Alice Lowe is an English actress, writer and director. She began her career in experimental theatre. From 2001 on, she made regular appearances on British television, acting in series such as Little Britain, Skins and Sherlock. The short film Solitudo (2014) was her directorial debut. She went on to write, direct and star in her feature film debut Prevenge (2016).
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
It’s not something I remember making a conscious decision about. When I was a kid, my teacher once made me ‘direct’ an assembly – I was about 8, this was middle school! Very weird, she was a bit of a visionary that teacher, always making us do weird stuff. She obviously saw some sort of inherent bossiness in me that made me ‘a director’. I had to choose a topic and I chose ‘Assemblies’. Bit meta isn’t it?! It started with a boy doing a really boring speech about the Titanic. Then we put him in a sack, carried him offstage and did a ‘hippie dance’. I also made a boy cry because he was supposed to be playing an old man but wanted to wear his judo outfit. He was quite a hard little kid as I remember, much scarier than me. But something about the power of being a director must have gone to my head, it was what was creatively required! I let him wear the judo outfit in the end.
My first proper directing was of a play as a student and I had to apply for funding. The funding panel said, ‘Why do you want to be a director?’ And I said, ‘I don’t. I’ve just got this idea in my head and it’s driving me nuts.’ As good a reason as any. Sometimes I’ve just got an idea in my head that plagues me literally at night. And I used to not know what to do with it. I’d want to hand it over to someone else and say, ‘here’. But I came to realise only I understood it! I like telling stories and I love that as a director you can bring together multiple media and art forms to make a complete world, music, art, light, movement. One part doesn’t function without the other. It satisfies a kind of creative desire within me when I don’t necessarily have the skill to generate all the parts myself.
I love that it brings a team together to make something more than the sum of its parts.
I love the social aspect of filmmaking, pulling together, battling the elements, in-jokes, finding stuff spontaneously, etc. Although sometimes it can be lonely, especially the post-production stage. I sometimes think actors are like kids, and when you become a director you become a grown-up. Everyone’s having a whale of a time, and you have to go away and be responsible, make sure the ship’s still afloat.
I guess there was a point as an actor where these ideas and opinions about every aspect of my work were spiralling out of me, and needed an outlet. At first this was with writing. But so much of what I am interested in is visual, musical, tonal. Writing wasn’t enough. (I began as a performer in physical theatre in devised shows, and was very used to a collaborative, organic style of working.) It just became obvious that I would start directing, if only to stop complaining about not being heard!
With directing, as with my writing, it took a big deep breath and a terrifying leap to admit I wanted to direct. Ha ha sounds like admitting to being an alcoholic or something. I think especially as an actor turned director, you feel you have a lot to prove; that it isn’t just some vanity project, taking of the reins; that you actually have a visual, cinematic sensibility. I kind of tested myself with my first short film which had no dialogue, just music, imagery, sound design. I wanted to prove that’s what I’m interested in. Cinema in its purest form. I’m not really about lots of dialogue, TV stuff. I never have been.
I think some of the difficulty of being a young person is discovering where your talents really lie, it’s almost like uncovering a mystery. For ages I was unhappy working in TV comedy as it just wasn’t fulfilling my dreams. I’d be having ideas that were way too big and strange for TV and getting frustrated I couldn’t get them made. A film exec called me in for a meeting after watching a sketch show I co-wrote and starred in and she said, ‘I think what you do is really filmic.’ This was a really nice confirmation for me.
I had already started making short films, and it was always a liberation to not be confined by TV rules. Mind you, this was a while ago. Now TV is drawing loads on film and cinema in terms of ambition, scale, budget, imagery, editing, music. I’m now writing a lot of TV drama. And it’s a breath of fresh air for me. People are finally interested in tearing up the rule book.
