When you talk great film directors you think Spielberg, Scorsese and (to ruin the alliteration) Hitchcock. But how many females can you name? Sofia Coppola, sure, Catherine Hardwicke, maybe, and possibly Jane Campion for being all arty and brooding like. Now meet Phyllida Lloyd: director, artist, lesbian. Since her debut film Mamma Mia made her one of the most successful female directors of all time, the 52-year-old Brit is taking on the male-dominated world of Hollywood. For her sophomore effort Lloyd (above) re-teams with Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Movie Mazzupial sat down with Lloyd to speak success, Thatcher, gay rights and the ever magnificent Meryl Streep.
The Iron Lady
Ah, Margaret Thatcher. The tough-as-nails politico was a woman who invoked fear in the hearts of male colleagues and is still called She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named among lefties. Perhaps. Released on Boxing Day, audiences got to see her story on the big screen in period biopic The Iron Lady. And no, this is not a spin-off of superhero flick Iron Man where Meryl Streep replaces Robert Downey Jr as the billionaire playboy. Cue collective sigh. Rather, this is a look at the private and political life of Thatcher, Britain’s only female Prime Minister. As one of the most polarising figures in modern political history, Thatcher’s life lent itself to the cinematic treatment. But director Phyllida Lloyd says it was the “unconventional” nature of the biopic that attracted her.
“Her story did have the shape of a Shakespearean tragedy,” she says.
“We spoke about it on set as King Lear for girls.
“It’s a story of a mighty leader afraid of losing her own wits and who’s brought low by her own arrogance and the villainy of the people around her.”
“Her downfall was like the stuff of grand opera.”
As one of Britain’s most acclaimed theatre directors, opera and Shakespeare are things Lloyd knows plenty about. She has been at the helm of dozens of award-winning productions that have graced the West End stage, including the smash hit Mamma Mia which she adapted for the screen. From sequined-jumpsuits and Pierce Brosnan vocal solos, to social upheavals and the Falklands War, The Iron Lady is quite the leap. Growing up in the height of Thatcher’s reign, Lloyd says she was less interested in the “controversy” and more interested in the “feminist and classist” point of views to the story.
“As someone who started their professional career in the eighties, Thatcher excited that anarchy in a lot of us,” says Lloyd.
“She was like the stern headmistress.
“Even now people are still arguing over whether she was right or wrong 30 years down the track.
“Meryl (Streep) called it a `special venom’ that people use when they talk about her and we wanted to get to the bottom of what it was that incited this `special venom’.”
Woman on top
The similarities between Thatcher and herself aren’t lost on the director. After all, Thatcher was a strong, independent woman trying to make it in a male-dominated world (politics in the eighties) and Lloyd is a strong, independent woman trying to make it in the male-dominated world of Hollywood. Lloyd says there were “all kind of aspects” she identified with in Thatcher’s story, especially that of succeeding in a testosterone heavy environment.
“I know Thatcher once said to a political colleague on the other side of the divide that `we have to be 10 times more prepared than the men’ and I still feel that way.
“I hope your generation doesn’t feel as neurotic as we did.
“My parents expected me to get married, have kids, and not necessarily have a career. “I still get a sense of pinching myself and wondering `Am I allowed to do this? Am I allowed to be here and have all this?’
“I’m always wrestling that sense of entitlement. I don’t think Thatcher had that self-doubt but she did work harder, fight harder, and make sure she was always the last to leave.”After turning the musical into a worldwide sensation, Lloyd made her feature film debut with Mamma Mia (above) – the all singing, all dancing, ABBA spectacular. The box-office success made her the highest grossing female director of all time – with a worldwide take of $US601M– until Jennifer Yuh knocked her off her perch earlier this year with Kung Fu Panda 2. That’s no mean feat when you consider the boys’ club mentality most women directors have to battle in Hollywood. Only one woman has ever won the best director Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker), with three others having been nominated (Coppola, Campion and Lena Wertmuller for those of you playing at home). Lloyd says she implores the next crop of female filmmakers to “feel more entitled than we did”.
“I think that the world so needs women making stories to make a female audience feel that they’re at least 50 per cent of the population.
“I feel you don’t have to be a thrusting bitch to make it as a director, you’ve just got to have incredible stamina and keep on going at it.”
The magnificent Meryl
There’s one woman, however, who certainly has Academy Award voters whispering `My my, how can I resist you?’ That would be Streep. Meryl Streep. And with 15 nominations and two Oscar wins under her belt, the she deserves to have her name spoken like Bond. James Bond. She would probably be more a more convincing spy too because, as Cam wisely said on Modern Family; “Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice, she is perfection.”
As Thatcher she truly is. Her complete encapsulation of Thatcher’s speech and physicality, right down to her frosty demeanour and vulnerability, has the smart money already firmly placed on Streep to take out the best actress Oscar come the 2012 Academy Awards in February. Once she’s nominated, of course, a mere technicality. Lloyd says she went on a “life changing adventure” with Streep during the making of The Iron Lady, an adventure that featured plenty of goosebumps along the road.
“I had my first goosebump moment about a year ago when I was shopping at (UK department store) Selfridges doing one of those frantic how-many-presents-can-you-buy-before-Christmas shops when my iPhone beeped.
“It was a message from Meryl that said `My first attempt at Maggie’.
“I sat down on a bench, put my headphones in, pressed play and began listening to her speak this six minute interview where she was Margaret Thatcher.”Lloyd says she felt “privileged” to watch and direct Streep in the role, which was developed from its earliest attempts by adding prosthetics to match Thatcher’s physical resemblance. She says everyone on set experienced those “frequent jaw dropping moments” watching Streep embody the character.
“The fact Meryl was the outsider playing the outsider gave it real electricity,” says Lloyd.
“During a take one day I remember one of the British actors said to another `close your eyes, she’s in the room.’
“The other actor turned to him and said `no, open your eyes, she’s still there.”
As a journalist there are few questions you feel more uncomfortable asking someone than how they feel about being called a `power lesbian’. But it’s a title commonly associated with Lloyd who’s a stalwart on The Independent’s annual 101 most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain.
“I’ve plummeted in the charts this year which is a worry,” she jokes, after peaking at number seven in 2009 before dropping to 22 last year behind the likes of Graham Norton and Elton John.
“If anything hopefully the release of The Iron Lady can make up a few points.”
Lloyd says she find the “notional” nature of the charts amusing. On a more serious note, despite a bit of initial discomfort, her private life becoming public has far more pros than cons,
“It was something I struggled with in my early years, the public notion of it,” says Lloyd.
“Now I feel entirely at ease. I guess if it helps other people feel more comfortable that people in the public arena speak out about being gay, then it’s important.
“If it helps to make young people feel less alone, less terrified, then that’s a great thing.”As for the gay marriage debate, Lloyd (above) says it’s a “big move from the time of Margaret Thatcher” which is nothing but good news for the wider homosexual community.
“I’m not married, but I’m very, very glad I could be one day.”
The Iron Lady is out now.