Onion Talking: Alice Lowe on Prevenge’s final push
Prevenge – the directorial feature debut from Alice Lowe – is available on dvd and blu-ray now.
To celebrate, TVO cornered Alice once more to talk in depth about the Prevenge experience from conception to completion. With major spoilers (you have been warned), this is the result…
“It’s like the final push of labour,” Alice Lowe jokes as we catch up for the first time since Prevenge was unleashed upon the world a few short months ago. “Or it’s like a child that’s graduated. It’ll be alright now. It can fend for itself. I don’t have to be holding its hand every step of the way.”
The last time TVO and Ms Lowe spoke, she and her co-star Jo Hartley, not to mention Alice’s adorable young daughter Della, had wowed audiences at a Q&A within Manchester’s arthouse HOME, and the film was just days away from wide release.
Now, at last, the film will be in the hands of fans as a tangible item: the download is already available, the dvd and blu-ray are shipping, and Alice’s direct journey with the film is almost at an end.
“It’s been nice to have a little break from it,” she tells us, “but I’m never going to get bored of talking about it. I’m still finding new things that people respond to.” She pauses for a moment of reflection. “At the end of the day, you don’t want the last project to be the only thing people are talking about. You just want to be making another one. And another one and another one. My head’s already in the next one now, so Prevenge feels like an old fashion you used to wear, or a band that you really like but you haven’t listened to in a while.”
Surely that distance offers a chance for a little objective reflection, TVO opines: not just on the enormous success the film has faced, but on the work of art a creator has made?
“I probably won’t watch it for a while,” Alice explains. “Because I don’t feel like I’ve got enough distance from it. If anything, you forget what it is to be an audience member watching it. People have a reaction to it, and you can’t put yourself in those shoes. You get over the nerves about it being any good, or people liking it, understanding it, being offended. I’m kind of past that now. And there’s enough people that I like who say they like it, and you can’t please everyone. If there’s certain people who don’t like it, I don’t mind at this stage.”
Those initial nerves, however, are something Lowe is keen to hold on to. While it feels a long time coming, Prevenge was Alice’s first feature as a director, and it just so happened to come along as an offer as the actress, writer and director was pregnant.
As such, the film is so closely rooted into the birth of Alice’s first child, who, of course, has been growing all the time since. As the challenge of motherhood naturally changes, it’s highly possible that Alice’s perspective as a filmmaker will too.
“When you make your first film,” she opines, “your lack of experience and naivety is actually a strength. You make a lot of mistakes, but sometimes those mistakes are quite good. A lot of established filmmakers talk about getting back to that initial innocence. That’s kind of like motherhood in that with your first child, you’re filled with a sense of wonder, because this has never happened to you before, and it’s completely new and magical.
“But as you go on, motherhood just becomes more complicated, I suppose,” she adds. “I think that’s probably true with making films as well. I’m just a little bit more jaded about this process now, so I will probably have to shake a few preconceptions that I might have in order to find that initial feeling again.”
What is clear, however, is that Prevenge has been taken seriously. It’s not just the UK tour, the rapid-selling vinyl release of the soundtrack, or the countless respected film critics across the world who have hailed the film as a visionary first attempt from a new director: audiences have loved it too. And unusually for a British film, let alone a comedy or a horror picture, the critical response has been deeply analytical and fascinated by the subject matter.
“That’s my secret fantasy,” Alice deadpans when TVO mentions this. “That people take me seriously.” She immediately bursts into laughter, before a spot of ego-checking clarification is required.
“I always say that when I write stuff,” she says, “I write with absolute seriousness. I’m often not thinking about whether it’s funny or not. I’m thinking about the story and the characters. Really early on we had a sniffy review from someone who said: ‘There was a weak one-liner about mascara’. And I didn’t write it as one, so if they didn’t laugh then how is it a one-liner? It might be one line…”
It’s fair to say that Lowe does not fall into a traditional comedic mould. Never one to chase gags, Alice suggests her writing stems from stories of human awkwardness, and that Prevenge was the product of something seismic within her.