I would say though that I don’t see myself as a conventional or jobbing director. I tend to turn down other people’s scripts because I see it as very hard work with long hours and high commitment, so it has to be a passion project to take me away from my kids. This for me at the moment means directing my own stuff only. Luckily I have writing and acting as my main salary, so it means I can be selective. It’s worth thinking about the lifestyle you want when you’re thinking about these choices. Though I had no plan at all, so I’m being a little hypocritical. It’s just that there is a degree of ‘wolf from the door’ work you may have to take up as a director, i.e. stuff that pays the bills. And you will often have to balance this with your real passion projects, which may be low budget and so not as well paid.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Well for me it was more of a question of ‘how to get into film?’ I had studied Classics at university, but got into the am-dram there, which fuelled my passion for performance. But even then, I thought I was going to do costume and set design. I loved performing, but I also loved making things. And I still have a joy in making things – I think that’s where my love of directing comes from actually. The satisfaction of making a ‘piece’, a pot, or finishing a quilt or making dinner or whatever.
But I started working with people like Paul King (Paddington), who I was at university with. He was putting together casts to make devised shows. And this sort of fulfilled my creative urge, without me having to think of myself as this ‘acTOR’, Shakespeare and all that, which felt too highly self-regarding and terrified me if I’m honest. I didn’t feel qualified and still don’t. But in this theatre group we were just ‘making stuff’. Sharing ideas. And it could be funny, scary, sad, anything went really! And I look back at that stuff and it’s far more commensurate with the filmmaking I’m doing now.
I finished university not knowing what the hell I was doing. Lots of my friends were going to London to become actors, and they sort of dragged me with them. I then entered into loads of temping work and bitty jobs, while vaguely acting on the side. I got a job in a comedy called Garth Marenghi with Richard Ayoade and Matt Holness (mainly because it was directed by my friend Paul King). I remember my mum being horrified as I turned down a teaching job in Japan to go to the Edinburgh comedy festival.
Anyway, it was a gamble that paid off as the show won the Perrier Award, which was the main comedy award at that time. And I ended up getting an acting agent and some TV comedy work. In a way this was a detour from what I wanted to do. I was taken from this world of experimental theatre in a pub venue and plunged into the world of TV execs and live studio sitcoms. It was certainly a learning curve.
I found myself in a bit of a hamster wheel of trying to get a sitcom commission, trying to get shows or characters off the ground via live performance or TV pilots. And actually I was finding this a little bit depressing because really it wasn’t where my strengths lay. I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but it took a few years to realise that. But I didn’t want to look a gift horse so I was taking work where I was offered it. Which is sometimes the way it goes. It’s not an utter disaster, you’re learning stuff along the way. I was certainly learning loads about shooting and production during this time as an actor.
Meanwhile, my friend Jacqueline Wright came to me and said, ‘I’ve just finished a film degree. Have you got any scripts?’ Again, she perceived me as someone who might have a film in them, when I hadn’t necessarily twigged myself!
We then started collaborating with me as writer/actor and her as director. This collaboration worked so well (hold on to your collaborators when you find them!). And we made loads of short films. Suddenly I felt completely liberated in terms of writing, style, subject matter. In comedy there’s this thing of ‘ticks to a page’. This means how many jokes/laughs there are on each page. If there’s not enough, you gotta put more in! Suddenly I was liberated from ‘ticks’ and I could just write what I wanted. And it was often stuff that would just not make it through a TV development process – maybe too weird, deemed too obscure, too many different genres, or not able to be pigeonholed.
The first thing we did was a competition called Straight 8 were they send you a 16mm reel of cinefilm and you make a silent film, editing with single takes in-camera, then send it along, undeveloped, with a separate sound track. We won two years running with our two entries (which you can watch on YouTube). This was a really good discipline. Single shots meant a lot of clear storytelling, without dialogue. Showing not telling. The only thing you pay for is the reel which I think was about £30. The films get taken to the Croissette in Cannes, so that was a great excuse for introduction to the Cannes festival.
After that we decided to make twelve short films in a year, and make all different types of things, just to show off: A music video, an animation, a B&W film parody, a spoof documentary. This was so much fun. We self funded these which was possible as we had day jobs. But we also started to build up a core team of people who believed in us and would work for free. This team building is also so important. These are the people you will want to carry with you into the paying jobs, and build up a rapport and visual style with.
I was lucky that Jacqui had attended film school and was really up on equipment and production. But all importantly she had knowledge of resources and schemes. There is a whole spreadsheet of funding schemes available in the UK and you should invest time in getting to know about them. There’s paperwork involved! But you can get your first film funded through one of these. Another important resource for us was Shooting People, a paying members club (again about £30 a year). They have networking events and by going along to these we found ourselves an amazing editor and numerous other contacts.
Anyway, that was my introduction to the world of film, which I found infinitely exciting and realised that this is exactly where I should be. Especially as my heroes were mainly filmmakers, people like Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine and Andrea Arnold.
I also was doing live comedy at this time, and Steve Oram and I did a funny Brummie couple on stage. Both of us have this eye for observational stuff and wanted to do something loosely based on our families. But we wanted these characters to have a difference: they were serial killers. Anyway, long story short, this idea was thought of as ‘having legs’ and we were given some money by a tv production company to make a short taster. Then Edgar Wright saw it and said it should be a film. So we started working with BigTalk and Film4 developing it as a feature, having no idea what we were doing really.
After many close deaths of this project, mainly because we weren’t famous enough to get our own feature film, in a last ditch attempt to get it made, we hired a new director. And that director was up-and-coming Ben Wheatley. His film Kill List was about to come out and be massive. So riding on the wave of his ‘coolness’ we were actually allowed to make our film, Sightseers.
This went on to premiere at Cannes and win loads of awards etc. And finally I felt I was allowed to be in the film world. It can feel like a VERY closed shop. I remember one bad review that said ‘TV bit part actors, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram…’ And I thought, ‘yeah, that’s right. I’m a bit part actor that’s come this far, and I’m proud!’
So in conclusion, there’s a lot of luck and contacts involved. But I have to say I never abandoned hope. And was also willing to invest loads of my free time in working for no money on various projects, so I was constantly gaining skills and contacts, and never letting up. Find a cheap place to live, keep your rent low! Then you can afford to do more stuff.
The best thing to do is just keep making stuff. Even if it’s on your phone, with your mates, etc. Even now, if someone said ‘you’ll never get paid again,’ I would probably keep on making films. Just because it’s almost a compulsion. If you feel that way, there will probably be a space for you in the film industry. Take control of it. I always think, you don’t make the film, never mind, who cares? You MAKE the film, you ALWAYS have that film. No one can take it away from you. You did it! You had the balls! So… Make the film!
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I think I’m old enough to have experienced a time when there was zero interest in female directors or writers. There would be the odd scheme of ‘women in horror’, ‘women in comedy’, but it was often a tick box exercise in the production company getting some extra funding. Some of which they ploughed into awarding some of their female writers a spa facial (I’m not joking. This actually happened!) The films would then never get made.
One such scheme, they actually used one of mine and Jacqui’s short films to prove to the funding board that ‘women in film in comedy’ was actually a thing and worthy of money. Then they rewarded us by not giving us the money to develop our feature, but by giving it to some more famous women instead (who had never made a film, and didn’t get to make one either!). We were literally the only women making comedy films and we STILL couldn’t get funding!
I would say my biggest frustration has been being routinely underestimated. Whether it’s people not employing me because of a sense of unease that I’m not good enough, or people’s surprise that what I’ve done is actually good. I remember one person turning me down for a development scheme (even though I’d just made 12 shorts in a year. TWELVE.) and shortly afterwards they saw my debut screenwriting feature and ‘felt like they’d just turned down The Beatles.’ I did think, well I’m not The Beatles, but why DID you turn me down? Self-confidence can play a part, but there is discrimination too sadly. I find that as a woman you have to prove yourself over and over and over again. It is never just taken for granted that you are just good at what you do. It’s a surprise each time, ‘Aha, Ms Lowe once again you are not shit, we are so surprised and unable to put two and two together!’ It’s very tiring and boring. But some element of me likes surprising people. Someone realising they had no idea of your capabilities can be pretty satisfying, hehe.
