Jennifer Kent interview: directing The Babadook

Interview Ryan Lambie
13 Oct 2014 - 06:19

We chat to the director of the magnificent Australian horror The Babadook about filmmaking, genre snobbery and more...

If you're looking for proof that a horror film can do something more than just make you jump, then you have to see The Babadook. Essie Davies stars as Amelia, a recently-bereaved mother with a boisterous and imaginative young son, Robbie (Noah Wiseman). When Robbie becomes convinced that a monster from a story book - The Babadook of the title - is going to come out and eat them both, Amelia ignores the boy's ramblings. But gradually, she too begins to fear that The Babadook might be real...

Although laden with all the terror you'd expect from a good horror flick, The Babadook has all kinds of things brewing under its surface: the corrosive effects of depression and trauma, the exhausting experiences of being a mother, the vulnerability of being a child. It's a powerful stew, visually influenced by classic genre cinema and superbly acted by its two leads - Davies turns in a particularly raw, brave performance as a woman at the end of her psychological tether. 

The Babadook is the first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, and an expansion of her earlier short film, Monster, available to watch on Vimeo. Establishing her as a distinctive filmmaking talent, it's one of the strongest horror debuts we've seen in years. We caught up with her over the phone to talk about her influences, her approach to creating The Babadook, genre snobbery, and what she's up to next.

I thoroughly enjoyed your film. I was an absolute mess afterwards, though. I was terrified, so thanks for that!

[Laughs] I can’t say I’m sorry!

I also watched your short film, Monster, which was also great. Where did the concept for that come from?

The basis of it was, I had a friend who had a child that she was really having trouble connecting with. He was little - maybe three or four, and he kept seeing this monster man everywhere. The only way she could get him to calm down was to get rid of it as if it was real. And then I thought, well what if it was actually real? That’s how the short idea came about.

I’m also very drawn to facing the darkness in ourselves. That was a big pull for me, which carries into the themes in The Babadook.

One of the things that horror does is explore taboo subjects. But The Babadook explores taboos that aren’t often seen in horror: a parent’s fear and resentment towards a child, and also a child’s fear of the parent.

Yeah. I remember, very early on in the script development, reading a story about a guy who’d broken up with his wife and he was on the top of a bridge in a traffic jam, and he took his five year-old daughter, and threw her over the edge.

Oh my God.

I remember being horrified by that. But I also thought, well, he’s a human being. So what actually got him to that point? And is there the seed of that in all of us? I was really wanting to explore parenting from a very real perspective. Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women. To the point where I tried to look for research, and I found it very hard to find anything on the subject.

Was it quite difficult to write, emotionally, because it obviously has some extremely dark moments.

I think what got me through was the love I had for both those characters. It was really important for me that they were loving, and loveable people. I don’t mean likeable - I mean that we really felt for them. Without giving the ending away to readers, I couldn’t make something that was nihilistic, so I feel like even though the film goes to a very dark place, it’s worth it. It reflects something back, something positive about human relationships.

It does. And it reaches back into those half-forgotten memories of what it’s like to be a kid, and how big adults seem when you’re small - which is something I hadn’t necessarily thought about in years.

It’s funny, I have a really dear friend who’s really balanced and a loving mother. She came to a screening, and there’s a moment where [a figure] glides towards the child, and it’s huge. She burst into tears when she saw that, because she thought, wow, I didn’t realise how big I must have seemed to my kids when they’re that little. And how we all want to be loving and perfect, but we often fail in that. It was very confronting for her - in a good way. 

What was your approach to designing this film, because it looks really carefully constructed from a visual standpoint.

I felt like, for a creature like this to exist, the world itself would have to allow it to happen. So I think if it was a naturalistic-looking world, and these things started happening, it would be quite ridiculous. So it was important that the world of the film reflected the pop-up book at the centre of it. We wanted a world that was heightened, but still felt like a real time and place. I guess one of the ways to slightly heighten it, but still make it accessible, was to approach the colour in a very specific way.

Originally I wanted to film in black and white, but I went off the idea in favour of black through to white, but also adding blues and burgundies. Keeping the film very cool. We did all of that in-camera. I had a really genius production designer, Alex Holmes, who created the world in-camera. We were very specific. If we had a brown object in the frame, we got rid of it! So it was a lot of work. But I feel it was really worth it.

