Alice Lowe is expounding on some particulars about shot selection in her directorial debut “Prevenge,” urged on by a nerdy film writer, when she loses her train of thought looking at the eight-month-old she’s bouncing on her knee.
“It’s so funny, I always say something really pretentious and deep, and she’s just like, “’Ha, yeah, right, haha,’” Lowe grins, before cooing back at her daughter Della Moon, “You’re just laughing at me, aren’t you, with your boogie? Your boogie and your nose?”
While it’s clear Lowe appreciates having someone to keep her honest, she has made a film you actually should go deep on, and though it’s clear these days Della Moon is calling the shots, the writer/actress’ decision to take the director’s chair just before learning she was pregnant results in the kind of brilliantly funny and delightfully subversive satire on societal expectations that made her previous feature outing as a writer, “Sightseers,” directed by Ben Wheatley in 2012, so resonant. With “Prevenge,” Lowe envisioned exactly the scenario she finds herself in now, except instead of carrying around a beautiful, cherubic child with simple obsessions like boogers, she plays Ruth, an expectant mom whose unborn is demanding that she kill people.
Off that simple hook, Lowe constructs a vengeance-driven thriller unlike any other, with the baby’s targeted hits taking on a certain design and the filmmaker’s own aim coming into focus as her frenzied killing spree in Cardiff begins, slashing through the time-old stereotypes around motherhood in the process and putting the lie both the sanitized, flowery notions of pregnancy that have long dominated the public consciousness as well as the suggestions of what a burden it can be. Shooting the film in just 11 days when she just two months away from her due date, Lowe was walking proof that there isn’t any one single experience of pregnancy, but through a stirring synth score from TOYDRUM and a phantasmagoric visual style with an extremely vivid color palette to accentuate Ruth’s surging hormones, she enables the audience to feel it as intensely she did.
After knocking out audiences at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, “Prevenge” arrives this week at Lowe’s native London Film Festival and while multitasking during our interview as she tended to Della Moon, she found the time to speak about seizing the opportunity to direct her first feature, figuring out a cleverly economical way to make the most out of a tight shooting schedule, and shooting the film while pregnant and coming back to edit it after giving birth.
Yeah, it just seemed to be the obvious thing because I was writing more and just having more and more control over my projects by virtue of producing them. Maybe it gives you a taste of power, where something you start going, “Oh, I’ve had creative control here and I got good results.” It started to become inevitable for me that I wanted to direct. Also, I’m very visual, and that’s very difficult to translate what you really want in a script without showing instead of just telling, so there were other projects I was working on to direct, then I got pregnant and I’d [just] done a feature film [“Black Mountain Poets”] in five days with this director Jamie Adams. He came to me and said, “Do you want to do another film? It went so well.”
I was like, “Yeah, I would, but I am pregnant, so we’re going to have to put that on hold,” but I just went away and thought, “What am I doing? This could be a really good opportunity to keep working and avoid the dreaded imposed maternity leave [since] as a freelancer, you’re not earning any money and you’re scared and thinking, ‘Where’s the money for nappies going to come from?'” I said, “Look, I’ve got an idea. It’s me as a pregnant character. It’s a revenge story. Here’s a treatment for it.” He’s like, “This is great, but I can’t direct it because I do rom-coms and this is really dark and sinister. I think you should.”
My initial thought was that would be ridiculous, but then I just thought, why not? If they’re mad enough to let me do it, I should just do it. Then it started happening, and because I was pregnant, we didn’t have much time to divvy. It just had to happen really fast, and then every single part of it felt weirdly smooth and easy. Everything just fell into place like it was meant to be. Before I knew it, I was directing the film and planning to edit once I’d had the baby. I would have thought I was a bit crazy, but it worked out really well.
It seems like you made it really easy on yourself with how economical the story is. Did you actually construct the film around your 11-day schedule so you’d be shooting basically a scene a day?
I definitely went, “We don’t have many days of shooting. We don’t have much money, but what if I devised it as a series of two-handers? We’d have one actor on one day on one location, so that each scene would be at least ten minutes long, some of them a bit shorter, some of them a bit longer.” And the idea was that we’d get that cast member and play with them, maybe get all the special effects done and kill them in the morning, and then do the rest of the playing around with the lines and the dialogue for the rest of the day. That was how, in my head, I could structure it so that we could get as much on camera by the end of each day.
