Phyllida Lloyd The Iron Lady Interview

Phyllida Lloyd The Iron Lady Interview

The Iron Lady

Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
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 Phyllida Lloyd

In 2008, director Phyllida Lloyd directed her first feature film, Mamma Mia!, starring Meryl Streep. The film was nominated for many awards, including a Golden Globe, becoming a worldwide hit, and the most successful British film ever released at that time.

Lloyd had directed the play Mamma Mia!, a huge box office success in London's West End and beyond. Her theatre work includes productions at the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Royal National Theatre and the West End. Her production of Mary Stuart transferred from the Donmar to the West End and then to Broadway, where she received a Tony nomination as Best Director in 2009.

Lloyd has also directed opera extensively, winning a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2006 and a South Bank Award for her staging of Peter Grimes.

In 2010 she was made a Commander of the British Empire, an honour bestowed by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Question: Can you tell me about the genesis of The Iron Lady?

Phyllida Lloyd: I started on this project about two years ago when I was sent the screenplay by Pathé and Abi Morgan. The first thing I thought was 'Margaret Thatcher is the most significant female leader this country has had since Elizabeth I.' I've been passionately interested in Elizabeth I and directed both a film and a play about her, so that was really my entry point. I was thrilled that the screenplay was not a conventional biopic. The biopic form is very tricky to pull off, how do you get away from that catalogue of facts? But this was a different beast altogether because of the brilliant writing, particularly for old Margaret, for whom Abi had created this extraordinary world in the present, which was an act of pure imagination.

Question: Could you set up for me how the film is set in the present?

Phyllida Lloyd: The film takes place in the present over a couple of days, days when Margaret has finally decided to let go of Denis's clothes. It's a big day for her and as she begins to sort through his things she's ambushed by her past life. It's a story of letting go, of acceptance & resignation.

Question: There is a mass of research material available, how did you decide which moments to focus on?

Phyllida Lloyd: There is so much written and visual material, but we also met a number of Margaret Thatcher's colleagues, both political and civil service, and gathered a wealth of information and opinion and fact about her. Abi chose those incidents that give great dramatic shape to her career. It's almost a Margaret Thatcher symphony you're seeing. First, the struggle for power of her early years and the very unexpected assumption of leadership. Unlike her male colleagues she had not been bred and raised to believe that she would one day be Prime Minister. That's what set her apart. So her colleagues, who did believe that she had it in her, had to really persuade her to step up to the plate when the job became available.

Then you see the roller coaster to Number 10, immediately after which she's hugely embattled, struggling to hold the line and take control of the Party who are all fearful that the pace of reform is too great. So you see her absolutely in the trenches and very alone.

Later in the film we also see her embattled during the Falklands, and thereafter we see her at her most invincible, on a whirlwind journey to global stardom. In true tragic style, this leads to a fall from grace when she is, as she sees it, betrayed by her colleagues. What sets this film apart from a conventional biopic is that the whole story is told from her point of view. So the audience don't know whether what is depicted is true or not, but this is her version of her journey, there is no other perspective on the political events.

Question: What do you think are Abi's best attributes as a screenwriter?

Phyllida Lloyd: Abi's screenplay is a really radical piece of writing. I think the beauty of it is in the detail. Because this is about memory, often the entry point to a scene would be something small like a button being sewn on. When we remember things, it's often keyed off by a sound, a smell, or something incidental that then makes us remember.

Question: Can you tell me a little about the casting of Meryl Streep?

Phyllida Lloyd: Though I would have done anything to work with Meryl a second time, I had a moment's pause when we were having a meeting about casting Margaret Thatcher, considering various possibilities, and Pathé said, 'what do you think about Meryl?' And I had a moment of thinking, 'gosh, a film about Margaret Thatcher is one provocation, casting Meryl could possibly be the second'. What would the combustion of these two elements be like? What will be the reaction in Britain?' And I went away and spun round three times and walked back in and said, 'yes, yes'. Because my first thought was you need a superstar to play Margaret Thatcher because Margaret Thatcher was a superstar. She had this extraordinary charisma and ability to charm absolutely anybody. But it was potentially a slightly chilly role, so I felt it was important that the actor playing her had warmth.

It was some months before we felt the screenplay was ready. Then I wrote to Meryl and asked if she would be interested in reading a screenplay about Margaret Thatcher, and I went to New York to talk to her about it. It was a gargantuan challenge, at one point we seriously thought we might have to have three actresses play her because the age span for the adult Margaret was still nearly 40 years. But she was moved by the story of this lady at the end of her life, someone who was dealing with a reckoning of their entire life.