Yeah. And I thought the house told a story by itself. I felt like Essie’s character had bought the house with her husband when she was still pregnant, and they had all these plans of what they’d do with it. But then they didn’t. Is that right?

Yeah, I think so. In a way, again, it’s meticulously designed, and there are clues to a life that evaporated quite suddenly. There’s a pain in changing things - it hasn’t been possible for her. So yeah, there’s a strong sense that [the house] is the shell of something that was going to be beautiful. It just never happened.

I got a strong sense of silent cinema in here, which I really liked. German expressionism, things like that. Those films are interesting, because they often dealt with symbols and archetypes and the subconscious.

They were in a very pure period. Expressionism started in painting, and it was about bringing the inside out. And so often, architecture and interiors reflected the emotional space of the people that inhabited them. For me, this early silent horror was very theatrical, in a really good way. They were also beautifully artistic films. There was a period before the 1950s where we got B-grade horror, and things changed and became more schlocky.

For me, they’re visually beautiful and terrifying, those early films. So it makes sense, with the children’s book and the handmade quality, I wanted it to be all in-camera. I wanted the effects to be low-fi and handmade, if you like. It just somehow appealed to me. It felt right. 

And it makes the connection between fairytales and horror as well. It reminded me a bit of Struwwelpeter.

I didn’t have that book as a kid, but I read it as an adult, and I was shocked!

Yeah, it’s terrifying.

There are kids being burnt and having their fingers cut off... it’s a dangerous world out there! I think a lot of early children’s books really explored the dark side of human nature. It’s good, you know? It gave kids the heads-up on the adult experience. It’s a good thing, those stories. They are very valuable.

Horror and fairytales also do a similar thing, in that you can safely explore disturbing subjects and fears.

Yeah, I think some fairytales are designed to keep kids in line and make them stay safe, and there are the other ones, the ones I’m attracted to, that point out the chaos of life to kids. Because it’s not perfect. It’s not always neatly tied up. I think that’s what horror can do as well. It can actually be a refreshing way to look at the world, when it’s not about perfection.

But some filmmakers can be quiet snobby about horror, can’t they?

Oh God yes. Absolutely. In some circles, before I made this film, people would be very excited to hear that I was directing. Then when I described it as a horror film, I may as well have said I was directing a porno. They were like, oh, that’s not a real film. It’s disgusting. And also, why would a woman want to direct that kind of stuff?

People very easily forget films like The Shining and Let The Right One In, and going back further, Les Diaboliques and Eyes Without A Face. All these films that have a poetry to them, and something deeper going on.

It’s almost as though, if they’re good enough, like the films you’re mentioned, they suddenly become something other than horror. They become acceptable to a certain kind of cineaste.

Well, people say they hate horror, and you say to them, what did you think of Rosemary’s Baby? Oh, it’s a masterpiece. Horror gets the worst reputation, and it doesn’t really deserve it. I mean, there are many crappy dramas out there. The minute people see a rubbish drama, they don’t annihilate the whole genre. It goes both ways, you know, because we’ve had this film marketed in some countries to teenagers - young teens. And they are expecting the crappy horror experience. And they can feel ripped off by this film, because it’s more gentle than that. It’s more subtle, and more psychological. It’s a crossover film, I guess. 

And it’s got a stunning performance from Essie Davis. It’s unusual to see something that raw and genuine in a horror film.

We went through acting school together - I’ve known Essie for a long time. She’s an extraordinary actress, an underrated actress. We came to this story and that really helped us, because it took a lot of trust. Trust that I wouldn’t make her look foolish. She could take it to a really raw place, and she could be okay at the other end. It was a joy to work with her. For such dark material, we had such a great time - lots of laughs as well.

That’s what I was going to ask, actually. Because it is such a great performance, I did wonder what on earth the atmosphere must have been like on set.

It was very stressful for me, because we had a six-year-old boy in the lead alongside Essie. He was terrific, but also he’s six. So I really had to be focused. We needed double the time we had. Really, it was important to us that there was a lot of love in the performances, and that bled out into our relationship, especially the three of us, and also Noah Wiseman’s mum, who was on-set. It was a very protective, loving environment. It has to be - you can’t go through all that stuff and make it hard behind the scenes as well.

