it wrong.

TFS: Would you consider yourself a feminist?

NC: Of course. I mean I am a middle class liberal so I would! Of course. It’s like saying, “Do you believe in protecting the environment?” (Affecting a gruff tone) “No!”

(He laughs hardily as do I.)

I am. I am and I think I was too young in the early ’70s when the kind of radical, aggressive feminism was kind of born. And I think as a man I may have found that intimidating and perhaps I might have struggled with how to deal with that. Now that we’re in place where there is more of an understanding about how we all have to work it out together, and that by just rejecting men that isn’t going to happen –

TFS: Exactly!

NC: We’re all in this and we’ve all got to sort it out together. I think that’s a good development. But of course, it’s interesting you bring that up because I lived through the ’80s where we [in the U.K.] had our first women prime minister. Certainly there was a woman in charge but it drove us – feminists, liberals – crazy because we hated Thatcher. She was everything we despised! She was the enemy. And yet at the same time we wanted to celebrate that there was a woman in charge. You didn’t know where to stand!

TFS: We [in the U.S.] have a lot of that right now – on either side of the aisle. What’s interesting in your films is that they take on these transgressive ideas, but they are very charming. And they talk about social politics without being highly political. Speaking of Made in Dagenham, while there is still a wage gap issue, did you hope this film could apply to other issues of present day?

NC: Yes. Very much so. I think to me it was all really a film about standing up for yourself and refusing to accept being bullied. And I think that can apply to men, it can apply to ethnic minorities. It can apply to anybody that feels that those in power are disrespecting them. And as I said, I think that issue is worse now than it’s ever been. We feel powerless and the ways we are manipulated and controlled become ever more sophisticated. And it gets harder and harder to make your voice heard. Hopefully, with technology – the Internet and Twitter and all that – will help. Because I think it’s easier to get your voice heard from them.

TFS: For American audiences who may not be familiar with Barbara Castle, what should we know?

NC: Well she was the archetypal woman in man’s world. And as the prime minister in the film says, “You’re the best man in my cabinet, Barbara.” She was a legend…..She was the first very successful female politician we had and she came very close to becoming the first female prime minister of Britain. It would have been so much better if she had been instead of Maggie [Thatcher]. And she did have to tread [lightly] as all women politicians do, when I read about her it was extraordinary how – because history is written by men – and they can’t talk about women in history without talking about sex – there were these rumors that she’d slept with Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, and she’d had this affair. Maybe she did? I don’t mind. But they don’t say that about male politicians. They don’t immediately think [of men as they do of women], ‘Oh she’s a woman she must have slept her way to the top.’ What fascinated me, and we tried to get a hint of this in the film, that the Labour Party in 1968 was in the same dilemma as it is today. Which is that if you are the party of the people, the party of the worker as the Democrats are here, and you feel like you’ve been put in power by these ordinary persons. You have this difficult balancing act because you’re also there to manage the economy and to make sure that the economy of the country is healthy. So you’re constantly balancing politics with social welfare. And the two are often mutually exclusive of course. And the Labour Party of the 1960s was stuck in this terrible mess between these two things. Because the country was being crippled by strikes, there was an enormous amount of industrial unrest, and it was ruining the economy, and they did have to fix it. They were there to support the workers and the working classes, and Barbara Castle was right in the middle of that and she wrote this famous essay about that balancing act, which is called, “In Place of Strife.” The speech that Rosamund Pike gives to Richard Schiff at the dinner party where she says, “You have a confrontational approach whereas others have a more inclusive approach, and they do it [dealing with the unions] by negotiation where you come and confront it.” That was Barbara Castle’s whole idea, where we need to find a way of bringing the two sides together rather than this constant kind of battle and strife – this war. She was the second most powerful person in the country after the prime minister. I’m pleased that we may play a small part in keeping her reputation alive. You know kind of writing her into history, because I have a great respect for her.

TFS: And Miranda Richardson is amazing.

NC: Well you know to get Miranda, we kind of knew, because she was very charismatic – Barbara Castle – she had to be to be so successful in a man’s world, you know there was a kind of scary aspect to Barbara. She was famous for being a fiery redhead. One needed an actress who had that charisma, and that reputation as well.

I kind of played a little trick with the cast in some ways in that we shot all the scenes where they [the women machinists] meet Barbara Castle at the end of the shoot. And I deliberately kept them apart. They didn’t really meet almost until we shot the scene. And all the other actresses did get scared. I kind of wound them up, “It’s Miranda tomorrow. You have to be on your toes with her.” Because that must have been what it was like for those women to be meeting this famous person, this woman who had a great deal of power. The scene where they walk into the room and meet her for the first time, I tried to make it as real for those – particularly the young actors – as possible and kind of wound them up a bit about how scary Miranda was so it would kind of feel real for them.

TFS: The cast of Made in Dagenham is incredible. How did the actors and actresses come to this project?

