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Fantastic Fest Shorts Preview: Alice Lowe’s “SOLITUDO”

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In hosting the World Premiere of SOLITUDO, Fantastic Fest 2014 has the honor of introducing audiences to a whole new facet of Alice Lowe’s talents.

An accomplished writer and performer, perhaps best known for her stirring turn in Ben Wheatley’s SIGHTSEERS, Lowe has crafted a short directorial debut that’s often stunning in mood, atmosphere and assurance. Deftly blending the classically creepy with psychological turmoil and absurd horror, SOLITUDO tells the largely dialogue-free and frighteningly picturesque tale of a nun at a rural abbey haunted by both herself and a lurking presence.

Speaking to FANGORIA in our series highlighting the films and filmmakers of the Fantastic Fest 2014 Shorts Programs (read about THE STOMACH here), Lowe went refreshingly in-depth on the inspirations and making of SOLITUDO…

FANGORIA: You’re making your directorial debut with SOLITUDO. Had the intent to direct and the story itself been brewing for a while?

ALICE LOWE: The idea sprang from visiting the location. We filmed a scene from SIGHTSEERS there. Steve [Oram, co-writer and star of SIGHTSEERS] and I wrote the scenes around real places we had visited for research, but the ruin we set a particular scene in wasn’t available, so the locations manager found us Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire instead.

When we visited it, it blew my mind; the sheer scale of it. It’s one of the biggest ruins in the UK. It feels so isolated and I suddenly had this sense that you could easily be in the past. There were no signs of modernity around you. It made me think about what it must have been to live in one of these places. What would your grip be on reality? It’s kind of like a huge galleon or spaceship floating alone in the countryside. Self-sufficient. Lonely. But vast.

I thought, what if you made a sci-fi in a medieval abbey? A lot of my ideas come from location, how it informs and shapes people. I kind of got obsessed and started researching. Turns out these medieval abbeys were independently functioning efficient machines, industries, with people performing different roles. A hospital, farm, brewery, pharmacy, library, science lab, social services all in one. Don’t take this the wrong way, but the arches kind of reminded me of the movie LABYRINTH. I thought you could do some great labyrinthine shots of feeling trapped in this building, like a stone maze.

I got interested in Cistercians and Benedictine monks/nuns and the constraints they had to live under. And in the dangers of that time, high mortality, poverty, starvation, the plague, wars, an abbey would be a pretty good place to be. But with it’s drawbacks and sacrifices. I guess the film is a personal response to what I imagine that life would be like there. The sanctuary of organisation in a dangerously chaotic environment, but at a cost to your personal desires. It’s about religion vs paganism I suppose, at its core, which to me is a very interesting part of British folk history. I’m interested in the magical thinking that prevailed before our age of technology and iPhones etc. And hopefully the film raises questions of reality and perspective. I’m actually now writing a feature version that’s set in the time of the plague.

The female perspective drew me to the story, too. At that time, one of the few ways medieval women could have status or education was by becoming a nun. It interested me to put a woman on screen who is facing a struggle within herself. You think that it’s the typical thing of a woman being given grief by some bloke as usual, but hopefully the ending turns that on its head a bit. It’s herself that she’s scared of. Like Walter White, she is the danger! God, I wish I’d written that line! I write a lot about empowerment. I don’t know why, it’s not intentional.

I tend to have ideas that loiter around a bit like fleas in my ear, and eventually I get off my arse to make them happen. I knew if I could get that location for filming, so much inherent production value would be up on the screen. That building is a character in itself. Then, I was very lucky to be able to get an amazing team around me to help me bring the film to life. We filmed it in just one day without a budget, so I’m just grateful we got a film out of it. It was a lot of fun to shoot.

FANG: SOLITUDO has a remarkable, classically spooky atmosphere. What inspired you to craft this film about darkness within as a horror story?

LOWE: Thank you! I guess because I haven’t been to film school and am starting out as a director, I had an idea that I wanted to do it respectfully, one step at a time. Put myself through film school in a way! So I wanted to do something filmic, visual, without dialogue, and using media of sound and music, symbolism, etc.

I did storyboards and wanted to shoot in a classic style, with a bit of modern thrown in. I was inspired by things like THE INNOCENTS, SEVENTH SEAL and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS. I wanted a dreamy, ghostly psychological tone. When it was graded, I gave the colourist, Arthur Rackham, as a reference. So, a lot of my inspirations were “retro,” even antique I suppose! I always wanted it to have a distinctive faded English feel, like an old painting. I love the textures in the moss and the stone that our DoP Nick Gillespie captured so brilliantly.

We were proud of the scene where she lays out the porridge and the bowl as our ‘Vermeer’ shot. Wishful thinking perhaps, seeing as we had no art department and I had bought the props off ebay! But every now and then you realise you can accomplish what you set out to do even without (much) money.

