Q & A with Director Nigel Cole

A scene from “Made In Dagenham” starring Sally Hawkins

A scene from “Made In Dagenham,” starring Sally Hawkins

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Nigel Cole about his comedy drama “Made in Dagenham,” which opened Nov. 19 via Sony Pictures Classics and is generating an awards season buzz, particularly for its performances by Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson.

Written by William Ivory, it was produced by Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. Starring are Sally Hawkins (“Happy–Go–Lucky”), Bob Hoskins (“The Long Good Friday”) and Miranda Richardson (“The Young Victoria”).

“Made in Dagenham” had its World Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. It also played this year at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival.

The Story (official synopsis – beware spoilers):

Set against the backdrop of the 1960s, “Made in Dagenham” is based on a true story about a group of spirited women who joined forces, took a stand for what was right, and in doing so, found their own inner strength.

Although far from the Swinging Sixties of Carnaby Street, life for the women of Dagenham, England is tinged with the sounds and sights of the optimistic era, heard on their radios and seen on their TV sets. Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) reflects that upbeat era, along with her friends and co–workers at the city’s Ford Motor Factory — Sandra (Jamie Winstone), Eileen (Nicola Duffett), Brenda (Andrea Riseborough), Monica (Lorraine Stanley) and Connie (Geraldine James) — who laugh in the face of their poor conditions.

Lisa (Rosamund Pike) is a fiercely intelligent Cambridge–educated woman who feels a bit trapped, tending to her home with a husband who suggests she keep her opinions to herself. She may not live in the same world as the other women, but she shares their views. No one thought the revolution would come to Dagenham, until one day, it did.

Rita, who primarily sees herself as a wife and mother, is coerced into attending a meeting with shop steward Connie, sympathetic union representative Albert (Bob Hoskins) and Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves), Ford’s Head of Industrial Relations. What she expects to be simply a day out of work, complete with a free lunch, turns into much more when she and her colleagues become outraged by the lack of respect shown in the meeting to the women employees.

With humor, common sense and courage Rita and the other women take on their bosses, an increasingly belligerent local community, and finally the government, as their intelligence and unpredictability proves to be a match for any of their male opponents. Daring to stand up and push boundaries, the women changed a system that no one wanted to admit was broken.

NIGEL COLE’s first feature “Saving Grace” saw his career rise straight to the top, bringing him a British Independent Film Award for Best Director and the Audience Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. He followed this up with “Calendar Girls,” which was both a box office success and critically acclaimed throughout the U.K. Among his other feature directorial credits are “A Lot Like Love” and “5 Dollars a Day.”

Cole has also directed a series of “In the Wild” celebrity wildlife documentaries, including “Galapagos” with Richard Dreyfuss; “Meg Ryan in Thailand” and “Orangutans” with Julia Roberts, which won him a Genesis Award for PBS Documentary of the Year. Cole’s other television credits include work on the popular series “Cold Feet” and ITV’s medical drama “Peak Practice.”

Q: How did you get to make “Made in Dagenham?”
A: It was a struggle. The producers had been working on it a while before they approached me in the early scripting stage and working with the women. I think the word “strike” is often a turnoff in cinema. It feels like it might be rather bleak and depressing and a lament of some kind, but I think what struck us very powerfully when we met the women and heard their stories was how funny they were and what enormous sense of excitement they had achieving this thing.

That gave us permission, if you like, and certainly inspired us to make a film that could be entertaining and could be very positive and uplifting and inspiring. I think me coming on board helped the producers persuade the industry that that was so because my “Calendar Girls” credentials suggested that I knew how to make a film that was kind of positive and funny and entertaining.
Q: When did you sign on?
A: I came on board about six months before we actually started work on it and worked with the writer a little while. That was the end of 2008.
Q: So you were working with William Ivory then?
A: Yes. I really adored him and he was a great collaborator. We spent some time balancing this kind of truthful piece of drama with what we wanted to make, which was an entertaining and occasionally funny film. That balance is something I like to do, but is not always easy.
Q: The events that you focus on are things that actually happened, but did you fictionalize some of it or create characters that are composites of various people?
A: Of course, we did. The actual mechanics of the strike and how they went on strike and what happened to them is all pretty much a hundred percent accurate. Where, of course, you will have guessed we’ve embellished or distilled is some of their personal stories just to kind of make it all fit into two hours and really to bring out the spirit of what they told us. But I don’t think there’s anything in the film that wasn’t inspired by something the surviving women told us.
Q: Is Sally Hawkins’ character Rita one of the surviving women?
A: No. She’s an amalgam of two women — two and a half women, if you like. We took a little bit of one and quite a lot of another two women and kind of combined them. Our intention was that Rita, the character, really represents all women. It was very important to us to find a character who represented the spirit of all 187 women (working at Ford’s Dagenham plant at the time). What I liked about them was that they weren’t politicized. They weren’t driven by a political agenda at all.

