#LFF 2016: Conversation with Alice Lowe


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After co-writing and co-starring in Ben Wheatley’s ‘Sightseers’, Alice Lowe steps into the director’s chair, establishing herself as the queen of psycho comedy with ‘Prevenge;’ an hilarious look at the horrors of “being enceinte” which, among other merits, adds the hormonal pregnant woman to the ever expanding serial killer canon. We met with her at a round table before the film’s London Film Festival premiere to talk about her own pregnancy as inspiration; the way society deals with women when they are expecting, feminism and the terrible lessons imparted by ‘The Apprentice.’
By ROBERTO GONZALEZ

You are the director of ‘Prevenge,’ but you also wrote the script and you star on it. It’s very rare to see a debuting director doing all those roles.

It was great. I didn’t intend to. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t think I was going to direct when pregnant. What happened it’s that I came by with the idea for a director called Jamie Adams who directed ‘Black Mountain Poets’. When I gave him the pitch he thought it was brilliant but he couldn’t direct it because he does rom-coms and this is really dark. He thought I should direct it.

One of my frustrations for a very long time is that I really wanted to direct but people don’t trust you until they trust you. It’s one of those Catch 22 things. You can’t make your first film until you make your first film. And thought if I could pull it off surely they would let me do what I want. You fight a battle to protect your creative voice, specially when you are dealing with budgets and people are scared to give you money. I thought that as this is low budget, it was the time to take that risk. It was something I have thought of for many years, but it was not an easy decision, rather a terrifying one, but it was kind of a “do or die” approach.

Probably the best way to do it.

I think so. I have done a lot of short films. You never regret making something, but you can regret not making it. Once you’ve made a short film whether it’s good or bad, no one can take from you that learning experience and for me this first film was very much a learning experience. I did used a lot of what I’ve learned over the years doing low budget films, guerrilla style films and I put all of that into my film. But it’s still a learning curve for me. You can’t learn until you take that plunge, though. You can’t get any better until you made the bad thing, but hopefully this isn’t a bad thing (laughs).

I was looking forward to show it in the UK, particularly in London, because humour doesn’t always translates to different languages so I was thinking if people could watch it on a first screening at 9 am in the morning and still get it, that made me feel positive about the reaction it’s going to get. That’s very exciting. We’ve got the premiere and lots of family and friends are coming. The cast is seeing it too, they haven’t seen it before. The turnover of the film getting it finished for festivals is so quick that we haven’t showed it to anyone.

Can you talk about this interesting theme through the film that feels like it’s willing us just to slice up the perfect postcard image of pregnancy. Looks like a cathartic shout?

You are right. The good thing about writing up the film, which I had to do really quickly in about a couple of weeks ,is that I had already done all the research, because I was right in the middle of “the research.” For me it was like suddenly joining this idea of pregnancy that I see as industrialised, sort of fetishised thing about parenting and I felt very outside-ish about it. That was already going through my head and when I picked on this theme I was pulling all of that stuff that I had experienced. And definitely, I hope people do see it’s cathartic. Some people said to me pregnant woman might get really disturbed by the film but I thought, well…they’re about to give birth! I don’t think we should patronise them, really. They’re about to go through something very painful and life-changing and I think pregnant women are a lot stronger than we think they are.

Just because I’m pregnant, I’m not going to stop watching horror. I’m not going to be a different person to what I was before, it’s only society that changes me. And I hope people watch the film and go “this is all the stuff I’m not allowed to do.” There’s a relief in that. You don’t have to join this club and stop being an individual. I still feel anger at that. You don’t have to pack all that stuff away, never to be seen again, which I think is really unhealthy.

How are pregnant viewers responding to the film?

A lot of people responded to it in a very interesting way. Some pregnant woman responded like “ooh, biting my nails”. And that’s OK. Everybody is an individual. I just was cool watching horror while I was pregnant. There’s a lot of taboo stuff that I put in there, which I thought it was current and people don’t talk about it, specially all that sort of trendy new parenting stuff like pre-navel yoga and all that. It’s supposed to calm me down but I just feel stressed out by it. It’s just weird.

