A set visit and interview feature on Alice Lowe’s horror-comedy Prevenge, published in two parts at Rue Morgue.
Update – January, 2018
The above links now seem to be dead, so here’s the whole thing (in a single instalment as originally submitted to RM).
PREVENGE – ALICE LOWE
Pregnancy for most working women means maternity leave, but for Alice Lowe there’s been no feet-up opportunity. She’s channelled her childbearing experience into writing and starring in PREVENGE: also her first feature film as director. Somewhat disturbingly, it’s a violent black comedy about a rage-fuelled woman with a kill list. Rue Morgue joined Alice in November, 2015, a couple of days from the end of the brutally fast 11-day shoot. Over the course of only a few hours we watched set-ups at a pre-natal yoga class in Clerkenwell; some guerrilla filming out on the street in London; and the aftermath of a Halloween party sequence in the Lambeth home of producer Jen Handorf (it’s now Wednesday: Handorf’s husband had a real party there the previous weekend and was instructed not to clean up). It was here that we finally managed to sit down with Alice for a sandwich and a story-so-far…
RM: So did Jen willingly offer you her house for this?
AL: Yes! She’s been very chilled about it. I feel sorry for her. We’ve completely taken over. We’re filming a bit of the ending today, set at a Halloween party. We’ll get the rest of it on Friday and there’ll be a lot of people dressed in Halloween make-up. We’ve just picked up a little bit where my waters are breaking, so we’ve basically had our exec throwing water between my legs while I squat over his hand. It’s like I’ve really given birth. Everyone’s seen my fanny now.
Is it difficult to maintain dignity and decorum when you’re the director but you also have to perform scenes like that?
I feel like the crew have just seen everything! There was one scene with me in the bath looking at my bump, so my boobs are in that. As a director I just walk on set and get my clothes off and get in the bath. That was the first scene! Then I had some friends come in to do another scene, and I was trying to be really grown up and give them my director spiel. And behind me was the laptop of our IT guy, and the screen was just me in the bath with my tits out. I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I shut the laptop really quickly. And they were very polite and said they didn’t see anything. There have been a few moments like that. I don’t have time to feel embarrassed.
It’s an incredibly short production. What’s the story behind it?
I wrote it very quickly. I worked with Jamie Adams last year on a film called BLACK MOUNTAIN POETS, for five days. He contacted me and asked if I wanted to do something else, and it had opened my eyes to be able to do a film in five days and get away with it. But I was pregnant! But I did have this one idea that was completely crazy. I’d always wanted to do a female Taxi Driver, basically, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. Maybe I’m wrong: maybe somebody has done it. Your readers will tell us.
Ms. 45, maybe?
Yes! I’ve seen that. That did go through my mind, actually. But yes, then I started thinking about a pregnant character, and why a pregnant character might start killing. I pitched it to Jamie, and he sent it to Vaughan [Sivell, producer], and they were like, ‘Let’s do it!’ And then I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s… very fast!’ I think I wrote the initial script in about three afternoons, because I was also doing a radio show and a lot of other stuff. It did get expanded, but we are essentially only working from a second draft. But having said that, it’s this really fresh thing where you’re not going through a development process. It’s so nice to cut out those middlemen. We’ll essentially lose the stuff that doesn’t work in the edit, but it’s been lovely to play out these long scenes and find out what’s wrong with them as we’re doing them. Luckily I had an amazing production team to help set it up. You could spend many months in pre-production with nothing happening, but because I’m pregnant it had to happen now. It galvanised the production a bit.
So your being pregnant has actually helped the project, rather than made it more difficult?
Jen was just saying how good it is to be able to tell people I’m pregnant when we’re trying to get locations. They have to be nice to us! It’s like a magic word. It is achievable: it’s just about having that fire up everyone’s arse to get it done.
I’m lucky that I feel quite energetic and alright. I forget that I’m pregnant. I had to stop filming for an NCT class yesterday, and I felt more pregnant then. One of the women was telling me she was starting to get really tired and achy at work at her desk, and I was thinking like, yeah, I’ve been doing a stunt with a canoe paddle and I’ve got a massive bruise on my shoulder. I’m sure she’d have thought I was insane if I’d told her what I’d actually been doing. But it feels normal to me. I don’t want to be kicked out of this life. It’s very addictive and adrenaline-fuelled. I still want to be in the gang. That’s what this has been about for me. There should be more support for people who want to have kids and carry on working. That would be brilliant for everyone. As an actress you stress out about having a baby because you’re worried that you’ll never work again. I kept it secret for months, and then suddenly I had this massive unveiling, that I was having a baby and making a film about myself having a baby. I am supposed to be at home with my feet up. I feel like I’m cheating.
It’s a weird record of my pregnancy, isn’t it? I wonder at what point I’ll decide… “So darling, you’re 15, now’s the perfect time to show you the film about the insane murderess I made when you were in-utero.”
You’re moving quickly but you all seem quite relaxed about it…
The First Assistant Director was a bit worried. But our Director Of Photography had worked on BLACK MOUNTAIN POETS and I knew he could deliver a feature film in five days. And I knew I could do it, so it was about proving to him that he could do it. And at the end of the Cardiff leg he told me at the end of day one he wasn’t worried anymore. That was a really flattering thing: that we managed to prove to this experienced guy that we are going to get it.