I guess I wanted to attempt the old adage of “what you can’t see is more scary than what you can.” Less is more, etc. Whether we pull that off or not, who knows. I think my biggest fear when you’re sweating in your bed, worrying about whether a ghost is trying to get you or not, is your own madness, the loss of self-control. That’s more scary than any monster to me. A film like WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU illustrates that perfectly. When something presents itself and just won’t go away, however much you blink. And at the end of the day, the scariest thing you can think of, is the scariest thing you can think of. It comes from you, from inside you, it’s part of you. So you won’t ever get away from it.

My cat once broke its leg and tried to run away from the plaster. It was hysterically funny, but also sad.

I was blessed to have the maestro that is Martin Pavey designing the sound (KILL LIST, SIGHTSEERS, DUKE OF BURGUNDY). He understood immediately, instinctively what was eerie about certain moments. He said to me, “the creature doesn’t exist in our dimension does he? Surely he wouldn’t make any sound.” I was like, yes. He has the perfect mixture of classic horror instincts mixed with modern sensibilities.

Music-wise, I wanted something dark, grown up and modern to contrast the olde worlde-ness. So Pablo St Clements and James Griffiths from UNKLE did a brilliant score for me. They are just amazing and gave me way more than I could do justice to in a ten minute film. I wanted there to be a sci-fi feel, sort of an organic soundbeast spliced with a cyborg, like an electronic crow. It’s a difficult brief, but they delivered it! I’m lucky that they tolerate me, really.

FANG: Though effective as a lurking terror, one of the most frightful points in the film is a moment when the entity very theatrically, delightfully presents itself on the bridge. How did you conceive of that moment and its strange tone?

LOWE: Ha! Well, for a start, I knew the actor—my very old friend and colleague, Tom Meeten—would be amazing at physically performing whatever I asked him to do. He’s brilliant. And had to spend many hours removing that makeup and freezing in the cold, so he’s my hero. We only had a tiny bit left of the day to do that shot. I had this idea that in a nightmare, you can be crying and laughing at the same time. It could be a clown trying to stab you with a barbecue fork. What could be worse than something being hysterically funny, but terrifying at the same time? Absurdity and horror go hand in hand. David Lynch is kind of the master of that, I’m just an apprentice and distant worshipper.

I thought, the most menacing thing about evil, the devil, whatever, approaching you, might not be him creeping towards you like Nosferatu, but mincing towards you in a seemingly silly prance. Being quite chivalrous about it. I think it works, but we didn’t have any other footage in the end to choose from anyway! It got dark. I love that shot. And actually it’s pretty faithful to my storyboard, whereas other stuff did change and evolve during the shoot.

I once had a dream that a wizard was approaching me in a purple dress, and if he kissed me, I would die. He looked absurd, like a character from a kids’ show. But I guess I retained the trauma. And put it in a film about a nun. An acting coach in a workshop told me that “demons come from the back of the stage.” The idea of something approaching from afar, makes me shiver. Bob coming over the sofa in Twin Peaks etc. However simple a notion, something creeps me out about it, don’t know about anyone else! I guess it’s about something emerging from the depths of your unconscious. And you recognizing it.

FANG: It’s often hard to gauge the exposure of short films outside of festivals. Making your debut with one and having acted in several, what do you think can be done to increase awareness and viewing of short films?

LOWE: I think it’s a great idea to show shorts before features, just the one, especially if it complements the film. Like a starter before the main course. It would be great if more fests and cinemas did that. For the audience, it’s more bang for your buck, right? I think there’s only so far you can push people to watch several ten minute films in a row. I don’t know if the human concentration span works like that.

Generally, I try to scatter my short films on the internet intermittently like a couple of biscuits, rather than forcing the full buffet on anyone. The buffet is there should anyone care to graze, but otherwise, I’m happy for people to find their own way to them. YouTube has been good for me, in terms of democratising the viewing of them.

But of course, festival exposure helps build careers. I’m still new to the film festival circuit, and I’m very grateful of the chance to show my film. It’s as much about watching and learning from other people’s work, meeting people in the industry and gaining confidence as anything else.

What I would like more of, is support for comedy shorts. All too often, it’s the socially conscious film that wins awards, and they are of course without fail excellent. But it does leave brilliant comedy floundering without the critical acclaim or recognition. The relatively recent explosion of genre fests has done wonders for horror and sci-fi. There needs to be the equivalent festivals and awards for comedy films.

FANG: Finally, if you’ll be heading to Fantastic Fest, what are you looking forward to seeing?

LOWE: So much, too much! WASTELANDER PANDA: EXILE looks fascinating and jaw-droppingly original. JACKY IN THE KINGDOM OF WOMEN looks great fun and taboo exploding. I would like to see THE STOMACH. And how great a title is GOAT WITCH? Sounds like an affectionate term one of my friends might have for me. Really looking forward to my first time in Austin, I’ve heard it’s a ball!

SOLITUDO plays the Fantastic Shorts Program at the 2014 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas this September 18-25. For more, visit Fantastic Fest.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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