"I'm just here with my daughter, so apologies if she makes some gurgling noises," said Alice Lowe, writer, director, and star of the new pregnancy horror film, Prevenge. Unwittingly, Lowe has called to mind the gurgling noises that her character, Ruth, a murderous mom-to-be, elicits from her victims as she exacts violent vengeance—following the commands of her unborn child, a misanthropic voice that's hijacked her conscience.
Lowe shot Prevenge while eight months pregnant with her daughter (who makes a cameo at the end of the film), but the fact of the pregnancy was initially a non-starter. After years spent in development hell with her last film, Ben Wheatley's Sightseers, which she co-wrote and starred in, Lowe witnessed firsthand just how difficult it is to get an indie film off the ground. Put a pregnant woman at the helm? No way. Lowe knew not a single female director with a baby. She thought her career would go dormant.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a production company offered Lowe an incredible opportunity: write, direct, and star in a horror film. The catch? Shooting would begin in just three months. The result is a macabre pitch-black comedy slasher film about the absurdity of growing a stranger inside one's body and the selfishness of modern society. Prevenge, like any worthwhile horror, is an exercise in audience expectation. At first, we can assume that Ruth is on a killing spree motivated by feminist ideology; she kills grossly misogynistic men. But then, Lowe turns the tables and shows us that Ruth is after something much more pernicious—something that affects all of humanity.
"You get an adrenaline buzz from this kind of filmmaking. What you lose in terms of polish, because it's low budget, you gain in energy and tension onscreen."
No Film School caught up with Lowe prior to Prevenge's theatrical release to discuss how she wrote the film in two months and shot it in 11 days, the virtues of run-and-gun indie shoots using practical effects, how Taxi Driver influenced her movie, and more.
No Film School: This is your directorial debut, but you've worked in the industry for a while now. Can you tell me a bit about your career leading up to this film?
Alice Lowe: I'm a comedy performer, but I've always loved film. Even when I was doing TV comedy, I was making my own short films with a director friend and writing feature screenplays. I co-wrote a feature film called Sightseers, which I was also in, and that took many years to develop. After that happened, I kind of thought, "Great, I'm gonna direct a film. I'm going to actually do this now." I had loads of confidence and loads of ideas. I started developing the feature, and it just took years.
I thought, "If I have kids, it would have to be now. I can't really wait any longer to do that." I sort of accepted that if I did that, then I probably wouldn't have a directing career, because I don't know any women with young babies who are directors, whereas a lot of men with young babies are directors.
"We shot the first draft of the movie."
Then, when I was six months pregnant, a director who I've worked with before came to me and said, "Look, you want to do a feature film. There's a company who's got a small budget through private financing. They want to shoot a film this year. Do you want to do something?" I was like, oh no, why is this coming at this particular time? I could have done with this opportunity two years ago. I actually turned it down. I said, "I can't do anything; I'm pregnant."
Then, I was like, what am I doing? It's scary being a freelancer. The thought of taking time off, because of maternity...I was really worried about my job, and I needed money, and I want to have a career in the future. So, I kind of thought, well, what if I made a story about a pregnant woman? I pitched this idea and vented some of my frustrations into it. They really loved it and were like, "Let's do it." A few months later, we shot the film.
'Prevenge'Credit: Western Edge Pictures
NFS: What was the writing process like in that short window of time?
Lowe: Well, when I pitched it, I had a very complete idea of what the film would be in my head. I had written a page-long document of what would be in the film, and really it's actually what is in the film. That took me about a week. I had a lot of performers in my head that I wanted to be in it—I was writing for specific people, which was quite useful. Then, we just had to start pre-production. There were tiny changes that were made in response to what was available, in terms of locations, or whatever. But really, we shot the first draft of the movie.
NFS: That's almost unheard of.
Lowe: I think it comes from having a prognostic sense of what I wanted to shoot as well my [attitude] of, "We're gonna make it out of restrictions." I had this idea of shooting scenes with one actor each day in one location, a two-hander. If we did that, we would get everything done quickly. We shot in 11 days in the end, because we had to do some pickup.
