A few weeks ago we published Part 1 of our interview with Alice Lowe, in which she spoke about the third series of Alice’s Wunderland, which recently aired on Radio 4. In Part 2 of our interview, below, Alice talks to us about her other comedy projects – past, present and future – and the highs and lows of a career in the arts.
Alice and I meet shortly before she is due to stand in front of a cinema full of North London feminists and try to convince them that Glen Close’s character in 1987’s Fatal Attraction is a feminist icon. I wish her luck. Her chosen topic provides us with a few clues about what makes Alice Lowe tick: (1) She sees the world differently to most people; (2) She’s not the type to choose the the easy path; and (3) She has a special place in her heart for female villains.
“You don’t get many female villains,” Alice offers by way of explanation. “Political correctness has made people scared of portraying women negatively, so what you end up with are really boring characters for women, with no personality.” Here here!
One of the most high profile villains which she herself has played is Tina in Sightseers, the 2012 film which was both a critical and box office hit, seeing Alice and co-writer/co-star Steve Oram being courted by the great and good in the world of film. “Even now I’m still surprised – I think ‘did that happen?’ I’m not used to success – I’m used to doing my own stuff and no one giving a shit!” she laughs.
“For me it was a relief. As a comedian, you believe you should be getting a sitcom or your own show off the ground at some point. Both Steve and me were feeling like we hadn’t done our thing. It was a relief to have finally done something where you’ve made your mark.”
Sightseers was a long time in the making, with the characters of Tina and Chris having been developed several years before they were committed to celluloid. Alice describes the final production of the film as “a lot of lucky things coming together”, like the involvement of director Ben Wheatley, who was hot at the time (Mighty Boosh director, Paul King, who was originally linked to the project, was unable to direct the film because of his Paddington movie commitments at the time).
“People are generally looking for reasons not to make films,” Alice explains. “Because there isn’t enough funding for all of them. There needs to be something really special to get a film over that final hurdle and green lit – like a producer who’s had a lot of success or a director who can sweep it along.”
Right now she’s busy with a fast-turnaround film project, her directorial debut feature, provisionally titled Prevenge. The part-improvised film is best described as a ‘post-feminist revenge movie’ and features Alice as a pregnant woman on a killing spree (Alice herself is currently seven and a half months pregnant, so thankfully there will be no need for anatomically suspect padding). The mystery at the centre of the film is who she’s killing, and why.
Shooting starts imminently in Cardiff with a Welsh crew, who Alice describes as “a great team”, with her pregnancy providing the extra impetus to make quick progress. I ask whether any TVO-connected artists will be part of the project. “There will be a good few familiar faces on the film,” she says. Watch this space…
Not one to put her feet up, Alice is also working on another film project, which she describes as “a dark comedy horror about a housewife”, inspired by the likes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, films in which domestic situations become the premise for horror. She’s been working on it for a couple of years, hacking her way through the funding jungle which surrounds independent film making.
As she is for Prevenge, Alice will be taking writing, acting and directing credits. I ask her how she manages to juggle so many different, significant roles within one production. “To me it doesn’t feel weird to be doing all of them,” she replies. “You wouldn’t say to a songwriter ‘Are you also going to sing this song? Are you also going to play the guitar?’ It’s just the way I approach what I do – it’s a more holistic thing; I’ve been lucky to be able to work in that way.”
“The people I tend to admire have a similar holistic approach to everything they do – people like Kate Bush and Bjork. I don’t think it’s that weird and I don’t think it’s that difficult – it’s hard work but not impossible.” She adds.
In fact, taking on several key roles on a project like this has its advantages, as Alice explains: “I could have put another actress in it, but it would have meant finding another person, making sure they understood what I was trying to do, making sure they were available. Then I thought hold on, I’m available! And I’ll be there on set every day, because I’m directing it.”
