Louis Chilton had the pleasure of being part of a group interview with director, writer and actress Alice Lowe, who gave us an insight into the making of her directorial debut ‘Prevenge’.
Prevenge is your debut film as a director, but you also wrote and starred in it. This is pretty unusual for a first-time director. How did you find it?
It’s greedy of me, isn’t it? I mean it was great. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t think I was going to direct pregnant. That wasn’t the plan. I came up with the idea for a director called Jamie Adams, who did a film called Black Mountain Poets. When I gave him the pitch, he was like ‘this is brilliant but I can’t direct this because I do rom-coms. And this is really dark. I think you should direct it. I knew I wanted to direct anyway, but was I really planning to star, write, direct, all while pregnant? It wasn’t the plan. At the same time I did think if I could pull it off… For me and my frustrations over a long period of time, really wanting to direct but people don’t trust you until they trust you. It’s one of those catch 22 things that you can’t make a first film until you’ve made a first film, because you’re not experienced enough. You end up in a cycle. But I thought if I could pull it off, they’ll let me do what I wanted.
You fight a battle to protect your creative voice. Especially with film, where you’re dealing with budgets and people are scared to give you money in case you screw it up. This is low budget, this is the time to take that risk. Once I’ve done it, hopefully people will go ‘we understand what you can do, now’. It was a terrifying decision. It was kind of a kamikaze approach. Do or die. Just take the plunge. I’d done a lot of short films, and you never regret making something. You can regret not making something. That had become my mantra. Once you’ve made a short film, good or bad, no-one can take it away from you, and you’ve had that learning experience. I did use a lot of what I’ve learned over the years, making low budget films, improvised films, guerrilla films. I’ve put all of that into the film. It’s still a massive learning curve for me. You can’t learn until you take that plunge. You can’t get any better until you’ve made the bad thing. Though hopefully it isn’t a bad film. Touch wood.
I’ve been stunned by the reactions. I was really looking forward to showing it in the UK, in London. With humour, it doesn’t always translate round the world, into different languages. If people can watch it at 9 in the morning and still get it, it made me feel positive about the reaction it’s gonna get. We’ve got a premiere tomorrow. A lot of the cast are seeing it who’ve never seen it before. The turnover of the film, getting it made, was so quick we haven’t shown it to anyone, really. First time showing it was in Venice, and that was nerve-wracking.
There was a through-line in the film wanting to dissect the normal picture-perfect image of pregnancy.
The good thing about writing the film very quickly, over a couple of weeks, was that I’d already done the research. I was right in the middle of the research. It was kind of a strange, odd person, a freelancer, suddenly joining this club which is pregnancy – what I see as being this industrialised, fetishized thing of parenting. I felt very outsiderish and strange about it. That was already going through my head. When I picked up on this theme I was then pooling all this stuff I’ve experienced. I hope people do see it as cathartic. Some people have said to me ‘Do you think pregnant women might get disturbed by the film?’ Well, they’re about to give birth. I don’t think we should patronise them. They’re about to go through something very painful and life-changing. I think pregnant women are stronger than we think they are. Just cos I’m pregnant I’m not gonna stop watching horror. I’m not going to be a different person than before. It’s only society that would change me. I hope people do watch it and go ‘this is all the stuff I’m not allowed to do. There’s a relief in that, a release. You don’t have to join this club. You can still feel anger and stuff. Just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you have to pack all this stuff away, never to be seen again.
“You fight a battle to protect your creative voice”
Have any pregnant viewers approached you about the film?
Well a few pregnant people have said they’d booked, and I was biting my nails. Everyone’s an individual, and just because I’m cool watching horror, doesn’t mean everyone is going to be like that. I feel like people really responded to it in an interesting way. There’s a lot of taboo stuff that I put in there that’s current, that people don’t talk about. Especially all this trendy parenting stuff like prenatal yoga. It’s supposed to calm you down and I just got stressed out by it. I just wanted to put a pin in all that stuff. The midwife character – the one character who runs throughout it other than my character – I wanted her to be sort of annoying at the beginning, talks to you like a child. But as the story pushes on, you see she’s got some mettle to her and does care. I wanted to show both sides of the story. It is an unhinged person, with a dark view of the world, but all pregnant women shouldn’t have that view. She’s just one individual having her own personal struggle. Female characters are individuals. She does weird stuff. It’s a fantasy, a fiction. As an actress that’s one of the things I wanted to express. You don’t have to write a female character and have that character speak for all women. It’s just one subjective viewpoint. Once I sort of realised that in the edit, it’s just one person’s weird story. Once you get on board with that as an audience, you can kind of relax into it.
Do you think you ran the risk of alienating the audience?
