It was in 2014 when Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent stunned the world with her debut feature, The Babadook. The horror tale, about a widowed mother and her young son who are haunted by a presence that may or may not be solely in their minds, was both a genuinely frightening genre exercise as well as a searing study of grief, motherhood and loneliness. It became one of the first movies to lead the current wave of what some critics call “elevated” horror, films like It Follows, The Witch and Hereditary that combine visceral terror with sophisticated emotional/psychological underpinnings.
While fans might have hoped that Kent continue in the genre (and she most likely will at some point — more on that later), she has pivoted to a different kind of horror with her second feature, The Nightingale. Set in the early 1800s in what is now Tasmania, during a long and vicious struggle between British colonists and Aboriginals in what was called the Black War, The Nightingale tells the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, wife and mother who is the victim of horrendous atrocities at the hands of her jailer, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin). Seeking vengeance, Clare pursues Hawkins with the help of an Aborigine named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who guides her across the untamed Tasmanian wilderness in a journey that could end in death for both.
The Nightingale is a raw, shocking film that portrays its violence with brutal, unflinching honesty, and admittedly it is a difficult film to sit through — which Kent acknowledges (even the press notes come with a trigger warning). But it’s also a movie that offers hope and empathy, and ultimately shows us that real human connections can provide strength and salvation even in the darkest times. All three leads are outstanding, while Kent’s direction immerses us in both the plight of her characters and a setting that feels both real and timeless.
We spoke with Kent about conceiving and creating The Nightingale, her thoughts on The Babadook five years later, and a couple of her upcoming projects — including the strange but true story of one of science fiction’s most acclaimed writers.
Den of Geek: What themes did you want to pursue with this film?
Jennifer Kent: I guess I wanted to make a film, probably, about the need for love and compassion in dark times and in a violent world. But certainly, you know, I wanted to, within that, explore the fallout from violence, because it is the fabric of the world that we inhabit for the run of the film. I was at a point of some loss when I sat down to write this script; I lost my mom and another family member and was grieving, and when I grieve, I tend to look out at the world and sort of ask well, what’s it all about, why are we here? And I was aware of a violent world looking back at me.
We, in the modern world, have come to be very quick for violence and retribution. It was really disturbing me, and I wanted to talk about it, and to find a way to talk about it that focused on light rather than darkness. It wasn’t before too long that I arrived at my own history because I had never seen a film that dealt with our history in this way. So it was very clear to me that this was a story I wanted to tell, and I set about researching it after that.
Does reaching back into history and setting this almost 200 years in the past make the film more timeless and not so specific about current events?
Yeah, I think that it can allow some distance, so the story can still be affecting, but it’s not accusatory. I’m not trying to be punitive with the film or be overtly political. I wanted to make a picture on a level that was more universal. Even though the film and the history that I explore in the film is real and the film is historically accurate, it deals with a story that becomes, by virtue of it being set in the past, something of a myth. And by that I don’t mean it’s an untrue story; I mean something that’s very true, but that speaks to a universal human condition. You don’t have to know about Australian history to understand what’s going on.
But speaking of that, what is the historical context of the Black War and what did you discover about it?
Well, all up I’ve done about five years of research on this period for another film that I was writing that didn’t get made, so it was a period that fascinated me. In 1825 the Aboriginal people initially were relatively welcoming to the colonists, I don’t know why, but I guess they were practicing tolerance and they were reasonably patient and benevolent. But then after about 20 years of abuse they lost it and they were like, well, you have no respect, it’s only abuse, so this means war. And there was what is referred to by historians as the Black War, which was largely fought over property and women.
So, as is in the film, women were abducted and abused and held against their will and often disposed of, and then their husbands and family retaliated. It was a very violent war. The colonists’ aim was to annihilate them. The word “genocide” has been used in that context and I think it was certainly attempted. It’s a testament to the strengths of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people that they survived it. So that’s the context for the film. There’s been criticism of the violence, but, well, it’s a war. It’s a film about war. It’s my job to tell a story accurately and honestly and sensitively. And in order to do that I had to include the truth.
You don’t flinch away from the violence or its aftermath of the violence, but to your way of thinking, is that really the only way to present it – unvarnished?
I think that it all comes down to motivation. I’m a pacifist and so when I think of violence, I think of something very painful, and in the case of sexual violence, it’s an annihilation of a person, or the attempted annihilation of a person. So I needed to present it in a way that pulled no punches and that put us in the experience of the victim. That’s not an easy thing to sit through, but when you think of the women who are experiencing that, it’s not an easy thing to live through. Without making judgments on fellow filmmakers, I think violence in film has become very much about entertainment and while I see that there is some value in that, I guess, I have a problem with it. I have a problem with portraying violence in that way myself. It’s just something that I can’t do.