It’s definitely a script that was birthed out of necessity. A lot of the constraints upon it are practical constraints and I love that in terms of creativity, like you have to think laterally. I was thinking each scene had to have a different tone and a different twist to it… and it’s such a dark film. Each of these characters has sinned in some way, but in a different way. Maybe one of them is guilty of narcissism and the other one is guilty of lust — there wasn’t a conscious division of things, but just to make sure there was a spread of annoying people. In that sense, there’s class satire in a way because it’s all the type of people that I thought would have been involved in this incident. It’s quite fun because I expected there to be more criticism of that, like, “Oh, it’s quite episodic or a bit predictable,” but people aren’t really noticing that.
In a strange way, this felt connected to “Sightseers” in its social conscientiousness — whereas “Sightseers” was about the pressure to become a couple, this would seem like a logical step in considering society’s expectations of being a mother. Are those considerations actually part of the inspiration?
It wasn’t consciously a sequel in my head, but tonally it’s very much related DNA-wise. There’s was this conflation of lots of those different ideas that were going on. A lot of it was coming from my personal experience of what I was feeling [being pregnant] and the fears that I was having about my career and what it meant for me as an actress. We’re sort of a narcissistic and immature generation and I definitely put all the fears associated with having a child and handing over the focus upon yourself to someone else into the script. In that sense, it was quite personal. And there’s something satirical as well that I wanted to do in terms of this sense that when you have a child, suddenly society is supposed to be kind to you and help you, and the irony is why we don’t just think that about everybody? Why is it only babies and pregnant women get treated well? Why can’t we all treat each other well and then the world might be a nice place?
Also, there’s an outsiderness that I felt as an expecting mother, that I would be going to yoga classes, really [feeling like] the odd one out, [thinking] that no one’s telling the truth here about, “It’s frightening. We’re all going to be in pain in a few months and in hospital,” and everyone’s very much sanitizing the whole thing into this beautiful experience.” I felt that actually restraining, and that this film was like a big knife slashing through a lot of that kind of pretension and mythology, so it was like a primal scream in the sense that it felt like this pregnancy is not what I’ve been told — and I was actually enjoying my pregnancy, but there’s something very intense, even the hormones that you experience, and it’s a roller coaster of emotions you go through, and I I wanted to reflect all of that in a quite visceral, sensory way. So it started off as very much a funny idea, and then the more I got into it, the deeper and the darker it got.
I do think that’s actually how you make a film that lasts a little bit longer as well. From a personal ambition standpoint, when I look at the people I admire and the films that they’ve done, it’s not necessarily those films were admired at the time or even seen by many people. It’s more that they’ve lasted 20 years later because they were saying something. I’ve done so much comedy, and I find it deeply satisfying that people get stuff from “Sightseers” that is thematic and they can investigate it as deeply as they want, and I wanted to do that with this film as well, that people could take it at whatever level they wanted to. If they want to see it as just a slasher film, then fine, and just enjoy it, or if this is actually saying something [more], then they can analyze it at that level as well.
You mention making this a visceral experience. How did you go about creating the look and soundscape of the film?
I really wanted to prove myself as a director, as well, [and for] people to realize that I’ve got a visual mind, which they might not if they’ve looked at my TV work. As I said, pregnancy is quite a vivid, trippy experience, and I’m really influenced by ‘60s and ‘70s culture and filmmaking. I didn’t go to film school, but I really wanted to use symbolism and throwing things at the audience that they weren’t expecting and taking them in different directions tonally so that they really felt discomfort, and adhere to those cinematic principles which some people might think are a bit old-fashioned.
The dream horror sequence at the end was influenced [a bit] by “Willy Wonka,” where [Willy Wonka] goes into the tunnel, and I said to the editor and the composer, “There’s all these weird creatures [in the tunnel] and this weird eerie music, juxtaposed with the candy brightness of the sweets — I kinda want it to be that.” Even the black and white footage that we used, which is from a film called ‘”Crime and Punishment” from 1932, uses symbolism. It uses close-up of an eye and blood spot — and that’s why I wanted to use that, because this is dealing with these ancient themes that go back to even classical theater of ancient Greece about revenge, bloodshed, identity, responsibility and society. Bloody fun that.
