With “Alice,” director Josephine Mackerras explores preconceived notions of independence, motherhood, and marriage

Josephine Mackerras debuted her first feature film, “Alice,” at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. The story depicts how Alice, a wife and mother, reacts to her husband’s double life, leaving them in debt and on the brink of eviction. Where she turns is an unexpected choice, creating emotionally loaded questions regarding preconceived notions of independence, motherhood, and marriage. Mackerras recently shared her thoughts about making this complex, compelling film.

PAMELA POWELL: What was the spark that helped to create this story?

JOSEPHINE MACKERRAS: 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.”

POWELL: The opening scene beautifully exemplifies the idyllic facade in which Alice and Francois live. … 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?

MACKERRAS: 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.

POWELL: 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.

MACKERRAS: 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 perpetrates terrible and damning 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 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.

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

MACKERRAS: 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.

POWELL: 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.

MACKERRAS: 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.

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

MACKERRAS: 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.

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