“I think real life is stranger than fiction,” she states. “I was trying to avoid writing what I thought were film scene clichés, and was trying to be stranger about the interactions people have. All the interactions within the film are private. Anything can happen in a private moment. You only have to have a weird person suddenly throw a conversational bomb into the mix, and you’ve got a strange situation.”
TVO suggests one of the strengths of the film is that the naturalism makes the emotional drama of this hyper-surreal concept hit home. As Jon Pertwee once quite famously said of why Doctor Who worked best in a contemporary Earth setting: ‘There’s nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.’
“Oh, you mean that a banal context makes strange things even stranger?” Alice responds. “I definitely think that’s true. Even my radio show [Alice’s Wunderland – Ed.] The whole way I was writing that show was mixed reality, whereby you create surrealism by paring a really mundane situation with a surreal figure or content. It produces strange effects that snap people out of their usual way of thinking, like dream logic.”
Indeed, one of the key factors in Prevenge’s success as a work of art is the deliberate ambiguity about the origins of the voice urging Ruth to kill her victims: is it her unborn daughter in some supernatural manner, or something inherently psychological? This reminds Alice of an encounter with an audience member in New York, who came up to her after the screening to ask a simple question: ‘Why didn’t the police come and get her?’
“In film, everything is a metaphor,” Alice suggests. “A film by natural is a dream. I don’t feel it has to be real or not real. I feel like that’s how I’m trying to make films at the moment. There aren’t rules of reality, or film rules you have to stick with. You can do what you like. Who wants to hear about police procedure? Watch a detective series on telly. These strange rules immediately make something less entertaining.”
Not to mention, we suggest, negatively effecting the deeply claustrophobic tone of most of the film. Alice agrees.
“We did have another character that we lost,” she explains, referring to Jill (played by Sightseers actress Eileen Davis), who didn’t make the final edit. “She knew Ruth, and grounded her in reality. But as soon as you grounded her, you didn’t believe that character. When she’s just gliding around killing people without any consequences, it gives her this mystic, almost superhero status. As soon as you ground her, it starts to pull apart. Someone like David Lynch doesn’t bother with that shit. His characters are just there, don’t ask what time it is, or what their jobs are. They’re just in a strange timeless zone.”
Interestingly, however, one of the film’s key sequences breaks all of the façade away: as Ruth pretends to be flat-hunter Claire, and briefly befriends the flatmate of one of the people on her hit-list. For these few moments, in the company of Josh (a pitch perfect Mike Wozniak), Ruth lets her guard down, and for the first time since her partner’s death, enjoys herself, until it inevitably has to come crashing down around her.
“That was her chance,” Alice explains. “That was her window to have a normal life. Maybe even get a boyfriend. Someone who could look after her. I almost wanted it to be a gentle sitcom. I wanted it to be so domestic and nice, and go on for such a long time that the audience is almost relaxing. Then bad stuff happens. It was so important to have that scene, and see a warm side of her that doesn’t come out otherwise.”
As something of an anti-hero, Ruth’s journey plays out like a 21st century Alex from A Clockwork Orange: audiences are invited to be sympathetic to the character, even though she’s committing truly horrendous acts… albeit with a much stronger motive and far greater intelligence than Anthony Burgess’ hapless Droog. Here is a character who has suffered an enormous emotional loss, and it becomes clear that the challenge she faces is draining her as much as it is her driving force.
Nevertheless, Kubrick’s film, which also partially inspired the sonic electronic soundscapes on Prevenge’s soundtrack, has an ending that chimes with Lowe’s film. In it, (major spoiler alert), Ruth becomes the creature she wants to be, and audiences cheer what is, in essence, a cold-hearted killer.