It seems like people don’t want to deal with violence when they watch a film like this where the presentation is going to be truthful and raw.
It comes down to, I guess, how comfortable you are sitting with uncomfortable feelings. I don’t like it either, but I don’t see any benefits in turning away from the suffering of others. I never have, and I think if we can experience and empathize with someone who’s suffering, maybe it helps to increase our empathy. I see a world that we live in where empathy is fast disappearing and I wonder about it. I worry about it because I think it the one ennobling quality in humans that is really special and can help us evolve as a species. I’m in alignment with the Buddhist thought, which is, we must open our hearts to the suffering of the world and let it in. It’s only then we can really understand and develop compassion.
How easy or difficult was it to find information on this era? Because as we know, governments sometimes tend to erase the darker parts of their history.
Yeah, definitely, I mean, Aboriginal history is passed down by oral tradition, so you’re not going to find the depth of it in history books. Plus history is written by the victors, as they say, and also, written by men largely. So you have to really do the research and really look for this stuff.
In regards to the Aboriginal story, I relied heavily on the living descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginal people who were around at the time. I would never have made the film without genuine and ongoing Tasmanian Aboriginal consultation and collaboration. That came about in the form of Uncle Jim Everett, who is a Tasmanian Aboriginal elder, a political activist, a poet and a storyteller in his own right. I approached him about this film and he came on board because he felt its importance. He knew that the story had never been told and it was time for people to hear it. I owe him the film and it wouldn’t exist without his involvement.
Your two leads are just extraordinary, and I understand that Baykali has never acted before.
Yeah, he’s an exceptional actor, truly, like one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He’s a natural. Baykali was in a dance troupe, Djuki Mala, and they are an exceptional group from the north. He’s still dancing with them, so he understood the art of performance and storytelling through dance. But I’ve never seen someone learn so quickly, and he delivered at a level that rivaled all of his much more experienced co-stars. I’m really proud of him and he just gave so much to that role and to that character. His work is phenomenal.
I sometimes ask directors if one film is a response to the previous film. Your previous film was about two people in a small house, and this film is in this vast wilderness with a larger scale and a larger cast of characters.
I think it’s happenstance that the second one was set in the wilderness but I’m sure as hell that the third one is not going to be set in the wilderness. Let me be in a small room and lock the door. But, I think that I wanted to tell an epic story that traversed this wilderness and I wanted to do it the right way. So there are options to fake it if you like. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted it to be in camera, and I wanted us to feel what it was like to traverse this territory, this countryside. So we did, and it was a really, really challenging shoot. We had the wilderness to contend with, but we also had the emotional content going at the same time. It was no picnic, that’s for sure. I think we just survived on the love that the cast and crew gave to each other. And that’s how we got through.
I wanted to go back to The Babadook for a minute. Were you aware of the impact that film had, in conjunction with other films that came out around the same time, in terms of ushering in a new, more sophisticated wave of horror movies?
I would love to take credit for that, but I think it’s just accidental. I know what you mean, there’s like an “elevated” horror going back to the 1920s, and every decade since then. I think it was just in the zeitgeist, I guess, that filmmakers were wanting to delve deeply around the same time and this certain crop of films were produced. I feel very humbled to be considered alongside those other directors, and I feel so excited about what can be explored about the human condition through scary films and scary stories. They always attract me, I always gravitate towards them and I love them. But I love all kinds of horror, shallow and deep.
But I also don’t feel bound or beholden to the genre, to continue to stay within it at all cost, you know. I think, I just need to tell the film that resonates for me. But I mean, Guillermo Del Toro pitched me an episode of this series that he’s doing for Netflix, a ghost story, and I love ghost stories and I really want to do one, so we’re in development on that now. But, I must say, I am drawn to stories that have some deeper theme running through them. It would just have to be worth going the distance.
You are also developing a fascinating project called Tiptree, about the science fiction writer Alice B. Sheldon. A lot of people don’t know that story, that she wrote while pretending to be a man.
There was this man (James Tiptree Jr.) that burst onto the scene in the 1960s and wrote all these brilliant short sci-fi stories and who was friends with Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Harlan Ellison — all these giants of sci-fi. But no one knew who he was, and then after 10 years, they discovered he was a woman. When I heard this story, I was absolutely fascinated and when I started reading her short stories, I thought, wow, who is this person? Then when I read about her life — she lived like 10 lives in the one lifetime.
So I had an idea to meld her life with her short stories. We somehow, by some miracle, managed to nab the rights to all of these significant short stories of hers, and her biography, and I’ve been here in Hollywood pitching it. We’ve got a few offers on that so it’s looking good to develop that as a series. I intend to write it all and direct it all, so I’m really excited about it.
The Nightingale is out now in limited release.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye