Alice Lowe is set to return to the big screen this week with her new film Black Mountain Poets, which sees her star alongside Dolly Wells and Tom Cullen and work with filmmaker Jamie Adams.
As well as Black Mountain Poets we are also going to be seeing Lowe make her feature film directorial debut later this year as she makes the leap into filmmaking for the first time.
We caught up with the actress to chat about Black Mountain Poets, the improvised shoot, working with Dolly Wells again, and her directorial debut.
- You are about to return to the big screen with your latest film Black Mountain Poets, so can you tell me a bit about the film.
It is a madcap caper where two sisters - who are con artists - are on the run. They find themselves at a poetry retreat and pretend to be spoken-word poets. It is myself, Dolly Wells and Tom Cullen and it was an improvised film. We filmed for five days in Wales on this fully improvised piece (laughs).
- Black Mountain Poets sees you take on the role of Lisa, so what was it about this character and Jamie Adam's script that was the major draw for you?
Any script where there are two female characters who are the central roles, doing something interesting, and are not just supporting the man's adventure I am attracted to. I thought that it was great that the director was looking at interesting and subversive female roles. Also, the fact that Dolly Wells was involved - we have worked together over the years and she is an old friend of mine. Just the idea of us playing sisters, I knew that we would be able to get past the awkwardness quickly and have a very interesting dynamic.
It was a bit nerve-wracking doing something completely improvised because you don't know what you are letting yourself in for, but I knew that if I was working with Dolly, we would be able to come up with something just down to the dynamic and the friendship that we have between us. That was quite appealing. Then Tom Cullen, who I really admire as an actor, was on board and some other friends were involved in the project; I just thought it would be fun (laughs).
- Can you talk a bit about Lisa and how we are going to see her develop throughout the film?
Lisa, in terms of the sisterly dynamic, she is the more bolshie one, she is more of a loose cannon, and she has a tough exterior where she is taking the world for what she can get but, underneath, she is actually quite vulnerable and quite lost. Really, this is a movie about growing up.
The two sisters are dependent on each other a little too much; their main relationship is each other. It is about that point where you can't do that forever, you have to move on and find someone else to come emotionally dependant on. It is this unhealthy co-dependent relationship (laughs) and, throughout the film, they do grow up a bit.
- Jamie Adams and he is in the director's chair as well as having penned the screenplay? How did you find working with him and what kind of director is he?
He is very laid back actually. He sent us a document about his ideas for the film and a very loose line of what the plot was, which was all very interesting but it was quite vague - which is quite scary. When we were actually working on the film, he put quite a few curve balls in and he didn't tell us what was actually going to happen; when we met Tom Cullen, we were filming. He just put Tom in the scene and we had never met him before. We were both a bit nervous, he was this good-looking cool actor and he made us meet him on screen and in character; a lot of the nervousness and blushing that you see is real.
There were a lot of fun things like that that he threw into the mix and threw us in the deep end. As an actor, that is a really fun challenge because you can only react quite naturally to what is happening around you. I really enjoy that kind of challenge, even if it is terrifying (laughs).
- You have mentioned that improv was a huge part of this film and it was a very collaborative process between actor and director? Do you like working that way?
I have done quite a bit of improvisation - the way that I have come up through television and comedy, there is a lot of improvisation done depending on who you are working with. I use improvisation quite a lot as a writing tool. I felt comfortable with improvisation enough in that... part of it is that you are supposed to be scared and you should be scared because you don't know what is going to happen next; that is what provides the thrill and the newness of the performance. I was really enjoying the prospect of doing it.
Film financing gets a bit scared if you use the term improvisation because they don't know what the film is going to be and they want to see some words on a page. It was quite an unusual opportunity but one where I was like 'brilliant'. I really do wish that more films were made like that. One of my favourite films of all time is Spinal Tap and a lot of that was improvised and there is just something amazing about that style of performance and the naturalism you can get from it. It is a really big thrill when you do it and it is a bit more like theatre because you don't quite know what is going to happen next.
- You talked about Dolly Wells already and she takes on the role of Lisa's sister Claire and the two of you have a terrific chemistry in the film. How much do you think the fact that you are friends helped that on-screen relationship?
I don't know if would have worked has we not known each other before. I have got a sister and I know that Dolly has got siblings that she is close to and I just think that siblings are quite rude to each other (laughs). There is a barrier that has been lost a long time ago - if it was ever there. I think that we needed to know each other quite well to be able to take that short cut into it being believable that we know each other in the way that we get at each other and criticise each other; you need to be good friends with someone for them not to become offended. That was really important I think because things just fell into place.
Having said that, I don't think the characters are much like us in real life as we are adopting exaggerated personalities in a way. Dolly is playing a very shy person - which she isn't in real life - and you can't really be that shy when you are an actor. The roles just seemed to come about quite naturally that one of us would be more dominant than the other. That little power struggle did come about quite naturally and it was really fun to play.
