‘Misbehaviour’ Interview: Philippa Lowthorpe On Making Film and Struggles of Being a Female Filmmaker

Misbehaviour is a delightful little film that is centered around the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. The film follows a group of women who interrupt the Miss World beauty contest in order to make a statement about how the event objectifies women. I had the opportunity to screen the film a few weeks ago in preparation for my interview with the film’s director Philippa Lowthorpe.

Scott Menzel: Hi Philippa, a big congratulations on this film. I’ve watched a lot of the work that you’ve done including Call the Midwife and The Crown. This is just a delightful film that works as a feel-good crowd-pleaser but also has something to say. So thank you for that.

Philippa Lowthorpe: Fantastic. Oh, I’m glad you said that. It’s definitely a hard task to make something that’s fun and entertaining and carries you along on a wave, but also has a good and serious message at its heart that you want people to think about. So thanks for that lovely intro.

Scott Menzel: No problem. And then I was just wondering, going off of that, how do you balance tone as a filmmaker?

Philippa Lowthorpe: Well, it depends. It all comes from the story. So I think it’s very hard to make a very serious film about a group of feminists throwing flower bombs at Bob Hope, for instance. I think that in itself was an act of huge anarchy and fun and irreverence. And so for me, then, the tone of the film comes from the very act that you’re portraying. But inside that story are serious things to discuss. Like the apartheid that Pearl suffers, one of the characters. Jennifer’s struggle to be taken seriously as a Black contestant. And so those things are woven into the fabric of the film. Or Sally’s struggles to get her mum to understand her point of view. So it’s really, really full of energy and life, which represents also the youth of the characters in the film. The young contestants, and the women’s liberation. You know, young women, very, very full of vibrancy and vitality.

Scott Menzel: I thought you just did such a terrific job finding the balance. You know when you watch a movie and it has a serious message, and you just feel so drained after you walk away from it? Well, this one has a message, an important message, but I still felt good when I walked away from it.

Philippa Lowthorpe: That’s very kind of you to say, and thank you very much. I think at the end of the film, we really wanted people to walk out of the cinema feeling inspired, above everything else, that these young women actually got up and did something. Whether it was actually entering that competition and taking part in this world, or whether it was organizing that irreverent blasted kind of riot, and putting women’s liberation on the map. Both are equally important. And you just want people to feel inspired when they walk out.

Scott Menzel: Absolutely. I wanted to ask, when did you first discover this story? Did you first discover it when it was happening in the ’70s or was it something that you discovered much later?

Philippa Lowthorpe: Oh, much later. In fact, I didn’t discover the story. The producer, Suzanne Mackie, was listening to a radio program on Radio Four on the BBC. And it was this amazing program called The Reunion, which brought back Jennifer Hosten and three of the women’s liberation women, Sally Alexander, Jo Robinson, and another woman who’d actually stormed the stage. And she heard that program. She was just in her kitchen doing a bit of cooking, and she had to stop and listen to this amazing program. And she thought that would make an amazing movie. Cut to 10 years later. It took 10 years from her listening to that radio program to it hitting the screens. And she linked up with writer Rebecca Frayn 10 years ago, and they started developing the script. And I’m a junior member of this team because I became involved about three years ago, to come and direct it. So. And our other co-writer, Gaby Chiappe, joined about the same time as me.

Scott Menzel: That was a wonderful story too, by the way. I always love to hear those 10-years-in-the-making stories in Hollywood, because it seems to happen way too often.

Philippa Lowthorpe: Well, making movies is hard, I think.

Scott Menzel: Yeah, for sure. So, this cast, you really put together an incredible cast. You got Keira Knight, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Leslie Manville, and Greg Kinnear. Just a wonderful cast, of both familiar faces and then some up-and-coming faces. How important was that to you to make sure that you had everyone in place for the particular role that they played?

Philippa Lowthorpe: It was really important, especially in an ensemble film. Because in an ensemble film, there are quite a few characters that you’re following, and you need each character to be as vivid and as strong as they can possibly be. And different from each other. So the flavor of Sally Alexander was beautifully captured by Keira Knightley. And also the essence of Jennifer is beautifully captured by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. And Jessie as well, the portrayal of Jo Robinson. You create a kind of wonderful box of treats by how you cast those characters. And we were very lucky, we had Nina Gold, who’s a fantastic casting director who cast things like The Crown, Game of Thrones, big movies. She’s such a wise person to advise on how to put a cast together, so I took a great amount from her.

