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“Any Independent Film Is a Miracle These Days”: Alice Lowe on SXSW 2024 Premiere Timestalker

A man and woman in Elizabethan royal costume stare into the distance.Nick Frost and Alice Lowe in Timestalker

World premiering at this year’s SXSW, writer-director-star Alice Lowe’s sophomore feature Timestalker certainly feels like it’s been a long time coming. Arriving eight years after Prevenge, her 2016 debut that she shot and starred in just weeks before giving birth to her eldest daughter, Lowe’s latest was stalled for a slew of reasons—motherhood, COVID, involvement in other projects—but Timestalker’s extended development served to sharpen Lowe’s filmic instinct while shooting, resulting in an ambitious, blood-spattered time loop rom-com more aesthetically and thematically assured than its 22-day shoot may have initially allowed for. 

Lowe stars as Agnes, an ordinary woman who we originally meet as a literal spinster in Scotland circa 1688. While attending an execution in the village square, her eyes lock with those of the accused (Aneurin Barnard). She vows to search for him in their next life, and that’s exactly what happens. After a gruesome death, Agnes is reincarnated into an English noblewoman, ultimately re-encountering the handsome man from her past life in 1793. The cycle continues as Agnes chases her mystery beau through 1980s Manhattan and a post-apocalyptic future, dying many grisly deaths without wondering if this eternal, all-consuming obsession is even healthy.

Yet Agnes isn’t the only one destined to occupy the same role for centuries—the relationships she forms in each life are eerily similar, including a boorish, possessive paramour (Nick Frost) and an underappreciated best friend (Tanya Reynolds). Subverting fairy tale tropes while spoofing prominent films emblematic of each era she depicts, Lowe ultimately notes what is artistically hindered when the same stories are constantly told—particularly amid our current age of AI and algorithm-driven “content”—and why it’s so vital to break away from cyclical, uninspired narratives. 

I spoke with Lowe over Zoom days before her film’s March 8 premiere. Below, we discuss Timestalker’s acting as a form of reincarnation, the rewards and challenges of having her children on set and how the film caters to both the cynic and romantic in us all. 

Filmmaker: The past eight years have certainly brought many personal and universal changes, which include having your daughter and a global pandemic. Can you give me a rundown of how Timestalker first originated and the timeline in which it was made? 

Lowe: It’s an idea I’ve had tumbling around my brain for a long time. It just tickled me, the idea of a stalker that pursues someone through time. I started writing it seven years ago when my first daughter was a baby. At the time, I was like, “I want to write something a bit lighter, because what’s happening in the world right now is so awful.” Seven years later, things are just getting worse [laughs]. Thematically, it felt really right [that it was made now], in a funny sort of way. I always feel like being an actress, specifically, is reincarnation. I think for anyone in any creative job, you die a death [when you make something], then pick yourself up and keep going through sheer lunacy and romantic thinking. The film itself is actually about this mad belief in independent film, that it’s something worth pursuing as a career and a lifestyle. Every part of the making of this film reflected that—there were so many times where it nearly died, and we had to revive it and reincarnate it in a way. It shouldn’t exist, but it does against all odds. It’s just a really funny thing, because I know that without the evangelical belief of the producers and me—which, again, is probably lunacy—it wouldn’t exist. I think any independent film is a miracle these days. 

Filmmaker: You say it took seven years to write, but how long was production once the film was greenlit? 

Lowe: Once we were greenlit, which was last year, the actual pre-production was super fast. That’s the vibe of [Western Edge Pictures], the production company I’ve worked with since Prevenge. The shoot lasted 22 days. Proportionally, it’s a very strange creature. There was all of this development, then we shot it in 22 days! I think that was what convinced the BFI and various other funders that we could do it, because it looks like a bigger-budget project—like seven time periods, you know?—but we did it with the money that was available to us. We used recycling as our theme, and used the same locations, actors, props and costumes. Really, that was what got it over the line. Even as a writer, I’m thinking about production. I’m thinking about every aspect of how to get away with this, because I come from low-budget filmmaking and that’s my ethos. I like it as a creative challenge and think it produces more interesting results. 

When I’m mentoring young writers, I say, “Write something that proves that you can do it in an unusual way,” which is exactly what I did with Prevenge. It’s not conventional to shoot with a pregnant person. It’s not conventional to shoot in 11 days, but this is how we were able to pull it off.