The beauty of it is so many spontaneous moments in the film, We shot for five days in Cardiff, with one day of pre-production just to check that people would allow us to film. We filmed on Halloween night amongst real Cardiff revellers, which was pretty intense. It was like a normal Cardiff night out times a hundred. But that was perfect. It was free set dressing! And I prefer filming out of London. I think the audience gets a bit bored of London. It’s nicer to be in a fresher environment. And you have that alien viewpoint. You might not notice a striking underpass at home. Like those docklands locations in Get Carter turn it into something completely unlike anything else. The things I remember visually about that film are the cranes and the quarry. It’s that thing where you can give a film an identity.
Has a lot of it been grabbed on the fly like that?
Quite a lot of it’s been quite guerrilla. We’ve been seeing what we can get away with. We’ll do one thing that’s very scripted, and then something else where we just go and do something random in the street. Hopefully doing that creates a texture, and then these scenes that are quite weird play in that more real world.
You obviously had to cast it quickly too. How did you achieve that?
It’s mainly people I know have got improvisational and comedy backgrounds: so Jo Hartley (THIS IS ENGLAND, DEAD MAN’S SHOES), Tom Davis (MURDER IN SUCCESSVILLE, HIGH RISE), Dan Renton Skinner (HIGH RISE), Tom Meeten (SIGHTSEERS), Eilieen Davis (SIGHTSEERS), Mike Wozniak (MAN DOWN), Kate Dickie (THE WITCH) – I’m a bit of a fangirl of hers. Kayvan Novak (FOUR LIONS) is going to be in it, and Gemma Whelan (GAME OF THRONES). They’re all people I know create their own characters. I wrote most of the parts with those people in mind and knew what they’d be able to bring. I wanted these people to feel real, and hopefully you can imagine what their life is outside their scenes. Every single actor who’s come in has got really into it and given their characters lots of detail.
I’ve been quite touched by how engaged and invested the actors coming in have been. Everyone’s been really different and entertaining, and of course none of them really have a sense of the rest of the film. Every time I’ve been with a different victim I’ve taken on a different disguise or character, so the actors only know what their bit is. That’s just lovely. Every day is bringing something different to the table.
What’s your directorial approach? Are you dictatorial because it’s your script, or do you like to just see where things take you?
The scenes are like little pieces of theatre: that’s how we’ve approached them. We have a script, but we veer off it at times and find little things that are funny or entertain us. But then there’s quite a lot of violence, which has to be more structured in the way you film it. So mixing those approaches up has been a challenge: a loose style for some things and then much more rigid for others, because we’ve got a fake knife and a blood line or a plate of glass whatever. That’s been the challenge of filming over such a short period. Some of these things you’d normally take much longer to shoot. It’s made it quite exciting: you basically have one go at everything. You get really adrenalized.
How would you describe the tone of the film? Horror-comedy doesn’t seem quite right.
It’s a revenge thriller, really. You’re basically working out why this woman’s doing what she’s doing and killing these particular people. It comes together gradually. She’s essentially on her own, so you don’t know where the child’s father is. So that’s a mystery that gets unravelled. All the victims are people from different walks of life. Each scene is like a vignette that plays out quite long. And it’s [adopts pretentious critic voice] very ‘noirish’, darling. But I also think it’ll be quite psychedelic once the score and sound are on. We filmed mainly at night and there’s been all this fog and mist and Cardiff has loads of interesting lights from all the bars. It had to be set in a city because it’s about the anonymity of the protagonist. There’s this sense that she’s getting away with this stuff. There’s no sense that the authorities are onto her. It’s almost like her pregnancy is a major decoy, because people just think that she’s really lovely and harmless. It’s building a world that reflects the alienation and outsiderishness that she feels. Nobody really looks at her or notices her.
All the announcement publicity played up the Ben Wheatley / SIGHTSEERS connection. Is that irritating, because it’s so much your own project? Or is it just necessary?
People talking about this in terms of Ben Wheatley and SIGHTSEERS is a flattering comparison, really. I don’t complain about it too much. There’s a bit of a movement really, of people making low-budget films that are inter-genre or genre mash-ups. Somewhere there’s been this release that’s allowed people to make horror that’s also funny and absurd but not hammy. It’s a relief to rip up the rulebook and I think Ben’s been at the forefront of that. I don’t only want to do stuff that’s funny: I want to do stuff that’s scary and weird and interesting too. A lot of Ben’s collaborators are working in that way, and it’s no bad thing that Ben’s the poster boy for that. I wouldn’t be insulted to be compared to him at all. He won’t let anyone tell him that his way isn’t the right way. Like, if he likes something at the first take he’ll use it and move on. We’ve definitely implemented that a lot on this! It’s not that I compromise, but I’m very pragmatic and I don’t like faff. So if it’s a good take and everyone liked it, why wouldn’t you move on? When it’s digital you don’t have to worry about the film not developing or anything. And then you can film it in different ways instead and get some different options in the edit.
It’s also slightly like SIGHTSEERS in that I do want the audience to actually invest in the story and feel that there’s stuff at stake. I hope that worked in SIGHTSEERS, because Steve [Oram] and I spent a long time falling in love with those characters. The audience had to invest in that relationship otherwise nothing was sticking them to the story. But it’s the same with PREVENGE: there’s sort of a serious story in amongst all the ridiculousness. It’s a very ‘real’ story, even though the character’s so mad. The way she sees the world is quite strange. Hopefully the audience will see it that way too. My boyfriend had got the impression it was about witches from somewhere, and I was like, that’s alright actually.
Did you ever imagine these would be the circumstances of your first feature film?
There’s no right time to make your first film, really. If you don’t just take the plunge you’ll never do it. It really is like having a baby in that sense!