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Interview With Phyllida Lloyd
Can you tell me about the genesis of THE IRON LADY?

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 Great Britain has had since Elizabeth I." I was thrilled that it wasn't 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 with Margaret as an elderly woman, which was an act of pure imagination.

Could you describe how the film is set in the present?

The film takes place in the present over a couple of days, days when Margaret has finally decided to let go of her deceased husband Denis's clothes. It's a big moment 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, a story of acceptance.

Abi Morgan'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 is 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.

Margaret Thatcher is seen as quite a divisive politician. How did that affect your telling this story?

What sets this film apart from a conventional biopic is that the whole story is told from her point of view. So the audience doesn't know whether what is depicted is true or not. This is her version of her journey. There is no other perspective on the political events.

Margaret Thatcher's story is almost Shakespearean, the story of a great leader who is both tremendous and flawed in all kinds of ways. It's a story of power and a crash from power and what happens when someone whose life has been absolutely bursting to fullness with their work must grapple with the end of that career.

Do you think the audience will be surprised at the politics of the film?

I think people will be very surprised by how un-political the film is. It's a little bit like asking,"Did you approve of King Lear's politics?" It's not really the issue whether you approve of the policy or not. You get a taste of both her passionate conviction and her uncompromising ferocity, but you're never really asked to judge the policy. There is a mass of research material available. How did you decide which moments to focus on?

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 opinions and facts about her. Abi chose those incidents that give great dramatic shape to her career.

How have you balanced the need to be factually accurate with the desire to make a piece of drama?

We were meticulous in our attention to political detail and when we made a choice to show something that didn't actually happen, it was made consciously in order to clarify the story. But it's very evident from early on, when we see Margaret as an elderly woman remembering her past and interacting with visions of her dead husband, that this is an act of imagination on Abi's part.

One of the things that people may find unusual is that there are no women in our depictions of the House of Commons in the film. Now, of course, we all know that there were a small number of female members of Parliament when she entered the Chamber, but from Margaret's point of view she feels as if there are no women there. She feels entirely like a lone woman in a sea of men.

The job of prime minister was described to us as being extraordinarily lonely, but this was compounded by her being lower middle class and a woman. There's something profoundly moving about her isolation in the Conservative Party and how hard she had to struggle, first of all when she became leader, just to take control of Edward Heath's Cabinet, almost all of whom had had very privileged backgrounds. One of her former colleagues said that he felt her being lower middle class was actually more significant than the fact she was a woman in rendering her an outsider.

When you were researching the project did your opinion of Mrs. Thatcher change at all?

I don't know that any of us working on it came out of this project having changed our political colors, but there were all kinds of aspects of Margaret Thatcher's life and career that we found immensely moving. What distinguishes her from politicians of today, who have to listen to focus groups and what the polls say, is that she would never ask before going into an interview, "What's our position on this? What do we feel about this?" She was such an instinctive politician that she knew what she felt and that was enough.

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

When we were having a meeting about casting Margaret Thatcher and Pathé said, "What do you think about Meryl?," 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 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 Meryl was moved by the story of this lady at the end of her life, someone who was reckoning with her entire life.

What was your reaction when you first saw or heard Meryl's performance as Mrs. Thatcher?

I was in Selfridge's on virtually Christmas Eve last year. My phone beeped and it was a message from Meryl saying, "Here is a first pass at Maggie." I put on my earphones and started to listen. I was with my brother and I took off one earphone and I gave it to him. We both sat there open-mouthed. That was my first moment when I just began to realize the enormous force that was about to be unleashed. Then we did camera tests and there was a moment when Meryl came out of the make-up room as old Margaret in costume, said good morning as Mrs. Thatcher to some people sitting and waiting for an audition and shuffled off down the corridor, and their jaws dropped.

Meryl brings empathy, humanity, an attention to detail that goes so far beyond an impersonation that when she walked onto the set, whether she was old Margaret or younger Margaret, everyone was in awe. Meryl has some qualities that resonate with the role: she is a great leader on the set; she has more energy than everyone else put together; she's the last one to drop; she's more prepared than everyone else; she notices everything that happens; her vision for each day is immense; and she never stops investing energy into the film.

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, Marese Langan and Mark Coulier on the costumes and the make-up was remarkable.

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