Tonight, PREVENGE receives its world premiere at Venice Critics’ Week. Below, in our third instalment of The Prevenge diaries, Alice Lowe talks us through the edit process with a tiny baby on her lap.
I find that with films, as with pregnancy, people talk about during and not as much after. So here’s my account of finishing a debut film while looking after a newborn. A first time mother of a film.
Della was born just after Christmas, so I took advantage of the winter break to… start work. I always say that as a freelancer, holidays mean nada. I will work at the weekend, possibly play on a Tuesday, get drunk on a schoolnight, meet deadlines on a Saturday night. And bank holidays? Pah. Why is no one in the office?! I know many actors who are champing at the bit come new year, as they know it might be February until they can get a job.
So I didn’t think much of starting to look at the edit from home by the time Della was about two weeks old. My brilliant and charming editor Matteo didn’t flinch at the notion of a remote edit. Me watching rushes and cuts at home, giving notes via skype and email. I found it actually a sanity-saving experience. Maintaining a sense of myself and continuity of my previous life, alongside getting used to a strange new sleeping pattern and the nervewracking responsibility of a tiny baby. In the meantime, it gave me and my partner something other to talk about than tiny bowel movements.
I had participated in several edits before, but not as a feature director. This was new. I was getting to know the project. Just as I was getting to know the baby. I found this secluded approach to an edit quite interesting. I had deliberately wanted to make something that felt strange and new. As I feel there are many unexplored female perspectives in cinema. I found that with the unintentional method of ‘watch-think-notes-think-repeat’, without any external influence, was actually very useful in terms of forming my own opinions about the film. Only I knew how to make the film work. (Mother’s instinct).
I don’t want to denigrate anyone else working on the project by saying this. Matteo is an exceptional, patient and instinctive editor. Both the composers and sound designer are friends as well as hugely talented. But when it came to wrestling those first very rough hewn attempts at story, I needed to be alone and hear my own ‘voice’. Ironic, you may say, seeing as, to quote my film PREVENGE ‘you’ll never be alone, now you’ve got me.’ But this intense and mindblowing time getting to know my newborn baby seemed like a unique opportunity to be alone with a piece of work. How often in life do you have the excuse to tell the rest of the world to go away? To ignore bills, household tasks, other projects, responsibilities? All of this is acceptable when you have a new baby. And that’s what I took advantage of. Typing notes over my sleeping baby on my lap. Which I am doing now.
I think the hardest thing about making a film, and what often makes a film fail, is knowing what the film IS. What made you initially fall in love with the idea? What’s the essential story? What is fun/exciting about it? The hurdles come when the seed of that idea you had alone in your head, is birthed out into the world and suddenly becomes vulnerable to the influences of other people. Producers, editors, actors, commissioners, financiers, distributors, etc. And all of those people are essential to the survival of your project. You have to take notes, accept criticism, of COURSE. But you also have to have the strength. To defend your vision. This is probably the only thing that matters. Only YOU know how to make the project work. No editor or producer is going to rescue you. This is especially true when the project is unusual/original. It is quite likely that people will get scared and try to divert it into a more tried and tested route. (Luckily this didn’t happen with me in this instance as I had exceptionally trusting execs!) I feel this is so relevant to female directors/screenwriters as so much of what we want to produce has the potential to be groundbreaking. If allowed to thrive.
There came a point though, where I couldn’t edit remotely for much longer. We’d pushed the footage into something that resembled a film. And now it needed fine tuning. And me in the edit. (There’s those weird little beautiful moments that you find quite by accident that you need to be there at the birth of.)
So I started taking Della in. A tiny dark box, in full summer by this time. Breastfeeding on a sofa, whilst watching the edit. Hoping screams and scary music didn’t scar the baby for life. She has seen the film as much as me. I joke that she has experienced being in several dark rooms with various bearded men for several hours, and thus is perfectly conditioned for the film industry. I had also begun visiting TOYDRUM Studios in Brighton to listen to the score. James and Pablo had had a similar instinctive but relatively isolated response to the film. Which is what I had wanted. I often speak of the film now as a ‘handmade pot’. Wonky, weird, charming (hopefully). It was a breakthrough to me to realise at a certain point in the process that this is a film about a uniquely quirky, individual viewpoint. Everything in the film is the main character Ruth’s perspective. This helped hugely with the tone. This is someone who is living in their own insane dream world, they have no grasp on ‘reality’ as such. So everything in the film is myopically personal. (A fairly good description of pregnancy I feel).
