Interview: Murder, motherhood and moviemaking - Sightseers co-writer and star Alice Lowe discusses her directorial debut PREVENGE

 Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

In her debut film Prevenge, writer-director Alice Lowe takes a blowtorch to the picture postcard image of pregnancy. In this deliciously twisted serial killer black comedy, she plays the 30-something, very pregnant, Ruth. If things weren't hard enough for Ruth, trying to deal with her grief at the recent death of her husband in a climbing accident, she also has to battle the strange voices emanating from…her womb. Yup, Ruth’s baby seems to be talking to her, and the squeaky, bitter voice is impelling her on to murder everyone involved in her husband’s death. Equipped with a clunky kitchen knife and a dour sense of humour, Ruth waddles off to carry out the bloody deeds, though as the bodies pile up, she starts to fear she is being consumed by this being inside her. In a neat coincidence, Lowe was pregnant herself when she starred in her own debut, a directing challenge she was well-prepared for after years starring in and writing dark comedy material, ranging from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place to Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.

Smoke Screen had the pleasure of sitting down with Lowe at London Film Festival - where the film played in the Dare strand - to talk about murder, motherhood and moviemaking.

You can read the review of Prevenge here.

It’s rare to see a debut director write, direct and star in their own movie, and when pregnant!

AL: Yes, it certainly was greedy of me, wasn’t it! I wanted to direct, but I really didn’t think I’d direct while pregnant. That wasn’t really the plan. I came up with the idea for a director called Jamie Adams, who directed a film called Black Mountain Poets. When I gave him the pitch, he said: “its brilliant, but I can’t direct it as I do rom-coms. This is dark, and I think you should direct this instead.” I knew already that I wanted to direct, but I was wondering if I could star, write and direct while pregnant. And I had had these frustrations over a long period of time of wanting to direct but thinking people wouldn’t trust me: the catch-22 of “you can’t make a first film until you’ve made a first film.”

So I just felt that if I could pull this off it would be such a good thing. You fight battles to protect your creative voice, especially in film with budgets and lots of people scared to give you money only to see you screw it up. But this film would be low budget. I felt now was the time to take that risk. And if I got it right people would respond: “ah, I see what you can do now.” I was whinging about it for so many years, but you’ve got to get out there and do it! Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. It was terrifying! So it ended up being a kamikaze approach, do or die. But I’d made a lot of short films, and in my view you never regret making something. You regret NOT making something. I put all of that into the film.

There seems to be this gleeful aspect to the film, where all the joyful tropes of pregnancy are slashed and burned…

AL: Definitely. When it came to doing research for the film, I was technically right in the middle of the research! It was strange; like being a freelancer, joining this odd club that is pregnancy, which I have seen as being an industrialised, fetishised thing. I felt very outsider-ish about it. That was already going through my head. So when I was making the film I was pooling all of this stuff that I had experienced. I hope people do see it as cathartic! Some people have suggested pregnant women might be disturbed watching the film, to me they are about to give birth, I don’t think we should patronise them. They’re about to go through something very painful and life changing, I think they are stronger than we think they are. 

But at the same time, just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching horror or be a different person. It’s only society that would change me. All those issues were running into the film, and I do hope people watch it and feel that it’s a film talking about all the things they aren't allowed to do. There is a relief and release in that. Just because you are pregnant doesn’t mean you have to pack all that stuff away; I think that would be really unhealthy. So there’s a lot of taboo stuff I put in the film, stuff which I felt was current and people don’t talk about. Like those trendy new parenting things like prenatal yoga - those kind of things just stressed me out. I just wanted to put a pin in all that.

Your character murders a whole lot of people, did you think about how that could alienate the audience?

AL: I definitely wanted it to be quite alienating. What I was trying to do was do a kind inverse character arc, where the viewer almost starts off hating the character, only to come to empathise with them later after you come to understand them. A risky enterprise according to the screenwriting handbooks! I wanted to test the audience, see how far they could go. This woman you see on screen is pregnant, as a society we are used to such figures being seen as “nice and lovely”. The first two men Ruth kills I wanted to present as if they might be victims of some kind of feminist vengeance, but then flip it on its head by suggesting its society that she hates, and the hypocrisies she is experiencing.

