A roundtable chat with director Nigel Cole of “Made in Dagenham”

Nigel Cole is not the kind of director who becomes a hot topic on AICN with his action masterworks, nor is he the kind of helmer who makes cinephile hearts go aflutter with his unusual directing technique and highly idiosyncratic world view. That isn’t to say that Cole’s latest, “Made in Dagenham,” lacks a certain amount of flair. It’s style, however, takes a definite backseat to clever writing and consistently good, and sometimes remarkably outstanding, performances. Nothing at all wrong with that, especially in a world lacking in good movies about women, as well as movies you can, give or take a little British cursing, safely take Aunt Minnie or Uncle Irv to see. Indeed, even hardened cinephiles should appreciate this well-made and intelligent, if comfortably unambitious and deliberately crowd-pleasing, comedy based on a crucial but overlooked episode from late 20th century British history.

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Written by William Ivory and saddled with a ridiculous R-rating, “Dagenham” is the partially fictionalized story of how the entirely fictional Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) moves from anonymous factory worker and devoted wife and mother to working full-time as a leader of what amounts to a nationwide labor movement. Bob Hoskins portrays an idealistic and goodhearted union leader who sets Rita on a path that at first has her leading the opposition to an unfair job classification for female textile workers at Ford Motors, and later has her deeply involved with a nationwide movement taking on the entire idea of paying men more than women simply because they are men.

Though supported by her loving but at times clueless husband (Daniel Mays), an extended strike creates inevitable strains. The story resolves itself as the affair gets the attention of real-life Labour Party legend, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson, in a typically biting and hilarious turn), the first woman to attain cabinet status in a British government. Along the way, subplots involve the troubled marriage of her older best friend (Geraldine James) and her chance encounter with the “enemy,” Rosamund Pike as a fellow mom at her son’s school who also happens to be married to a key member of Ford Management (Rupert Graves).

Previously best known for the art-house hit “Calendar Girls” and his first feature, “Saving Grace,” a comedy about an aging pot grower starring Brenda Blethyn and Craig Ferguson, Cole comes across like the down-to-earth bloke you might expect to be behind this kind of a film. Middle-aged and not particularly pretty, he introduced himself as Sally Hawkins, who we’d be meeting a bit later alongside Miranda Richardson, for another roundtable chat, getting the expected laugh from the table full of entertainment journalists.

The first question noted Cole’s interest in films with strong female perspectives. Cole is male and most films these days skew male for reasons unknown, so what’s up with that?

“I don’t know. I think about it a lot, I don’t really have an answer,” Nigel Cole said. “I think I like to do different films to everybody else. If you make films about women, automatically, you’re different because they’re so few of them. I do know this: I think shooting car chases and gunfights looks really boring to me. I kind of feel like I don’t want to do that. What happens to me is that I choose the best script. I always look for scripts that have comedy and humor and warmth, that are also about things and have strong emotional beats. I have to have both. I never do a straight comedy, that’d be boring for me. I think I’d get too flippant if I just did the straight drama. I choose scripts I feel have these qualities and about halfway through the process I wake up and I go, ‘Oh, hang on, it’s about women again.'”

“I don’t set out to write women’s stories, but I’m clearly fascinated by women and enjoy their company. I know I was very inspired by my own mother, who was Rosamund Pike in ‘Made in Dagenham.’ She was that woman. She was an intelligent woman who was bored, and ignored, and patronized as a housewife and mother. When I was about nine she took herself back to school, qualified as a doctor of psychology and went to work. I watched her transform herself and I watched her from being a very frustrated, depressed woman to someone who was very fulfilled.”

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“I’ve always identified with stories about women kind of finding themselves. My first film, ‘Saving Grace,’ even though it’s a pot movie, is that too with Brenda Blethyn finding herself and empowering herself.”

The story of the Dagenham strike, while pretty much unknown outside of England, apparently was only slightly better known inside the U.K. Did Cole know much of the story before seeing the script?

“I didn’t. I grew up about five miles north of Dagenham in Essex. There were kids in my school whose fathers worked in the factory. I was aware of the factory. Of course, I was just a baby in 1968 — not quite, but quite young.”

The questioner was an inquiring mind — how old was Cole in 1968, exactly?

“I was eight years old. Thank you. You know that,” Cole said to some laughter. “Damn the Internet. You can’t change anything. It’s all out there. The time was when you’d rewrite your resume and just take a couple of years off, now it’s out there.”

But, getting back to the Dagenham strike.