- The movie has been playing well on the festival circuit, so how have you been finding the response to the film?
It has all been amazing. Unfortunately, I have had to do it all remotely because I have got a little three-month-old baby. I have just been seeing all of the praise that it has been getting on Twitter and really enjoying all of that. When it premiered in Edinburgh I did get to see it. There are so many gritty films and serious films at festivals and it is rare that you get a warm and light-hearted comedy. There's lots of it that are quite beautiful as well in the way that it has been cinematically shot.
I think that audiences can sometimes get a little fatigued by all of the intellectualism of the festivals and then something comes along that they can laugh at, enjoy, and is gentle and warm; it can be a nice relief really. Because the film was improvised, you can't really see the jokes coming because it was stuff that surprised us at the time. I think that it is refreshing for audiences.
- You are also going to be making the leap into the director's chair with Prevenge, so can you talk a bit about that?
It is a project that I filmed with Jamie's help. He suggested that I do another really short shoot on a film and I was like 'I would love to do something that but I am pregnant.' So I left it at that. Then I had an idea of working the pregnancy into the film. I came back to Jamie and was like ' I have had an idea but it is quite dark and weird and is a revenge movie.' And he said 'I think that is your genre more than mine and you should direct it.'
I thought that I may not get that opportunity again, so I directed the film and I star in it; I was seven and a half to eight months pregnant during the filming. We shot it in a very short time and we are in post-production now and are just finishing off the edit and the music. I am really enjoying it. It is a dark drama with comic bits in it. It is a bit more thoughtful and a bit more dramatic than my usual stuff but I have really enjoyed it.
- We have seen you pen several screenplays in the past - you have also written this one - but have you found the whole experience?
It is funny because people often ask you about it and I think people do think of it as a difficult thing to do. To me, I just feel like it is a bit of a promotion. If you have been working in an office for fifteen years and suddenly you become in charge of the department, you don't expect people to go 'wow, this is really different. How are you coping.' It is the same environment, it is just I have more responsibilities. It is hard work but it is an environment that I feel really comfortable in.
In terms of directing, it feels quite normal; especially when you have been writing as well as it gives you a little bit more control over the output. It felt quite natural to be directing. Doing it with a baby has been an extra challenge (laughs). I have been doing the edit remotely via Skype and that has been more of a challenge. Generally, I have really really enjoyed it - I love acting as well. That was the brilliant thing about Black Mountain Poets, not having any responsibility and someone just throwing you a curveball and you just had to go with it. It was nice to not have that responsibility and to not be in control.
In some ways, that is lovely but in other ways... as you get older the parts get increasingly boring and stereotypical and I wanted to have more control over, not just the writing, but also over how characters are portrayed. The film that I am doing now, the character is quite unusual and audiences are not going to be use to seeing a female character like that. You may hand that over to a director who doesn't quite get it and suddenly, it becomes something else. I thought it was important to have creative control over the piece. I just wanted to make sure that stuff didn't get lost in translation.
- This last year we have been hearing about - particularly for female filmmakers - that there are a lack of opportunities in the film industry. How much do you agree with that?
It is difficult to say. I feel that I have had some great opportunities but, at the same time, I have made those opportunities for myself by not waiting around for permission. It is one of the reasons that I did my film Prevenge. It was privately financed and I didn't have to wait for anyone to give me the green light, I was just able to make it. I feel sometimes - myself included - I can be the culprit of being a little bit too scared and waiting for permission to do stuff; I think sometimes women can slightly be the culprit of that and not going 'I don't care what other people think of me, I am going to make this happen.'
Also, I do see that there are certain trends where people tick boxes and fund short films that are directed by women but not features. People don't really put their money where their mouth is, they congratulate themselves for allowing some women to come and talk about filmmaking, but they don't give them the money to make a feature film. I also think that there is this myth that female films cannot be commercial, which is rubbish. There have been many genre films recently such as The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and they have been commercially really successful; the excuse just doesn't wash anymore and it is obviously not true.
I don't know what is going wrong, but I am not allowing it to put me off (laugh). I am just doing my own thing and I think that is what has to happen if you have got this creative burning desire to do something. I spent years making low budget stuff and that was great training for me to just get out there and do it and get the experience as well. A lot of female directors are getting hobbled because they don't get work to make commercials and things like that; that is where you gain your experience, work with expensive equipment, really good crews and it is an important training ground. I think that the commercial sector is a bit to blame for not hiring women to do that sort of thing.
- Finally, what's next for you?
My new film Prevenge should be out this year and I am in post-production with that. I am writing more films and will hopefully be directing them as well.
Black Mountain Poets is released 1st April.