I said to the producers, "Wow, it's so smooth and easy, nothing went wrong!" And they were like, "Some stuff did go wrong, we just didn't tell you."
NFS: The sign of a good producer!
Lowe: Exactly. Everything that I wrote in the script was so that we had economy of shooting. She's wearing the same costume throughout the movie. It's stuff like that that saves you time. If you've been an actress [like me] and you've had a lot of experience making stuff, you know what it's like being on set.
"You don't want to do a hundred takes. You want to throw people in the deep and make people feel genuine discomfort."
There was a lot to get in a day, but we just kept immersed. We were just shooting all day. We never stopped. Then, once people got used to that way of working, everyone got on board, and it's quite an intense experience. You really invest in what you're doing, and people get really involved and enjoy watching the scenes. It's almost more like doing theater, because sometimes you only have one take—you only have a chance to do something once.
Especially when you're doing a special effect. It's like, we've got one take on this, and the acting has to be amazing. Everything has to be amazing. Everyone has to be on it. You get an adrenaline buzz from this kind of filmmaking. What you lose in terms of polish, because it's low budget, you gain in energy and tension onscreen. I think that's why the performances have quite an edge to them.
'Prevenge'Credit: Alice Lowe / Western Edge Pictures
NFS: Yeah, it really is beneficial to work like that, particularly on a film like Prevenge, where there's a lot of intensity required from the actors in every single scene.
Lowe: Yeah, exactly. Most of this film is about strangers meeting, so you want to maintain that weirdness. You don't want to do a hundred takes. You want to throw people in the deep and make people feel genuine discomfort.
NFS: How is it working with the special effects? This is a slasher film, after all. There's a lot of gore.
Lowe: Well, I work with a special effects designer who I've worked with a lot before. He designed pieces, but he also has a studio where he has stuff lying around from other bigger projects. So he's like, "Yeah, I've got a hand and some testicles," and whatever else. Then, on top of that, he'll design a neck piece that's got to work for the script.
[The effects are] done in a traditional way, with tubes for the fake blood, and syringes where you push the blood through. We're just using [practical effects] techniques that have been established over decades for horror. I really like working in that way, because you don't predict where the blood will go. It's gonna go wherever it goes. There's a handmade quality to it, which produces more unexpected and organic effects.
"We're like, 'Where's the blood?' The actor's like, 'It's all in my underwear.'"
Some people ask me about the funniest moments on set. It was things like, late at night, we're trying to finish up a scene, and an actor's got tubes stuffed up his pants and through to his neck, and we've got one take to push the syringe and get the blood coming to his neck. We do it, and they press the syringe, and nothing happens. We're like, "Where's the blood?" The actor's like, "It's all in my underwear." We had to go again, and he had to lie there with his pants filled with blood. It was sort of a comedy of errors, but you get your shot in the end.
'Prevenge'Credit: Western Edge Pictures
NFS: How did you manage to pull together the general aesthetics and tone of genre film?
Lowe: I knew what the post-production was gonna be the most important because when you're shooting low-budget, and sometimes guerrilla-style, you reap as much footage as you can. The hard stuff comes in the edit. You have different tones within the film and you have to make those shifts absolutely clear and intentional within the edit. That was done with sound and music. We wanted to say to the audience, "We're doing this on purpose. We're completely pulling the rug from under your feet, and we're taking it in this direction now." I think the most of our budget and most of our time was spent in the edit.
I enjoyed working with the composers, bringing all these elements together. I wanted the music to have a narrative quality. I didn't want it to be your stereotypical thriller or horror soundtrack, but to have a kind of personality to it, because this is the music that Ruth hears in her head as she's killing. She thinks she's a hero, so this music has to have an epic quality, but a kind of spooky quality as well.
"We wanted to say to the audience, 'We're doing this on purpose. We're completely pulling the rug from under your feet.'"
With sound, it's really important that you felt immersed in this human being's experience. The film is quite sensory. It's not just a story about a woman—you're inside her. I wanted you to feel immersed in her experiences: what she's hearing, what she's feeling. It's very dreamlike. You can decide yourself whether it's real or not. Is it madness or did it really happen? Especially when you don't have the money for special effects, it's all about the sound of music and the sound.
