“We have the power to create as well as to destroy and that’s frightening to people”: Alice Lowe director of “Prevenge” on murder and motherhood

Prevenge

Prevenge (Credit: Kaliedoscope)

It’s hard enough being eight months pregnant. But when you’re trying to manage all that late-stage discomfort and those prenatal visits while simultaneously lurching through a murder spree — at the behest of your bloodthirsty unborn baby, no less — it’s bound to get messy.

Yet in the new British horror film “Prevenge soon-to-be mum Ruth gamely manages to leave an impressive trail of dead bodies in her wake. Actress Alice Lowe, meanwhile, has pulled off a more socially acceptable feat — writing, directing and starring in the film all while she herself was really awaiting the birth of her first child. Salon spoke recently with Lowe, a veteran of other darkly comic works including “Sightseers” and “Hot Fuzz,” about murder, moviemaking and motherhood.

When I first saw the film, I didn’t realize that was your real pregnant belly. When I was eight months pregnant, I didn’t want to even walk across the room, so kudos.

Well, I think by that stage I didn’t want to either. I was lucky I got in just before that period where you become really tired and always half asleep. You know that bit where you suddenly get huge? I think we finished filming just before that, so I was just lucky in that sense.

You’ve done really dark things before and you’ve done dark and funny before. I first became a fan of you through “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” so that is the lane I see you skating in again and again. But what was it that made you want to do this particular kind of story?

Well, I wanted to direct a film and I had accepted that I wouldn’t be able to because I was having a baby. Then I thought, If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it because how female directors do you see with tiny babies? It just doesn’t happen, you know? If I do it it might be in 10 years’ time, but this is probably going to mean that I can’t do it for a while.

I was about six months pregnant and someone came to me and said, “Look, there’s a company. They’ve got financing already; it’s very low budget but they want to make it this year.” And I was a bit like, “Why is this happening to me now?”

So I went away having said no, turning it down. Then I went away and I was like, “Why do I have that assumption? I actually feel fine. I’m still the same person. I still have the same pent-up frustration about making films. I feel like I can do it. I’ve got the capacity to do it. It’s just that no one’s let me do it.”

I thought, well, I’ll pitch this idea and see if it takes. It was kind of everything that was unexpected about a pregnant character, so I was just like, “Well, she’s going to have a kind of power, and she’s going to be feeling cut off from society.” I also thought, “Why don’t we have a female “Taxi Driver”? Why do we not have more female loner characters?”

So this character sort of came to life really. I pitched it to the company and they said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I said, “Can you do it in the next two months?” And they were like, “Yeah.” Then the guy who was going to direct it said, “I can’t direct your story. You’ve got to direct it.” I was planning to direct but not doing this necessarily as my debut.

In a way I felt, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, I don’t care. The baby is the most important thing. But if it does work out, that would be great.” So I had a kind of a strangely relaxed attitude.

Plus you got to save money on effects by having your own belly play itself.

That’s what I actually said to them. I said, “This is one very good special effect in the bag that we got for free.”

What did it feel like getting to like cut people into ribbons and smash heads while you were hugely pregnant? 

First of all, it was always a logistical challenge. Sometimes it was really funny as well because we’d have one chance to get this prosthetic oozing blood, one take with this pretend knife slashing. We’ve got a makeup assistant standing with a syringe with a tube of blood, and if it doesn’t come out of the neck, that’s not going to work.

So it’s just funny; there’s nothing horrific about this. Someone once said to me, “Did you feel really squeamish in the edit?” I just said no. If I thought I was going to be squeamish, I wouldn’t have written the film. 

There were certain shots that were quite satisfying. Like I had this idea that I wanted to just shoot through a glass table this woman who’s like so obsessed with her work that the only relationship she’s got is with her desk. I wanted her to die over her desk. That was really satisfying when we were able to get that shot. That particular kill, I did go, “Yesss!” It was logistically some of the least complicated stuff that we did, but it’s some of the most effective.

All of the characters were hugely important, and I knew they had to be played by people who are amazing because otherwise the audience would get bored. You can’t just side with the killer, even though the people she’s killing are kind of vile. There needs to be some kind of human tension about it. You have to be feeling this push and pull all the way through their scenes for you to want to watch them. 

I have this theory that if you have a horrible character, you cast someone hugely charismatic in it. You’re going to have that tension all the way through anyway because you’re enjoying watching that so much that you don’t want to hate them, but they’re doing horrible things. It just makes it compelling.

I’m curious about what the response has been to a film like this. There aren’t that many films where the serial killer is a woman and there are very few where the serial killer is a pregnant woman. At the beginning of this century, there are these kind of French body horror films that I love and I’m so fascinated with, like “High Tension” and “Inside” that really explore the horror from the female perspective. Did you get any kind of pushback like “Oh, but moms don’t go killing people. They certainly don’t murder people!”?

