Down the Rabbit Hole: ‘Alice’ at SXSW

The South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) Grand Jury Prize Winner Alice tells the dark story of a woman who learns how deep the rabbit hole goes when she is abandoned and betrayed by her husband, leaving her and their son to pay the price for the debt he’d built up behind their backs. Trying to learn answers, Alice turns to an escort service her husband used, only to get a job offer by accident. When she realizes that this could be her family’s one last chance at survival, Alice learns the hard way about who her friends really are, especially when she forms a growing bond with one of her co-workers, Lisa. However, the two women might have a connection that could change everything. We interviewed director Josephine Mackerras to get a deeper look at the story.

Emilie Piponnier as ‘Alice’
Alice (2019)
Dir. Josephine Mackerras

What inspired this story?

I loved the idea of taking a character who has done everything right in her life, followed all the rules and seeing what happens when it all falls apart. Alice’s life is revolved around the illusion of a perfect marriage. There’s a saying that all emotional pain comes from the from breaking of fantasies we have held. I think about that a lot. On the more social/political level, I was interested in trying to expose a blindspot in our gender politics through this drama. 

Due to the subject matter, were any of the scenes more intense to film than others?

Absolutely. There were some very emotional scenes that we spent a long time shooting and much longer editing. High drama is delicate because it has to be so real and so visceral. One of the scenes took months to find in the edit. There’s a lot of going back and forth and going over the rushes again and again, turning off the sound and searching the right moment somewhere else if it’s not there. It’s long.

How did you collect information on the life of professional escorts?

Like beginning any screenplay, you become a sort of journalist. You need to talk to real people who have lived what you are writing about. And in the best cases, you become friends because the more intimate the details the more justice you can bring to the writing. I was lucky with some of the women I managed to be communications with. At the high end of working women it’s hard to find women who will be open because most of them have career ambitions that could be jeopardized with the association.

Emilie Piponnier as ‘Alice’
Alice (2019)
Dir. Josephine Mackerras

A good portion of the film focuses on Alice and Lisa’ friendship. What was it like portraying adult female friendship in film and creating these scenes?

It was fun. I wrote Alice and Lisa based on the most inspiring friendships I’ve had in my life. The two actors Emilie and Chloe had fantastic chemistry from the get-go, so it was mostly about me getting out of their way!

Alice and Lisa turn out to have a connection that gets revealed late in the film; without giving the twist away, what was it like setting up this twist?

I wrote the screenplay with the idea of turning everything on its head. That twist was a natural progression. What it means is not necessarily obvious though.

There are various physical cues underlying Alice’s transitioning character throughout the story like moving her hand back when talking with Francois. What was it like planning this?

I shot from every emotional angle in that scene because I knew I would want choices in the edit. The scene has a different meaning for each character. I had a  different choice of shot in the fine cut. And luckily a producer acquaintance Phillipe Carcassonne pointed out the shot I had used made Alice a liar. It’s one moment, one shot in the film, but it changes everything. I felt grateful to have his expertise guide me in that scene. That’s what’s so long and difficult about film; every shot, every moment, no matter how subtle or small informs everything else in the story. 

Can you explain more about Alice and Francois’ backstory?

I did an enormous amount of work on each of the characters backstories. So much so when I started writing the screenplay it wanted to be a TV series, there was too much to explore. Every character has a past full of ghosts and events that have made them who they are. It’s important for me as a writer to know exactly what has brought the characters to the moment we find them in the story.

Why does Alice’s mother seem unsympathetic to her situation? Similarly, why is her friend Carol unsympathetic towards helping her, either?

Her mother believes she is doing the right thing for her daughter. She comes from a philosophy that keeping the family together is the most important thing in life. She believes the idea that marriage should be easy is a philosophy of a newer generation and it is hurting the foundation of society. From her point of view, she is being loving to Alice.  Carol sees what Alice is wearing late a night and thinks Alice is being irresponsible with her little boy, maybe she is having an affair?  Neither characters are mean, they just don’t see the truth of Alice’s situation.

Emilie Piponnier as ‘Alice’
Alice (2019)
Dir. Josephine Mackerras

What message do you want to send with this story?

In a nutshell, it would be to know yourself. I think life is a dance between our conditioning versus who we are without any constraint (inner or outer). To really know yourself is to take responsibility for oneself (all mistakes included). It’s hard, but I think it’s the path with the most fulfilment and meaning.

Tell us about your future projects.

I have another feature film script that I’m really excited about. It was official selection for best screenplay at Atlanta Film festival and semi-finalist at Final Draft competition. I’m really hoping to meet some like-minded producers, I can’t wait to be working on it!

 

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