It was the main body of women that won this battle, not their representatives. And none of them had any time or interest in union politics or national politics at all. We felt it was important to have this character who was very much established as a housewife and mother and kind of found her feet and found her voice as the story goes on. So she’s an amalgam of one of the women who was a shop steward and a couple of the regular shop floor girls.
Q: You have in Miranda Richardson’s character, Barbara Castle, someone who, of course, was a real person and was Britain’s Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity at the time.
A: Well, it’s scary (playing such a character) because you know there are a lot of people who have a very strong view of Barbara Castle. She’s still a very famous political figure. She died, I think, 10 years ago, but she’s still very fondly remembered for her legacy. And for her family you want to get it right. We had the advantage of many hours of archive footage of her and taped interviews and her own diaries, which were published in the late ‘70s, in which she talks a lot about the strike and meeting the women.

So we had access to quite a lot of detail. But I think, as Miranda said, you look at a photograph of Barbara Castle and you kind of know the kind of woman she was. She was a very striking woman to look at. She did have this red hair and she kind of springs out in a photograph at you. I needed an actress who had that kind of screen presence so you immediately got the power of the woman. And obviously Miranda was my first choice.
Q: And then you’ve got Bob Hoskins, who in this instance plays a good guy. We’re so used to seeing him as the cockney gangster.
A: Well, exactly. I was amazed. I went to meet him and I thought I was going to talk him into doing the film and the very first thing he said to me was, “You don’t have to persuade me. I’m going to do this film. I read the script and I cried. My God, I am Albert. I had that relationship with my mother. I believe in equality for women. We have to tell this story.” He was one of the most emotionally engaged performers that we have. He really loved the script. I’ll always be grateful to him.

The first few days of shooting we shot those early factory scenes where he jumps down on to the factory floor. He got a little bit of a shock because while he was off set once (we did something). I had over a hundred real factory girls in those scenes. We took over a real factory that had just closed down and we hired many of the women who worked for the factory to be our extras. I gave a little speech to them and said, “Look, Bob Hoskins is going to come into this scene.”

The original women told me that when they were safe on their own factory floor they used to delight when men arrived and went to their world and they would make fun of them. They would be quite rude both verbally and physically. I said, “I know he’s Bob Hoskins and I know he’s a big star, but you’ve got to forget that. He’s Albert and you have my permission to be as rude with him as you like.” After a couple of takes, Bob came to me and said, “You’ve got to tell them to quiet down a bit, you know. This is all too much for me.” There were 187 women and Bob Hoskins.
Q: Tell me about casting Sally Hawkins.
A: When I was approached about the script I knew she’d already expressed an interest in it. She was a big part of me wanting to do the film. I’ve been a huge fan of hers and I was very keen to get a chance to work with her. She has that wonderful ability to be strong and tough and incredibly vulnerable simultaneously. And that’s exactly what the role required. So she was a huge part of getting the film done, I thought. And she was no disappointment. I know I sound very show–bizzy, but this is so true — I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed with an actress. She was just remarkable.
“Made In Dagenham” – In theaters November 19th

“Made In Dagenham” – In theaters November 19th

Q: And at that point you’d probably seen her in “Happy–Go–Lucky?”
A: I’d seen her in that and in smaller roles on television and in films. You just kind of hear about her in the industry. Anybody who’s worked with her has nothing but great things to say about her.
Q: Do you like to rehearse with your actors?
A: I do, but in this case I made a decision not to so much. I made a big attempt in this one to kind of make it feel real for the actors on set and to kind of keep out of their way. I had a conversation with Helen Mirren when I did “Calendar Girls” about working with Robert Altman on “Gosford Park.” She told me about how the amazing thing working with Altman is that you never knew what he was doing. You never felt like the camera was there and the actors had to play to the camera.

