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Made in Dagenham - Nigel Cole interview

Nigel Cole directs Made in Dagenham

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DIRECTOR Nigel Cole talks to us about making Made in Dagenham and getting to meet the real women behind the story of female workers at a Ford factory seeking equal opportunities and pay in the late ‘60s.

He also talks about working with Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays and why he feels more drawn towards women’s stories as a filmmaker…

Q. Made in Dagenham is both funny and touching in equal measure… was that part of the appeal of tackling this story?
Nigel Cole: I can only do it if there’s humour, wit, comedy and drama. If you can get audiences laughing and then suddenly turn them to tears… it’s a weird way of making a living making people cry [laughs], but I think it’s very exciting to be able to send audiences on a rollercoaster ride.

Q. You’ve taken certain dramatic licence with the story itself, merging certain characters [Sally Hawkins is a composite of three different women], so what did the women themselves think of the film? Have you screened it for them?
Nigel Cole: We have and it was really scary actually. It was the scariest bit because it’s their story, they own it, and it’s their lives. You put it on a big screen and to our enormous relief they loved it. They felt like we’d caught their sense of humour, which they were really keen on. They wanted to be seen as irreverent, ordinary, funny women. They didn’t want to be seen as politicians or as people burning with a cause. They just had a beef. They were irritated and mad as hell.

But also, when you hear them talk about it, it was exciting for them. They were connected and they finally felt like they were having an influence over their lives. One of the women said to me that she didn’t sleep for weeks but she never felt tired, and I think that’s what it was like for them… it was a very vital and powerful experience that energised them. So, we wanted to capture that, and they felt like we had, and they felt that even though we compressed the story and in some ways simplified the story, they felt like we told it in a way that they recognised and thought was truthful.

Q. Were they as formidable to meet as the film gives the impression they would be?
Nigel Cole: Yeah, I mean I grew up in Essex, so they felt very familiar to me. They weren’t a surprise in that way, but the strength of their belief in what they did is palpable and inspiring when you meet them. That’s the first thing that comes across. But then you find yourself laughing with them, at their jokes, and the way they kind of took the piss out of each other.

Q. You include some of their interviews and real-life footage of the women in the end credits… did you have a lot of that material?
Nigel Cole: There were hours and hours of it because we really wanted to get their story down on tape so we could use it, and the writer could use it. So, there were extensive interviews and other interviews by other people from the past that we drew on. A lot of detail in the film comes from them.

Q. At what point did you decide the make the Sally Hawkins’ character a composite of three different women rather than focusing on any one person in particular? You’ve mentioned previously that you feel it would have been an invasion of privacy?
Nigel Cole: Well, I think there is a tough of the invasion of privacy and I think sometimes in order to get an accurate portrayal of a character in 90 minutes you have to change some of the detail of those characters in order for it to be more accurate. That’s kind of weird but what you’re looking for is an overall picture. You’re trying to capture the spirit, you’re trying to bottle it, but to do that you have to distil it sometimes. There’s not room in 90 minutes for their whole story.

I think we were very keen that Rita, Sally Hawkins character, represented the two or three characters that we drew her from, but also represented all the women. She does that in the way that she’s a worker, a mum, and a wife… and those were the things that came first. She becomes a politician because she has to, not because she wants to. And there’s no vanity about it, no sense of building a power base, or drawing attention to herself… so, we wanted the main character to sum up the spirit of all the women.

Made in Dagenham

Q. Was Sally Hawkins always your first choice for Rita?
Nigel Cole: She was attached to it before me. I got pitched the story with an idea that Sally might play the lead character and that was enough for me. She’s amazing, just amazing. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Helen Mirren, Brenda Blethyn and Julie Walters and she’s right up there with them, she really is. She’s a remarkable talent. And not just a natural… she is a natural, because it kind of flows from her so easily, but she also works incredibly hard. But that combination of natural talent and being incredibly hard working and refusing to compromise and insisting to continue and dig out something better… that’s what great artists are about.

Q. One of the amazing things to emerge from the film’s production notes is that several of your leading ladies said they weren’t aware of this story! Were you?
Nigel Cole: I wasn’t. But I think that’s what’s great about getting the chance to make this film is that 42 years later we’re finally getting to celebrate it. I think it’s written in trade union history and known in trade union circles, but I think even people who live in Dagenham don’t know this story…

Q. Why do you think that is?
Nigel Cole: Well, I think there was a lot going on in 1968, so it had a lot of competition [smiles]. It was a big time. So, I think it may have been kind of overshadowed by some of the other events of the late ‘60s. Also, they’re women… and women get written out of history all the time and these women nearly were.

