We spoke to the director of "Prevenge," an extremely dark comedy about the horror of impending motherhood—who was eight months pregnant when she directed and starred in the film.
Photos courtesy of Alice Lowe
Meet Ruth: newly widowed, about-to-burst pregnant, and on a murderous tear through a U.K. suburb inspired by her homicidal fetus, who—from the womb—instructs mom to slice through the people she thinks were responsible for dad's untimely death.
Such is the premise of the gleefully gory prenatal slasher Prevenge, out tomorrow, which finds Ruth using the presumed vulnerability prompted by her swollen belly to her advantage, dutifully bumping off victim after victim and tracking her increasingly complicated kills in a "Baby's First Steps" scrapbook.
The film is the bloodthirsty brainchild of writer, director, and star Alice Lowe, who penned the film in two weeks and shot it while pregnant—almost eight months pregnant, to be exact—then edited footage while taking breaks to change diapers. "She's done the promotions, all the festivals all over the world," Lowe laughs of her daughter, Della Moon, now 15 months old. "She's a working baby."
Despite its supernatural subject matter, Lowe's directorial debut addresses some pretty real stuff: the isolation of motherhood, the insufferable parental platitudes, the way pregnant women are treated in the workplace, and the all-around weirdness that comes along with growing another person inside of you. We chatted with Lowe about pregnancy's inherent horror, the trap of "likable female characters," and her protagonist's unsettling relatability.
Some of the sort of backhanded, condescending things Ruth hears throughout the film—things like "Baby will know what to do"—are these things people actually said to you during your pregnancy?
I sometimes joke that the reason I was able to write the film so quickly is that I was in the middle of the research. I was already having appointments with midwives and doing the prenatal yoga and finding it all very disquieting. It all felt very alien to me, like I was joining a club that I didn't want to be a member of. It wasn't anything to do with actual motherhood. Well, in some ways it was—you're going through something that could result in your death or whatever, and your body is changing and all that stuff. But it's also the way that people would treat you, and the fact that you don't really have control over the way that you're perceived. People talk to you in a certain way. There's this special tone people would take when they talk to you about the baby: Oh, we're trying to keep you calm. It's like being a baby yourself.
Just doing prenatal yoga, they went around in a circle and said, "What are we looking forward to about our maternity leave?" And I was just feeling like... well, nothing, really. I'm a freelancer, so it's just like being unemployed. There is no maternity leave, it just means I won't be earning any money. I don't know when I'll get a job after that; I may never work again.
It all felt very alien to me, like I was joining a club that I didn't want to be a member of.
I wouldn't honestly say that my pregnancy was a bad one at all. I think it was very standard, and I was quite healthy. But I felt this dissonance of the way that I was responding to it and the way the rest of the world was trying to force me to see it. Things like people saying, "Oh, it changes your life," or, "You'll never sleep again, so make sure you sleep now." There's just all this stuff that makes it into something that looms like a big horror on your horizon. The idea that things will never be the same again—you can see those as being positive things, but you could also see those things as being quite sinister.
That duality is something the film plays on quite a bit. Someone tells Ruth her baby has all the control now, which seems like a comforting thing to say to a pregnant person, as long as their baby isn't trying to get them to kill people.
I didn't read that many baby books, and I certainly stopped reading them once the baby was here because I didn't have the time. The pressure that's put on you to read all this literature—you can have a degree, an academic qualification in baby-rearing or whatever, you're supposed to read so many books. But there was one book that said when you're 20 weeks pregnant you should be talking to the baby every day, in the womb, because the baby needs to get to know you and know your voice. I was like, "Wouldn't the baby get to know my voice anyway just by hearing me talk, like a normal human being, to other people?" The baby's not even here!
At the same time, I was like, "Well, what if the baby talked back?" You take these things to their logical conclusions, and they start to be kind of creepy.
Ruth's reactions to these remarks make her character almost surprisingly sympathetic. There's the hiring manager who says the baby isn't technically the reason she won't hire her, but, you know, other people are so stupid, they'll wonder whether she'll show up for work or not. Women really hear that, and I bet it does make them feel kind of murderous.
[Laughs] Yeah, I didn't want to make it all about someone who's angry about the iniquities of pregnancy, but that scene is particularly about that. Sometimes the pressure doesn't come just from men. Sometimes it can come from other women; sometimes it can come from other women who have children or are pregnant themselves. We can have these hypocrisies within our society where it's like, I'm not the horrible person, it's just that this is the way things are done. I've certainly witnessed friends that that's happened to.
Do you think you were working through some of those anxieties as you made the movie?
Definitely. I wanted to direct a film, but I didn't think it was going to happen for me. It's highly unlikely for anyone—for a woman, anyway—to start a directing career and then have kids, let alone have kids and then start a directing career. I was like, Well, if I have a baby, I'll probably never direct. That's the reality of it. As an actress, some of my friends who are actresses or producers said to me, "Don't tell anyone that you're pregnant, because you won't get any work." And it's not just six months that you won't get work—it's like, five years you might not get any work, because people are going to assume that you're busy or assume that you're fat or assume that you've gone into a different age bracket. It's all these assumptions people make about maternity: Oh, she's too busy. You know, I've had a baby, I've not died.
Why do we think of pregnant women as being weak or vulnerable? And also: Why don't we see pregnant women as individuals?
I was kind of keeping it quiet, and then when this opportunity came along to make a film, I turned it down at first, because I thought that was what you're supposed to do—you're supposed to not work while you're pregnant. Even though I felt really good! I had a lot of energy, which can happen in your second trimester, you can have a superhuman amount of energy. And then I was kind of like, Well, what if I made a film that was about a pregnant character? Who's really done a story where the person's actually pregnant? I thought that could be really interesting. What would I do with that? What would be the story I want to tell?
And so you went with the obvious choice: bloodthirsty baby gets mom to commit a series of revenge killings from beyond the womb.
I kind of think all the choices I made about the character were about subverting people's expectations. Why wouldn't a pregnant woman do this? Why do we think of pregnant women as being weak or vulnerable? And also: Why don't we see pregnant women as individuals? I'm not making a film about every pregnant woman being murderous, I'm not making a film about every woman.
There's such a focus on likability with female characters that there isn't with male characters. No one says, "Is Travis Bickle likable?" and he's almost a romantic figure for people. We recognize that this is a man on his journey. We don't have to agree with what he's doing, we just have to witness it. I really wanted to create a female character that wouldn't allow you to pigeonhole her in that way. "Oh, isn't she lovely? Isn't she such a self-sacrificing martyr?" You have to work a little bit harder to understand the character, I think.