In the bold and often startling new Australian coming of age comedy drama, Babyteeth, director Shannon Murphy makes an impressive debut, moving from the stage (where she has directed many unconventional, top-tier local productions, including Broken and The One-Eyed Man Is King) and small screen (directing eps of Killing Eve, Offspring, Love Child, Rake and On The Ropes) with a vibrant flourish. Based on the acclaimed play by Rita Kalnejais, Babyteeth is a dynamic meld of joy and sadness, telling the unexpected tale of Milla (played by one-time Home And Away star Eliza Scanlen, now making her mark on the world stage in the likes of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and TV’s Sharp Objects), a suburban teen diagnosed with terminal cancer. Living out loud to the dismay of her deeply dysfunctional parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis), Milla falls for druggie burnout Moses (Toby Wallace), who is seven years her senior, and messed up in urgent and alarming ways. Gorgeously and creatively shot, powerfully performed and inventively structured, Babyteeth walks a tonal tightrope and announces Shannon Murphy as an exciting new voice in Australian cinema. FilmInk spoke with this exciting new talent at The Venice Film Festival.
This is a very impressive first feature, and it’s not easy getting your first film made…what was the background in getting the film up?
“It began as a play, which premiered seven years ago at The Belvoir in Sydney. And immediately after seeing it, Jan Chapman [executive producer] and Alex White [producer] ran towards each other in the foyer, because they wanted it to be a feature film. And so they got the playwright, Rita Kalnejais, who’s a very talented writer, to do the adaptation, because they knew that she’d be able to go from theatre to screen. That’s actually quite hard for a lot of people, but she originally trained as an actress, so she has a real understanding of the difference between theatrical words and performance, along with the more naturalistic cinema style. I only came on board two years ago. I was interviewed for the role of director, and they gave me the job. I worked with Rita very minimally on the script, because it was already in incredible shape. At this stage, we’d already found some of the locations, because of our extremely tight schedule. Along with Rita, I got four actors who were friends of mine, and we blocked most of the film in the house where we were shooting with them beforehand just to make the process easier. The cinematographer, Andrew Commis, was with me too, so we knew how we were going to light things. We needed to change the dialogue just so that the rhythms of the characters fit better in the space. That made sense.”
Many first time film directors choose or write their own material…
“I don’t write, and I don’t have any desire to write. I have so many incredibly talented writers in the theatre world that I know or who are in my life. That is such an incredibly skilled profession, and it’s not the same as directing. If I was writing scripts, I wouldn’t be able to direct as much, because it takes a lot of time to write a story. Also, I believe that you can still have so much of your vision in a script that you haven’t written. I don’t really believe in the idea that you have to write it and direct it in order for it to feel like you’re the auteur.”
There’s a kind of organic quality to the film. Why did you want that? And how did you achieve it?
“Maybe because I’ve come from the theatre world. I find that when I’m working in TV and film, I really want it to be quite different. And what I can play with is instead of directing in like one lock-off wide shot, which is what theatre is, I get to play much more with intimate moments and those delicate details. I crave incredibly authentic performances. And I love the chaos of life in this story. It’s so dysfunctional, and more truthful than a lot of things that I’ve read in the past. That’s what I was aiming to capture.”
Can you speak about the balance of pain and humour, which is so important in the film?
“It’s always really important that when you’re dealing with heavy topics that there is humour, because that is so often the case in real life. And I think that that’s what Rita nails with her writing. She is not overly sentimental or over reverent. She’s really capturing the fact that when you are standing around someone who’s not well, often you are cracking jokes. Because they’re not wanting everyone to focus on that the whole time. And Milla, in particular, isn’t wanting that. She’s wanting to accelerate her life and move forward and experience things that she hasn’t before. She’s not wanting to wallow in any of the negative things that are happening to her. She’s a realist.”
If you hadn’t found the right actress to play Milla, I’d imagine that you’d have almost abandoned it. How difficult was that?
