Archive Talking: Alice Lowe on Film-making
Alice Lowe‘s sensational film Prevenge is in UK cinemas this weekend, with US distribution to follow next month.
We’ll be catching up with Alice for an in-depth natter soon, but while our combined diaries continue to wrestle it out to find a suitable slot, we couldn’t let the release go by without a little something.
As such, we’ve had a look back through our interview archive and pulled out some juicy quotes from our many discussions with Alice over the years, to paint a picture on her approach to film-making. Enjoy… and go and see Prevenge!
It’s hard to say how long it will last, but right now, Prevenge is a buzzword in British cinema. The directorial debut for Alice Lowe (who also wrote the film and plays the leading role), shot while she was 7-8 months pregnant in just 11 days on location across Cardiff, has garnered rave reviews and wowed audiences across trickled preview screenings and most recently a full blown UK Q&A tour.
This weekend, it opens in cinemas nationwide, and with US distribution arranged, the film looks set to have a long life on cinema screens, and on both disc and digital streaming platforms alike. Whatever happens from here, Prevenge is looking like a hit, and for Alice, it’s a long time coming.
Let’s put this into perspective. Initially gaining press interest and a small but loyal following as part of the Garth Marenghi and Ealing Live comedy troops, it was Lowe’s role in the former’s television incarnation Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace that first propelled her towards her cult stardom. The short lived show may only have run for six episodes in 2004, but it remains a firm favourite of every successive generation of students since, and a show that they continue to keep close to their heart well into adulthood.
Yet despite roles in a variety of television projects, including Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd, small screen success in a post Darkplace world eluded Alice Lowe.
Alice explained her thoughts on this awkward situation to The Velvet Onion in 2015, stating: “I think it’s because we were this weird inter-generation. There was a point when BBC3 stopped being about alternative comedy and became more about youth comedy. But none of us were quite young enough to fit into that category! We weren’t the hot young things, but we weren’t comedy establishment either. We all had to find our own way instead.”
And so by 2009, with projects such as E4 sketch show Beehive and criminally underrated BBC Three pilot Lifespam having stalled, Lowe – increasingly frustrated with TV executives turning down her ideas (including a short pilot for a project about two nerdy, serial killing caravanners, which no broadcaster would dare commission) – turned to the internet to make twelve short films in a year alongside her regular collaborator Jacqueline Wright.
“TV at the moment is having problems,” Alice told TVO in 2010, “so they are terrified of anything unconventional. But I reckon the only way to succeed under those circumstances is to take risks and become more original, not less! Part of why we are doing Jackal is to demonstrate that comic performers should be given more trust with their material. I have definitely gone through some fairly dispiriting development processes on various projects with different companies/channels, and sometimes what you end up with is a squeezed-down mess, all the joy wrung out of it, and it’s no longer current!”
Indeed, the seeds of Prevenge‘s success were perhaps laid during this incredibly productive year, which also saw Alice form spoof folk duo Hot Brew with Antony Elvin on the back of one of the more popular editions the Jackal Films, as they became known. The breadth and scope of the project took in movie pastiches, mockumentaries, music videos and even an animated installment – and none of them took more than a month to write, cast, produce, shoot, edit and release. That the films have been seen by less than 50,000 people on YouTube (and in some cases less than 2,000) is infuriating, if only because they’re an astounding achievement – but the fact that they were put out there is a testament to their longevity, and the work ethic no doubt inspired the speedy work in getting Prevenge in the can.
“I am of the ‘live by the sword’ belief,” Lowe explained in 2010, “in that I would rather have a good pilot rejected by the BBC, than a watered-down commissioned series. I’m not really willing to compromise, so there!”
“I think there always have to be rolling compromises when you’re working like we are with no budget and a tight deadline,” she continued. “If something goes wrong, it’s meant to be, and often makes you have to use your imagination more to make it work. I believe these are called ‘happy accidents’.
This attitude paved the way for a strong working relationship with Sightseers eventual director Ben Wheatley. In 2012, whilst discussing the horror-enthused comedy she wrote and starred in alongside Steve Oram, Lowe enthused: “I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from [Wheatley], especially about shooting everything you can, because if it doesn’t work you can just lose it in the edit, but if you never film it, you’ll never find out if it would have worked.”
“People are generally looking for reasons not to make films,” she told us several years later, “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.”
