Talking to the director of ‘Prevenge’, Alice Lowe, about pioneering the pregnancy-horror genre and mumsnet guides to filming while eight months pregnant
There’s no Mumsnet manual for heavily pregnant horror filmmakers. Not that Alice Lowe needed it. Eight months into her pregnancy, Lowe gave birth to Prevenge, a gory comedy-thriller in which she directs, writes and stars as an expectant protagonist who’s murdering for two.
Lowe – the lethal lead and co-writer of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers – specialises in black humour, and with Prevenge the gags are mercilessly macabre. At first, Ruth (Lowe) is patronised and dismissed. Just another helpless mother-to-be, it seems. Then the killing spree unfolds. With vivid giallo colours, inventive demises and an “Evil Kermit”-talking foetus, Prevenge is a warped, psychedelic plunge into one woman’s gung-ho vengeance on society. Or so it appears.
Conceiving a baby and storyline in one eventful year, Lowe pitched the feature when six months pregnant. A few weeks later, an 11-day shoot took place, culminating in a “now or never” atmosphere on set due to the very real biological deadline. As a viewing experience, in that regard, it shares the meta tenseness of Victoria – except a lot of it’s set in Cardiff and someone dies in agony every 10 minutes. Last week, we met Alice Lowe (and her baby, arguably a co-star) in a Peckham café to discuss Prevenge, the filmic violence of giving birth, and what connects pregnancy with the horror genre.
The best-known films about pregnancy – Juno, Knocked Up, Rosemary’s Baby, What to Expect When You’re Expecting – are all directed by men. Which is quite odd, really.
Alice Lowe: I was aware no woman had directed anything like that, especially not while pregnant. I love those films. But I wanted to put my own personal spin on it. It’s a much more idiosyncratic and peculiar take on the whole experience. Because I was pregnant, I was like, “No one can tell me this is wrong.” It comes from my creativity as a pregnant woman. I was worried, as an actress, how it would change people’s perceptions of me. That I was busy, or that I had gone into a different casting bracket, or that I was unemployable because I had a kid. I was worried on a deeper level about how your identity changes as a woman. Are you suddenly brainwashed by having a baby? Does it alter the chemical makeup of your brain so much that you’re a different person? That terrified me, that idea. At the same time, I was going to stuff like prenatal yoga, and feeling like, “God, the pregnancy industry is really weird.” I felt very alienated from it. I behaved like a different person around these other pregnant women. It felt like everyone was lobotomised.
“I behaved like a different person around these other pregnant women. It felt like everyone was lobotomised.” – Alice Lowe
What’s the link between pregnancy and horror? In Juno, there’s a scene where Ellen Page raves about Dario Argento.
Alice Lowe: To protect us, in culture, we’re told pregnancy is this lovely, gentle thing that’s all pastel colours and softness. Actually, the reality is dirty. When you’re giving birth, it’s pure horror. It’s violence. It’s transformation. It’s screaming. That’s all hidden from you, or it’s made into comedy. But women die in childbirth. It’s a violent thing. It’s like blood connecting women through vampire films or werewolf films. Blood is a very female thing, because of your menstrual cycle. It’s a gothic tradition of women being connected to blood and violence. I wanted her to be the antithesis of everything you assume a pregnant character is. This isn’t someone who’s hopeful and looking forward to the future of their baby. It’s someone looking back and thinking about revenge. I was surprised no one had done it before. There’s Rosemary’s Baby, but the character wears frilly dresses and has naïve ideas about the nursery and is very sweet. I wanted a woman who’s the total opposite – without mercy, without clemency whatsoever.
I looked it up, and there’s no Mumsnet thread on doing the international film festival circuit.
Alice Lowe: I’ll start one. When I did NCT with other pregnant women, I’d be like, “Yeah, I’ve just been filming up a cliff in Wales.” They thought I was absolutely nuts. But now they’re excited. Mumsnet is useful, but often it’s quite funny. It’s this idea that when you’re a mum, you’re united, like you’re all the same person. Of course, you’re not. I wanted to satirise it to an extent. But I also wanted it to be brutally honest. Giving birth is a violent thing. I needed you to care about this woman, even though she’s doing bad things. At the beginning, she’s unlikeable because she’s so unremitting and ruthless. But as it went on, I wanted you to understand where she’s coming from and empathise with her. It was an experiment of testing the audience.
Everyone in the film underestimates your character. Is there a stigma against pregnant characters?
Alice Lowe: Yeah. As an actress, you feel, “If I’m pregnant, unless I’m Catherine Zeta-Jones, no one’s gonna employ me.” That’s frustrating. Why should your physicality intrude on the capacity to play certain characters? Even when you have mum characters or pregnant characters, they’re completely characterised by being a mother or being pregnant. It’s like they didn’t have a personality before. What were they? They were just blank, and then they became a mother.
And in the script, she might be called “Pregnant Woman”.
Alice Lowe: Yeah. You know a pregnant woman’s gonna come in and be fretful and tired. But who was she before? Why wouldn’t she talk about the stuff she talked about before she was pregnant? What about her job or interests? That’s probably what [Juno screenwriter] Diablo Cody was getting at, with a girl who likes Dario Argento. That’s her personality. It’s not purely about being a mother.
“It’s like they didn’t have a personality before. What were they? They were just blank, and then they became a mother.” – Alice Lowe
Did people also underestimate you, Alice Lowe, the director, when you were pregnant on set?
Alice Lowe: Possibly. If they did, I didn’t feel it. Everyone was amazing. I did tell a few friends, and they were like, “Really? Are you sure? Will it be safe?” For me, I had loads of energy, and I had loads of hormones coursing through me that made me go out and do loads of stuff. I had lots of creativity going through me. People don’t tell you this about pregnancy, but you get vivid dreams – I wanted to put that into the film as a psychedelic aspect of the hormones. It feels like colours are brighter to you, and smells are more intense. That hasn’t been shown in films before. Sometimes, on the tube, while I was pregnant, I felt I could smell the person standing 4ft away from me, and was disgusted by it. You have super senses when pregnant. It’s like being a werewolf. Part of the film is about capturing that revulsion you feel.
Have you received any strange political backlash yet?
Alice Lowe: An American fundamentalist Christian website picked up on it and said, “It’s an abomination. It’s not enough to have a pregnant woman onscreen, but she’s got to be violent too.” They hadn’t seen the film, so we just thought that was hilarious. Great publicity. Somehow, because it’s about women, it has to be a big statement about what’s wrong or what’s right. There’s no agenda. It’s a meditation on a character. Abortion is not part of the theme. It’s about pregnancy. As a female filmmaker, anything that you do is then taken to be a statement about women. No one watches Taxi Driver and says it makes men look really bad. No one watches it and goes, “It’s really bad what it says about taxi drivers.” Everyone understands it’s an individual character.
“As a female filmmaker, anything that you do is then taken to be a statement about women. No one watches Taxi Driver and says it makes men look really bad.” – Alice Lowe
So, how do you feel about it being called a feminist film?
Alice Lowe: I wouldn’t say it’s a feminist film per se. I would say I’m a feminist, and I have made a film. But I have no feminist agenda with it. I think it’s a mistake to call it a feminist film, because there’s a bit at the beginning where you feel like she’s killing men. But as you carry on watching it, you realise her anger has no boundaries. She’s angry with humanity. It’s more universal than someone pissed off with men.
Any final tips for budding eight-month pregnant directors?
Alice Lowe: Enjoy it!
‘Prevenge’ is previewing around the UK now, and opens nationwide on February 10. Check out the gallery of stills above, watch the trailer below or go to prevengemovie.com to find out more.