NC: Well I think that directors will sit in these events and say, “Oh you know I wanted this person, I always admired this actor.” In reality what happens most of the time is you end up with your third or fourth choice. It’s very rare [you get your first choice]. You make a wish list at the beginning of a project – this is who I see for this, this is who I see for that – you usually don’t get any of them. They’re too busy or they don’t like the film or they don’t like you or you screw the meeting up or something happens. I have to say, and I’m not exaggerating – these were all my first choices. Every single one of them. And it has nothing to me or the script or the project – it just seemed that everybody loved the idea of it. Right down to Bob Hoskins – well not down to but including Bob Hoskins! I had grown up with Bob playing gangsters and hard men and men’s men. And I met him and he said, “Nigel I’ll do this.” That was the first thing he said, (affecting a slight Bob Hoskins impersonation) “You don’t have to talk me into it, I’m in.” He said, “I’ve read the script and I cried. It’s very rare. I’ll do it.”

TFS: It’s a great part for him.

NC: Yes. I think he just loved the subject matter; he was just  – all through the shoot he was one of the actors who constantly would talk about the issues and be fired up by the issues and he seemed the most committed of all of them. Rosamund Pike – how could you do better than her for that part? She cleared her schedule, you know? She moved things around just to be free to do it. And you know the two most exciting young actresses in Britain – up and coming – Andrea Riseborough and Jaime Winstone, who played Brenda and Sandra, I didn’t think we were going to get them really. I thought, ‘These are small roles, supporting roles, they are playing leads at the moment, they are not going to want to do it.’ And they signed on straightaway so – I think it was everyone thought that they wanted to join in the celebration of these women. And that was terrific. Geraldine James I’d worked with before in Calendar Girls. So they were all my first choices, which is very rare.

TFS: You’ve worked with staggeringly talented and acclaimed actresses. Is there an actress out there you are still dreaming of working with?

NC: (Pauses) Well, of course there are many American actresses that I would saw off my right arm with a Swiss army knife to work with. (I laugh.) Oh no, someone already did that! (I laugh loudly.) Danny Boyle, yep. Imagine that pitch! Imagine: I want to make a movie about a man cutting his arm off, and it’s going to take the whole movie to do it!

(After my laughter dies down) So you know, the Meryl Streeps of this world. I’m trying to think. What do you think?

TFS: Meryl Streep was the first one that popped into my head.

NC: Yeah. Oh! I’ll tell you this. We did a very early test screening of the film in Britain, and you get the forms and they’ve got a comments section on them. Somebody wrote on one of them: “I thought it was ridiculous that you didn’t use Meryl Streep more in the film.”

TFS: I guess they thought she was Geraldine James?

NC: I guess so. We were never quite sure!

TFS: She does have that same kind of regal –

NC: She does have that Meryl Streep quality. They really thought it was Meryl Streep. Let’s go with that! Ha ha ha! Put her name on the poster: AND MERYL STREEP! Maybe people will just go, ‘Yeah she was great too.’

I do think that Carey Mulligan is going to be a huge star and she’s a great talent. And I think I’d be very happy to work with her. And I think Tina Fey — you know she’s just got the incredible combination of being ludicrously funny but a proper movie star as well. She’s sexy and she’s gorgeous and she’s smart and you can just sense her intelligence from the screen. So I’d love to work with Tina Fey.

TFS: Absolutely. If you ever work with Tina Fey I’m going to be like, “That was me. I made that happen.”

NC: Good, I will call you and thank you! Tina, if you’re listening, give me a call.

TFS: As someone who was born in a factory town, I admired how much Made in Dagenham‘s location felt like a real factory town.

NC: Yeah, thank you.

TFS: You shot on location in Wales?

NC: We found this factory in Wales where they’d just shut down and they were moving it to Eastern Europe. I remember my art department almost tying themselves to this machinery, “You got to leave this we need this big machine! The director wants it. You can’t sell it or ship it out.” But one of the best things was we were able to employ over 100 of the local women who had worked at the factory. And they are the extras. So all in the bigger scenes in the factory and some of the rally scenes as well they are eight or nine professional actors and over 100 recently unemployed real factory workers. And that was really helpful because it made it feel authentic to the actresses as well. And it was a nice way of thanking the local community for having us out.

TFS: Is there anything else you want to say about the film?

NC: I think going to Rome [for the film festival] with two of the original striking women … I invited them on stage for the end of the screening and they just [received] this 15 minute standing ovation. And they were in their eighties. For 40 years this story has been forgotten about. They didn’t even think that anyone cared about it – and to some extent neither did they. It was history for them. And to watch them on stage get this standing ovation – they had tears running down their faces – I had tears running down my face. Everybody was crying. It was just a very very powerful moment. Like we’d set out to give these women a bit of a victory parade, you know throw them a party in some way, to celebrate their achievement, and it felt like this was the highlight, the climax of it all. They were finally getting the respect, if you like the thanks, that they deserved. They achieved this victory, and every woman in Europe benefited from it, because it did start a wave of similar legislation. To watch them be applauded for it was terrific.

Made in Dagenham opens in New York and Los Angeles November 19, 2010.

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