Having said that, the midwife is the one character that runs throughout it, as well as my character. I wanted her to be somewhat annoying at the beginning, like one of those very stiff, stereotypical “talks to like you’re a child” but as the story goes on you can see she does care and is a good person.

I kind of wanted to show the good in both sides of the story. The main character, Ruth, has a dark view of the world, but that doesn’t mean all pregnant women share that view. She’s just one individual having her own personal struggle. That was also what I wanted to say; female characters, pregnant characters are individuals. They don’t have to make the same choices that everybody would make. You don’t have to judge them for it. It’s just fiction. She does weird stuff. As an actress that was one of the things I wanted to express. You don’t have to write a female character that speaks for all women.

I thought the first two victims were so wonderfully repellent and then the third one was nice, just not very lucky. Don’t you consider the average kind of viewer would be alienated by it?

I definitely wanted it to be quite alienating. I was trying to do an inverse character arc when you almost start by hating someone and then you come to empathise with him because you come to understand him. It’s a little bit of a risky enterprise. You’re not supposed to do that according to the screenwriting book. You are supposed to save the cat early on. You are supposed to see the hero being really kind and rescuing people and then you like them, but I wanted to do the opposite. This woman is pregnant and we are very used to, as a society, to treat her like “ooh she’s pregnant, you got to be nice to her. Isn’t she lovely?”. And I just wanted to test how far the audience would go for her.

And also, the first two characters I deliberately wanted to make them seen they might be victims of this sort of feminist vengeance and then flip it on its head by going…”No! it’s not about men”. It’s society what she hates. They way society it’s treating her baby or treating her And the kind of hypocrisies she is experiencing.

It’s kind of an interesting way to alienate people as well. Kind of going to my preoccupations. This is a sort of an alien character and feels that what is happening to her is strange and new. So thought it all had to be a bit futuristic in a kind of retro-y way. I deliberately wanted the audience to not feel comfortable at any stage. Like showing you pictures of spiders early on, I really wanted you to feel the discomfort of not really knowing where you are of how. Like This was a new story for you and you haven’t seen or felt this before. So the film is doing that and changes tonally as well so one minute you are laughing, then you are scared; next minute you’re feeling sorry for her and then you feel sorry for him.

But in the third victim scene I wanted to challenge her world view. In my mind she’s a very dark super heroine and got special powers, the special powers of pregnancy. But that’s the point where she starts to doubt whether what she’s doing is right. That is the challenge presented when someone is actually nice instead of being so horrible.

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(roberawards) Congratulations on the best Nik Kershaw rendition ever.

I still cringe when I watch that.

(roberawards) This film feels in tone like a perfect companion for ‘Sightseers’ and I wanted to ask what did you bring from that film? Did you find in this mix of comedy and horror a way worthy of further exploration? And how did you jump from being an actress in that movie to directing?

I co-wrote ‘Sightseers’ and I’d say it’s not a sequel, but genetically they are related. A lot of it it’s just my sense of humour. I got a dark sense of humour. I like improvisation as well. Realism mixed with surrealism. For me the major thing that I developed on from ‘Sightseers’ was that there’s much more of a drama sense to ‘Prevenge.’ Some of the themes are a bit more serious. I could have had a really funny reason about why she’s doing what she’s doing but I wanted to keep it serious because I actually think pregnancy is quite serious. I’ve seen enough things to joke about it, but I just wanted there to be a really dark crisis going on in her world that was real and tangible. The fact that death is mixed up with birth and life for her is kind of experimenting a little more with drama and psychological thriller; a bit more than ‘Sightseers’. But I do feel everything is a development on.

