While other people spent lockdown tending to their sourdough starters, Phyllida Lloyd spent hers thinking of new ways to use her chainsaw. “It’s for chopping firewood, but I’m having to stop getting more creative with it,” she tells me from her house in Surrey. “I saw a man on YouTube creating lovely sculptures with his chainsaw. Is that a good idea?”
This conversation isn’t entirely unrelated to Lloyd’s latest film. The director, whose first feature Oh Mama! is the 13th highest grossing film of all time in the UK (her second, The Iron Lady, won Meryl Streep her third Best Actress Oscar) has made a much more low-key film this time, about building a house, and women’s strength.
Herself, written by and starring the Irish actress Clare Dunne, is ostensibly about Sandra, a woman fleeing her violent husband with her two children.
As Sandra and Peggy ferry around chunks of timber, and drill metal into drywall, the film becomes about something else – not whether it is feasible to build habitable accommodation for £35,000 with a team of amateurs and a heap of goodwill (probably not), but about women’s resilience – emotional and physical.
“Clare and I went on a course to learn how to build a timber-framed building in Wales a year before we made the film,” says Lloyd. “And we realised that if you’d said to us before, ‘You’ve got to lift that frame and carry it across the field,’ we’d have just said ‘My God, my womb’s going to fall out.’ Yet by the end of the week we were carrying these incredible pieces of wood and using the most terrifying power tools. Some of this stuff is in the mind.”
Lloyd has a reputation for feminist takes, but she speaks slowly, as if this revelation is still dawning on her. “It’s something I felt over lockdown too, actually.” She spent lockdown with her partner, Sarah Cooke, and Cooke’s children. “That if something broke or needed moving you just had to work out how to do it. You couldn’t just call a man.”
Lloyd, 64, grew up near Bristol, where she went to a girls’ school (since closed) that encouraged its pupils to put on their own productions and play all the different roles. It was something she later put to good use when she staged her all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse.
“It comes naturally to me. At school we played all the parts – the warriors, the kings. So, when I came into the real world and found we were just handmaidens and love interests, I thought, hang on a minute.”
After graduating from the University of Birmingham, where she read English and drama, Lloyd got a job in the BBC drama department, and within a few years had worked at the Bristol Old Vic, the National Theatre, the Royal Court and Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
It was after her unexpected foray into the world of opera (including a controversial staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle for English National Opera in 2004) that she was invited to direct a new stage show, a jukebox musical built around the Abba back catalogue.
The stage version of Oh Mama! has made nearly £3bn worldwide since it opened in 1999 and was, of course, also made into the wildly successful film starring Streep in Lloyd’s film debut.
Critics were snooty about the film – The New Yorker likened it to “torture” – but it still made nearly £6bn at the box office and spawned a sequel 10 years later (directed by Ol Parker, not Lloyd).
“I’m not making any claims about the technical merits of Oh Mama!, but it was really interesting to see the difference in the way the franchise was reviewed a decade later,” says Lloyd.
The second film prompted about-turns from several prominent critics, who suggested not that the new one was necessarily much better, but more that they’d come round to the whole idea in general.
Why does she think that was? “It could be time, history, ageing. It felt to me like the first one was just something quite new. When we first went to Hollywood to discuss casting for Oh Mama! there was a definite pause when we suggested casting women nearing 60.”
I suspect Lloyd’s ability to take popular culture as seriously as she takes more traditionally highbrow culture is a huge factor in Oh Mama!’s success. That skill is apparent too in Herself, where the sort of story that wouldn’t look out of place in a Ken Loach film takes place against a soundtrack featuring David Guetta and Laura Mvula.
“It’s all one thing to me. I was working on Oh Mama! and Wagner at the same time in 1999. And people were saying to me, ‘My God, how the hell can you be in these two worlds at the same time?’ But Oh Mama! and the Ring are both stories about a search for identity. I apply the same seriousness and playfulness to both.”
Would she consider directing another jukebox musical? She directed Tina, the Tina Turner musical that premiered in 2018, and Oh Mama! has stood the test of time, as has the band behind it, with a first new album in 40 years and a digital reunion concert set for next year.
“I’ve been approached with a lot of catalogues of bands, but they don’t often offer quite what Abba offered in terms of drama. The beauty of Abba is that they were writing about a whole arc of a life: of love, of maturing, of breakdown, of regret. Most bands don’t write that way.”
Herself came about partly as a result of the all-female Shakespeare trilogy, set in a prison. For research, Lloyd and her cast spoke to many former prisoners whose route into criminality had begun in a childhood featuring domestic abuse. “So few women in prisons have committed a violent crime. Basically, women shouldn’t be in prison most of the time,” says Lloyd.
Dunne went off to write a screenplay about how women escape domestic violence when the system meant to support them lets them down. And when Lloyd discovered Dunne wasn’t planning to star in it, she came on board as director partly to ensure she did. “She’s astonishingly talented,” she says.
Lloyd was also looking for something low-budget. “I feel so lucky to have worked on big films. But I was beginning to think that it would be easier to align something smaller with the work we were doing in the theatre, which was politically driven.”
Lloyd has built up a reputation for her collaborative approach, which often features the same cast and crew and involves them in the evolution of the project.
“It’s a different vibe on a big movie set, however scrupulous you are about learning 250 names. In theatre and small films [there were about 50 people on set in Herself], you can talk to people, and allow yourself dull days when you’re trying to wrangle with something. On a big film, you have to produce Olympic Gold every day.”
Does she want to return to Hollywood? It’s quite a good time to be a female director, relatively speaking, I say. Women comprised 16 per cent of directors working on the top grossing films in 2020, up from 4 per cent in 2018 – a record. “I don’t really crave going back into doing films on a military scale, no.”
Several male directors have recently come under fire for alleged abusive behaviour at work. Does Lloyd think that female directors change the tone on a set?
“I think women maybe feel less of a need to shout, less afraid of giving away their power. I have certainly felt very empowered by female producers. I also think women form communities slightly more easily.”
Indeed, Herself is a film about community, as Sandra finds herself relying on new friends to build not just her house but her new life. It feels timely, coming after lockdowns during which people have had to rely on neighbours in unexpected ways.
It’s also representative of what Lloyd is looking for professionally. She is currently helping to remount the musical Tina on Broadway, but is looking for her next project. “I’m reading, talking to writers. I don’t know yet what I’ll do next. But I expect it to be something small.”
Herself is in cinemas from Fridaand 10 September