SXSW Grand Jury winner ‘Alice’ questions concepts of marriage, motherhood

*Updated for March 12, 2019: “Alice” wins SXSW Narrative Feature Competition

Award-winning writer and director Josephine Mackerras’ first feature film, “Alice,” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival recently. Living around the world, this NYU educated filmmaker delves deeply into how one woman, a wife and mother, reacts to her husband’s double life, leaving them in debt and on the brink of eviction. Filled with extraordinary performances from this ensemble cast, Mackerras turns the psychological tables on acceptance and understanding of one of the oldest trades known to women. Mackerras shared her insights on the making of “Alice” and the complexities of creating a story that questions the concepts of marriage, dependency and motherhood

Pamela Powell (PP):  What was the spark that helped to create this story?

Josephine McKenzie (JM): Years ago, I did a screenwriting weekend with Mark Tilton in London. He proposed an exercise of joining opposites in character traits to think up a story. I came up with a one-line pitch based on the exercise. The idea kept niggling at me, it got bigger and bigger and years later it became “Alice.”

PP:  The opening scene beautifully exemplifies the idyllic facade in which Alice and Francois live.  In my mind, I thought, “What a perfect husband and father!” That thought quickly dissipated. Tell me about finding Martin Swabey and Emilie Piponnier to plays these roles.

JM: I met Martin at Cannes film festival on a boat; right away we had this super intense and deep conversation. Years later, as I was looking through photos on an actor website and I saw him. It was like a lightning strike, I knew one hundred percent he was my Francois!

I met Emilie through my casting agent Elise Mcleod. She came in and did a reading with Martin that was so good I offered her the role the same day!

PP:  The scenes with Jules who plays the young son are sweet and endearing, although I’m not finding his real name. How did you capture such natural interactions?

JM:  Jules is my son! He is a natural. With kids that young it’s about getting them to forget the camera is there. The actors really helped, they were great with him.

Emilie Piponnier in “Alice”

PP:  You truly give the viewer a different point of view about prostitution and society’s perception.  Can you tell me about your own understanding of it before and after writing the script?

JM: When I first started research, it was really difficult to find the working women at the higher end of the scale that were willing to talk. When I finally did, I discovered most had career goals and did not want to jeopardize their futures with the association.

I guess, at the beginning, I had the idea that most working girls are actually victims, and we know that is often true. What I now know is that many of them (particularly at the high end) are in the job temporarily with specific goals and do not experience the work as degrading or feel themselves to be victims.

PP: Take me into your thoughts as you look at prostitution from multiple angles: the public, those that use it, those in the profession, and those that are hurt by it.

I think the easiest angle is about those that are hurt by it, because this is an open, understood dialogue. We all know about the exploitation that goes on, and usually it is poverty that perpetuates terrible and damming conditions for so many women around the globe.

What we hear less about are women at the higher-paid end who chose this work because the money is so high. They may work one or two hours a week and be paid more than the average full-time job. There is actually a sort of female privilege that seems to me a bit taboo to talk about. The kind of high end that is available for young women does not exist for young men to anywhere near the same extent. Maybe if it did, we’d have a better understanding of it?

The stories I’ve heard about clients can also be surprisingly human. Some clients have a desperate need for human connection that for whatever reason they cannot find in the “real” world. I guess this is the aspect that fascinates me the most.

PP: As Alice risks losing her son because of her husband’s threats, can you talk about this power struggle between married couples?

JM:  … I can say that the situation in this marriage is a pressure cooker waiting to explode. We really learn who people are when they are pushed beyond their limits. Characters fully reveal themselves.

PP:  What parallel lines do you find that are drawn between Alice and her profession and Alice’s marriage?

JM:  To prostitute oneself by definition means to erase your own desires for someone or something else. The parallel for me would be Alice’s training has been always to put the needs of others before her own. As she has done this her whole life, it’s unconscious. At the beginning of this story Alice is not aware that she doesn’t know her own true desires in life.

PP:  I loved the focus on female friendships and their importance. Tell me about creating Lisa and Alice’s friendship and why you felt the need to have this aspect in the film.

JM: The power of female friendship is phenomenal. I wanted Alice to discover the feeling of courage that comes when she finds that connection. I wanted her to experience the fun of it, but also the deep strength that comes from it. Without Lisa and the bond these two women have, Alice would not have had the fearlessness to do what she does in the film.

PP:  And finally, do you feel the tides changing for female filmmakers?

JM:  Absolutely! I’ve wanted to make films since I was a teenager. I recall a filmmaker telling me at the time “actresses can’t make films” and I bought it! I cannot imagine a young woman buying that nonsense today. … everything is changing in the world; power dynamics are not as stagnant as we once thought.

“Alice” premiered at SXSW on March 10 and will screen again on March 11 and 14.  Go to https://schedule.sxsw.com/2019/films/2008707 for ticket information.

© Pamela Powell (3/7/19) FF2 Media

Photo credit: SXSW (Instagram: @alicethefilm)

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