The Review/ Interview/
Prevenge triple threat Alice Lowe redefines pregnancy as a horrorshow
Alice Lowe's Prevenge, which premiered at TIFF 16, opens onto an abyss which ends in rocks and water and, we will soon learn, death, but also life. The woman staring it down is seven and a half months pregnant, having learned she was carrying her boyfriend’s baby soon after he plummeted to his death down into this very abyss in a climbing accident. Life. Death.
This pre-partum horror, is the first feature film from writer/director/star Alice Lowe. Primarily known as a comic, the 39-year-old Brit co-wrote Ben Wheatley’s 2012 film Sightseers, the all-female sketch show Beehive and has also appeared in Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and Black Books. But when she first found out last year that she was pregnant, she wasn’t laughing anymore. “I was going through all this emotional thing of do I have any choice over my own body, over my own life, my own will?” she told Brill Films last month. “I think it’s a post-millennial problem that we’re all such babies ourselves. The idea of someone else being the most important centre of your universe is quite scary to our generation.”
The result is a black comedy starring a fetus that sounds like Shirley Henderson and thinks like Travis Bickle. “People think babies are sweet,” coos the baby inside her, “but I’m bitter.” Mother Ruth (Lowe) is a mild-mannered milquetoast who experiences a “hostile takeover” by her child, which moves her to kiss and kill a parade of men and women she meets over the course of the film. “You have no control,” Ruth’s doctor tells her. “She does.”
Written and directed in less than a month and privately financed, Prevenge is a cutting antidote to the pervasive male pregnancy narrative. Lowe was pushed to make the film because of the lack of female perspectives about a life event that struck her as “existential,” rather than physical. We spoke to Lowe via email about juggling art and motherhood, Taxi Driver and the rise of female horror film.
Prevenge was written when you were pregnant and “terrified about money.” You have also talked about people who hold off on having kids before they feel that, work-wise, “they have made it.” Do you think that it is primarily women who think this way and why?
I guess the obvious factor is a time constraint! Men seem to think they can be like Rod Stewart and pop out a few when they’re 70. Which of course, biologically, they can. No fair! So they can prioritise their career. Having said that, I do know a few men who wanted to wait until they’d “made it” before they got married and had a family. I now think this is a fallacy. What is “making it” anyway? It’s a moving goal post always elusively in the distance, even for hugely successful people. And I’ve found personally that having a kid shows people that you’re a grown-up, and it can be a big psychological shifting point for people, especially in an ego-fuelled industry.
Personally, I think it’s been great for me. Maybe I was a bit work-obsessed before and I feel having a baby has given me some needed perspective. I’ve chilled out a bit, especially when it comes to the emotional toll that the film industry can take on you. I’m a bit “who gives a fuck” now! As long as my kid is happy and there’s food on the table, I’m happy.
Weirdly, my career seems to have taken an up alongside having a baby. Which is not what you assume will happen! Mind you, I did make it patently clear that my “retirement” was not an option. I was working my ass off throughout [my pregnancy]. I felt like, if you want to prove to people you’re there to work, you need your productivity to be sky high. I guess I also had a minor existential crisis about whether as an “artist,” kids were the best option. And that’s kind of what the film is about. It’s about fears of loss of identity and the “death” of the old self. But I said to my friend recently, it’s like any kind of change. The caterpillar fears the chrysalis!
You first offered Prevenge to Jamie Adams [the director of Lowe’s last film, Black Mountain Poets], who suggested that you direct it. Though you had directed a short before, do you think you needed that push?
I was already developing a feature with a view to direct, so not really. It’s just that I wasn’t sure that directing whilst pregnant was a great idea! But Jamie is quite relentless in his pursuing of projects, so I do owe him thanks for putting the notion in my head, indeed! I think everybody needs some kind of karmic push to make anything. Often in life, I’ve felt a fear of doing something and wasted time perhaps griping about how “no one knew my potential.” I learned early on that you can regret not making something, but you’ll never regret making something. I made several no-budget short films with a collaborator Jacqueline Wright a few years ago, and the rewards we reaped in terms of experience and confidence were enormous.