I’m glad you brought it up because those are the bits that I’m proudest of, that feel like, “Yeah, we did that under budget and we’ve affected people.” There’s something when you’re filming very quickly and you get a lot of footage, but you don’t know what patchwork quilt you’re going to be making. I knew a lot of it was going to be using editing in an interesting way and really trolling through all of this raw footage that we have to make something. I was working with amazing composers who are friends of mine that just did this incredible, instinctive job, and working with the sound designer Martin Pavey, who had worked on my short film as well, was just incredible. He elevates it to a whole new level that you didn’t even know it had. When I’m talking about my favorite horror films, it’s [often] about the way the editing makes you feel and shakes your sense of reality and makes you feel uneasy. That was amongst my impulses when I was thinking about the film.
Even though each of the kills is distinctive, you do tend to have a signature shot – one image after the deed’s been done that seems to be there to stick with an audience…
Oh really, like what? [laughs] I’m just still so excited to be talking about my film, like, “Oh! He speaks that?”
I wouldn’t want to spoil any of them for readers, but it’s ingenious because at least for me, there’s at least a few striking images that would seem to linger on in the memory anything far more than if you had created far more elaborate sequences.
What’s quite interesting is, and I’ve been interested in this for a while, the idea of filming in two different styles rather than choosing one style and sticking with it, especially when you’re shooting low-budget. Many people would think maybe if it’s a low budget film, you can’t have any murders in it because how the hell would you do the effects and the stunts in such a short time? You can, but only if you film in two different manners. Half of it, you’re filming handheld, documentary-style, with the lighting pre-set so that all the [production tools are] hidden, so that you’re filming 360 degrees around the room, you can just roam wherever you want and the cameraman just follows you. The other half of it would be shooting these very static shots, which are much more composed. That’s maybe why [what you’re saying] occurs, without me even intending it, because those shots are very, very fixed. “If you move an inch to the right, you’ll see the blood tube. If you move an inch to the left, you’ll see that it’s not me in this [scene]. It’s a stunt person.” So a lot of those shots were really static.
She’s giggling away, sorry. [laughs, looking down at Della] No, it’s true. It was like that. Having said the whole point of the film was to say pregnancy doesn’t change you, you are the person that you are, just maybe with an alternate perspective, I do watch it and go, “I don’t know if I would have written this now,” because it was all about what I feared [what] pregnancy or having a child would be, which I now don’t feel. I’m like, “Oh, it’s fine. I’m the same person I always was, the kid’s really nice and I got to make a film while I was pregnant. How brilliant is that?” I feel like the luckiest person in the world — I’ve had two really fantastic experiences. Then I think, “But was it so fantastic because I put all those fears into the film.”
I was scared of not working. I was maybe scared of being a different person, but I had continuity of who I was by just going and doing a project that’s very personal to me, putting my ideas out there and creating my own directorial voice for the first time through a film. It was very therapeutic for me in the sense that I didn’t sit home alone with the baby just for hours, going, “Where are all my friends? Where are all my work colleagues?” Because I was seeing people [through the production] and had a project that I was really involved in.
The edit was trickier than the filming, because you shoot for a short time and you have a short burst of energy. I was really in my element, and then suddenly, I’ve got a new baby and the edit was much more logistically difficult because there might be a day where I’m like, “Look, I’ve got to take the baby to the doctors and I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that.” It was quite fragmented. I was just really lucky that I had this production company that didn’t put any pressure on me. It was all a bit organic and what I found from that is it was quite a unique opportunity to me to be isolated with [the film] and not have many people involved at all.
It’s actually a really lucky, privileged position to be in. My execs gave me absolute creative trust and freedom. I was by myself. A lot of the time, I was doing it from home and I was trusting my own intuition about what the project was. I had this brilliant editor who was happy to try everything and go out of his own comfort zone about what the project was. We got there in the end. That was the biggest learning curve for me, I think — how to carve an emotional journey out of the film, and we did a bit of juggling with that.
I realized that it was about a very subjective journey, like, even the music and the quirkiness that it has, it’s not like standard thriller or horror music, and I feel like the music gives you permission to realize, “Oh, this is just one person’s story. It’s not trying to tell you that all pregnant women are like this. This is just one weirdo and their weird little journey that they’re on, and this is the soundtrack to their life. This is what they’re hearing.” There’s almost something a bit epic or superhero-y about the music, narrating how she feels about what she’s doing, that it’s kind of fate or it’s this kind of pre-destiny or she’s a heroine in her own mind. That was a bit of an arc, and I’m being honest when I say that a lot of that stuff I knew but I didn’t really know until we really were stuck into the edit.
I look back on it and go, “Right, I’ve got to do another film now.” That’s more scary than anything else.