Filmmaker: You’ve previously spoken about how the industry—both covertly and overtly—discriminates against creators who are pregnant or parents. Obviously, this stigma is what compelled you to take the reins on Prevenge, but I’m curious how you navigated this as the mother of young children while making Timestalker. What obstacles, if any, did you encounter? 

Lowe: It was quite a wild ride, actually, because we decided to film on location in Wales. My youngest had never been without me because she was two and only lived under lockdown, really. I was like, “I don’t think she can cope with being away from me.” She never had to do it, so I decided to take [both of my children] with me. That means I needed a different kind of childcare that was going to be overnight. Nobody ever talks about this as a female director, but you might have to have different childcare demands. It was expensive and crazy; sometimes I’d be getting home from directing and acting and thinking, “Okay, I’ve got an amazing child-minder, but I don’t think my daughter’s feeling well, so I’m going to take her to the hospital.” You still have to make the decisions as a parent that you’re going to go to A&E at 10 o’clock at night. 

It was also a timing thing. I didn’t know that I would be making a film with two young children. Life is what happens when you’re making other plans, but I wouldn’t change it. [The children] actually found it to be a really positive experience. They love coming on set and being in a different place. 

What I recognize is that I’m only going to be away from them when they’re this little for something I really care about, you know? I can’t justify to them that mommy’s doing a project she doesn’t care about that much [laughs]. But my heart and soul went into this project. I hope they’ll be able to watch it and enjoy it one day. Obviously, I die in it quite a lot, so they probably won’t be able to watch it without a lot of therapy.

For me, the project was very much about taking the narrative of a fairy tale that we’ve been fed as women and subverting that. Even as a filmmaker or a writer, it’s really hard to escape the narratives that we’re given; do we ever really? You attempt to, but maybe they creep back up into your story somehow. 

I’m getting older, as well. I cast myself as a romantic lead, and one of my fears was that people were going to say that this is a vanity project. Seven years were passing, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m just getting older!” I started to impose upon myself these ideas about what a female lead looks like. Eventually I was like, “You know what? I’m going to re-embrace the vanity project,” because we are taught as women that we’re not allowed self-regard. 

I love acting, but when I’m watching myself in the edit, I’m doing exactly what many women are trained to do, which is self-criticizing and going, “Oh, I hate this and I hate myself.” There’s a bit of a joke about that in the film—every time my character gets slightly empowered, she dies. I’m sort of sabotaging myself within the film. There is something funny about that in terms of a lot of my films. I’ve killed other people, so I just felt like I needed to kill myself just to even it out a bit [laughs]. I’m also playing quite an irritating character. She’s quite challenging, very self-centered and self-absorbed. She lives in a fantasy world. I wouldn’t say she’s stupid, but she’s a fool. It challenges the audience to think: Do we like this character? Does it matter? 

Filmmaker: Speaking of being both in front of and behind the camera, Timestalker sees you collaborating once again with several cast members from Prevenge. Did you notice any changes in your approach to directing your fellow actors—or yourself—between both films? 

Lowe: Because the film is set in different fantasy periods, [each era] was based on different film tropes and what our ideas of history are through film. In the 18th century, we had more composed shots than, say, once we get to the ’80s and are using a bit more handheld.

You do a surprising amount of improvisation when you’ve got a short amount of time, but sometimes we just have to stick to the script. That’s always the priority, because it won’t make sense otherwise, but we did more improvisation than I was expecting. 

I think my vulnerability comes out on camera, and that really helps me with the acting process. I don’t like to feel as if there is a hierarchy. I like to feel like the crew is equal to the cast and we’re all playing together. I really wanted the actors to own their roles. I always think people give you so much more when they feel there’s true creativity and freedom is allowed. I don’t think that really changed from Prevenge to this. But with this, I felt a little bit more afraid that it was uncharted territory. Life, if we’re going to film a scene in the style of Barry Lyndon, how would you actually do that and not just look like a complete amateur? 