I had numerous experiences of being passed over for men with less experience. And then the humiliation of being directed by those often green and clueless directors who were deemed a ‘safer pair of hands’ than me! I do think this attitude pervades still. You’re just given fewer second chances as a woman. A mistake means you’re ‘awful’, whereas for a man this would be him just ‘learning’, so you feel this pressure to never slip up. But there is a new breed of female actor/writer/directors who are just showing people how it’s done (yes, YOU, Michaela Coel). I don’t know why, but you’re allowed to direct as a woman if you also act and write. It’s perceived as ‘niche’ being a woman, so it’s thought that only you will understand how your project works. And I’m happy to ride upon that assumption!
Although it can be annoying when you’re handed a project purely because there’s a female lead, instead of just on your merits as a director. We’ve still a long way to go where women are the first choice because of their brilliance instead of their gender. I STILL get people asking me to look at their script to tell them if the female character is any good and can I improve it? I end up telling them how to improve all of it, the male characters too!
But these days I am breathing a sigh of relief that finally people understand the power of a female narrative. This honestly was not understood or countenanced when I started out. I was like, ‘How is it we had all these female leads in the nineteen FORTIES, Bette Davis et al, and now we’re HERE?!’ Basically, TV film execs all thought female leads were ‘uncommercial’. Based on no evidence whatsoever, just on some lazy stereotyping. With Killing Eve, Fleabag, etc. all of that is being thrown out of the window, along with a lot of other outdated notions about race, sexuality and status. The fall of Harvey Weinstein was about more than just the end of sexual predators in the film industry. It also represented the collapse of the myth of the omnipotence of the white male exec.
There’s more questioning of that than ever and it’s starting to bleed through into the narratives that are being made. There’s still a problem (Trump, Boris Johnson, Putin, etc., etc.), but at least the truth is starting to be tackled in the stories we’re telling and are allowed to tell. In a way, it feels the less morality there is in our institutions, our governments, the more moral imperative there is in the arts.
Anyway, the answer I think as ever is to keep making, making, making. Don’t let your voice be ignored. If you take a knock, pick yourself up and start again. If you have a bad experience with someone, go high, don’t go low. Believe me, you will see them on the way down as you’re on the way up! Find people to support and mentor you and learn all you can from them. Find and use support networks, film organisations that support women, LGBQT, POC, people with disabilities. There’s strength in numbers. And you will find strategies there in moving forward with your career without becoming too depressed or disparaged. Find a mentor or role model and aspire to emulate their career and philosophies.
It’s very easy to become very down and it’s very common to have a lot of war wounds, horrible stories about incidents that have occurred at work. Know your rights, check your contract thoroughly, join unions and groups that protect your rights such as Equity, Bectu, Writer’s Guilds etc. Again, find out what schemes, bursaries, support you are eligible for.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
A lot of my filming experience was gained by being an actor. I would say, as much opportunity as you can get just to be on set, even if it’s just observing, take it. I learned so much about filming by being an actor who actively takes an interest. I always chat to DoPs about lenses, cameras, lighting. I’ve always had an interest in how things are shot, especially SFX, stunts, CGI. All of this has been invaluable.
Also, when working with Jacqui on our short films, we were crew, wardrobe, makeup and producers. It was a 360 degree learning experience; lugging kit across a field and going to kit hire places and working out production costs and negotiating with a studio. None of these I have to do now, but it gave me a working understanding of all the different functions of different departments. And also a different understanding of what’s possible. Some of my specialism is someone telling me, ‘That’s not possible on this budget.’ And me telling them, ‘Yes it is and this is how.’