Q. Coming back to the women themselves, how did they feel about finally being recognised and the amount of time it has taken?
Nigel Cole: I think in a weird way they’re embarrassed, modest but thrilled. What was particularly great about the screening where we showed the film to them was the reaction of their children and their grandchildren. They were amazed. It was like: “Grandma did that, all on her own!?” I think the pride you got from their children and grandchildren… you could see what a great effect that had on them and what a lovely thing it was for them.

Q. How did you maintain a balance between your depiction of the men and women? It would have been easy to make the men one dimensional and thereby turn off half the audience perhaps…
Nigel Cole: Well, when men see the film they usually say: “God, it was very different in those days, wasn’t it?” As if to say: “Well, we’re not like that anymore, are we?” But of course we are, and we all know we are [laughs], so what’s interesting about living at the moment and being alive in 2010 is that we’re all part of a transitional phase. We’re all halfway from the past to the future and we’re all struggling to kind of work out how it’s going to work.

How are we going to have equal opportunity and the apparently simple process of bringing up kids, keeping a roof over your head, and running a family and working…. how does it all work when the division of labour isn’t quite so simple anymore? We’re all struggling to work that out. I think if you’re a man and you’ve ever felt that struggle, then there’s a lot you can learn from the film and I think find some sympathy.

Daniel Mays in Made in Dagenham

Q. So, how was working with Daniel Mays, who brings so much heart and soul to the role of Rita’s husband, who is clearly struggling with those issues you mention?
Nigel Cole: He’s just an adorable guy. He’s such a great actor: funny and dramatic. It’s really funny when you cast women’s stories because the men suddenly get what it feels like to be an actress. Some of them go: “Well, I’m just the husband!” And women only play the wives usually! I remember on Calendar Girls we struggled to find guys who want to play those parts. But Danny signed up straight away. He was my first choice and he just kind of got it and immediately leapt for us.

Q. You admit in the production notes that you find yourself drawn more towards women’s stories. Why is that?
Nigel Cole: I just think women are more interesting. I know what it’s like to be a man… or at least I hope so. So, I guess I’m always intrigued to learn more about what it’s like to be a woman and how the world treats them. I think so-called men’s cinema, which is pretty much every film, is so often about men who are supposed to be respected for not displaying their emotions and for not feeling things. But I find that a bit dull… the kind of Clint Eastwood, or the male hero, who never expresses anything or feels anything. I love those films like everybody else, but I’m not particularly interested in spending a year of my life investigating it. So, what I love about women’s stories is that it’s always very rich: there’s always a lot of himo0ur but always a lot of powerful emotion as well. So, it’s a no-brainer for me.

Also, I think I don’t know what it’s like to hold a gun, so I couldn’t help an actor with that, and I’m not particularly interested in violence as a subject. And so, I tend to reject a lot of films that are about violence and gangsters, or men with guns. By rejecting all those, I end up telling women’s stories I guess.

Q. You did two films in Hollywood – A Lot Like Love and $5 A Day – so what was the experience of that like?
Nigel Cole: Mixed [Smiles]

Q. I’ve not seen the Christopher Walken one, but I do think A Lot Like Love is hideously under-rated…
Nigel Cole: Thank you, that warm’s my heart. I was really proud of it at the time and I’m even more proud of it now. I loved working with Ashton [Kutcher] and Amanda [Peet], they were both terrific stars. I got caught up in a big studio thing with that one that I found very difficult to deal with. It was my first time in Hollywood, huge budget, big stars and you suddenly… whereas when you make a film in Britain you have two producers who are working closely with you, and you feel like they’re family and you find your way through it together, in the bigger stakes of Hollywood you end up with 12 or 13 producers and each one has a different idea or their own agenda.

So, it can be a much harder piece of management, so trying to make something that’s creative and funny and truthful, while you’re dealing with all that management crisis, is tough. Ashton Kutcher came with a set of pre-conceptions that are not always helpful. I think he’s a terrific actor and I think he’ll go on to be an even bigger star but I think people were expecting a broad, knockabout comedy and A Lot Like Love is something completely different to that and I think people were surprised by it. But one of the nice things about film these days, un like theatre where I started, is that it’ there forever now, and I think as time has gone on, I’ve found that more and more people really love it and respond to it.

Q. And how was $5 A Day?
Nigel Cole: The Christopher Walken film was the weirdest six weeks of my life. Every day I’d pinch myself and go: “I’m this little guy from Essex and I’m here, in America, making an American road movie with Christopher Walken.” I couldn’t believe my luck… it was brilliant. Chris played this strange, eccentric character in the movie and was eccentric, weird and strange off-screen too. So, it was a bit of a trip really. He’s so unusual… he’s the most unusual person that anyone is ever going to meet but it was fascinating. That particular film got caught up… the studio went bankrupt and it’s been stuck in a legal dispute, so God knows what will happen to it. But hey, I got to make an American road movie with Christopher Walken! What an experience [laughs]!

Made in Dangenham is released in UK cinemas on Friday, October 1.