“We called that ‘Back To Work’,” Alice reveals when the comparison is put to her. “We didn’t call it that on the soundtrack, but when we were discussing it, we said her ‘Back To Work’ theme should come in here, because you know that people are going to enjoy it. It does feel like we’re back in familiar territory. We talked a lot about the music and how it had a sense of pre-destiny. She can’t stop. It’s just going to happen, and the audience can’t help but be carried along as well. There’s a pleasure to that, like scratching a familiar itch.”
What many may not realise when they see Prevenge and identify Alice from her roles in Hot Fuzz, Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh or many other familiar productions, is that this isn’t just a vanity project, where a star actress puts in a half-arsed directorial job, and gets the writer credit while others refine the script uncredited. This is a full blooded attempt from a creative mind who has bided her time to be given the chance to do so, and as such has a hand in every aspect of the production, without detracting anything from the producers about whom Alice is consistently complimentary.
As well as working closely with composers Toydrum on the sound of the film, Lowe’s strongest collaborators on the style of the film were Director of Photography Ryan Eddleston and editor Matteo Bini. The trio focused heavily on the visual aesthetic, from the choice of lenses to colour grading choices, and multiple edits of scenes in order to best reflect the film’s mood. And while she’ll often downplay her own efforts, it’s clear this is an apect of the film of which she is, quite rightly, rather proud.
“I never claim to be an expert in anything,” Alice states, “but I know what my tastes are. I think that’s all that being a director is, as much as it’s vaunted as this godlike status. It’s very easy for people when you’re starting out, to believe you don’t know what you’re talking about. I definitely had a vision for it. I always have a strong sense of my projects. I know what the colours associated with it are. All the songs. The tone of it. When I’m giving a script to someone, it’s nothing to do with the final package in my head.
“This is why I’ve started directing,” she continues. “I know that I’ve got a more complete vision in my head than just being a scriptwriter. How everything complements one another. I can’t show that to people unless I make it. A lot of the projects I’ve done have been misinterpreted in some way, for one reason or another. Prevenge was the first time I’ve really had this synergy with all those different things coming together, and I felt like people were really listening to me. I didn’t feel inhibited in what I was asking for, either. I pretty much got all the choices I wanted. I don’t know if that was just being pregnant and people indulging me!”
It helped that some of the key crew members were familiar to Alice from previous productions, and the cast were all friends.
“Even if they hadn’t worked with me as a director,” Alice considers, “which is a bit of a leap of faith, I suppose… they like me. They know I’m a good performer, so they were willing to make that leap. It meant I didn’t have to turn up and go: ‘Hi, you don’t know me. I’m not an idiot.’
“I’m sure that when we were filming some people actually had no idea if it was any good or not. Especially because everyone was so separate from each other and didn’t see any of the other bits. I think the one person who saw any rushes was Jo Hartley, because she had a spare half hour when we were filming. Everyone else just did a day on it and had no idea what it would be like! There are still some members of the cast who haven’t seen it, because they’ve been busy and couldn’t make it. I wouldn’t blame them for having no idea what the film was.”
“I like to film in a really relaxed style,” Alice continues. “We shoot the rehearsal and just keep shooting. I don’t like there to be a division, or when the shoot starts everyone thinks they’re acting now, and suddenly switch on and become a different person. I like to almost blur those lines, so people walk away wondering if they did any acting, or if it was any good.” She laughs, and in her inimitable sardonic style adds: “It’s a sense of ‘Was that it?’”
