Alice Lowe on her time-skipping mortality comedy Timestalker: “Why don’t we make more fantastical things in the UK?”

Following its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival, we sat down with writer-director Alice Lowe for a frank discussion about reincarnation, the burden put on female directors and why we need more colour and fantasy.

22 March 2024

By Lou Thomas

Timestalker (2024) © Ludo Roberts

A wild time-jumping romcom fantasy, Timestalker is the second feature from writer-director Alice Lowe, following her murderous pregnancy romp Prevenge (2016). This time Lowe plays lovestruck Agnes, who we first meet as a Scottish peasant falling for sexy preacher Alex (Aneurin Barnard, Dunkirk and The Personal History of David Copperfield), but who ends up living, dying, dancing and crying in 1793, 1847, 1940 and even 1980 New York.

Viewers familiar with Lowe’s often darkly funny work – from Prevenge going back to her co-lead acting role and co-writer credit on Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (2012) to her parts in TV shows such as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) or Horrible Histories (2009 to 2014) – will have an idea of the sort of imagination, laughs and grisly mischief to expect in Timestalker.

Backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund, the film was shot on location in Wales over 22 days during autumn 2022 and recently had its world premiere to an enthusiastic critical and audience response at South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas; this despite the fact that it was made for the kind of budget, Lowe says, with which “someone would make an episode of a modern sitcom that’s got no historical periods in it and no crazy costumes”.

One morning at the start of spring, after dropping off her two children on the school run, Lowe joined us on a Zoom in lively form from her home in south-east London to discuss her film.

When and how did you come up with the story?

Seven years ago. It was a slow percolation. It started off as a sketch that had a fucked-up Doctor Who thing – what if there was a woman travelling through time and was obsessive about an ex? Just when you think you’ve got rid of someone, they pop up again, because they’re reincarnated. I’ve written a lot of films where I’m killing people. I think it’s about time I killed myself [on screen] – to make it fair.

I wanted to write something that was more lighthearted. Actually, it is still a really dark film, because that’s just what comes out. I wanted something that was colourful, bright and fantastical. I thought if I get a budget to make something, I really want to enjoy it – make all my fantasies of filmmaking in one.

Every independent film you make, you are aware it might be the last film you get to make, because it’s quite a troubled industry. It’s very difficult to get anything made. So, if I got to make this one, I want to have a ball with it.

You saw the news about the tax relief changes; that’s hopefully a good thing. The number one complaint from filmmakers is always about getting the money to make a film, because there’s so few opportunities for funding.

It’s seen as you’ve got to have a big star in an independent film or they won’t invest because it’s too much of a danger. There are always films, though. Hugh Grant wasn’t a big star when he was in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). We’ve got this talent, this amazing legacy of comedy, we should be making 20 independent comedy films a year – and one of them would be a breakout, massive success.

Most people who work in independent film are risk-taking, and it’s frustrating when the funding isn’t as risk-taking as we are with our lives. We are earning nothing or we’ve got to spread our earnings over several years, because that’s how long it takes.

We are putting ourselves out there; why isn’t the funding? Why aren’t they taking a risk? If you have a car industry or mining or something, you need materials to do that. Filmmaking is just people. It’s something out of nothing. I don’t understand why we don’t have more support as an industry, because it generates a lot of money – a billion-pound industry. A lot of people are out of work at the moment because of the lack of funding and things being made.

Look at Covid, how many people were watching films and television. That was what people were doing. There’s a bit of a dissonance between those things. I’m always very aware of that and that’s why I wrote something about mortality, because I remember when I started writing it I was like, “I might never get to make another film. The world’s looking pretty bleak at the moment.” And then it only got worse as time went by. This film has lived and died so many times, it nearly didn’t get made. You have to have this mad belief that it’s worth it. It’s a very romantic belief. The film is a metaphor for how I feel about filmmaking. You fall over and pick yourself up and carry on going.

Timestalker (2024)

What made you chose this concept? The only thing I could think of that was near it is Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006).

I love that film. I really love philosophical stuff. When you’re mentioning Aronofsky, I’m there for his stuff. But I always believe you can mix comedy with deeper ideas. I was like, “I want to make a Powell and Pressburger film.” Because I love A Matter of Life and Death (1946). [The Life and Death of] Colonel Blimp (1943) was a big inspiration.

Why don’t we make more fantastical things in the UK? We don’t make stuff that’s theatrical anymore or bright or symbolic. Because we have budget restrictions, we’ve got to film it like a kitchen sink drama, and it’s going to be grey. I thought, “I want to see if I can actually try and do my own version of a Powell and Pressburger, which is more ambitious and a bit more pretentious.”