She notes that another benefit of writing, directing and acting is the confidence that it gives her as a performer: “When I’m acting other people’s stuff I can have huge doubts about my performance. But when I’ve written it I know exactly what it is, heart and soul. I understand it inside out. It’s something that’s not about words – it’s about a feeling. Getting someone else to that level of understanding is much harder.”
Furthermore, using non-comedy writers, directors and actors in comedy films can sometimes negatively impact on the humour quota. “People need to understand that they can trust comic talent to put laughs on the screen,” Alice notes. Indeed, we can all recall ‘comedy’ films which have failed for exactly this reason – because the studio chose household names over the people who know how to generate proper laughs.
Success and failure in comedy is a hot topic at the moment, with a number of unique, innovative projects from the wider world of comedy failing to land or being cut off in their prime. With ratings now the be-all and end-all for TV shows, the relationship between creative talent and commercial success can be hazy at best. It’s a situation that irks Alice: “In the past you would do a series, win some awards and your ratings would naturally go up. But one ‘trophy series’ isn’t enough any more – the second series has to get more. If your ratings stay the same or go down, they (the TV & film execs) think ‘what’s the point?’ So if you’ve done one film that isn’t huge you might never get to make a film again.”
We talk about one of the biggest recent movie successes from a TVO-connected talent – Paul King’s Paddington movie. A phenomenal critical and commercial success story, Paddington followed Paul’s low key first feature, Bunny & The Bull. Although loved by many critics and adored by fans of our kind of comedy, BATB failed to make its mark at the box office. It could have meant the end of Paul’s feature film career, but then Paddington came along; and the rest (as they say) is history. It would be a shame if second opportunities like this aren’t available to film makers in the future.
Paddington features a long list of TVO artists, including Alice herself. “It was a really nice thing that he did,” she explains, referring to Paul’s approach to making the film. “He got in a lot of his old theatre and comedy buddies to do read throughs. So before all these huge stars were attached to it I was reading Nicole Kidman’s part! Then he kept us on for all the small parts, even though he could have cast bigger names, or used the usual suspects, but he didn’t – he cast us lot!” Alice is full of praise for the final film, noting how Paul’s production flourishes raise it several notches above standard Hollywood blockbuster fayre. “It’s so good it feels effortless, but I know how much work Paul put into it.” She seems genuinely proud of him.
Although Alice is focusing on film projects at the moment, I ask her whether she has plans to take to the live circuit again in the future. “Whenever I do it I’m absolutely terrified, until I do it again – and then I love it.” she says. “And I go ‘why don’t I do this all the time?’…then I don’t do it for a while and I get the fear about doing it again!”
“But I’m in my element on stage,” she explains. “You get the immediate impact and you have to think on your feet. If something’s not working you push it until it does, until you get that laugh – and I really enjoy that.” She pauses for a moment, then adds. “When people find out I do comedy they ask if I do stand up and I start to wonder if maybe I should. But stand up is a bit like chatting – and I can just do that anyway with my friends. My friends are really funny.”
Having spent an hour in Alice’s company discussing the vagaries of the world of entertainment, it’s clear how frustrating the rules of the game can seem to her. She has a natural tendency to question and challenge the status quo, and her place within it. She never comes across as grumpy, although she worries that she does; instead, hers is the drive to keep asking why?, or sometimes why not? It’s an attitude that seeps into her comedy and that of her peers; artists who subvert the norm and show us a different way of looking at the world, a different way of doing things.
“The people who are doing weird stuff seem to be older,” Alice observes. “The hot young things aren’t allowed to do surreal comedy. We had this natural punk ethos…” She checks herself and laughs, “Oh dear – I’m making myself sound really cool, and I’m not! It’s just the era that we grew up in; you naturally rebelled against it. And now you look at youtube and there’s someone talking about lipstick or cake. That’s what people want to watch now.”
As a fellow Generation X-er, I’m inclined to agree. And with that Alice bravely heads off to persuade a room full of Crouch End feminists to rethink everything they previously believed about 1980’s cinema.