It is an interesting word: “alienating”, as I did think of this as a secret sci-fi film. It doesn’t have to be out there for everyone to see, but Ruth is a sort of alien character. She’s an anti-superheroine! Her special powers are her pregnancy! She feels that what is happening to her is very strange and new. Hence the score and everything had to be futuristic in a retro kind of way. I deliberately didn’t want the audience to feel comfortable at any stage: hence all the footage of spiders and lizards early on! The scene with Mike Wozniak (whop plays the affable flatmate of one of Ruth’s male victims, whom she considers killing too) was a moment where I wanted Ruth’s worldview to be challenged too.

This feels like it would be a perfect companion piece to Sightseers; what did you bring from that and all the other films and TV shows you’ve worked on?

AL: I co-wrote Sightseers, and I think they are genetically related for sure, like siblings. A lot of this just comes down to my sense of humour, and I do have a dark one. I like improvisation, mixing up realism with surrealism. The main thing I developed on from Sightseers was having a real sense of drama, which I put into Prevenge. Some of the themes are more serious. Pregnancy is serious. I’ve seen enough comedies about it. I wanted a dark crises to be going on in Ruth’s world, death is mixed up with birth and life for her. So I was dabbling more with drama here, making it more of a thriller than Sightseers.

I didn’t go to film school, so everything is a learning curve and building on what you’ve done. Pushing it a little bit further. I do want to branch out and tackle different genres. I see myself more of a fantasy writer. I get accused of being a horror writer, but, for example, I do a lot of surrealism. I’d love to do sci-fi and period dramas. My next film is going to be very concept driven, but it not ready to be talked about yet! I would like to make films were people can sense it has its own personality, with its own traits.

Did you draw on any other filmmakers for inspiration? There seemed to be a few homages to other movies in Prevenge:

AL: Possession and Halloween certainly, I also wanted to have lots of colour in it, so I was thinking a lot about Brian De Palma. We were so lucky with locations too: like, the reptile shop was the biggest coup ever! This could have cost us a fortune. I wanted the film to look like it was a travel through the circles of hell, with each scene having its own feeling. And we actually got those things! For example, we filmed at Saatch and Saatchi, and they had huge blue ice-like table! Just what I had in my head! 

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Interview: Writer/director Ciro Guerra on going downriver in his mesmerising film Embrace of the Serpent

Writer/director Ciro Guerra’s mysterious and mesmerising new film (an Oscar nominee last year for best foreign language film) takes viewers downriver on a Joseph Conrad-esque journey into the depths of the Colombian Amazon territories, as white explorers search for a mysterious plant with fabled healing powers, guided by the warrior shaman Karamakate. Embrace of the Serpent’s narrative wanders dreamily between two eras– the early 20th century and the WWII period – and interestingly complicates the typical scenario of a “white man lost abroad” by showing both time period’s events from the perspective of the native peoples instead, even if the film was inspired by the travel diaries of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001).

Colombian director Guerra was in London to discuss how this story made the leap from obscure diary entries to an acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film, and why he decided this story would be told from an Amazonian rather than a Western perspective. You can read the entire Smoke Screen review here.

On “mythical” stories and filmmaking:

For reasons I don’t fully understand I have always been interested in mythical structures. I find something universal in them; in mythical structures, stories and characters. It has always been very appealing to me.

On researching the story:

The first step was reading the journals of the explorers [Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001)]. It was material unknown to me, unknown to most people in Colombia. It is a big, remote region, and we have not heard many stories from it. I was fascinated by the stories, so I went to the Amazon to start looking around. I realised quickly that this Amazon that they described no longer existed, or was no longer reachable at least. The Amazon today is totally different. But as I started going deeper and deeper, and spending more time with the indigenous people, I started realising that the echoes of the story are still vital today. But that meant that the story had to stated drifting away from the Western narrative I had wanted to do to start with. The film became more and more suffused with Amazonian myth, which is very difficult to get into because it is almost incomprehensible; it is just so different from the way we understand the world. The film is therefore an attempt to build a bridge between two narratives: one we can understand, and the Amazonian people’s way of telling stories.

On deciding on the narrative structure:

Theodor Koch Grunberg was following in the footsteps of another explorer who had been there before, his name was Shamberg, and he had been there about 60 years before him. Truly he had been the first one to contact many of the peoples in the region. Grunberg spent two months with them [the native peoples] and they kept telling him about a myth, which he realised was Shamberg, who had been turned by them into a mythical character. Not only that, but they saw in him the same person, who had visited them two generations before, This idea of the same spirit traversing between the souls of two different men was something that was very Amazonian, but something we could understand. For me that was the key moment: I had the story and a way to connect.