I thought it was going to get more negative. There was one Christian fundamentalist group or website that said it was an abomination, but they hadn’t seen the film. So it was a bit like, well, you might watch and think it’s quite moral actually. This woman is not exactly the happiest person. It’s not like, yeah, I’ll do what she’s doing; it looks great. What I really was trying to say, if I was going to say anything about the film, is that women are individuals. Who is to say that any one person wouldn’t make these choices? You don’t have to make these choices just because she’s made these choices.

Like when you watch “Taxi Driver,” you know it’s not an indictment of all men. Then why would you do that with female characters? So maybe I was just trying to say this is a just an individual journey, to shake you out of the idea that all women are the same, or all characters should represent something, should represent their gender. We just don’t expect that with male characters.

We don’t, but there is this sacredness around women and then an elevated sacredness around motherhood and what mothers are supposed to be. Your character reminded me in many ways of the bride in “Kill Bill,” in that she’s a woman with a mission.

Revenge is really, really fascinating because it’s about someone who has said goodbye to society. They’ve cut off anything that attaches them to society and they’ve become a weapon. They become action. There is something really interesting about that, and that was why I liked the revenge narrative. I’ve seen so many female characters that are supporting roles. I mean they are literally supporting the other characters, supporting the husband or supporting the lead role in whatever way, just to fulfill whatever journey they’re on.

It just felt like, I’m so bored of being able to play those parts as an actress. I felt like, What about the woman’s journey? What about the woman sort of being free from all those attachments to do what she wants to do? I think you so rarely see that, a woman who’s just doing whatever the hell she wants. I think it’s quite frightening for people because they are like, “A woman that doesn’t have any responsibility for someone else or guilt about stuff?”

Then you get these iconic films like “Fatal Attraction” or “Gone Girl” where you have super-driven women who kill, and they are also portrayed as just crazy and dependent. Those roles are very polarizing because the way that women behave in those films, even as they’re creating mayhem, is really around the idea of a man. In some ways your character is, too, because she’s driven so much by loss and by grief, but it’s primarily more about her baby and about her maternal instincts.

Also she’s in a way being a hero, like in “John Wick” or “Taken” or “Gladiator.” These are all films where the guy’s family gets killed or kidnapped or whatever, which is then a license for him to do whatever violent acts he wants but with complete righteousness. And I thought this woman, in her mind, she’s a heroine; she’s doing the right thing for her child and for society. She’s kind of cleaning it up. Even though she’s a very damaged person, she is sort a powerful person as well.

She reminds me of “Carrie in certain ways or Nicole Kidman in “Dogville.” You have a nice girl who then becomes this absolute destroyer character. It turns out she’s really good at it.

I tend to go for those sort of narratives anyway. “Carrie” was one of the inspirations for this film as well, any of those horrors that are about liminal, transgressive kind of human phases. I love Lars von Trier because his females are really transgressive, often either martyrs or witches. It’s someone coming into their power, like a superhero film, someone realizing, “These are what my skills and abilities are.” Her superpower is pregnancy. She uses the invisibility that she has to smuggle her way into people’s houses and that kind of thing.

Right, because it’s the appearance of vulnerability that she plays on and the appearance of trustworthiness. I also love “Thelma and Louise.” I love that moment in it, where Thelma says, “I think I’ve got a knack for this.” Whenever you make movies about women, they just wind up being about womanhood in a way that you can’t escape right now because we’re still in this moment where the masculine is the norm. It’s like you say, when Liam Neeson does it, it’s really super cool. But when a woman does it, what does it mean?

It means it’s frightening. We have the power to create as well as to destroy and that’s frightening to people. That’s what it’s constantly about with Medea. What’s the one power for a woman in that era, when women were not seen and not heard unless they’d done something bad? The only power that woman had would be to kill her own children. That’s her only way of punishing her husband. Women having power is a scary thing. So it just suddenly feels like, Oooh, that’s a chilling thought, what if women realized that they had power?

I’ve been thinking about “Prevenge” a lot also in relation to “Get Out.” It seems like it’s a very interesting moment for movies to be telling different kinds of stories, to come at these social issues and political issues, through the prism of horror. 

I’m really excited about seeing “Get Out” because I don’t know very much about it. I do think it gets to this thing of people who are underrepresented in cinema, especially as protagonists. It’s exploring social issues. It’s comedy; it’s horror. But it’s also entire scenes which are serious that make you think. That was a risk for me when I was editing and even when I was writing, because I don’t want people to shortchange the character. I wanted them to care, and I wanted them to think. I think that’s what’s paid off in terms of there being a lot to talk about in relation to the film and lots of different people liking the film. There’s definitely an appetite for different perspectives or maybe stories that have been told before but not quite in this way. I think it’s all really exciting actually.

Has your perspective changed since you have had a child?

No, I think to make a film while I was pregnant was the right thing for me. I think I had to be, for all that I was feeling to be sharp and powerful in my head. But I don’t think I would have made a different film. It’s still truthful. It’s about fear; it’s a representation of a nightmare. It’s a dream sort of thing. So for me, it is what it is. I wouldn’t go, “Oh no, I’m going to make a film about butterflies now.” You know, that’s not how it would be.

Portions of this interview have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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