So I wanted everyone involved creatively to put something personal of themselves into the film, as had I. Apart from suggesting a few of my favourite soundtracks – Argento, Kubrick, Under The Skin – I gave the composers James and Pablo free rein. And was astounded with what they came back with. I had requested electronic with a sci-fi feel to reflect the alienation (haha) of the protagonist and newness of the tone, and a lack of fear of motifs! And they came back to me with Blade-runner epicness. The music has its own distinctive personality, a narrative quality, essential as I see it to the film. Amongst my favourite tracks is one I call ‘Biological Clockwork Orange’. I also asked James to go out of his comfort zone and do a ‘happy’ ELO inspired track. What he made is one of my favourite tracks scoring the motif of Ruth’s lost love. It gives a bittersweet and gently comic tone which helps you understand and like Ruth. There is a nostalgia to it, she is looking back instead of forward. It is a warm soundtrack, despite the film’s content. Just as the film has its warm colour tones.
The grade took place at Dragon in Wales. Again, Della was dragged! Everyone was so kind at Dragon and understanding about my limited availability. And yet they managed to fulfil what I wanted visually quite brilliantly. I wanted the film to look vivid. Reflecting the intensity of the experience of pregnancy. My bugbear is the uniformity of ‘horror grading’. Horror. Blue-grey-green-black. It works effectively, say in RING or THE BABADOOK. But is too lazily copied I think. I wanted COLOUR. De Palma style reds and blues, Kubrick style greens. An assault of violent colour. On the budget we’d done as much as possible in camera. Choosing our locations and pre-set lighting carefully. But I wanted to ensure all of this was maintained in the grade. The tonal shifts in the film are part and parcel of the story. It’s a film that slaps you in the face with volte-faces; anger to laughter to fear to joy to sadness (again, PREGNANCY). So this is reflected by jumps from red to blue, dark to stark white, etc. This is also reflected in the sound.
Martin Pavey is a brilliantly talented sound designer and my trust in him was implicit. Again, I gave him creative freedom to build Ruth’s misanthropic and claustrophobic outlook on the world. Martin’s studio is in his attic. So with the help of his wife actress Sara Dee, we had to winch Della in her car seat into the loft. Again, summer bit us in the ass. Hot, hot heat, and a sweaty baby.
(I have to say I am so lucky to have a very tolerant happy baby. I don’t know whether this is luck or conditioning. But thanks for being such a happy-go-lucky munchkin. And… sorry.)
What we found and enjoyed finding was the repeated use of hard cuts in the sound. I enjoy the notion of the audience just about feeling they know where they are with the film, then WHOOP! The carpet is pulled from under their feet. We go from a kind of epic aspiration of Ruth and her seeing herself as a dark superheroine, into the bathos of ordinary life and its disappointments. I guess this was an experiment I wanted to try for myself. To me life is a mixture of profound existential meaning, and ridiculous inanity. My comedy stands me in good stead for the funny bits, but the grand meaningful bits? Could I get away with trying to put those in a film? Am I allowed?
I’m most proud of the visual and cinematic sequences in the film. This is what I felt I needed to do to show my interest in cinema is true. And that I’m not just a chancer. (Am I…? Shit, gotta work on the director confidence.) The tireless patience of the editor helped to hone these moments and allow them to work. There is a psychedelic nightmare sequence, and many other moments, all of which wouldn’t have worked with the attention to detail in edit, music, sound, grade. The jokes in this film, I’m proud to say, come through in sound, music, editing, not just in the dialogue. Of course, you’d hope there would be attention to those details, but I’m still marvelling that we got it done. Everyone involved bent over backwards to accommodate the demands of a new mum, for which I am truly grateful. And gives me hope that this is the way the industry could be for all parents, if we’re only given the opportunity. To both give and take in terms of helping each other out.
In the end, I learnt most from this process. You can prepare as much as you like, but learning comes from doing. The same with childcare. At times it was a struggle mixing post production of both baby and film, but in the end rewarding. I’m looking forward to taking my family to Venice for the film’s premiere next week. Luckily I have a partner who has at no point judged me for undertaking this film, only supported me. So I’m hoping it’s a reward for both of them. I’m a bit nervous about taking the baby on a gondola. I think we’ll need a winch.