Phyllida Lloyd
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Mrs T, Meryl...& me

Sanderson Jones speaks to The Iron Lady director, Phyllida Lloyd, about Maggie, female role models and why more older women should be stars of the show…

Written by Sanderson Jones
Phyllida Lloyd is probably the most successful British director you've never heard of – her average film recoups about $500m worldwide. Admittedly, she has directed only one film – the ABBA-powered Mamma Mia! – but this is a lady with talent to burn. Indeed, her second film – The Iron Lady – seems destined to be another hit, even without the help of a soundtrack written by a pair of Scandinavians in satin jumpsuits.

The natural reticence I feel about meeting a high achiever multiplies when I learn she is also a prize-winning director of theatre and opera. She is clearly a clever lady, and I can't wait to discover how The Iron Lady, the tale of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's life, was made.

When she enters the room, with a couple of PR people, however, I'm stumped as to which one she is. Partly because I am awful at recognising faces, but also because she is not a particularly commanding presence – despite having bossed around Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Meryl Streep.

I eventually confirm that she is the small lady with the bob. She sits down without taking her coat off. This means that I can't tell you what sort of person she is from the clothes she is wearing. I can, however, tell you that she IS the sort of person who keeps her coat on indoors if she wants.

On the back of Mamma Mia! she has teamed up with Meryl Streep again – 'She's beyond fun. Beyond compare' – for The Iron Lady, and switched from high camp to high politics. But the Iron Lady is perhaps an unusual subject for someone who comes from a theatre background – after all, the stage isn't known for its Mrs T fans.

'I know,' says Phyllida, when I put this to her. 'I met a friend in the street who said "I'm going to have trouble with this because I made a pact with a friend at university that we were going to party the day she died."

'Just the level of venom and reverence on either side is extreme.'

But then despite being about Margaret Thatcher, the film isn't really about party politics, but more about a woman coming to terms with frailty and being alone. 'To me it is a little like discussing Kings Lear's policy. I probably wouldn't vote for King Lear but that's not a reason not to do the play or to hope that the actor playing King Lear will move you.

'She's a human being and we're trying to make everybody in some way identify with her. Maybe it's a film for the next generation.'

She is, however, clearly fond of her leading lady Meryl Streep. 'She has phenomenal empathy for the character she's playing and for everyone she meets. She's exceptionally interested in the people she's playing.'

Phyllida comes across as calm and measured. She speaks with the voice of someone who did not rush straight from her first box-office smash into another movie. When she says the film is really just a human story, but that Margaret Thatcher's life 'is just larger than ours is', she could also be talking about herself. She is wonderfully modest, but seems to be building a life on a fairly large scale.

For the past 25 years she has been winning prizes, as she mastered the art of directing plays, operas and musicals, including productions at the RSC, the National and even one production of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Now 54, she seems poised for even greater success – a success built through close collaboration. The genesis of The Iron Lady began with her teaming up with the screenwriter Abi Morgan, before Meryl Streep joined them, too. 'All three of us worked together. A real girl's project.'

It is this female perspective that makes The Iron Lady such an interesting proposition. 'We were poking our noses into things that maybe boys weren't as interested in.'

The film certainly proves that the little things can speak volumes. The moment Margaret Thatcher decides to run for the leadership of the Tory Party while giving Carol a driving lesson, for example. We are offered glimpses into a life that combined housewifery with unbridled ambition.

'Her memory of going into Downing Street was when Denis grabbed hold of her hand and said: "Steady the buffs old girl". We felt that we noticed things that were different.'

But then Phyllida knows how to make films for audiences who are not traditionally served by Hollywood. Her voice raises as she tells me how biased the film industry can be.

'When we were testing Mamma Mia! in the US and I was shown the demographic of the test audience, I looked down the list and asked "Where are the over-50s?".

'"Don't worry about them," I was told, "they are not relevant to our market research".'

'The story is that the over-50s don't go to the cinema the moment things open... They don't go to the opening weekend so therefore they don't count, because the opening weekend defines everything about the power of the film.

'This is an annoyance I have to deal with every week as I look through the latest dreck shovelled into the cinemas and think "What would an intelligent woman like to see?".'

Even when The Iron Lady was bankrolled by the studio, the promotion of the film still revealed the same prejudices. Phyllida tells me to look closely at the film trailer: 'There's not much of a hint of an old lady in the trailer. It's not considered attractive and I think it's not a helpful thing with this film... But [then again] I'm not selling it.'

Luckily, I am already sold on The Iron Lady, and make Meryl Streep an odds-on favourite to win the Best Actress Oscar. In typical fashion, however, Phyllida downplays her own chances of picking up an award: 'Oh, I wouldn't think so. The film is far too weird for that.'

But it isn't too weird. What is weird is that in a recession, so many film lovers are being ignored because they don't fit into traditional marketing strategy. Luckily, there are still some people fighting the good fight: '[I] feel we're all getting old. And there are so many more of us. And it's exciting.'

Thank goodness for Phyllida Lloyd. A real Iron Lady.

The Iron Lady is now on general release.

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