“I didn’t know the story. Very, very few people in England do. I think there are a few trade union historians who knew about the story. That was a kind of great gift of making a movie about it. Not only was it a great story, but the sense of being the guy who got to tell it first. It seemed pretty cool to me. Why it’s been so ignored I don’t know. I think women’s role in history is often ignored. It may be something to do with the fact that men often write the history down. There was also kind of a lot going on in 1968, it might have got kind of pushed to the sidelines.”

“Two weekends ago, I was at the Rome Film Festival. We took with us to Rome two of the surviving women, Sheila and Eileen, who were in their 80s, neither of whom had left Britain before. One of them didn’t even have a passport. After the screening, I invited them up on stage and they got a 15-minute standing ovation from the 1,000 people in the audience. It’s a very, very emotional moment. They were crying. Miranda Richardson was crying, Steve Wooley, the producer, was crying. It actually felt like the moment that they’d waited 42 years for. Finally, they were getting the respect and the applause they deserved, we felt. It had taken 40 years to kind of get around to it.”

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“I really was impressed by these women who I met, that they hadn’t sought any glory or fame because of what they did. They’d gone back to their jobs and their families and they’d gone back to their ordinary lives after it was all over, and disappeared. I think others may have sought fame. In these modern media times they would have had book deals, TV shows, and be promoting breakfast cereal. I think it said a lot about why they did this that they didn’t do it for their own glory or their fame. They did it because they were just annoyed that they were being mistreated. At the time, as we say in the film, Britain was rife with strikes. There were constant strikes that were kind of destroying British industry. So, they were used to the men going on strike. The more they got into it, the more they realized that the reason they were being ignored was because they were women. That made them stick at it. I love the way that they had no vanity about it and that they were just in it for the cause.”

I brought up a review by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian which I thought made the strong point that “Made in Dagenham” was a significant departure from the subgenre of comedies from the British Isles in which a plant closes and the solution is to start a band or getting completely naked on stage. This is a film in which simply working for a decent wage is the reward and ordinary labor is not something to be escaped from, but the actual “happy ending.”

“I agree with you, and The Guardian too. It’s a rare example of a British film about social issues or about working class issues, that actually is 100% positive. They win. When we met the women and we heard their stories, the research process was literally hearing their stories, the way they spoke about it was inspiring. They were very funny about it. They were really very witty, the way they told their stories. Also, the sense of excitement they felt doing this thing was very palpable 40 years on. They were clearly still energized by it. I remember one of the women saying she didn’t sleep for three weeks and was never tired. It almost gave us permission to make a film that was essentially positive and wasn’t afraid of being entertaining… You could have made a very bleak film about the misery of being patronized and the misery of being a working class factory worker, but we thought ‘no.’ We wanted this to be a celebration. We wanted it to be a kind of victory parade. We all wanted to say, ‘Look at these great women, look at what they did, wasn’t it brilliant?’ I’ve no interest in making films that preach to the converted. I had no interest in making a little art film that only played in a few cities in England. I thought, ‘Let’s get this story out there, let’s get it to a wide audience.'”

The next reporter asked if Cole thought if his personal concern for women helped him get good performances from his female-heavy casts.

“The way I think about it is that I care about my characters. They just happen to be women in this case and in other cases. I always want to try and find what’s good about a character and what’s bad about them. I want my actors to love their characters and identify with them. We always take the characters terribly seriously.”

“I think most directors in these kind of junkets always say, ‘Oh, I always wanted this actor, I always wanted to work with that actor.’ They’re usually lying. I’ve lied before. Most actors in films are the third, fourth, or fifth choice. I mean, you go for Julia Roberts, and she says ‘no’…”

“She wouldn’t have been good for this,” a reporter said.

“She could have done this,” Cole responded. “I nearly killed Julia Roberts. That’s another story. I did a documentary with her in the jungles of Borneo with orangutans. I allowed her to be taken hostage by a male orangutan. She was very nearly very seriously injured by this creature and it was all my fault. She was utterly brilliant and she kept calm. I thought I was the hero of the day by wrestling her away from this creature that was bigger than me, but unfortunately my documentary film crew kept shooting. In the dailies you can see me panicking. ‘Somebody go get somebody with a gun.’ So, I know Julia terribly well and she would have been good in this.”

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“But, I have to say, and it’s true this time, that everybody in this film was my first choice. Sally, Miranda, Rosamund Pike, Bob Hoskins… I went to meet Bob, thinking I was going to have to persuade him to do the movie. He’s kind of semiretired. He only works when he wants to. (Don’t tell his agent I said that.) I thought I’d go and see if I can talk him into it. The very first thing he said was, ‘You don’t have to talk me into doing this. I already want to do it. I read the script. I loved it. I cried. What do I have to do?'”