I didn’t go to film school, so everything is a learning curve for me and it’s all about on using the things that you’ve learned and pushing them a little bit further. I hope I’m going to branch out even more. I want to do different genres. People often talk about me in relation to horror but I actually do quite a lot of surrealism. I would love to do sci-fi, period things. My next film is going to be quite concept driven. I can’t really talk about it yet, cause isn’t really ready. For me it’s pushing my own boundaries, even if it’s not pushing other people’s because they may think “who do you think you are?” I like to play around with ideas and make sure the audience feel like they are seeing something that is “my brand,” even when doing lots of different things. They way that I talk about certain filmmakers is like when I say Kubrick you know exactly what that means or people have their preconception about what a Kubrick film is. I would like to make films where people start thinking of them as having their own personality or brand to it. That would be the dream. Whether I can achieve it or not. I don’t know.

(roberawards) I have noticed that you introduced really good everyday observations about the life of a pregnant woman with a sort of feminist touch. Particularly the scene in which she goes to a job interview and she gets rejected just because of her state. Is there a message you particularly wanted to be in the movie about this matters?

I wanted to be a film about humanity in society, not just about feminism. Even if I am a feminist. I wanted it to be about how society judges each other and the hypocrisies it shows. I just deliberately wanted to lead you at this halfway point when you think it’s only men she’s going to kill.But then that killing was much more a satire about fears that you have when you are about to have a baby. “People are nice to me now, but what about when my child is 18. Are they still going to be nice to my child?” The same way society protect children. What about when that child becomes an adult?. I still want society to protect him, but will it?

Also I live in a city, so day to day I see how kind other people. Someone offers you their seat because you are pregnant; or hey help you up the stairs with the pram and you start to see society on a different way because you are marginalised in a funny kind of way. For instance, I really notice the lack of disable access now that I’ve got a pram. You start to think about the world in a different way because you are thinking in someone else.

I also wanted to have a bit of satire about office and city workers. Everyone seem a bit like ‘The Apprentice” when I was writing that scene. I knew nothing about business when I first started watching ‘The Apprentice’ and I remember it horrified me. Now some of those references about capitalism, etc. has become kind of indoctrinated within us. Even Donald Trump, for God’s sake! Look where we are in here. It feels like a lot of these lessons have been absorbed. That it’s OK to be selfish. It’s OK to squeeze someone else over for your own sake. And I was born in the seventies, so I am from a still slightly hippy-ish generation and just watch this horror about where we are going towards. Definitely a lot of those things were feeding into the film and wanted it to open a discussion for other people about how they feel about the characters and how they feel about the scenes. It’s not for me to say I’m preaching this or that. There’s no doctrine about the film. It’s more asking people to see the way that we are now and how do we treat each other. And how do women treat other women. It’s not just men. It’s all of us doing it. ‘Prevenge’ is a modern satire in that way.

I had this idea about the lead character taking into trial in each single scene, questioning about who they (their victims) are and how they are before she kills them, just to make sure she has the right to kill them. I was reading Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’, actually, about the individual in relation to society and whether man is actually good or evil.

I notice a few nods to genre, horror films just as bullet points:

‘Possession’ in the alleyway scene?

Yes, it’s one of my favourite horrors.

‘Halloween’?

Yeah, there’s elements of that. There’s elements of horror. I also like lots of colour in it, so I was thinking a lot about De Palma, even if we didn’t have the budget for the lighting. We tried to get as much as we could.

That location with the climbing equipment?

We were so lucky with locations. We tried to make it as nice as we could. We had no money. We had no lighting and then we were lucky with locations like the reptile shop. That would have cost us a fortune! I even said to the art department, and they were laughing at me. “I want this scene to be green: another one to be blue, and another to be orange, like going through the circles of hell with each scene and each one to have its own feeling. We actually managed to get those things. We went to film at Saatchi & Saatchi and they had a blue, ice-like flab table. This is what I had in my head and we got it. There’s so many gratuitous things that happened like that. But to me that’s like approaching film-making the seventies way finding things like that. That was really exciting.

Prevenge screens at the London Film Festival on Sunday 16th, 12:15 h at Picturehouse Central.

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