On the mysterious “Yakruna plant” and native medicine:

No, the plant is not real, the indigenous peoples were clear that they did not want the names of real plants and rituals used, so we had to fictionalise that. These things are sacred and cannot be learned through a film. The film should therefore not be seen as an ethnographical document. We were looking for a true that was deeper. The superficial aspects of the film are fictional. Everything is based on something real. There are many plants that have been used for many purposes.

For example the poison plant the native peoples used to hunt eventually became used as a form of anaesthesia. The native Amazonian people also had the knowledge of how to combine plants.

On the shoot:

It was very difficult to find the locations to shoot the film, as we needed a stretch of the Amazon not affected by tourism, colonialism and Western culture and so on. We found it in the Vaupes region. It is a very remote area, so you have to take everything with you down there. We found a camp that was made to build a hydroelectric plant, and we managed to shoot 70% of the film there as the crew has somewhere to stay. The important step after finding the plan was asking for permission and collaboration from the indigenous communities who lived there. They really gave us their guidance on working in this place. They became a part of it. It is a place where you need to be very respectful. Our goal was not to have any negative impact. The environment helped: we didn't get rain, we didn’t get accidents, we didn’t get diseases. No one was bitten or attacked by anything!

 

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Beat the heat with outdoor cinema options this season in London (updated)

We are possibly set for the hottest summer on record here in the UK, so, although this means the planet is doomed by climate change, it also at least allows for one more year where we can chill to open air film screenings in the capital.

Already running screenings or advertising upcoming seasons for the summer are:

Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House

Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House is back in the neoclassical courtyard in August, with 14 nights of classic, cult and contemporary films, plus three premieres on London’s largest outdoor screen with full surround sound.

This year, you can play a part in the programme by voting for your favourite Stanley Kubrick classic. The winning film will be shown on Thursday 11 August. The winner will only be revealed to the audience on the night of the screening itself. New films screening include Things To Come starring Isabelle Huppert, and Pedro Almodovar's new drama Julieta.

Rooftop Film Club:

Providing headphones, deckchairs, cocktails, and a blanket if it gets too cold, the Rooftop Film Club, as their name suggests, will be using various roof venues across London this year, including the Bussey Building in Peckham, Queen of Hoxton in Shoreditch, and Tobacco Dock. Screenings are running now and include Straight Outta Compton at the Queen, and Withnail and I at the Bussey Building on on 22 May. Future dates through to June on sale too.

The Nomad Cinema:

The Nomad Cinema is the roaming pop-up running since 2010, and has earned the reputation as ‘London’s best outdoor cinema’ [so said the Evening Standard], popping up at a range of beautiful, unique and intriguing screening locations across London and beyond. This year's venues include the Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey and The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Films on offer include the expected crowdpleasers like Dirty Dancing, but also some offbeat choices; including Orlando and Marie Antionette at the aforementioned NMM. Screenings running now and future dates through to September on sale.

Cult Screens:

Similar to the Nomad, in that the mission statement of Cult Screens is to be ".. the country’s most luxurious and comfortable open air cinema experience. We run events throughout the UK and turn some pretty unusual and spectacular locations into cinemas." The difference is it is a UK wide project, but their London venue will by York House and gardens in Twickenham. There you can see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Pulp Fiction and Dirty Dancing from 31 August on.

Pop-Up Screens:

Also similar to the Nomad, with venues including Fulham, Greenwich Peninsula, The City, Holborn, Hammersmith and Hither Green.

The Luna Cinema:

Classic cinema under the stars in some of the UK's most picturesque settings. London locations include Brockwell Lido for Jaws and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Alexandra Palace for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Director Pablo Larraine talks to Smoke Screen about his award-winning dissection of the Catholic Church: The Club

Chilean director Pablo Larraine is truly on a roll right now: having already delivered to us the acclaimed Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No, Larraín scooped the Berlinale’s Grand Jury Prize with The Club: a disturbing, sad and blackly funny morality tale about a group of misanthropic and disgraced Catholic priests who have been hidden away from prying eyes by the Church authorities in a sleepy Chilean coastal town. For years these men have been out of sight and out of mind, and thats just the way they like it.

But then their quiet lives are suddenly disrupted by the shocking violence provoked by a newly arrived lodger, which then leads to investigation by a live-in representative of a ‘new Church’ seemingly keen to clean up its all too often abusive act. The film has finally reached UK shores this week, having already played at last year’s London Film Festival, where the Smoke Screen was impressed enough to grant it five stars. It is certainly going to be one of the most talked about foreign language films to play in UK cinemas this year, and with eerie timing its release comes right on the heels of that of Oscar-winner Spotlight, another film placing the Church’s sordid association and protection of sexual abusers front and centre in its narrative. 