With Altman it was all about the scene. And then the cameras would be doing their stuff and you wouldn’t know if it was your close–up or even if you were in the shot. I loved the sound of that and on this one I tried to take the same approach so I kind of kept the cameras back and out of the way of the actors. That process of moving in for an actor’s close–up can often be a performance killer. It constricts the actor physically because the camera comes in, the lighting comes in, the technicians come closer and the actor gets a little wound up. You know, “It’s my close–up now” and gets nervous or tries to do something different. So I deliberately tried to make every scene as real and as fresh for the actors as possible.
Q: Did that leave you wishing later on that you had close–ups to use?
A: I was making sure that we were getting them, but often I wouldn’t let the actor know we were. The camera might be on a very long lens and kind of picking out the close–up from somewhere away. I found that liberating. I really enjoyed that method of working and will do it again because it meant it was all about me and the actors in the scene. It reduced the technical process somewhat, I felt.

In everything I did I tried to make it as real as possible. For example, we shot the scenes where they get to meet Barbara Castle quite late in the schedule deliberately. By then all the women who were playing the strikers knew each other terribly well and had become quite bonded as a group. But I deliberately wound them up about how we were going to be working with Miranda next week and kept them apart so when they actually met it was a bit like them meeting Castle, herself. They were kind of meeting this slightly intimidating and incredibly famous person.
Q: That sounds like quite a clever approach.
A: Well, it seemed to work. They’ve all kind of remarked upon it since. Those early scenes where they shake hands and one of them does a little curtsy all came out of the (way it was set up). It felt differently. We were there with Miranda. It was exciting to do that.
Q: Looking back at production, what were your biggest challenges?
A: It’s always hard making a period film on a very low budget. Of course, this is a low budget British film. You don’t get the money to build anything or really do very much. You have to find all those locations and areas that still exist as they were. So that’s kind of laborious and quite hard work. We were very lucky with the factory. We had this factory that had just closed down and had the right grandeur and scale, but also had these areas that were kind of run down. That was very helpful, finding that. But doing period films on a low budget is tough. You’ve really got to work twice as hard.
Q: The factory you found, I understand, was in Wales.
A: That’s right. In a small town called Merthyr Tydfil — which I’ve no idea how to spell (but happily it’s in the press notes). It’s one of those Welsh words that has too many consonants! We employed many of the women from the town who’d recently been made unemployed and that was a lovely thing to do and they really responded. They were so thrilled to be part of it that it helped with those big factory scenes.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: It was about $6 or $7 million. One of my best friends is Paul Greengrass, who did the Bourne films and was finishing “Green Zone” as we were beginning this and I remember he and I working out that his second set of reshoots was longer than my entire shoot! I had five and a half weeks to shoot this. It’s a whole different world, a whole different process and you just have to kind of run at it and go for it and kind of keep the momentum and pace going. It’s a challenge. But I find that you get results from that. There’s an energy. You don’t have time to second guess things. You have to go on instinct, you know. Often I think that works well for me.
Q: There must be a degree of satisfaction in getting to make a film you wanted to make that Hollywood would almost certainly never make.
A: Yes — although I’ve been reminded a lot about “Norma Rae” (Martin Ritt’s critically acclaimed 1979 drama for 20th Century Fox, which receive a Best Pictures Oscar nomination. Sally Field won the Best Actress Oscar for playing a young single mother who helps organize workers in her textile factory despite the dangers of doing so). There’s even a scene in my film that’s very similar to a scene in that film.

But I think that was way back then and I think now Hollywood might not make this kind of film. I think it helps us understand what it is we have to do in the British film industry. There’s not point in us taking on Hollywood. We need to do those films that Hollywood won’t make and provide an alternative. In my career, that’s been making stories about women. That is often a rare event. I’ve had great pleasure in being able to be different simply by making films about women.
Q: How did the movie come to Sony Classics?
A: They knew about it. Steve Woolley and Liz Karlsen, the producers, have a great relationship with Sony so they were well aware of it. But the producers made the decision not to sell the American rights until after we’d made it. Sony was so excited about the concept and about Sally Hawkins that they actually made a pre–emptive bid for it without seeing it. I was a big fan of “An Education” and they handled that so brilliantly that I felt I was in really good hands.
Q: And they must feel good about what you’ve given them to work with.
A: It’s very nice to make a positive film. You feel like that’s kind of a rare thing in a film that has something to say. Of course, there are many mainstream films and comedies that ultimately are upbeat and positive, but it was a very conscious decision — and, I think, the right one — to make an upbeat positive film about something that traditionally is thought of as a negative. A film about a strike and about an issue. And that all came from the way the original women told their stories. We sat down and listened to their stories and were blown away by the fun and excitement they expressed.

We thought, well, we’ll use that and make a film that deserved to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I want everyone to know what these women did. I didn’t want to make an art film. I didn’t want to make a film that was only shown in eight or nine cinemas. I wanted to make a film that a big popular audience would see. I’ve no interest in preaching to the converted.