After several years as a comic actress and writer, Alice Lowe was ready to take the next step and direct a film. The process, however, was a long one. “When you’re trying to get your first film funded, the difficult thing is you might be a complete idiot and they just don’t know,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t a complete idiot, but I needed a way to show it.”
Alice then became pregnant for the first time. This didn’t slow her down: six months into her pregnancy, she had an idea for a film about a woman taking murderous revenge on seemingly unrelated people. “It wasn’t my plan to make my directorial debut while pregnant,” she recalls, “but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up”. Two months later she had written and shot Prevenge, which is as dark, weird and funny as you’d hope for from the co-writer of Sightseers. “I had a very powerful deadline!” she says. “It was weird to do it all so quickly, but that helped me express the story clearly instead of overcomplicating everything. I didn’t have time to think too much.” We spoke to Alice about making the film.
Does Prevenge reflect how you were feeling when you were pregnant? There are references to pregnancy being a hostile takeover or a human sacrifice.
I had a lot of fears about pregnancy which I put into the script, but I think it exorcised them. People have asked I had a horrible pregnancy because it’s very nihilistic in some ways, but I had a brilliant pregnancy: I was making a film! I was having loads of fun. At the same time, when I became pregnant I was worried. Am I ever going to direct? Am I going to get any more work, or will I fall out of acting because people assume that you’ve died when you have a baby? All of that stuff went in. Also it was about being an outsider, because I felt that when you’re a freelancer and an artist of whatever type, you have your own rules. You don’t work by the same routines that others do, and so when you have a baby you’re locked into those routines. I don’t even have a boss and suddenly a midwife is telling me I can’t do this, I can’t do that. There’s the peculiarity of being with a bunch of women in a prenatal yoga class that you feel you have nothing in common with, but you’re supposed to feel affiliation with them because you’re all pregnant.
Society expects pregnant women to be a certain way, but your character Ruth spurns this notion at every turn. What was your thinking behind that choice?
I wanted to create the opposite of a stereotypical pregnant women. It’s not based on a psychological reality. It was metaphorical: this character who comes along and slashes through that stereotype. It’s about freedom, that this woman is allowed to be who she wants to be. There’s something cathartic and satisfying about it. There are things that are tragic about Ruth and she’s damaged as a person, but also, wow, she’s pregnant and she’s getting to do whatever she wants. It’s a bit of wish fulfilment. Ruth takes on different fake identities during the film, and the first one is quite a sweet, mumsy character. Afterwards I thought that what I’ve done is write myself a character that I would normally get cast as – once you’re over 35 you’re mostly offered these boring mum characters who wear floral dresses and are very caring – and then completely exploded her. I literally burn her clothes. I was thinking a lot about how women are portrayed in films, how other people control how you’re seen. Once you actually take control yourself, you think: that’s nothing to do with me, why would I be interested in it?
I can’t actually think of a feature film written, directed by and starring a pregnant woman before.
Someone said to me recently that I was “allowed” to make the film because I was pregnant. I thought that was very interesting, the idea that it gave me permission to say what I want. If I hadn’t been pregnant there might have been people asking why would I think a pregnant woman could feel this way. I think it’s really important for women to be able to tell whatever story they want, and this inevitable moral judgement shouldn’t be an element. I shouldn’t have only been able to write this because I was pregnant, I should be able to write what I want. When you’re a female director or writer, people lay everything at your door. You’re expected to speak for all women. “Are you trying to say all pregnant women are violent?” Nobody ever says anything like this to male writers. They understand it’s an individual character who is making individual choices.
Did you give much thought to how we should perceive her, about how sympathetic we should be towards her killings?
It was an experiment in reaction to being an actress: I’m always asked if a female character is “likeable” enough. Isn’t it interesting that we worry about that with female characters and judge them more? My theory is that if you put a likeable enough performer in a role – myself, haha! – you can sell anything to anyone. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, you’re going to go along with them. I deliberately wanted to make Ruth an unremitting, cold character that you maybe come to like and empathise with. I know it’s not the traditional revenge structure, where 15 minutes in you know exactly why the person is doing what they’re doing and it enables you to have empathy with them: you see that Liam Neeson’s daughter has been kidnapped so you can enjoy the horrific violence he perpetrates on everyone around him. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to say: so what? Why should you care what this woman’s doing? She’s doing it anyway.
What do you think is driving Ruth, then? Is it grief? Fear? Prepartum depression?
I wanted the audience to wonder whether she’d always been like this. One of the things I was trying to investigate was whether people are really changed by pregnancy. That’s the fear you have when you’re going to have a baby, that you’re going to come out some Stepford Wife at the end of it, saying “I love babies and I only talk about babies now and my previous identity has been erased!” Just because you’re a mother it doesn’t mean that your instincts or your personality completely change. I’m still me.