Cut to 2017, and audiences are lapping up Prevenge, and that special something the greenlight was looking for came with Alice’s remarkable tackling of the lead role of a film she’d written and was directing, whilst heavily pregnant.
“To me it doesn’t feel weird to be doing all of them,” she told TVO in 2015 just prior to the shoot. “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.”
The decision was also one of pragmatics: “I could have put another actress in it,” she explained, “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. 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.”
In Prevenge, Lowe’s character Ruth is very much an anti-hero in an uncompromising sense: she is quite literally killing people because she believes her baby is telling her to do so. “You don’t get many female villains,” Alice offered in 2015 by way of explanation for her writing choices. “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.”
Not that Ruth should be a surprise for followers of Alice’s work. Like Sightseers Tina before her, or many of the oddball freaks Lowe played in her BBC Radio 4 series Wunderland, Ruth is a character you can’t help but like, and root for, in spite of her terrible actions. “I like characters that seem like they’re lovely but actually they’re evil,” Lowe told us in 2011, “and characters that seem like they’re a nightmare but actually they’re soft.”
And speaking of Wunderland – that series’ deep sonic soundscape was inspired by hypnotism tapes, and in the same interview Alice explained reminded her that “sound can transport you into a different place if you listen to it in a certain way”. So when you see Ruth attempting – and failing – to make sense of her world with a relaxing recording in Prevenge, it’s highly possible that this idea was forming long before the cameras started rolling!
Another aspect of successful filmmaking which the Jackal Films and Lowe’s subsequent projects taught her, is in choosing your collaborators carefully, and when it works, you run with it. In that sense, the only ‘new’ face in Prevenge with a major role is Jo Hartley, and it’s clear from the mutual respect both actresses have for one another that they’ll work together again in a heartbeat. The rest of the cast is predominately made up of TVO regulars whom Alice can trust explicity, with Tom Davis, Gemma Whelan, Mike Wozniak, Kayvan Novak, Tom Meeten and Dan Skinner making appearances.
A full seven years ago, Alice already knew this was the way forward, telling TVO: “The biggest lesson you can learn from a project like this is ‘work with your friends’. It makes the project so much better, more joyful, happier, filled with unconditional love, etc etc.” The following year, she elaborated on this logic, explaining: “I prefer to work with people I’ve worked with before because I do like to work in quite an organic way. You want to know that people are alright with playing around with the text a little bit. And I like to work with people who are nice! I can’t stand working with people who have got any element of ego. You just want to have a nice time when you’re working… so I chose people who are nice as well as funny!”
And so, seven years after The Velvet Onion formed, in no small part down to Alice Lowe’s encouragement and a good eight years after those of us behind it got involved in trying, desperately, to get Boosh fans to watch Lifespam in the vein hope that the BBC would commission a full series, Lowe has finally been given full creative control of her first full length film, and the result has got critics and audiences alike stupendously excited. At last, this is the birth of Alice Lowe, the filmmaker.
The last time we caught up formally for a proper, fully fledged interview, Alice told us: “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!” Since then, we’ve watched from the wings at preview screenings, the UK premiere, and various Q&As, and noticed that audiences are not only enjoying the film, but they’re genuinely overjoyed to get to meet her.
What’s more, Lowe is being considered part of the new wave of British filmmakers, spearheaded by the box-office behemoths of Paul King and Ben Wheatley, and which also includes regular collaborators Steve Oram and Gareth Tunley. The dozens of project ideas that Alice excited told us about over the years may now, finally, come to fruition, or a whole load of fresh ideas will take precedence. But one thing is for sure, Alice will not be slowing down any time soon.
“I’m like a teenager at times,” she once told us, “in that I get obsessed with a phase or a fad and then I get bored and want to do something else. It’d be a disaster if I did something that was really successful and I was offered the chance to do ten series of it, because I’d want to move on.”
Prevenge may be on course for huge business, and will undoubtedly be a cult favourite for generations to come, but here at TVO, we’re always most excited when we find out what’s coming next – and for Alice, there are plenty of concepts on the horizon. We’ll be there to support them, as always, as long as she keeps making them. And she undoubtedly will. We’ll leave the final words to Alice Lowe, all those years ago, and they are words which any aspiring filmmaker should live by:
“You will never regret making a short film. You might regret not making one. You’ll always think you don’t have the time. But you do.”
Prevenge is in UK cinemas from 10th February, and on US distribution from 24th March. You can read our spoiler-free preview from October over yonder.
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