The results, however, speak for themselves. Prevenge has wowed audiences across the world, and is set to find many new friends as it makes the transition to home media and streaming platforms. There’s also a strange joy in watching the film take off at the same time as the film industry is sitting up and paying attention to the former Ealing Live and Mighty Boosh crowd that The Velvet Onion has at its core. Simon Farnaby is now scriptwriting Paddington 2 with former Boosh/Garth Marenghi director Paul King, and alongside Julian Barratt, was responsible for Mindhorn. Following Sightseers, Steve Oram got rave reviews for his challenging debut Aaaaaaaah! and is currently planning his second feature, while Gareth Tunley and a cast primarily made up on TVO regulars, ditched the comedy and made psychological horror thriller The Ghoul, which had rave reviews at its initial screenings and is set for wider release in the Summer. And then there’s the continued efforts of Ben Wheatley and Richard Ayoade for good measure. Suddenly, with Prevenge as the most delicious of proverbial cherries on top, it feels like the Onions are finally getting the respect they deserve.
“It’s a really nice thing,” Alice explains. “A lot of potential that could have been lost has come back to life, really. I don’t want to sound too bitchy about it, but I think I was trying to fit myself as a square peg into a round hole for a long time. I wanted British TV comedy to be what I wanted it to be, which is pretty strange and with dark narratives. And now it’s a massive relief that I’m in the right job.
“Jo Hartley gave me this book, because she’s a bit of a guru in her spare time. I call her The Blue Fairy, because she’s that person who makes you feel really uplifted about how the universe works. She gave me this book by Florence Scovel Shinn, and its full of stuff about non-resistance. Jo always says ‘Go with the Flo’. When you find your right path, it’s easy. It’s not that you don’t work hard, but it feels easy, because it’s what you should be doing. That’s what Prevenge felt like. Don’t get me wrong, I have worked my arse off, but it hasn’t felt like work to me.”
“I think that’s probably true of someone like Gareth Tunley,” she adds, “who is such an intelligent person with so many hidden depths. Of course The Ghoul was the right step for him. Part of you thinks: ‘You should have done this earlier, Gareth! Why didn’t you show us what you could do?’ But you can’t hurry this stuff. It’s a natural evolution. Sometimes a penny drops about who you are and what you should be doing, and it comes at just the right time. It’s really nice that we’re all doing stuff we enjoy, and getting a bit of recognition for it doesn’t hurt either.”
The recognition has also led to new opportunities, with the production company behind it leading the pack by giving Alice another feature to develop. Alongside this, she’s working on a comedy drama concept for TV, and an exciting acting project this summer, which we’re sure TVO will be shouting about in due course, but not just yet! Alice has also directed a music video for collaborators Toydrum, featuring Prevenge’s Kate Dickie, but again, more on that soon. In the meantime, as she prepares to put the film behind her, TVO asks Alice to reflect on what she hopes its legacy will be.
“I’ve done a few projects where I’ve thought: Maybe that’s the thing that goes on my gravestone,” she admits. “Maybe that’s the thing that defines my work. It’s really funny, because now I’m mainly getting asked about Prevenge. I don’t often get asked about Sightseers or Garth Marenghi or whatever. I mean, I love it when I am, because it’s something different to talk about! But it’s a nice thing that people are interested, or bothered to find out what I’ve done before and follow it. I feel liberated. I don’t feel indebted to anyone. With Garth Marenghi, I didn’t write it, so I felt lucky to be involved in that. To an extent it’s the same with Sightseers, because someone else directed it, and I’d co-written it with Steve. With this, I felt a calm sense of realisation that I’ve done it. Nobody can say I haven’t pulled my weight with this to get the job done!”
“I wanted it to have a cult vibe to it. I want people to still be interested in the film in ten years. That would be my ambition: that people would see it as part of the development of British filmmakers, or even just my own work, and come back to it. I just want to go on and make films, and make lots of different types of stories, and just have fun. You have that moment when something does well, and you can capitalise on it. I’ve always been really bad at doing that in the past. I’d always run away and try to hide, because I prefered to be the underdog coming out of nowhere. You can’t do that all the time. So, I’d hope that it’s part of a beginning of a career, and not just that one fluke film that woman got to make.”
TVO is confident that it’s the former, rather than the latter. Prevenge is done and dusted, and is out there for you all to enjoy. Here’s to the next one!
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