Larraine was gracious enough to grant The Smoke Screen a brief interview, where he discussed the strange-but-true origins of the film’s story, the right tone to aim for when tackling such deeply sensitive subject matter, and how he worked with real-life victims of abuse.

Can you tell us where the idea for the film originated from?

PL: What it really was, was a picture I saw in a newspaper, or maybe on the internet; a picture of this house somewhere in Germany. Very beautiful, with green fields, against a background of mountains. But if you read thew news piece you realised it was actually a place where a Chilean priest from a German congregation was living. This man had actually escaped from justice in my country, he had been accused of sexual abuse, and now he was living in this house. What was strange was how the house looked like something out of a Swiss chocolate commercial. Incredible to think that someone accused of that could be living there. I wondered who else might be living in that house. We did a lot of research, and that is really where the movie was born.

Were you ever able to get inside one of these actual houses?

PL: No, they'd never let you! I know where one or two of them are located in my country. But if you go to Google you can find out about a clerical service that actually did this: an official thing from the Vatican that was shut down in 2004. It was running for 50 years. But I was able to talk to some former priests and religious people who had left the Church for multiple reasons, that was how I came to understand how it works. The problem with this is you tend to associate this kind of thing with sexual issues, but it wasn't just that. Some priests were there because they were too old, had lost their faith, or were ill or had fallen in love with a man or woman. There were therefore many reasons why somebody could be taken to a place like this.

Who is running these houses int the film and who is the representative of the ‘new Church’?

PL: I thought it would be interesting to have a character represent the ‘new side’ of the Church, with the rest of them representing the ‘old Church’; the Church that has been running things for 2000 years. It represents the internal conflict of the Vatican, they both have different visions. One vision, the new one, was to shut down these places, make the priests face the law, be more humble and open. The other wants to keep the old ways; more secretive and obscure, and that is what the Vatican really is. Every time the Vatican makes a decision, they make it behind closed doors, lock it down. But what was interesting to me was how both sides of the Church are somehow struggling with the same fear. That fear is the press, the media. They fear the media more than hell. A scandal is going to affect everybody in the Church. That is the fear the nun plays on in the film. It’s a new paradigm for the Church. In the last twenty years, look at what has been happening. A continuous line of scandals: a priest here, a priest there. And this kind of abuse has been happening for years! But now we get to know. The victims are willing to speak. Being a victim back then was not the same as being a victim today; it was just shame and humiliation. Most people would not believe you.

How did you work with the cast, especially given the sensitive subject matter?

PL: Well, I never actually showed them the script - and I’d never done that before. Usually I work in a more regular way: you invite an actor round, give them the script, get into the process and talk about it.  I would only give them the scenes in the morning so they could work with that. Only during the interview scenes with the younger priest did I give them the script a day before, as the scenes were long. It was an interesting exercise, because you can only do it with people you really trust, and they have to trust you. Almost every actor in the movie I have been working with for many years, so we can do that. And they are wonderful actors.

It created the necessity of each performance that they would have to have a combination of presence and to be present. Just there when it is happening. It was interesting to me, a performance that feels like the person doesn't know where they are, but they the actors can control it. You can feel that. I think audiences who don’t know this or who don’t have much information about it will feel that these guys are in this sort of unknown place, an unknown human space. That creates a lot of mystery.

The film seems very non-judgmental?

PL: I’m not a journalist; it is not my job to inform people about what is going on and pass judgment somehow. What I try to do is find the humanity that they have. You have to do it through compassion. Otherwise you are looking to docudrama or news reportage. But that is already being made by other people. I don't need to judge them, or say what they did was wrong: I think the audience does that. It is more interesting if you have an active audience that is getting the message through their own perspective.

I did a lot of research and spoke to different victims. Some of them, especially those who had ben systematically abused for many years: it was like they had lost any kind of fear of talking about it. When I asked them what happened, they would tell me in a very graphic way. The same way you would describe building a house; very specific, and very graphic. I couldn’t believe it. My first reaction as a filmmaker is to film that. But then I thought it would be more interesting, specifically with their subject matter, to have the victim in the film describe what happened to him in a very graphic and specific way, so the audience will create the image in their own minds. That image would always be a more violent and disturbing image than I could ever make. There is nothing more dangerous than the human mind, so you want to work with that.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.