Pregnancy makes women do strange things. Some begin eating pickles with yogurt. For others, hormones cause fits of crying. But for Ruth, the anti-heroine in director Alice Lowe's first feature Prevenge, pregnancy turns a woman into a serial killer.An official selection of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which just wrapped, Prevenge follows Ruth as her fetus tells her to slaughter all those it deems "selfish bastards." Blending all the best elements of pulp fiction, camp, and cult films, Prevenge feels like a cross between Charlize Theron's Monster and the 1970s cult classic Chatterbox (where the protagonist is a talking vagina). Blending comedy, gore, and taking a noticeable dig at the infantilization of pregnant women, Prevenge was shot in just 11 days in Wales—a breakneck pace for any film crew—let alone a small independent group. Lowe, who pulled triple duty as director, writer, and our lovable psychopath Ruth, was also seven-and-a-half months pregnant during filming. While in Toronto for the festival, she sat down with me (her young baby in tow) to chat about how her film disrupts Hollywood's narrow ideas about roles for women and why so many men didn't think she could make the film while pregnant. VICE: Prevenge starts off camp, then it goes into serious issues. What I was most struck by is we're not used to women, especially pregnant women, being like this. We're used to this stereotype or archetype of this motherly, giving thing, and I think this really shakes people's world view.
Lowe: That's exactly what I wanted to do with it, is shake up people's preconceptions of pregnant women. And pregnant women as these soft, harmless things…. It's a theoretical premise, I'm not saying pregnant women would be violent, but that character exists more like a kind of experiment to see how far you can stretch people's sympathies for a character that was gonna do completely unexpected things and was an individual as well. My thing is, people watch Taxi Driver, and they all say they love the character of Travis Bickle, even though he's an unlikable character. And then you see one sort of female character who sleeps with her friend boyfriend, and we're like, "What a bitch, I don't like her." And she didn't even kill anyone! She might have been slightly rude to someone at a party, and we're judging that woman and saying it's an awful depiction of womankind. It doesn't mean that all women are like that. I just wanted to test to see if we could make a female protagonist who makes these kinds of decisions, and we'll go with her. And that almost, teaching the audience that hopefully the character doesn't have to make the expected decisions, but you understand the decisions, even if you don't approve of them. You can still enjoy watching her you don't have to like her. You don't have to root for what she's doing You do kind of root for her, though.
Well, that's good, I hope people do. In like a really strange way, that is. And I say that because there's something about the people who she kills, where it's almost like they deserve it. No one deserves to die, but it kind of satisfies our thirst for justice, which is a mindfuck isn't it?
She, in her mind, is right. She is doing the right thing and punishing bad people. And once you realize that about the character, she has her own rules and morality… she's got a code of honor that she's operating by, and she's punishing a bad deed, and she thinks, These people should have been punished in a court of law, and they weren't, so I have to do it. So she and the baby, they think they're doing the right thing. I see her as an anti-superhero, the things that we perceive as weaknesses in women or pregnant women, vulnerability, fragility, hormonal excess—they're super powers to her almost. Turning that into strength from a weakness, people are not used to seeing that at all. So all of those things I wanted to put in there, and she's putting all these people on trial. I wanted to do that in the film, that you're constantly surprised by what's she's doing and you don't know what tone it takes, the audience is never quite comfortable with what's going to happen next, you don't know what's going to happen tonally. We did loads of that. We worked it through in the editing. It's a low budget film. We don't have millions of pounds to spend on CGI, all the choices and conflicts and horrors you're getting are through the choices we made through editing, sound, music, and tiny facial expression that unnerves you in some way. That's the game I'm trying to play with the audience. You think you're watching a comedy, then there's a cut, and suddenly you're watching something horrific. Maybe you're thinking, Oh God, she's a horrible person, but next you're feeling sorry for her. It was an experiment for me. I want to try and give people something that's really refreshing. For me, it's new territory, this female narrative. There were some really great films at TIFF this year that fail the Bechdel test because, if these male characters had been written as women, it wouldn't have changed the narrative or the story or the plot or the characters at all. But if your character had been a man, people would have gotten it. But you flip it on its head, it's a woman, people are like, "I don't know how to deal with this."
It's funny because it shouldn't make any difference. As an actress, I often, I've done this a couple of times, I've been sent a script, and the female character is in it for two scenes. And she's someone's mom. And that's all the character is. What's her personality? She's someone's mom. "What's her personality?" "Oh she's caring, and she's self-sacrificing to her son." And you're like, "Right, she's got no personality basically. She didn't exist until she was a mother." And that annoys me. And you look at the main character and go, "Can I play that character?" And they're like, "Oh, that's a man." And I'm like, "Could it be a woman?" And they're like, "Oh, we don't have time to do rewrites." And I'm like, "You don't need to rewrite! There is nothing in here that needs to be changed necessarily." But it blows people's minds. So much of it is conditioning. In the 12th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine rode into battle pregnant and bare-breasted. She outlived both of her husbands who were kings and 11 of her 13 children. And watching this film, I was like, yeah, don't mess with pregnant women.
This is what I'm talking about when people infantilize pregnant women. This woman is about to see a lot of blood and be split open by a baby, I know they're trying to be nice, but if this woman can't cope with the harshness of life, she can't cope with having a baby. When people were worried about me directing—it was more men than women, I have to say—I was saying I'm going to direct a film, and people were like, "but you're pregnant." And I'm like, "Yeah I know," and they were like, "Do you think you'll be OK?" In a way, it was out of concern, quite a lot of blokes have children—it was a primal, protective thing, where they were like, "What about the baby? Is the baby going to be OK?" And I was like, "Look, women work in fields, women have children in war zones, but me standing with a crew going, 'Press record now because I'm going to do a bit of acting,' is not exactly the hardest thing. And even if it was, I'm going to have to be looking after a baby, so… how hard can it be really?" I love that scene where your victim says to you, "You're insane," and you reply, "I am a working mother."
What was I trying to say with that? I dunno. Maybe the demands that children place on you, or that society expects you to meet are unrealistic to the point that they can push you to insanity. I'm really pleased by a lot of the reactions I've had from men watching the film as well. Some people have said to me that they're scared to go home to their pregnant wife. As they should be. Follow Christine Estima on Twitter.