A horror-comedy hybrid based around the premise of a pregnant woman convinced that her unborn child is telling her to kill people may not be the obvious choice for an actor-director debut. But, that said, this is Alice Lowe we’re talking about. And Alice Lowe’s worldview is anything but conventional.
Perhaps best known for her hilarious and often quietly unsettling turn in director Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, which she co-wrote with her co-star and frequent collaborator Steve Oram, Lowe’s grisly feature-length directorial debut feels like a natural progression from her surreal comedy roots.
Having cut her teeth in experimental theatre, collaborating with the likes of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Lowe’s talents later saw a transition in to television, appearing in cult comedy series such as The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box and, most notably, the televisual gem that is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
With Prevenge now on general release in UK cinemas, Paul Weedon sat down for a chat with Lowe to reflect on her comedy work, its cult success, and her subsequent transition in to film.
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Before we start, we’ve actually met before – I interviewed you on the set of Sightseers a few years back.
Did you come up to the Lake District?
I did, yeah. I spoke to you guys next to the lake by the caravan. I think it was October. It was freezing cold.
God, that’s so funny.
It’s terrifying how long ago that was now. 2011, I think.
Yeah, that is quite terrifying.
Back then, you described Sightseers as ‘Badlands meets Terry and June’. If that was Sightseers, how would you describe Prevenge on those terms?
[Laughs]. It’s probably Rosemary’s Baby meets Kill Bill. Something like that. No, it would be better to think of a British sitcom, wouldn’t it? It just hasn’t quite come to me yet.
There didn’t seem to be a clean-cut sitcom comparison in there.
Yeah. There is a bit of sitcom in there, because there was definitely a point within the film where you’re at a saturation point – I feel – as an audience where we know what’s happening and actually you almost want a bit of light relief. So I kind of deliberately made it quite suburban and quite slapstick so it’s sort of signalling to the audience, “You can chill out now.” Like, we’re getting to absurdity here, so I was kind of deliberately almost really thinking of Hyacinth Bucket.
A Hyacinth Bucket set-up. With fighting women.
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It’s almost like she likes the city more than she likes people, in this strange sort of way…
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But it’s interesting as well, because the locations play such an important role in both this and Sightseers – particularly Sightseers, which took place in all these weird locations that weren’t atypical film settings, really. They’d seem otherworldly to people outside the UK.
But very familiar to people in the UK.
Yeah. Was that something you were going for? I mean, the disco setting, for example. That couldn’t be more British, as settings go.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I wanted the film to be kind of noir-ish because it felt like that was the anathema to pregnancy. Like, it would have been easy to go all light and pastel colours, but I wanted it to be all dark and I wanted the city to be a personality, almost. I wanted it to be a society, really. There are themes about society in there of how society thinks about pregnancy, how society treats the baby, but also how society can be really, really selfish and lonely. When you’re in a city, people can be like, “Well, there are too many people. Each to their own. It’s all about the individual.” So I kind of had this idea of her roaming the city very, very lonely. And it’s almost like she likes the city more than she likes people, in this strange sort of way, so I really wanted this look of city lights in the middle of the night.
And the other sort of restriction was actually sort of budgetary, because I knew that we had to have very long scenes and we only shot it in eleven days. So I knew that we needed to do very long scenes that needed to be two-handers, so that was kind of the way that I devised it to be able to do it in the time that we had. And I wanted it to be like a little playlet, but that meant just having a long scene with each two-hander so it would fill enough space to make a film.
But it works. And I imagine you learned a lot from working with Ben on Sightseers, right? He works very quickly.
That was four weeks, so it was quite different. I also made a film with a director called Jamie Adams when I made a film called Black Mountain Poets, and that was shot in five days. So, I mean I kind of… it’s funny, I did a project about ten years ago now when we made a short film every month for a year and they were all shot in a day. So I kind of had this knowledge that you can always get ten minutes of footage in the can in a day, so in theory you should be able to shoot a feature. But I am really influenced by Ben and definitely learned a lot from him.
What did you take from working with him?
I learned a lot of confidence in his ballsy approach that he has, like “Why wouldn’t we do it like that? It looks great.” There will be people who’d tell you that that can’t be done, but it can be done, so that’s definitely an element. But also, I’ve been working in that way for a long, long time and working with low budgets – virtually producing a lot of short films that I’ve done where we’d say, “We’ll just shoot it here. It’ll look great. We’ll just use this and this. We can’t use this? We’ll change it to this.” I’m very used to working that way, so it’s a culmination of a lot of… I feel like all my skills have come together.
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I had a blank slate to do what I wanted.
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It would be remiss of me not to mention Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace by the way. It’s something I find myself going back to time and time again. I’m interested actually, you still work with a lot of the guys from the comedy scene from back then. Is that something you’re always mindful of?
I think, to me, I quite often write with people in mind. And they’re people that I’ve worked with. I kind of write to people whose comic voice or rhythm are familiar to me, so all of those people are people I’ve worked with and once I start thinking that it’s going to be them playing it, it’s much easier to write. I just think they’re all brilliant actors.
It’s really funny. I think it’s really interesting that everybody who was involved with Garth Marenghi have gone in to film, pretty much, with the exception, maybe, of Matt Berry. But for me it’s a kind of interesting segment of British comedy where people who may well have gone on to bigger things – and there was a certain period where new stuff wasn’t getting commissioned. So BBC Three suddenly changed its remit from alternative comedy to much more youth-orientated stuff and Garth Marenghi didn’t get a second series. I think there was this sort of generation of comics who didn’t then do what they maybe wanted to do, or what their potential was, and so those people went in to film.
It’s worked out pretty well for you guys though, right?
Oh, yeah. I’m not complaining. I’ve always really loved film. I think it’s where my heart has always been. And as a comedian, you strive towards getting your sitcom and after a while I started thinking, “Why am I trying to get a sitcom? I don’t even actually like sitcoms that much. I don’t really care about sitcoms.” And, for me, it’s just been this amazing liberating thing – to kind of have no one telling you, “You can’t do this and you can’t do that” – especially in the situation I was in where it was privately funded. I literally had no-one saying yes or no to what I was doing. I had a blank slate to do what I wanted. And to kind of scare people one minute and make them laugh the next and then make people feel sorry for the character and then make them hate her and do all these things.
Yeah. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about her.
[Laughs]. Well, that’s good. That’s what we want.
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Words: Paul Weedon