I definitely wanted it to be quite alienating. I wanted to do an inverse character arc, where you start off hating someone, and come to empathise as you come to understand them. It’s a risky enterprise really. You’re not supposed to do that according to the screenwriting books. You’re supposed to save the cat early on. You’re supposed to see the hero being kind and rescuing people, then you like them. I wanted to do the opposite. I just wanted to test how far the audience would go. This woman’s pregnant. We’re very used to society saying you should be nice to her, isn’t she lovely? The first two characters I deliberately wanted to make it seem like they might be victims of a sort of feminist vengeance, and then flip it on its head by going, it’s not. It’s not about men, it’s about society that she hates, and the hypocrisy that she’s experiencing, as she sees it. I did want to alienate people. It’s interesting word, alienate. This is a secret sci-fi. That doesn’t have to be out there for everyone to see. This is an alien character, she feels like everything happening to her is very strange and new. The score and everything has to be quite futuristic in a retro way. I didn’t want the audience to feel comfortable at any stage. I’m showing you pictures of spiders early on. I wanted you to feel this discomfort, not quite know where to put your sympathies. I was deliberately doing that, and changing it tonally as well. You’re laughing, and next minute you’re scared. You’re feeling sorry for her, then sorry for him. I think Mike Wosniak’s scene is where she challenges her worldview. She’s like a sort of anti-superheroine. She’s got these special powers of pregnancy. But that’s the point at which she starts to doubt whether what she’s doing is right. That’s the challenge I gave her.
“I wanted to do the opposite. I just wanted to test how far the audience would go”
What did you bring from Sightseers?
I co-wrote sightseers. It’s not a sequel but genetically they’re related. Siblings or something. A lot of it is just my dark sense of humour. I like improvisation, realism mixed with surrealism. For me the major thing that I developed on from Sightseers is there’s much more of a drama sense to Prevenge. Some of the themes of it are more serious. I could have made a funny reason for why she’s doing what she’s doing but pregnancy is quite serious. I’ve seen enough things that joke about it. Even though there are jokes about pregnancy I just wanted there to be this really dark crisis going on in her world that was real and tangible. Death is mixed up with birth and life for her. So something that should be exciting, is all mixed up. Everything’s a development. I didn’t go to film school, so everything’s just a learning curve for me. I hope that I’m gonna branch out even more, do a bunch of different genres. I see myself more as a fantasy writer. People often talk about me in relation to horror, but I do quite a lot of surrealism. I’d love to do sci-fi, I’d love to do period things. My next film is going to be quite concept-driven. It isn’t really ready to be talked about yet. For me it’s about pushing my own boundaries. Other people might be like ‘Who do you think you are?’ But for me I’m doing something new. I’m just trying to play around with ideas recently. And make sure that the audience feels like they can recognise it as my brand. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do lots of different types of things. When you say ‘Kubrick’ people know exactly what that means. I would like to make films where people start to think of it as having its own personality or brand, having recognisable traits. Whether I can achieve it I don’t know.
On that note, I notice you introduce a lot of everyday observations about pregnancy. Is there a particular message?
I wanted it to be a film about humanity and society, not just feminism. Even though I am a feminist. I wanted it to be about how society judges each other, and the hypocrisies of society. I deliberately wanted to lead you up this blind path where you think it’s only men that she’s going to kill. The fears that you have, ‘People are nice to me now, but what about when my child is 18, are they still going to be nice to my child?’ You have all these fears and existential crises about what society is. Also I live in the city, and the film’s set in a city, and you suddenly have this fear about how kind other people are. Especially day to day… is someone gonna offer their seat if you’re pregnant? Is someone going to help you up the stairs with a pram? You start to see society in a different way because you’re marginalised in a funny kind of way. Like, I really notice the lack of disabled access, now that I’ve got a pram. Which I never did before.
I wanted to have a satire of this office, of the city workers. Maybe I was thinking about The Apprentice when I was writing that scene. I knew nothing about business when I first started watching The Apprentice and I was horrified. Now some of those lessons about capitalism become indoctrinated within us. You can see it in Donald Trump, for god’s sake. Look where we are with him. A lot of these lessons have been absorbed. It’s okay to be selfish, it’s okay to compete, it’s okay to screw someone else over for your own sake. I was born in the 70s, still sort of a happyish generation, and I just have this horror about where we’re going towards. I want it to open discussion for other people about how they feel about the characters, the scenes. It’s not for me to preach this or that. There’s no feminist doctrine that I’m trying to teach. It’s more asking people to see the way we are now. How do we treat each other? It’s a modern satire in that way. And how do women treat other women? It’s not just men. It’s all of us. We’re all judging each other all the time. I had this idea that the lead character is taking people to trial in each of the scenes, making sure that she was right to kill them. I was reading Hobbes, I was reading Leviathan, which is about the individual in relation to the state, and whether humankind in naturally evil or not. Dealing with good and evil. Which pops up in my work, for whatever reason.
Were there other references to horror films in there?
Possession is one of my favourite horrors. There’s elements of horror generally. You set something at Halloween, you’re gonna have all of those repercussions. I also wanted a lot of colour in it. I was thinking a lot about DePalma. We didn’t have the budget for the lighting, but I wanted to get as much that was already there. We were so lucky with locations. I kept thinking we’ll try and make it look as nice as it can, but the reptile shop was the biggest coup ever. I said to the art department all these demands and they had been laughing at me. I wanted this scene to be green. This scene to be blue. I wanted to go through the circles of hell, with each scene. Each scene to have its own feeling. And we actually did get those things. We filmed at Saatchi & Saatchi and they had a big blue, ice-like slab table. This is what I had in my head. There were so many fortuitous things that happened like that. To me that’s the thrill of approaching filmmaking in this 70s way, you find stuff like that that’s so exciting.