When she looks back in the film wondering if she made a difference, you sense that perhaps she was willing to forfeit the displeasure of this generation for generations to come. I think she felt that there would be a cost to what was really a social revolution, there would be casualties, but that future generations would thank her for it. And of course at the end of her life the question is 'will she be forgotten?' I'm sure anybody who feels they've tried to make a difference comes to that point, questioning whether actually it's all crumbled into dust, whether they are in fact just one side of a pendulum swinging back and forth.

Question: Did you visit the House of Commons before you recreated it?

Phyllida Lloyd: I visited the House of Commons three times before we shot those scenes: twice on a private visit to actually stand in the Chamber when it was empty and look around and then once Meryl and I went to Prime Minister's Question Time together. Question Time is so different to anything that happens in American politics. It is just an amazing piece of theatre. I was determined that our set for the House of Commons be as perfect as possible. We went to great efforts to recreate the Chamber in all its detail in order that we could have that camera movement in the set and really create the sense of the boxing ring, the bear pit of it. That's one of the things I'm most proud of, that Production Designer Simon Elliot pulled off the Chamber so well. When our government whips came to help us sculpt the reactions of the Labour and Tory benches, they walked in, four MPs, and stood in the middle of the chamber and went - 'it's just like arriving at work!'

There's a fantastic level of detail that goes into nearly 300 extras in the House of Commons and Brighton Conference scenes, each of them in suits, sideburns, glasses, all being changed from one day to the next to fit different periods.

The work done by Consolata Boyle, J. Roy Helland and Marese Langan on the costume and the make-up was remarkable. But one of the reasons I think that we managed to pull off those events, was that they were moments of theatre. They were like live performances that we were capturing, where one person has to go out in front of a crowd and electrify them. The atmosphere in the House of Commons was extraordinary. I saw a couple of men with tears in their eyes when Meryl made her speech at the end of the Falklands War.

It's a fascinating journey of scenes we see in the House of Commons because we see her at the very beginning of her career when she's being heckled, right up to what I guess is the turning point in her career, the force she became after the Falklands.

We see her enter the Chamber as a rookie with Airey Neave, her mentor, cheerily saying 'Welcome to the madhouse!'. Then she goes on this huge journey and it ends up 30 years later with her sitting there alone in the Chamber contemplating her resignation, something she may never have done but something we imagined. That is one of the most powerful moments where you realise that she's remembering this entire 30 years, all these voices and ghosts and furies coming back to her.

Question: The use of archive footage really ratchets up the tension at certain points. Was that always the vision?

Phyllida Lloyd: They say that you make a film three times - in developing the screenplay, shooting it and then in the edit. Though the screenplay had been brilliantly laid out, we were all agreed that we would find the ultimate structure in the edit. The unknown part was the archive footage. The editor Justine Wright and I didn't know how much we could integrate our footage because a lot of what I storyboarded and shot was quite heightened. I hadn't wanted to shoot the story in a kind of rough-house, handheld, 'archive-y' way. But young people we've shown the film to who haven't lived through this period have been amazed at the images we incorporated, particularly of civil unrest, that are so resonant with what's been happening in the UK this year. So the archive footage gives real momentum and energy to these private events, these private glimpses that we're seeing of Margaret.

The love story aspect of this film will surprise many people.

That is the universality of the story. It's about letting go of a loved one. Denis reminds Margaret of how she has done a huge amount of things in her life on her own, so at the end of the film, when she is afraid of letting him go, he reassures her that she doesn't need to worry, because she knows how to be on her own and she will be fine. That leads her to let go of Denis, and conquer her fear that without the ghost of Denis she won't be able to function. It's a wonderful love story which we can all identify with, when you lose someone and you look back thinking, Did I pay them enough attention? Did I take them for granted?' But it's too late to ask, and that is one of the most poignant parts of the story.

He was ridiculed for being 'the first husband' in the press, but he really broke ground by being willing to take a back seat.

He became a national figure, not just of ridicule but of affection. Private Eye enshrined him in people's imaginations, made him probably rather far from who he really was, and yet some people felt that Private Eye must have had a mole inside Number 10 because the stories seemed so close to the truth. But he was a remarkable man. He almost never put a foot wrong. And if ever he did, the press never let him down, and I think that was perhaps because they really respected how he conducted himself in this most taxing of roles.

Question: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Phyllida Lloyd: What I hope is that you don't need to know anything about Margaret Thatcher to be excited about the film. I wanted to make it not just for those of us who lived through it but also as something that speaks to the next generation, who know much less about how England evolved after the Second World War. But in the end, it's a story that goes beyond the political detail. It's the story of a great life lived, and an acceptance that we're born alone and we go out the same way.


Meryl Streep The Iron Lady -
Damian Jones & Abi Morgan The Iron Lady -
Phyllida Lloyd The Iron Lady -