When you’re working on such a low budget, people can assume that you’re a one-trick pony and can only do this lo-fi style. I really wanted to show ambition—I would love to make Wuthering Heights, I would love to do sci-fi. Even though we were working with a really modest budget, especially by American standards, I really wanted to show ambition, and I think we achieved that. I mean, the DP [Ryan Eddleston] is incredible and has done such an amazing job. It also wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the producers and production staff. 

We know this film back to front, inside and out because we’ve been thinking about filming this for seven years. But the benefit of that is you know how important it is to get each scene, and we pretty much got everything. We didn’t lose any scenes—well, we did in the edit, but not while shooting.

Filmmaker: Something that I love about the film is how it approaches the aesthetic for each era the protagonist jumps to and from. It feels bright and costume-y, in the sense that it’s evoking a thespian sensibility as well as alluding to specific films and the time periods in which they’re set. Can you speak to crafting this stylistic approach and any direct inspirations you had? 

Lowe: I have a Pinterest board with about 2,000 images. Every now and then, I would add another 100 and the producer would be like, “Okay…” It’s a pick and mix of my favorite things. 

I’ve always been really influenced by Powell and Pressburger. I don’t know why we made these beautiful, theatrical, colorful films and then just stopped. As an actor, I want stuff about masks and layers of performance and identity. It’s very dreamlike, the whole thing. We’ve sort of lost it as a [cinematic] language a little bit. We have sci-fi as a language, but it has to be realistic. We have fantasy as a language, but it has to be realistic. All films are fantasy, none of it is real! I like symbolism and psychology. David Lynch has always been a big inspiration, as well, and you can definitely see the inheritance of that in the film. Also Labyrinth. When I was growing up, you never saw female fantasy. But I know that there was a female screenwriter who did the final pass on Labyrinth that was instrumental in making that film what it is. 

We never see inside women’s minds. We see mad women, but from the outside. We don’t go into their world and share that vision; a lot of men are doing that for us. Like Poor Things saying that if women were stripped down to their primal roots, they would think about sex a lot. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love Yorgos Lanthimos, but it is a male fantasy. And that’s fine; most films are. I just wanted to do a female The Fisher King or Brazil. You’re going to go into a woman’s existential world, and to me, that’s radical. 

You can also watch it as a rom-com if you want to. I’m a romantic, and it’s taken me this long to realize that. I mean a romantic in the sense that I believe art is something that should be created by the individual. I don’t want AI to take over. This is my weird perspective, and I’m going to put that in a film. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just who I am. You might not get filmmakers that exist like that forever. There might be a period where we look back and go, “That was a time where filmmakers put what they thought and felt into a film.” We can’t take for granted that we’ll always have that. 

Let’s just say the film caters to the cynic and to the fantasist. As women, we don’t always get to choose. I wanted to feel like there is a good ending and a bad ending. There’s often a duality with female writers or female directors—something like Censor did that brilliantly. 

Filmmaker: Finally, do you currently have any other projects on your plate, either as an actor, writer, director, or perhaps another combination of all of these titles? 

Lowe: It’s annoying, because I’m developing a lot of TV things that I can’t really talk about, but I would love to do an actual period piece—a rehash of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or something like that. Having spent seven years developing a script, it would be great for someone else to have done some of the work [laughs]. Even if it’s Emily Brontë, it would be nice to try to do something that is trusted as a successful piece of IP that I could just get my teeth stuck into. I’m so ambitious with production design, and we had this amazing production designer called Felicity Hickson. It’s quite weird how we met, because I was talking about how I find modern James Bond quite unimaginative. I really loved them when they used to be supernatural, slightly spooky, camp and magical. I was saying on Twitter that the only thing that I liked in any of the recent James Bond films was this bit where there was a squid in the background projected on a bit of glass. This guy replied, “Well, my girlfriend was a production designer on that film and this was her idea.” [Shortly after,] I started working with a production designer, and it turned out to be her. She said, “If there’s a bonkers idea, we should just do it. People don’t have enough fun with stuff sometimes. You’ve got a budget, why don’t you do something weirder with it?”

So many films are made with a committee now. If one person doesn’t like something, it gets nixed. With any sort of large-scale production, it might be too much of a risk to do that, so it doesn’t happen. The way that creativity is evolving, those little weird ideas get stamped out pretty early. I really want to create definitive, iconic images that last and stay with people. It’s really hard to do that without a budget, and I’m really ready to do something like that now.

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