This also bleeds through to my writing, because if necessary I will write something with a short or low budget shoot in mind, as with my debut directorial feature Prevenge. After Sightseers, I was developing several projects that were taking too long. Then I got pregnant. Halfway through the pregnancy, a director/producer Jamie Adams asked me if I had any scripts, and I explained to him quite grumpily that I was busy having a baby. But I went away and thought to myself, ‘well what could I do while pregnant?’ So I came up with a low budget slasher with a pregnant woman, never thinking for a moment it would actually get made.
I wrote it for an eight-day shoot, bearing in mind SFX of killings etc. It would be a series of long scenes, two handers, in single locations so we could do one a day. Dialogue in the morning. SFX in the afternoon. We actually ended up doing some pick ups, so it was 11 days in total. We had a budget of £80K.
The film premiered at Venice, then went on to Toronto, playing at festivals all over the world and getting international distribution deals. After Sightseers, I had had some education on how film festivals work, including the horror festival network. But I had no idea that the film would span such a diverse range of festivals. I had planned to please both an art house crowd and a horror crowd. And it pays to think this way. So go to festivals! Find and see your audiences! It may change what you then write. And there’s no shame in thinking this way, like a producer. I sometimes think that I am ahead of the curve in terms of what audiences want. Go with those instincts. It does not mean you have to compromise, it might just help you work out what you want to write.
An extra point about festivals – I never really understood what they were for. But it’s kind of triple-pronged. You are selling your film like a cow at a market, but you are also testing it out in front of audiences. And off the back of that there is also critical response – i.e. reviews. Now, a film can be deemed a success in one or two or all of these fields. But actually, success in any one of them can be of great help to you and your career. Also, something that may not get interest in the wider market, may be a sell-out huge success at a genre festival. It really is worth coming to understand how some of these showcases work and who the audience is.
People are taking genre more and more seriously now, it’s no longer the slightly nerdy ghetto it once was. But only make a horror if you love it! A director once told me he was making a zombie film because it was ‘easy to get made’. I’m guessing it might not have been the best zombie film ever. Make the stuff you love. Make it work within the constraints you’re under. You actually may come up with something more interesting when you have to compromise! For example, you love shark films, but can’t afford a shark? Make it about a killer dog instead. Already funny. (Only if it’s quite a small dog. Big ones are actually scary.)
In terms of ‘honing my voice’, I watch a lot of films, always have done. And I’m lucky enough to have worked with some amazing directors as an actor. Again, being on set you’re exposed to a different range of working techniques and methods. I really learned my preferred directing methods by working with some incredible directors of comedy and naturalism/realism. A lot of what I love comes down to a mixture of realism and surrealism. I love observation of humans, their weird quirks. But I also love the visual splashiness of horror and sci-fi.
I guess Monty Python was an eye-opener in my childhood, and they, of course, went on to make films. Britishness is very much part of my identity as a filmmaker, in terms of humour, irony, darkness, quirkiness. I think embrace what makes you, you, and don’t worry about the audience being different to you. ‘The more specific something is, the more universal it becomes,’ I think some wise person said.
Part of my experiment with Prevenge was to see if an audience would identify with a quite unsympathetic murderous pregnant woman! My theory is, just don’t give someone a white male hero to cling onto, and they will take what they are offered, like a life raft! People will eventually accept what protagonist you give them. So it’s worth keeping plugging away at those differences. It’s an exercise in empathy for the audience, and a good important one.
Oh, and watch ‘making of’ docs!
How did you get your first break?
I’ve detailed some of this above. I think you get a series of ‘first breaks’ really. I could say my first break was working with Paul King, or getting cast in a comedy show, or getting an agent, or getting Edgar Wright to exec my first feature, or whatever. It’s usually some small incremental steps. Some people have some amazing ‘first break’ stories, e.g. ‘I was waiting at a train station and someone stopped me and said, “You should be in a feature film!” and the rest is history!’ I am not one of those people. If anything my story would be, ‘no one really thought I was particularly interesting. But I ignored them and was a persistent gnat buzzing around the film industry until people realised I wasn’t going away and they had to give me something to do.’
Film Credits: Solitudo (2014), Prevenge (2016).
Photograph: Daniel Bergeron