Fear of criticism is huge, but you have to override it. I had wanted to direct a feature straightaway after Sightseers. But I was aware that I needed to try out a few ideas in short-form. I had a ball doing my short film and I felt like I was actually ready to make a feature. It was a confirmation of my suspicions that I really would love directing.
You mentioned that directing felt natural, but, to an outsider, you have gone from being in charge of a story (as a writer) to being in charge of a whole production. How was it different?
Hmm, to me it didn’t feel that different. I felt like everything was very smooth and enjoyable because I didn’t have to have any creative debates with anyone. The buck stopped with me and, god, did I enjoy that! The edit was a bit more terrifying as suddenly I realized the film’s flaws or successes would be entirely down to me. No one else to blame! But in terms of shooting, that’s where I’m in my element. I’m very economical in the way I like to shoot, and sometimes a bit impatient. I don’t like waiting, or downtime. I like energy and to keep moving.
I also love problem solving and thinking laterally about logistics. I started out in theatre and have often had a “holistic” approach to projects and ending up being my own costume designer, art department, first AD, you name it! Often, as an actress on someone else’s set, I’d be waiting for some problem to get fixed and thinking secretly to myself, “Why don’t they just do this? Or that?” But now I get to say that stuff out loud and not be thought of as “interfering!”
Prevenge had the feel of some of the films you have worked on before — Black Mountain Poets, Sightseers — was that intentional? Did you consult with any of your former directors for advice?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible directors. I learned loads from Edgar Wright [Hot Fuzz, The World’s End]. Paul King [The Mighty Boosh] was a long-term collaborator of mine in theatre from many years ago. And, of course, working with Ben Wheatley [Sightseers, Kill List] was an eye-opener. He gave me confidence to work in the way I wanted without feeling like that approach is “not allowed.”
In terms of style, I think there is a bit of a movement in UK comedy/film. Many people who watch these films internationally won’t realize that a lot of the people involved have collaborated and cross-pollinated over several years. It’s a style that’s evolving quite organically on its own steam! I have been using improv for many years, in TV and theatre mainly, so it’s a pleasure to be working in a manner that allows exploitation of that on the big screen.
I didn’t ask for any advice, although Gareth Tunley, who I had just filmed The Ghoul with, gave me some amazing and very useful notes on the film. You have to choose your critics very carefully during the creative process because sometimes your voice and ideas can get muddied by too many cooks, the wrong cooks! Besides, you want the film to be a surprise for some of your favourite people. I’m looking forward to showing Edgar the film as I feel like I’m one of his graduates!
You pitched Prevenge as a female Taxi Driver — why did you want to riff off that movie specifically?
To me, Taxi Driver is canon. And it’s a struggle to find female-led films, either with female protagonists or directors that belong to that very elite category. Something like The Piano has achieved that. Am I saying that Prevenge is like that? Ha, that would be nice! I just think, and I often say this to film students when I’m giving talks, that even if you’re writing a comedy, your aspiration should be serious. It can never hurt to try to deal with deep themes and questions. The jokes can come later.
I feel that “female” film, whatever that means, is actually a new genre. This means there’s a lot of new territory to explore and that is very exciting. But it also means covering ground that maybe was covered in the ‘70s with a lot of ground-breaking male-led films, in order to catch up! To me, Prevenge has this fable-like aspiration that you can achieve with a single, outsider protagonist. I wanted a female character going on a weird journey and an existential crisis because I feel that you don’t see that enough. A character whose decisions are alien to you and so you are forced, mugged really, into her perspective!
To finish off, I feel the music of* Taxi Driver*, that epic, narrative quality of the motif that just elevates it to this kind of opera of pre-destiny… I wanted THAT. Like Badlands, this sense that a small, individual tale is saying something bigger. That humans are just little pathetically unaware ants traversing god’s big picnic mat… I’ll shut up now, I’m getting way too pretentious.
In a previous interview, you mentioned having to discuss the likability of your character, Ruth. Why do you think this only seems to apply to women? And was the visceral aspect of the film a response to this hypocrisy (i.e. “there is no sweetness here”)?
