Things get off to a bumpy start in our interview with Alice Lowe - the West Midlands actor, writer and director, whose debut feature Prevenge has been garnering acclaim at various festivals this year. A poor mobile phone signal seems set to derail our conversation early and relegate this feature to an article about how a writer in his twenties related to the struggles of a seven-month pregnant woman.
In a surreal extra twist, we have this conversation about a film that shows a heavily pregnant woman undertaking a homicidal campaign at the behest of her unborn child whist her own child coos and giggles in the background. ‘She’s not evil, I promise,’ Alice laughs, before continuing to discuss the impetus of the film. ‘I’ve always been attracted to the idea of making a female Taxi Driver, with a nod to revenge films. That type of linear narrative about a lone maverick really appeals to me and because I was pregnant during the development, I wanted to tell a pregnancy story, because it’s such a personal, transgressive stage.’
It would be fair to say that Lowe’s pregnancy tale is very different to the ones regularly churned out by Hollywood. Rather than being encouraged to giggle at the plights of morning sickness and the process of giving yourself over to the human being growing inside of you, Prevenge tells of the fears of the alien nature of the process. ‘Pregnancy has been so fetishised and infantised in our society and the way people talk about having a child, the way their personalities seem to change, represented something I simply didn’t recognise.’
It also tapped into fears Alice had had herself about maintaining an acting career when pregnant; as she rightly points out, there are few occupations where you can be so blatantly refused work because you don’t have the right look. She felt her ambition to direct may also have to be put on the backburner. ‘All the statistics show that despite the growing number of female directors, many of them drop out of that side of the industry when they have children.’
She thanks Jamie Adams, who directed Lowe in Black Mountain Poets, for getting the project off the ground. Having talked about working together again, Alice pitched the idea for Prevenge which was then picked up by with full funding, a short shoot and Alice at the helm. ‘I wrote the film in about two weeks and it was only a month and half between pitching the project and filming it,’ explains Lowe. ‘The whole shoot took eleven days and it was amazing to work with so many people I’d collaborated with in the past. Most of the parts were written for the actors who played them. We’d bring them in for a day of filming, kill them in the morning and improvise with them for the rest of the afternoon.’
The linear nature of the film is offset by the characterisation of Ruth, who, moments after being introduced, murders an admittedly unsettling, pervy pet store owner. This savage opening is a shock to an audience, unaccustomed to seeing a pregnant woman perform such dastardly acts, and yet the film lives and dies on maintaining our sympathy with the character.
‘It was important that the audience went on a journey with the character. So many films establish the heroes and villains within the first five minutes and the viewers feel comfortable with this. With Ruth I wanted to see how far I could push them, by showing her perform these terrible acts and then still drag that sympathy from them as they learn more about her circumstances and motives.’
Over the course of ninety minutes, we begin to understand the character a little more. She’s suffered a very recent bereavement and must go through the very infantilisation and patronisation that stirred Alice to write the film by herself. Add to this the stomach-churning misogynist DJ Dan (Tom Davis) and the cold businesswoman (Kate Dickie) who refuses to hire Ruth, without specifically mentioning her unborn child.
Lowe’s writing is the stand-out here. Not only do we develop an attachment to Ruth, no matter how extreme her actions become, but in single scenes we get huge amounts of character development for her victims. This is especially true for Kate Dickie’s character, whose cold, cruel exterior breaks down as she stumbles for an explanation and we get brief, but telling, insights into her own sacrifices. A comment on what women must forgo to be successful with this prevailing gender gap, perhaps?
The comedy isn’t missing, though, it’s just far more cutting, more realistic than Lowe’s scenarios and sight gags in Sightseers, which she co-wrote with Steve Oram. Could it be, I ask jokingly, that Oram was a calming, more positive voice during the scriptwriting process?
‘I think you could see Prevenge as an older sibling to Sightseers. Chris and Tina were very immature and their journey was one of growing up. Prevenge is different. Ruth is very much a realist, which is why she doesn’t buy into the fantasies surrounding pregnancy. She sees the world for how it is.’
She admits that the production companies were a little surprised during the edit, believing they were getting a much lighter, digestible film, but continues that she never felt any pressure during the edit. ‘I was juggling the baby and the edit, but I went with my instincts. This was such a personal project to me that I didn’t feel I couldn’t compromise what I’d envisioned.’
With that in mind, the response the film has received, both at the Toronto and Venice festivals, must have come as a surprise. ‘There was definitely a curiosity surrounding the film, even before production, because, as far as I know, I was the first pregnant woman to direct a picture and the story obviously garnered some interest from the press. The response has been more than I could have expected - a lot of women have told me that Ruth’s story is actually very cathartic because it doesn’t exacerbate the stereotype that women should be continuously blissful during their pregnancy.'
So, would it be assumptious to ask if Alice is going to take any time off, now that she’s a mother and her debut is in the bag? As it turns out, there’s already another project in the works. ‘It’s in the embryonic stages now, but it’s crazier than anything I’ve done before. It’s not a horror film exactly, it’s more conceptual. My ideas are often more visual and it’s difficult to put them across on the page, so directing my own projects continues to be the main aim.’
Plenty to be excited about then, because if Sightseers established Lowe as a razorsharp wit, her debut feature shows an impressive eye for bringing her scripts to life. Ryan Eddleston, who worked on such visual delights as American Interior, brings a grim edge to the hustle and bustle of Cardiff, the ideal landscape for Lowe’s grim characters to act out her dark, fantastical concepts.
Prevenge is a film that leaves you rocked. It’s both realistic and surreal, with the birth drenched in bloody, disturbing imagery. A final backlash against those myths women are exposed to on a regular basis. With this, Alice Lowe propels herself amidst the surge of British directors making a name for themselves. But beneath the gore and too-human dialogue, there remains something very playful about the way she builds her narratives.
‘I’m interested in the grey areas between genres. David Lynch, especially Twin Peaks, the Coen Brothers; these people know how to make films that are both humourous and scary. Someone like Mike Leigh, who creates these kitchen sink dramas which are still tremendously funny.’
At the start of our conversation Alice mentioned her desire to make a female Taxi Driver. While Ruth may never be as iconic as de Niro’s Travis Bickle, she is cut from the same cloth. Both are responses to failures in society, portrayed in ways which disturb, entertain and, ultimately, spark conversations in their wake.