Interview: Lucy RoseIn conversation with the director of She Lives Alone
Lucy Rose discusses the gothic tradition and She Lives Alone: a period, folk horror that sounds an alarm about contemporary trauma.
She Lives Alone is a deceptively plain-speaking title for the latest short from Newcastle-based writer and filmmaker Lucy Rose. The rural, period horror – supported by Film Hub North through the BFI NETWORK Short Film Fund – does indeed follow an embattled and solitary protagonist as they toil away on a steading in the wild Cumbrian moors. But those three little words also have wrapped up in them a sense of the judgement our heroine, Maud, endures from her peers; their disapproval of her self-imposed isolation following the death of her abusive mother.
More important than that, though, is a gnawing, creeping untruth within the film’s title – the inevitable twist in the tale. As we learn over the course a few dark nights and scarcely less disturbing days, Maud is not the wicked loner of village gossip, and – the rules of the ghost story necessitate it – she is not alone.
We caught up with Rose ahead of She Lives Alone’s appearance at London Short Film Festival, where it screens alongside kindred, unquiet spirits in their A Rural Gothic programme. It’s the latest stop on a successful festival tour that has already seen the film land the unholy grail of genre film: a Frightfest selection. The gothic genre, its historical precedents and contemporary resonances, looms large in our conversation, with Rose also providing further insights into portraying trauma on film, the joys of an imperfect protagonist, and the challenges of making a film in the dark.
At its heart, She Lives Alone is a ghost story, but it touches on various points from psychological trauma to suppressed romance. Where did the initial idea come from?
I think the first point at which She Lives Alone started to form was upon my first reading of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. The main character is fascinating, and I thought about her for months after reading the book. She was just very different to other women I had read about in stories. She was unapologetically strange, and there was this anger underneath that I think a lot of women bury.
I kept coming back to this idea of someone burying something, and that is an idea and an image that made it into the film. That’s the thing with trauma - we’re always trying to bury it and ultimately, that is what the film is about.
Like many horror stories, the film centres on a woman who is perceived as “wicked,” but who is actually a victim. What interested you about characterising Maud in this way?
What I love about Maud is that she is imperfect. She is bitter, and she often takes out her anger on the people around her. She’s just real. I think one of the core things myself and Rachel Teate (who played Maud) discussed was the feeling of constantly suppressing her anger. It’s almost as if she’s a pot constantly on the verge of over-boiling, and I love that about her. I think she is relatable because she is just trying to keep it together and survive.
Were the nocturnal scenes challenging to realise? They're deliberately dark, they use a lot of candle and firelight, and slight variations in light play a key role in revealing parts of the frame.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted this film to be dark. The haunted house and the gothic genre are just made to have darkness in them. I have to give huge credit to my Director of Photography, Lizzie Gilholme, and her really outstanding camera team, who worked tirelessly to make those dark sequences possible.
We had so many creative discussions. We spent weeks and weeks dissecting how we would make the darkness truly scary. We wanted to bring to life that feeling you get when you lay awake at night and you hear a noise. The fear in your chest and windpipe becomes a sort of vacuum. I think horror is constantly underestimated, but actually replicating that feeling and emulating it for the audience is really challenging.
While the night-time scenes are important, the final confrontation with the ghost takes place at daybreak. What was the reasoning behind that decision?
Typically, with ghost stories the biggest confrontations come at night. Darkness is scarier when we can’t see what’s inside it, and ghosts are scarier when we can’t see them. This has been a staple of the gothic genre for centuries, going all the way back to writers like Anne Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794) and Regina Maria Roche (Clairmont, 1789).
Dawn is a symbol of starting anew. Anyone who has experienced trauma will tell you that there really isn’t a ‘new dawn’ when it comes to recovery. It is something we keep with us and try to bare the weight of as much as we can as we go through life. There is no magic fix.
For me, this scene had to be set at dawn because (**spoilers**) when Maud has the realisation that she will never cast out her Mother, she knows that she will never get the fresh start she wants and deserves. She has to carry on and try to survive.
The film has a strong sense of corporeality: it feels lived in and at points visceral; even the ghost has a pronounced physicality. Was making this supernatural story feel tangible important for you?
Yes, for sure. The Victorian era (and history too) has been glamourised no end - especially in the prestigious, glossy romances. What they fail to show is how dirty and hard life really was. There was no luxury. I wanted Maud’s life to feel real in every respect. I didn’t want it to feel out of reach for the audience or relaxing.
It goes back to the experience of trauma as well: it’s not very often trauma feels like something you can’t touch or see after you’ve started to process it. For me, most of the time it feels like it’s embedded into my skin and bones - it feels like it’s in my DNA. Having the film’s representation of that process be so visceral was important.
Folk horror seems to be having something of an extended moment – did that inform the film’s development?
Rural Gothic - and the Gothic genre more widely - has been going strong since it first appeared in mid-1700s. I think this is because history is not linear and we are always facing new traumas as a society, rather than constantly improving. People want to engage with things that frighten them without confronting their own traumas - that is why the gothic genre stands the test of time.
Right now, with rural gothic, I think it speaks to how isolated we’ve all become - not just with lockdowns, but for the most part of a decade or two. We’re living much more digitally. We are less connected. We are isolated, often in a domestic space - and the biggest staple of the gothic genre is trauma in the domestic.
With respect to my own influences, I revisited older texts and watched a lot of their adaptions. This gave me the chance to analyse why that text had been written in the first place, and then upon adapting it, what it issues it addressed in society at that time.
It’s a huge coincidence that She Lives Alone was about isolation, and then it was released over the various lockdowns via film festivals. I think it will only make that issue of trauma and isolation even more potent, because there isn’t one person who doesn’t have experience with those issues - it’s completely universal now.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
The project I’m trying to get financed at the moment is a script I’ve been working on since 2018. It’s definitely been a labour of love, but I’m really excited to hopefully get the ball rolling on it. It’s a rural gothic horror (of course), and I’m really proud of it. I can’t wait to start sharing it with people.
She Lives Alone was funded by Film Hub North in association with BFI NETWORK. It is currently playing festivals across the UK and beyond.