As an actress, I’m exposed more than many to this kind of thing. “Likeability.” Before you know it, the characters you are being offered are the blandest, most uninspiring things you’ve ever read. Because a woman is judged by her behaviour, even when she’s a CHARACTER. Men onscreen are seen as individuals, women are not. This is why taxi drivers are not up in arms about the terrible rap that Travis Bickle gives them. There’s an understanding that it’s just an individual character, not representative of “all men” or “all taxi drivers.” I guess the anger that comes through in the film may well have to do with my irritation with this kind of thinking. I wanted to bust through a lot of myths and stereotypical constraints. With a big knife, ha ha.
I was convinced the baby in the film was voiced by Shirley Henderson.
Ha! Well Shirley was one of the inspirations! I guess we could have asked her, I’m a big fan. But, the way we were working and constantly changing the VO, it was just easier for me to do it and treat the sound in post. I had the idea that the baby is millions of years old, a goddess of anger, a Fury. So she’s very learned and wise, but also petty and misanthropic. This posh, whispery voice came out. She’s sweet, but insidious. We had a lot of conversations about VOs in film. Hal in Space Odyssey, Frank in Donnie Darko, even Athena as a ship masthead in Clash of The Titans. There’s a whole dissertation in there, somewhere.
There seems to be a push-and-pull throughout the film over whether or not being pregnant really does take us over, or whether we simply relate to it as a takeover. Where do you stand on that?
It doesn’t really change you, having a baby. You are still the same person. It’s just that your perspective has changed. I was worried I’d end up this Stepford Wife on the other side of pregnancy. But actually, I feel the same. Hormones do definitely have this power to turn you into some kind of Hulk or Jekyll and Hyde figure. I wanted to show that women can take responsibility for their actions, rather than be traditionally passive as they can be portrayed culturally.
You have mentioned both Bjork’s Vulnicura and Amanda Palmer’s open letter about motherhood as inspirations for Prevenge. How do you view being a parent as an artist?
I think the empty time you need to create (or even the hungover, bored, insomniac time) is something you have to reacquaint yourself with as a parent. All the work that I’ve been doing has been “finishing off” stuff. Edits, sound mixes, press, etc. A new project is more daunting! Having said that, I have loads of ideas and scripts and treatments that have been loitering around for a while. Once I get started, I’m very fast.
In terms of creative content, my work is becoming more confessional and personal, which is interesting because I never really did that much in my comedy work. I was never a stand-up with that routine about my mid-youth crisis! After birth, I feel like I’m entering this more “turning myself inside out” phase. I think when a certain amount of people have seen your fanny, you start to think that you haven’t got much to hide.
Prevenge falls within the same genre as your directorial debut (Solitudo) — what attracts you to the horror genre and why do you think there are so few good horror films (though I think women are changing that, like you, of course, not to mention Karyn Kusama, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent and others)?
Horror is something that just keeps popping up. I don’t always go out of my way to conform to that genre! Sometimes my stuff is just scary – people commented on that about my radio show (Alice’s Wunderland, BBC Radio 4). I think women have a natural tendency towards horror. It’s like pregnant women seeing Prevenge and being disturbed. I’m like, “They’re about to give birth. There’s going to be blood and transformations. They are going to be disturbed.” Women have this connection to blood and therefore mortality.
My favourite horrors are psychological. Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Carrie, The Shining. You don’t actually “see” anything. It’s all in the mind. These movies are frequently a metaphor for some kind of human threat. Paternal violence, baby stealing, school bullying, the death of a child, etc. A lot of modern horror is entirely disposable. Jump scares and some blue/grey grading. Utterly forgettable. My favourite horrors are only loosely classifiable as horror. The stories are actually about human dilemmas, modern myths, if you will. I studied Classics and every now and then some fragment of my degree comes back to me. And then I think, is this why I’m writing about revenge and murder and transformation? Because of The Oresteia that I did an essay on? Ovid’s Metamorphoses is arguably a horror book. It’s all about people turning into stuff against their will. Werewolves, anyone?
I’m a massive fan of all the female directors you mentioned. I would happily have watched any of their films as dramas. I just think the horror element is a visual metaphor that just tips the work into being completely cinematic. And as a genre, it’s very sellable. So all those filmmakers are all smart, as well as bloody talented.