The diary of a mad pregnant woman

Mary Burke sat down with Alice Lowe to talk about making a film while heavily pregnant and finding the confidence to transition from actor to director.

5 June 2017
By Mary Burke
Mary Burke is a Senior Production and Development Executive at the BFI Film Fund. Mary previously worked at Warp Films, where she was Executive Producer and board member.

Mary: Anyone smart and cool in the UK will know you as a funny indie comedy actress and writer. You were part of the core creative team behind Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and one of the writers and stars of Sightseers – what was it about these experiences that made you want to direct?

Alice: It was a very long, penny-dropping process for me to realise I would dare to direct, because it feels like quite a domineering move. You worry that people might see it as crossing over to another side, but the projects that I've enjoyed working on are much more collaborative. It just felt like a natural step because I get plagued with ideas and can see things in my head. If you direct you get to transmit a complete vision.

I’ve been acting for 16 years, so I felt I had the confidence to know what I liked about the methods of the directors I’ve worked with, and to cherry-pick the way I would want to work. That was a very slow process. I think if I'd done it any earlier I might have fallen flat on my face.

a woman looking in the mirror with facepaint on

Acting gave you the confidence to make that leap across?

Yeah, and the knowledge. It's about channeling the ideas that you have, rather than it being all about you. Having said that, my film is all about me. In the past I’ve always wanted to play a character, be nothing like me, and it be a creation. But this is just what was happening.

But your boyfriend is still alive, right?

Yes, I haven't killed him. Or anyone. So it’s not based on a diary of a mad murder-spree woman, just a mad pregnant woman.

Can you talk about the transition from your short Solitudo? What did you take on to your first feature?

I'd made a lot of short films with director Jacqueline Wright, but I didn't know what I was trying to prove to an audience. I treated the short as a training experience for myself. I decided I was going to do a silent film, no dialogue, because I wanted to work with images, sound and music. That was really important, and it probably shows in Prevenge. The confidence I gained from being able to scare and unnerve people made me think I could make something unsettling. It was an experiment for me, in pacing and affecting an audience.

a pregnant woman in a cafe

How did the Prevenge project come together and what was the process of getting it greenlit?

It was a peculiar thing. I was already developing a project with Film4, pootling along and hoping for a similar budget to Sightseers, but there's no guarantee your project is going to be next on their list to make.

I'd done a film called Black Mountain Poets with director Jamie Adams, and he made the feature in five days. He asked if I wanted to do another but I was pregnant. Then he told me it would be privately financed, with a low budget, and they’d probably let me do whatever I wanted. So I thought about it – and about a pregnant character. I didn’t think anyone would let me do it, but I came up with the tagline: a pregnancy revenge thriller.

I had a meeting with them [Western Edge Pictures] and asked if we could do it in the next two months because I was going to have the baby, so it went into pre-production. I then had to write the script in a week, and spent another couple of days making changes to it before we were off to Wales to shoot. I was building ideas about the characters in a workbook and it got me thinking more visually. I enjoy drawing – it exercises a different muscle and brings out creative ideas. It was a really crazy, fertile, creative period for me.

a prenant woman standing a park in a red dress

Were you scared at all?

I was. I felt that if it were to go wrong it would be me who was to blame because I literally had every control.

What was it like directing yourself?

I feel like I've been doing that my whole career. Secretly, inside my head, not telling the director. When you spend a long time in front of the camera you start to have a sixth sense about what the camera is capturing. So I leave a lot to intuition, in terms of performance.

I don't watch rushes because I never want to be too self-conscious. I don't want to ever stop halfway through and think we're doing it all wrong. You've got to be in the zone, and you've got to stick to the tone that you're creating through the story. Very rarely I'll watch something back, if it was a stunt for example, to see if we physically got the moment.

You didn't watch any rushes during Prevenge? Or just the scenes that you were in?

I wouldn't watch anything. I just trusted the DOP.

a prenant woman with her hood up leaning across against a wall

Can you talk about what happened after you finished shooting the film?

I had a tiny baby through the edit but felt I'd made the film I wanted to make. We had a wobble in the middle of the edit wondering if it was funny enough. The execs thought it would be more of a comedy, but I wasn't pressured one way or another to make it something it wasn’t, which was a really lucky situation.

We got into Venice and Toronto and I thought it was a fluke, or maybe a mistake. Then, as more audiences started to see it, it gradually seeped in that people liked it, and they weren’t just pretending. I still have some angry feminists asking how I can depict women in this negative way, but most people seem to identify with it for whatever reason, and find it funny. They enjoy having something to get their teeth into.

What advice would you give to first-time feature filmmakers?

I would say go out and do it. Your first film should be about seeing a spark in you, not about the perfect film. Organisations that are going to give you funding for your million-pound, or eight-million-pound film are looking for that spark. How would they see it unless you’ve made a something?

Use what's around you – I used that I was pregnant. Film what's around you, it will be a different perspective. Make what you know. Use your really charismatic friend as the actress or the actor. The best things are just under your nose.