Shannon Murphy: Stepping Up With Babyteeth

July 24, 2020
Babyteeth director Shannon Murphy talks Ben Mendelsohn, making her lead actress go bald, and not casting her husband in her debut feature film.

Chatting to FilmInk at The Zürich Film Festival, Australian theatre director turned first time feature filmmaker Shannon Murphy seems to be in a happy place. Her film Babyteeth – about Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a terminally ill teen who starts dating a druggie (Toby Wallace) while her parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) freak out on the sidelines – is getting strong reviews, her career is hitting fast forward, and she has a happy, stable, supportive marriage to Aussie acting legend, Dan Wyllie, who has stolen all his scenes in films like Chopper, Romper Stomper, and Muriel’s Wedding and TV series such as Rake, Puberty Blues, Tangle, Love My Way, Offspring, Secret City and The Code.

Shannon Murphy and Dan Wyllie.

Firstly, why isn’t your amazing husband, Dan Wyllie, in this?

“You’re the only person that’s asked that!”

I’ve just watched him in Secret City…he’s amazing.

“Isn’t he? I know. He’s so wonderful. Because this was my first film, it was important to make it with his support, and to have him be there to help me at home more than anything else. He’s such an incredible actor, and Ben Mendelsohn kept saying the same thing. He’s like, ‘Why isn’t your husband playing Henry?’ They’re good friends. It’s tricky because I do love working with him and we have worked together before and it’s great. But also sometimes you don’t want to spend 24/7 with your spouse. Let’s be honest. Love him. But yeah, and he’s just been so busy doing so many of his own projects as well. It’s wonderful being married to an actor. I never thought that I’d say that, but it does work really well because they understand your hours, what you’re really doing and what your needs are. And it’s the same hopefully with him, in terms of what I offer him. He’s insanely supportive. He was the one that kept saying from day dot, ‘You need to keep doing theatre, but you need to move into film and television too.’ And I kept going, ‘Oh, but I love theatre. What are you talking about?’ He kept pushing me. He’s like, ‘Yeah, but the way you think and the pace at which you work is suited for that. You should shift.’ He’s been saying that for years.”

Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace in Babyteeth.

Eliza Scanlen is so wonderful in this. Did you snap her up before the rest of the world got to see her in Sharp Objects?

“Well, she’d already done Sharp Objects, but no one had seen it yet. And I hadn’t seen it yet. So when we got her on board, it was pre-knowing necessarily what all that was going to be. We knew that she was going to take off, so we also knew that we had to snap her up pretty quick.

You just knew her then from Home And Away?

“Auditions. No, not even. I didn’t watch Home And Away. I’d watched some shorts that she’d done and I’d watched some tests that she’d done. Then she auditioned quite a few times for me because with the lead of your first feature, you are really wanting to make the right decision.

Eliza Scanlen gets the chop in Babyteeth.

Did you actually shave her hair off?

“Yes. There’s no way. From the beginning, I said, ‘The actress 100% has to agree to shave her head.’”

Oh my goodness. Did that eliminate about 50% of the potential actresses?

“Not 50%…I’d say probably 10%. When you’re doing a raw version of a story with the camera work and the lighting, you cannot make that work with a bald cap. It also sucks up a huge amount of time to do that every day, and special effects. It’s just not going to work. You can’t do it. Not on our budget. Also, what was amazing was that Eliza felt very strongly that in order to authentically play that character, it was essential to go through that experience. So she was completely on board. Eliza is such an extraordinary actress in terms of her range that she could pretty much give me anything.”

Shannon Murphy and Ben Mendelsohn on set.

And what about Ben Mendelsohn? Did you think that you were going to get him?

“When you’ve got such an incredible script by Rita Kalnejais, you know that it’s going to draw some pretty great actors. With Ben, it was really easy. He read the script and then I was told that we should have a phone call meeting. And when I called him, he literally started the conversation by saying, ‘You don’t need to convince me. I’m completely on board.’ And then we just got to talk. Which was amazing. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is really incredible.’ And I’m just so pleased that he was so up for it. And the other thing is that I’d watched him in Sia’s most recent concert. He’s incredible. You’ve got to Google it; it’s so beautiful. It’s a song called ‘Breathe Me.’ He’s not onstage; it’s a video recording. I was watching that and there was a lot of Henry in that dance. I was so moved. I started crying in the middle of this concert, and that’s when I became obsessed. I was like, ‘Okay, now I actually can’t think of anyone else for Henry.’ It was very dark and beautiful. It was like the internal world of Henry…the torment that he’s in.”

And you saw that in his dance?

“Yeah. You need to see it. You’ll understand when you see it. It’s really powerful. And I knew that he could do comedy. Look at his early films…oh my god! He’s such a natural goofball and he’s so funny on set.”

Did he enjoy being in Sydney?

“I think the honest answer to that is no, because it was so hot. We were shooting in February and January and it was just disgustingly hot, and were in a non-air conditioned house. We often had to tent for night scenes. It was hard. journalists would come on set and all they could keep saying is, ‘How are you doing this in this heat?’ Those were their first questions! It was intense. And we had to shoot him very quickly because he had to go and start his TV show, The Outsider. So we were under the pump, but it was still a joyful place to work. Ben brings on his boom box, and he’s dancing and it’s really fun. But I’m sure that he was happy to get back to some cooler weather. Ben loves America though. He’s so happy there. It’s really cool that we got him to come back because he’s not desperate to come back, because he’s having a great time. He’s loving it.”

So many directors spend a lot of time getting their second feature up. Do you have something in mind to follow this up with?

“The reason that it hopefully won’t take me that long is because I don’t write the material, so I don’t have to go back to square one and start going, ‘Oh, what’s my next film going to be?’ Because someone else is going to write it and it’s going to come to me. I don’t have any desire to write because I’ve got friends like Tony McNamara and Rita Kalnejais and I just go, ‘Why would I bother?’ They spend every second of their day writing incredible words. So I don’t need to. And I guess maybe that’s some of my theatre background too. But I’ve always tweaked work anyway along the way. And you still have a huge influence. Rita came out just to do a director’s pass [on the script]. So for me it’s not lacking in any vision or creativity; it’s a collaboration and I love working with writers. It will come to me. Or I’ll find a book or something.”

Shannon Murphy.

So let’s fast forward to your next project, whatever it is.

“I’m on Killing Eve at the moment.”

I wanted to ask you about that third season. Are you doing all of them or just one?

“No, no, every director only does two eps. So I’m doing block three. So that’s five and six. Yeah. It’s great. I’m very excited.”

I want you to spill the beans.

“I’m not allowed! It’s great. I’m loving being in London, and then they shoot in so many amazing locations. So to get on planes and to travel to other countries just to do location rec is very exciting, you know?”

Shannon Murphy at the Brisbane premiere of Babyteeth.

And how are you combining that with motherhood?

“I’ve got an amazing husband and he’s an incredible dad. And between the two of us, we always seem to work it out. It’s just never been an issue really. We’re here, and last night we got a babysitter…we were out on the town. It still happens, you know? I started directing TV when she was eight months old, so she’s been living that carnival lifestyle since the very beginning.”

Was there a role for her in this?

“No, but I have put her in my shorts before. Yesterday for the first time she was like, ‘Mummy, I think I want to be a director.’ She’s four, which is kind of great. I thought that she’d want to be an actress. I’m like, ‘That’s good.’ But I was also like, ‘Be a writer. They make all the money.’ They make more than the directors!

Babyteeth is released in cinemas on July 23. Click here for our review. Click here for more on Shannon Murphy.

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