Hollywood has gone to great lengths in recent years to rectify the lack of women and minorities behind the screen, whether it’s Oprah Winfrey’s and Ava DuVernay’s OWN drama Queen Sugar, which tapped females to helm every episode, or Ryan Murphy, who launched the Half foundation last year to specifically help increase behind-the-scenes diversity.
But when producer Alison Owen (Elizabeth) and writer Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre) sought to employ female writers and directors for their latest television series, it was also from a storytelling perspective.
“The world of prostitutes and brothels is a very familiar trope for fiction and film, but what Moira wanted to do was to do it exclusively from the female point of view,” Owen tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So that rather than it being a titillating look at the world of prostitutes and sex, Moira’s take was always from the whore’s -ye view.”
The result is Harlots, a drama set in 18th century Georgian London that explores the city’s most valued commercial activity: sex. Samantha Morton stars as Margaret Wells, a woman struggling to reconcile her duties as mother and brothel owner when her business comes under attack from a rival madam.
“I was kind of surprised that that was a subject that [Moira] wanted to tackle. It was only when I realized she wanted to turn the whole thing on its head and really celebrate the female gaze that I understood why she wanted to do it and why it was so important to do it,” says Owen, who had previously worked with Buffini on Jane Eyre. “It’s been done before. You think of the great French novels and other art, there’s so much in terms of prostitutes and the female body, to get to reinvent that was exciting.”
It was equally important to “get into the hearts and the souls of these women” because the series draws on real-life stories of prostitutes from that period. In the end, they were able to employ women for both roles on all eight episodes.
“We obviously wanted to get the best people for the job. What we found were the best people for the job tended to be the female voices, because they connect with these women in a very visceral way,” Owen says. “That’s not to say that we wouldn’t have hired a guy if he interviewed well for that job, but as it happened, we just found a great group of women and it worked out incredibly well.”
If anything, because of the years of struggle female writers have had moving ahead in the industry, “there’s a lot of talent that’s not being utilized properly,” Owen says. “There was really an embarrassment of riches in terms of the female writers’ room. In some ways, you kind of get a much higher standard than if you were hiring guys.”
Having all-female writers and directors also helped the atmosphere on set for the largely female cast that includes Downton Abby grad Jessica Brown Findlay and Lesley Manville (Maleficent), particularly when filming some of the show’s more risque scenes.
“All the actresses really enjoyed the experience they really felt supported, they felt understood,” Owen says. “In a way, it’s really relaxing when you have such a shorthand.”
It’s one of several ways Owen has helped propel female voices in her 25-plus years in the industry. Many of the TV and film project she’s produced have put female characters front and center (see: Elizabeth, Suffragette, Temple Grandin). Harlots is also the first series commission for Owen’s Monumental Pictures, the independent production company she founded with frequent collaborator Debra Hayward (Bridget Jones’ Baby).
“I think it’s fair to say that in my career, and in my company, I’ve always operated with a certain stance against discrimination and in favor of women and in favor of minorities — in casting, in writing and in my office as well,” Owen says.
When asked what spurred the rest of the industry to follow suit and begin to tell more stories about women and by women, Owen points to the box office.
“When I first started in the industry, people would say, ‘Well, the guys make the decisions in a couple so a female movie is never going to make as much money.’ Well that’s not true anymore,” she says. “As society has changed and women go out in groups to see what they want to see, there’s dollars to be made. The culture and society and the economy have come together to make an indisputable argument in the end.”
Despite the “huge change” Owen has seen in recent years in the industry, “we’ve also got quite a long ago.” Owen points specifically to helping women in the more technical fields advance as well as helping women of all ages.
“I think people need to be wary of celebrating all women and of all ages and not just the young ones. There’s a lot of women who have had checkered careers because they haven’t been given a chance. Certainly at Monumental and our projects, we’re just as interested working with older women as we are with younger 25-year-olds on the block,” she says.
“It’s just as important to make sure that that happens in the technical areas as well as with writers and directors. I was privileged at the [2016 Sky] Women in Film awards to give an award to a female gaffer [Carolina Schmidtholstein] and that made me so happy because I can see that there’s great progress being made with writers and directors and producers, but to give an award to a female electrician who is at the top of her profession was special.”
Despite the emerging stateside concerns about women’s rights under the current president, Owen is confident that forward momentum in the industry will continue.
“In Hollywood and in general, everybody has to be united against the current aspects of the administration that are not conducive to moving those things forward. As you can see with the Women’s March, there’s been a great unity and a great desire to fight back so in a sense, it’s helped those kinds of projects and those kind of initiatives in the industry.”
Harlots premieres Wednesday on Hulu.