The Student
Alice Lowe: how to manage fantasies
by Maddie Haynes, 8/02/17

Alice Lowe’s new feature film, Prevenge, follows the pregnant, vengeance-seeking Ruth, as she gruesomely murders those she feels have wronged her. When I meet her in the dining area of a New Town hotel, Lowe is almost unrecognisable from her on-screen character: she is relaxed, charming, and carries a gleeful baby on her hip. To meet her, it  seems hard to believe that her brain might be filled with hilarious, murderous fantasies but this, according to Lowe, is exactly why she enjoys writing characters that take the audience by complete surprise.

“Sometimes I’d watch a film,” she says, “I think it’s this particular 80s/90s kind of American film where the hero is just absolutely good, and bad things happen to them and they triumph. Like, to me there’s no interest in that because there’s no moral debate – they’re not in a difficult situation and having to make the right choice. They’re just making the right choice anyway, like, because they’re such good people. But to me, likeability doesn’t have to come through the actions of that person, it comes through the performer, and I think everyone on screen needs to be likeable. Everyone. But it’s like, you know, when you watch Alan Partridge, you’re thinking, ‘you dick’, but you sort of love him as well. You sort of feel like, oh god he’s me, he’s every mistake that I’ve ever made in any awkward social situation.

“So my theory is like, you can have a really despicable character but you cast someone in it who’s really warm. And that is a performance thing, it’s not what the person does, it’s like how much you let the audience see the person’s soul or whatever, and then people do tend to like you. It’s like that thing of staring into someone’s eyes for thirty seconds and you’re supposed to fall in love with them or something. It’s why I think comedians are such good actors often, it’s like you know they’ve got this kind of sense of being on stage and winning people round.”

This is the epitome of Lowe’s style – she seems to delight in creating characters that put her audience in their own strange moral dilemma, as they wrestle with their affection for characters who, on paper, are far from loveable. Even with this attitude, however, Lowe is clear about her boundaries of where a character’s actions can go too far.

“There was a bit in the taxi where we had the DJ character pushing Ruth’s head into his lap as if she was going to give him a blow job and, you know, it’s one of the things that’s in the script and when we were editing it, I was like, it’s too far. This is too far, because it suddenly felt really dark and really horrible. And so we got rid of it, just because it’s about keeping that balance throughout, and it’s a peculiar thing when you – I mean, for me it’s like, the murders are, they’re fantasies really.”

In this light, the outlandish gore in Lowe’s work makes total sense. Her films give priority to freedom – in Sightseers, this is freedom from the people that don’t have your interests at heart; in Black Mountain Poets, it’s a freedom for two sisters to create under the guise of professional poets. In the case of Prevenge, Lowe gives Ruth, and the audience, the freedom to engage with heartbreak in the most violent and primal ways. A desire for freedom comes through in her working style too, as she worked with a Director of Photography who was familiar with a documentary style of shooting, and could “just go, ‘okay, I’m in a completely new space but I can start shooting immediately.’ They’re not thinking, ‘oh no I need to relight, I need to – ,’ you know, he very much works with natural light. And this is how Ben Wheatley works as well, he did the same in Sightseers, the lighting’s kind of preset and it just means you can’t see anything, the camera could go 360 degrees and you don’t see any of the equipment at all.”

Lowe cheerfully describes her directorial style as “like managing a jazz orchestra or something”. She explains that, “you want everyone to be able to do their solo saxophone improv bit, but you want everything to come together harmoniously as well. So you can’t have people going off-piste and doing completely their own thing, like, it would be crazy. You want people to come in and know that they’re kind of serving a role and serving a character, but at the same time you just want them to be really real. And I think just the more comfortable people are, the more you feel like they’re a real person.”

Prevenge was written in an extremely short space of time, and Lowe is clear that she was happy for actors to be loose with her words – she believes that, unless a screenwriter has honed a script over years, they “can’t be too precious about scripts… unless you’re Shakespeare”.

What Lowe seems to really enjoy is breaking out of restrictive genres. She cites Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s TV show Inside No. 9 as a work that excites her, since their network don’t give them “any pressure to have a laugh per minute”. Equally she says Black Mirror blends dark, serious drama with moments of comedy, and Lowe seems to feel that the UK’s obsession with generic categories prevents more risks being taken on works like this.

“I’ve got this theory that in the UK it’s because we’ve got departments, at the BBC and Channel 4, that it’s like, people go, ‘I can’t release the budget for this in my department, because this is comedy’. And then the comedy department goes, ‘we can’t give the money because it’s a drama’.”

The more we talk, the more I see Lowe’s frustration at the assumptions made about audiences. She is tired of execs “assuming film audiences are fifteen year old boys! And if they are fifteen year old boys, that they aren’t going to want to deal with an emotional story – why the hell not?” Lowe wants to make work that defies expectation, that fuses genres in ways that are new and surprising.

Ultimately, she laughs when I ask if she thinks her new genre – a blend of domestic horror and dramatic comedy – will be picked up by other filmmakers, chuckling darkly,  “I don’t know if many people will copy Prevenge…”

Yes, the film is nuts. But it is also new, and human, and fascinating. Lowe might be pleasantly surprised by the waves it makes.

Image: Zoe Flower