“I think they’re all my first choices, down to Danny Mays, who plays the husband, who I’m a big fan of. I looked for authentic actors who could play London working class… but mostly I’m looking for actors who can play comedy and drama. Not everyone can. [Actors] who can find the humor where it’s supposed to be funny but also play those big dramatic scenes with integrity and authority. Not every actor can do both. Sally, Miranda, and Rosamund — they really can. I’d seen Rosamund Pike in ‘An Education’ and I couldn’t believe how funny she was in that, and that kind of convinced me of her. Sally, obviously through ‘Happy-Go-Lucky.’ Miranda is recognized in the street in Britain not for her great Oscar-nominated roles, but for ‘Black Adder‘ where she plays Queen Elizabeth and is hysterically funny. She’s one of those actors who can combine full comedy with great drama and do it all in the same moment.”

The next question was about the fact vs. fiction angle of “Made in Dagenham.” With the main character being a composite, how much of the film’s story was invented?

“We fictionalized much of the personal stories that you see in the movie, for several reasons. One was that you inevitably have to do that anyway because you have to combine it in 90 minutes. Peoples’ lives are messy and complicated and sometimes you have to distill it. It’s like homeopathy — you have to constantly get down to the core of it. So you have to take some liberties with the stories. Also, the women who were involved in the strike, said to us that ‘we don’t really want our personal lives on the cinema screen. I don’t want to see myself having an argument with my husband on the screen. So, you kind of [say], ‘We’ll respect your personal lives and we’ll kind of blur the edges a bit…”

“In terms of Rita, Sally’s character, I wanted that character to represent all the women. She is our representative. She kind of sums up the approach of all the women. What was important to say about these women was that they weren’t political animals. They weren’t involved in politics. They weren’t involved in union politics. They didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘You know what, I want to fight for equal pay.’ They had a dispute, they took it to the next level, that led them to that stage and before they knew it, they were meeting the Secretary of State for Employment in the House of Parliament. It took them all by surprise. When you meet them today, that’s what they say. ‘We had no idea that we were doing this thing until after we did it.'”

Do these women understand the impact of what they did today?

“They do now. Of course, the movie was a big hit in Britain and it’s caused an awful lot of press. They’ve become a little well known and seen their pictures in the paper and been interviewed by The Times and The Guardian. They’ve kind of been persuaded. ‘Well, I guess we did do something, otherwise why 42 years later would everyone be talking about it?'”

Miranda Richardson and Sally Hawkins in

“Even more than now, 40 years ago you didn’t get to meet politicians and talk to them and try and persuade them of your case. Barbara Castle was everything she is in the movie. The first great female politician in Britain. Very nearly our first woman prime minister. I wish she had been and not Margaret Thatcher, because her politics were much more mine.”

The next questioner praised Nigel Cole’s use of music in both “Dagenham” and “Calendar Girls” and asked him to discuss his approach to it. It was a question Cole definitely welcomed.

“Music is an absolutely vital part of the filmmaking process to me, as it is to any filmmaker but I, in particular, love it. Like any filmmaker, the very first thing I do is put music on the film. I can’t watch it without. It just feels like ‘ugh.’ I’m a frustrated musician myself. Like most filmmakers, I wish I’d been in a rock and roll band more than being a movie director.”

“Obviously, making a movie set in 1968, your choices are vast and wonderful, until your producer tells you you can’t afford anything. I’ll never forget on my very first film, ‘Saving Grace,’ I fell in love with a Jimi Hendrix track. It was in all the way through to the finishing process. Finally, the Hendrix estate said that they wouldn’t let us use the song because they didn’t want Jimi Hendrix’s music associated with drugs!”

After some more talk about the difficulties of licensing music, Nigel Cole also took time out to praise his film’s composer, David Arnold. Arnold may be best known working on the more recent James Bond films and has recently been conducting for rock and roll faves the Kaiser Chiefs. Talking fondly of taking his own guitar down to Arnold’s studio, Cole zeroed in on the importance of film music.

“Particularly in the kind of movies I make, I like to make these big shifts in emotion. You get an audience laughing and, almost in the same scene, you’re going to try and make them cry. Music is a big part of my arsenal for that. It’s the trigger for emotion. Music triggers emotion in a way that almost nothing else does.”

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