Scott Menzel:  When you’re directing a film because I know a lot of your work is on television, you’ve done a lot of direction on television. The Crown, Call the Midwife, a lot of the stuff that I mentioned earlier. And then you even have like a new HBO Max show that’s coming up where you directed a few episodes of that. What are the differences, as a storyteller or as a filmmaker, when you go from the small screen to the big screen?

Philippa Lowthorpe: I think for me, being a woman director, and having had a career in television directing where I’ve made … I was the lead director of Call the Midwife. I was the first person to do Call the Midwife. So I set Call the Midwife up. So it was a very authored experience, doing that. The Crown is the only thing I’ve done which is episodic television. Everything else, I’ve been at the beginning of creating and making the world. I have not really done episodic television apart from The Crown, which I loved doing, but that’s my own experience of it. Everything else has been authored pieces of work, starting off in documentaries and moving into drama.

For me as a woman director, there were very, very few opportunities to make films. Because it’s such a male world. And so I have found a world in television, which was where I was able to be a director and do stuff which is incredibly authored. Like my series Three Girls, which won five BAFTAs, was a piece of work which was, it’s not episodic television, it’s a mini-series in three parts. And the same with the HBO series. It’s two trilogies. Marc Munden is directing the first one and I’m directing the second one. Totally different, different styles. I have Naomie Harris as my lead. He has Jude Law.

And so I think that’s why it’s always been very difficult for women to break into directing movies. I would have loved to have made more movies, but nobody asked me. When I won my first BAFTA for directing television, I’m the only woman who’s ever won a BAFTA for directing television in drama, I thought that the world would open to me and people would ask me, as they had done my male colleagues before, to come and make films with them. And that didn’t happen. It’s only now when I’m a bit older, that that is happening more. Since the Me Too movement, I think, more people are interested in having the authorship of a woman. So. Sorry, I didn’t mean to go into a feminist lecture.

Scott Menzel: No, no, no. I’m actually very sorry to hear that. I created a critics’ organization called the Hollywood Critics Association, and one of the things that we do, and one of the big things that we support is inclusion and diversity in voices. And I mean, I cannot tell you how many filmmakers I have talked to over the last couple of years who have said the same exact thing that you have said. And I mean, that’s heartbreaking to me. I mean, I know I’m the person who is vilified right now, the straight white guy. But at the same time, I just cannot believe so many people in this industry, who have proved themselves so many times, have had this huge struggle. It is mind-blowing and upsetting beyond belief.

Philippa Lowthorpe: Well, to me, television has been my friend, because the people who have commissioned me, as the head of the BBC, and all of these people, have been incredible at allowing people like me and other women directors to forge our craft and be artists in our own right. Whereas the film world has been much more closed off. But different for a younger generation, I think. People who are 10 or 15 years younger than me, I really hope that they are getting there before I was able to, and I champion them and celebrate their fantastic achievements.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. And I think, in all fairness, it’s changing. I think things are starting to change. It has been a long time coming, but I think it’s finally here. You know, but to kind of end this on a more upbeat note, and I don’t know if this is a way to do that, but how relevant do you personally feel that this movie still is to today?

Philippa Lowthorpe: Well, one thing I love about the movie, it’s set in 1970, and it’s quite interesting to look back and see how awful it was then for women, and how little opportunity there was then. And also to celebrate those women, the women of the women’s liberation who did stuff, who did kind of fight for rights, so that people like me could go on and be a director. So to me, that’s a very, very important thing to celebrate. And also the fact that the first Black woman won, and the second prize went to another Black woman. That’s incredible too. You know that is a really amazing conjunction of events that needed to be explored. And now 50 years later, you want to look and think, what else do we need to do? Where have we got to go now? We look back and see that, but we need to look to the future to see what more has to be done.

Scott Menzel: And a lot of it’s been especially over the last four or five years like you said so eloquently since the Me Too and Time’s Up happened, I think a lot more voices are being heard. You’re seeing it finally, the last couple of years, and especially this year. Looking at all the movies that are getting a lot of praise this year, most are being directed by women or people of color. And I think it’s so important that everyone’s voice is finally starting to get heard. It’s not fully there yet, but it’s starting.

Philippa Lowthorpe: Yeah, I totally agree. Yeah. Well said.

Scott Menzel: Well, thank you very much. It was very lovely to speak with you. Again, I’m so sorry to hear that you had to go through this struggle of trying to get films made, but I’m happy that you at least had a very strong career in television. So.

Philippa Lowthorpe: Thank you. Lovely to speak to you.

Scott Menzel: Enjoy the rest of your day, and it was a pleasure talking to you.

Philippa Lowthorpe: Same to you. Thank you.

Misbehaviour is now playing in limited release and is available to rent/own on VOD.

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott D. Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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