NFS: What about the visual aesthetics?
Lowe: We shot it on a Sony F7. I said to the cameraman, "I really want the image to be photographically sharp." There's no bokeh. Generally, I wanted it to be how Ruth sees the world: very vivid, very clear-cut.
NFS: Speaking of sharp, the film's tone is very strong and confident: black comedy, an homage to classic horror, and a feminist revenge story. Were you ever concerned audiences wouldn't follow?
Lowe: I had an overall feeling of apprehension. I was like, are people gonna get this? Are they gonna be offended by it? Are they gonna think it's unique? Are they gonna identify with it even though it's a pregnant woman's story? Are pregnant women going be upset by it?
That didn't really happen at all. We had generally positive feedback from all sorts of ages and genders. People said, "I don't like horror, but I like this." I wanted it to feel surprising and unfamiliar—this isn't easy to pigeonhole. It's deliberately making people sit up and go, "Oh, I don't feel like I've seen this before, so therefore, I have to make up my own mind about whether I like it."
"Taxi Driver was a major influence."
NFS: Even though the main character has a Travis Bickle-esque vigilante justice agenda, it doesn't feel like you are imposing an agenda onto this film. It feels like you're asking people to look closely.
Lowe: That's exactly what I wanted to do. I think as a filmmaker, you try to ask questions, not answer them. I don't want to capture the audience by preaching to them or telling them what they should think. It's more like allowing the audience to decide what they think about this person, who's making choices that they wouldn't necessarily make. You don't have to like her. You don't have to agree with her. I think that's the Travis Bickle thing.
Alice Lowe on setCredit: Alice Lowe
Lowe: You know, Taxi Driver was a major influence. You don't worry about whether or not you like Travis Bickle. You just understand he's an individual. He's making individual choices, and you're just following his story. Women are individuals. Pregnant women are individuals. You can go on this journey with this film where you don't have to judge her just because she's a woman. You can just watch it. If you want to empathize with her, great. If you don't want to—if you just want to watch it as entertainment, or out of curiosity—that's also fine.
NFS: The situations that you put Ruth in are not always cut and dried. Of course, there are situations that are deeply misogynistic. But, for example, when she interviews for a job with a female executive, very interesting questions are raised. Should women help each other come up against the patriarchy? Or should they look out after themselves and try to make it on their own, becoming examples of what you can do with your career? Do women have to assume male behavior in order to succeed?
Lowe: By that point, I'm deliberately saying to the audience, "Haha, you thought the film was about hating men, but actually, it's about the human psyche." To me, what that interviewer spoke to there is society and humanity. Sometimes, prejudice or cruelty can come from unexpected sources. It's not just men who are against you. Sometimes, it's a woman who's in exactly your situation, who is a person who could help you out if they wanted. That can be a common experience. I just didn't want to go, "This is all men's fault, what's going wrong in society." I wanted to go, "What does this character feel is going on in society?"
'Prevenge'Credit: Western Edge Pictures
Lowe: After I made the film, Donald Trump got elected. Brexit was happening in the UK. When you have a child, one of your fears is that society is a scary place. You care about the kid, but can you expect everyone else to care about the kid as much as you do? At some point, this kid is going to grow up, and it's gonna be society's responsibility to look after this individual.
As a society, we're becoming more selfish, more individualistic. That's terrifying. I was trying to say something about the direction that we're going in. But, again, I'm not answering any questions. I'm asking them.
I was reading Hobbes' Leviathan, and he had this theory that everyone's born evil, and it's the rules of civilization that we don't just kill each other all the time for each other's possessions and partners. It's the social contract that we make. That was just quite interesting to me, that people are actually animalistic and brutal. The idea that civilization is just kind of a mask that we wear of pretending that we're all nice and well-behaved. The characters in the film are wearing masks, to some degree. Then you've got the Halloween scene, where I wanted you to see what the baby thinks people really look like. When everyone's in costumes, it's like, yep, this is what humanity is all about. We're all monsters.