I love the vulnerability of that. I always like characters who are flawed. I love female characters who are probably mad, deeply flawed, possibly unlikeable. I love to challenge the audience to put yourself in her shoes, even though she’s doing stuff that’s socially unacceptable. I love this character who you can see in two ways. She’s a dangerous psychotic stalker or she’s a dreamer, a fantasist and a romantic. You can be sympathetic or find her annoying. I don’t mind which. I love that. I’m not into saccharine movies where you’ve got to love the lead character. You can hate her if you like.

She’s a fool as well. I don’t think women get to play fools any more. You’ve got to be the most intelligent character in the film. Even people when they’re selling it to you as an actor, they’ll tell you that. “She’s the most intelligent character in this thing.” And I’m like, “Then I’m not going to get to be funny.” Because foolishness is hilarious, and I love to watch fools. It’s an archetype that I wanted to try, this character that doesn’t know. The audience knows so much more about what’s going on than she does, watching her make mistakes over and over again, which I think is quite true to life.

Do you actually believe in reincarnation?

No. I do in a sense that I think you’ve got these billionaires that are searching for the secret of immortality. That’s just about the ego. There’s a oneness in the universe that we’re all the same and we’re all part of this consciousness, which is incredible. That is almost immortality.

When a tree drops a seed and it grows, that’s incredible. The fact that goes on forever. [We should] put more energy into just saving species and shit like that rather than, “I’ve got to preserve my consciousness,” as if it’s so special.

I did look into quite a lot of religions when I was researching this, because there are so many religions that believe in reincarnation. There’s a lot about wheels and things returning back to what they are and things coming back. In a way, the film is a cycle that the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. I’m more of that Buddhist sort of mindset where no one is that special but everybody is special.

It’s a good philosophy to take into filmmaking, because anyone’s story is normal and is part of human experience, but everyone’s story is extraordinary as well. You take that philosophy and apply it to a character. Do I think people pop into a dog or something? No, not really. But all cells are recycled, so you never know.

Was there any particular period you would have liked to investigate more?

I would’ve loved to do more in the Victorian era because I love that era. It’s really striking for an audience because you’ve seen those big dresses with the hoops and how austere it is as an era, how repressed it is.

A lot of it was budgetary that I had to focus more on two eras, in terms of locations. But in theory you can make a film about any one of those. I want to keep the audience wanting more because, you know, you’re just getting a glimpse. You could do it as a TV show. I’d love to do it like Quantum Leap where it’s a different world each week and you do a different story.

You’re wandering around in someone’s head; none of it is real. That was quite a liberating thing about it – there was never any pressure to go, “this doesn’t look realistic.” None of us know what that actual era was like to be in. We only know through films that we’ve watched that we have an idea of what the Victorian era is. You may see paintings, but all of it is a fantasy.

It was really fun to mess around with these eras and pull the rug out of people’s expectations. In the 18th century – let’s just light this bit brightly with electric light because why not? It’ll look really weird and spooky.

Timestalker (2024)

When you see an era that you’ve seen before on a film, it feels familiar to you like you’ve been there before. It was about playing on that, then putting a little twist on each thing so that it feels new. That’s what I wanted to do with period drama as well. I always wanted to do a period thing. You don’t get to with comedies so much. Monty Python used to do it. The Inside No. 9 guys do it really well when they have a go at it. But there’s not a lot out there. Horrible Histories opened a door to that kind of thing. 

I think we’ve lost our connections to fantasy. If you look at art in different periods, we explore more romance and fantasy. Now it’s like romanticism is a bit old-fashioned, so I wanted to update it. Romcoms have gone out of fashion. I could see why they are a bit creaky. They’re very patriarchal, quite heteronormative, quite boring. We were just a bit sick of romcoms. I’m sure you can shake it up.

I always want to say to people, “This isn’t reality. None of these films are reality.” They’re all someone’s fantasy. When you watch a Christopher Nolan film and he’s like, “I’ve done a bit that’s like James Bond.” That’s just Christopher Nolan having a laugh, doing whatever he wants on screen. A lot of female directors don’t get to do that. We’ve got more burden on us – you’ve got to tell us what it’s like to be a woman, to investigate and show us some issues. It’s so boring, that responsibility. 

It starts to mean that the output women are allowed to do, the stories they’re allowed to tell start to get a bit the same because you’ve got to tell about the female experience. I am a female, so it’s going to be my experience, my perspective, but some of it is bonkers. My ideas are crazy and I don’t want to feel a responsibility of telling the truth or showing it like it is. I just want to have fun with it.

Timestalker, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund using National Lottery money, had its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival. A UK release date has yet to be announced.

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