You came from an acting background, so that experience must have been key, then.

It was. I trained full time for five years - I’d done every acting exercise under the sun, but I guess one thing I take from my acting experience is compassion. Actors are often seen as idiots. The acting profession is often undervalued. I know how hard it is, but I also know how to push an actor in the way they need to be pushed without destroying them. I don't know how I would have directed the film without that experience - I think it was crucial to getting those characters alive on the screen. 

I thought the film also offered a really interesting view of suburban Australia - the tone of it isn't something we're used to seeing.

I'm not really patriotic. I didn't want it to be particularly Australian. I wanted to create a myth in a domestic setting. And even though it happened to be in some strange suburb in Australia somewhere, it could have been anywhere. I guess part of that is creating a world that wasn't particularly Australian. Adelaide is actually more British in its architecture and its town planning than a quintessentially Australian town. I'm very happy, actually, that it doesn't feel particularly Australian.

It does feel very European. The house feels like a British Victorian house.

We do have a lot of Victorian architecture here. That house was built because when we got to Adelaide, there weren't many terraces. I pictured the film in Sydney, where they're a dime a dozen. So we built the house especially for the film, and that was a real boon - we could make it how we needed it. The house is a character in itself, I feel.

Absolutely. As I said earlier, I found it a profoundly scary film, so what was your approach to engineering, if you like, the horror beats in the script.

For me, what was horrific was what had happened to this woman. And the fact that she couldn't face it was her greatest terror. So this terror of not being able to face something was always at the core of what I did. I did map it out as the script became more developed: I tightened it. I made technical decisions about what to drop or include according to that. Ultimately, it had to go back to that woman's story, and for me, there are some people - and the character Amelia is one of them - who have to experience something no human should have to experience. Which is the violent ripping away of someone she deeply loved.

So that was the horror, for me - her situation. Then it became relatively easy what would frighten her in that context.

I thought it was refreshing, too, to see a film written so honestly from a woman's perspective. It reminded me how important new voices and perspectives are in horror.

That's great. It was important for me that the character was real. That meant doing things that maybe we don't see that often in cinema, which is making her human. She lies at times. She doesn't want to look after her child. She struggles to be a mum. She's really struggling, and she doesn't reach out for help. She's her own worst enemy. So I just wanted to humanise her. So many female characters on the screen are two-dimensionally bad, or the opposite. It's ridiculous.

Horror allows for human complexity and human failings as well, I think.

It's what gives the film something extra - the shape.

Yeah. It's fun to work in this genre, you know. It's close to dreaming - you don't have to be straight with it on any level. You can push it to the edge, even in terms of the compression and stretching of time. Changing perception - reality. It's such a gift to write about someone's descent into madness in this realm.

I don't think you could explore the same subject as compellingly in a drama.

It would be relentless. And also, way too melodramatic. I've watched so much horror since I was a kid, and I never disrespected it. It can allow us to experience something from the inside - a story can be very visceral in this genre.

So have you been surprised by the way The Babadook's been received? The reviews over here have been extremely positive.

That's so great. I know little bits about what's going on over there, but I'm just getting an inkling of it this week. What blows me away is how each territory is responding to it positively. And differently. But no territory's yet given it the big thumbs down. It's a dream, as a filmmaker. But I can't rely on that - as I make my new things, I can't really second-guess my audience - I just need to go back to putting forward a strong idea.

It's amazing that it's well received. It makes it that much sweeter I think.

Can you talk about what you're doing next?

I'm making a film that's set in 1820s Tasmania. I'm writing that at the moment. It deals with out shady past. It's a story of revenge, and explores the futility of revenge from a female perspective. That's another two-hander. The other is a heightened drama-slash-fantasy, I guess, about death and loss and letting go. Those are two things I feel passionate about, and they're both set in Australia.

Alongside that, I've been offered a lot of opportunities in America, and I'm just sifting through that at the moment. The prerequisite for me is that I connect to something emotionally. I've turned a few things down in the US, studio films, but I am open. They just have to have a really strong story worth telling. It takes a few years to make a film, and it's an awful lot of work. I can't imagine doing all that work if you didn't really love something!

Jennifer Kent, thank you very much.

The Babadook is out in UK cinemas on the 24th October.

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