“She was the last role that I cast. And it was quite stressful. I love casting. I normally can pick people quite quickly, but Milla was driving me crazy. It’s a very unusual character; she’s transitioning through the whole film, so you don’t really get too much time to settle in with who she was before she started her transformation. But you also need someone that’s really grounded, even though she’s playing with who she is and different looks and falling in love for the first time. I was finishing a TV show, and I couldn’t really concentrate on casting Milla. So I locked myself in a hotel room for two nights, and just had the casting director come over every morning, and we continued to talk to her about it. There was such a range of girls, but it was really hard to pin down who could play all the different facets that she needed to have. And Eliza Scanlen is amazing, because she’s such a chameleon, but the idea of working with her initially was almost scary. Because I went, ‘Whoa, I’ve still got to keep this character consistent. How am I going to hone that?’ But we worked really hard on it together and she’s amazing.”
She is fantastic…were you surprised by how good she was? Even though you’d obviously worked with her in advance of shooting her.
“Yeah, because the other roles that she’s played are really different. I watched her in Sharp Objects, for instance, but it’s not actually helpful if it’s not relevant to your role in a way. So I had quite a few chats with her. I actually auditioned her a few times because I had to keep making sure that I was going to make the right decision. That pressure is huge.”
Although it could be seen as a coming of age film, Babyteeth is very much its own thing…
“I wanted to avoid turning this into any film that we’ve seen before. With any work, you’re always trying to push yourself to do something different. That was always what we were working on from the ground up across every department. We knew that on paper, you could compare it to some of these other teen films that we’ve seen, but it’s not a teen film. And also, it’s important to not just over glorify or over sentimentalise someone, just because they are sick. It was really important that we kept it more honest and grounded than that.”
The film is reminiscent of the early works of Jane Campion. Was she an inspiration?
“Yeah. It’s come up a few times, which is incredibly flattering. Because obviously I love Jane Campion’s work, particularly her early work like Sweetie, which has the duality that we have in this film. She’s quite bold with colours and imagery, which is something that I love to play with as well. That could just be my excitement of not being trapped in a box in the theatre.”
It’s great to see Ben Mendelsohn back doing an Aussie movie. What has he meant to you as an actor?
“He’s someone that I have always thought was so original and completely out of the box with his choices. That’s my favourite kind of actor to work with, because they’re not going to give you what you expect. And also, his early work was very, very funny. And so I thought, ‘Gosh, how do we get him back to do that?’ And luckily his Australian agent was very much on board. Also, our casting director, Kirsty McGregor, had cast Animal Kingdom, so she knew him really well. But to be honest, he really loved the script. That drew all of us to it. I just love working with him because he’s such a hurricane of a human. He’s got so much energy, and he comes in and spins everything up. It’s all about capturing that energy in the work. He’s also very generous, because he comes on set, and he plays music, and he keeps everyone excited. The crew also really enjoyed that experience with him.”
You are one of only two women directors in competition here at Venice. Do you feel that there is a need for more women directors out there?
“I definitely feel that there’s a need, because in the history of storytelling, it’s pretty much been male writer, male director overall. We need to normalise the female voice in storytelling, and the only way to do that is to have a lot more of it. We’re just not used to seeing a huge amount of honest female-driven material, with a genuine protagonist that’s a woman, and where the voices of the writer and the director are feminine. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful male directors who also have a feminist voice, but we’ve seen a lot of that. It’s about supporting more women from the ground up. It’s a shame that the percentage of entries was smaller to begin with, but I would say that in Australia, and in my experience of watching a lot of the work by female directors at the moment, there’s no difference in the quality.”
Is theatre different in that way?
“I actually moved out of theatre because I was finding that, even though I was always given opportunities to work, there was a limit to it. I was always given the smaller productions or the smaller budgets. This is another part of the ingrained sexism: you might be given the opportunities, but they’re not the same opportunities. We know that from all the statistics coming out about women not being paid the same. That’s what’s frustrating, because it happens on other levels that are less obvious, and that exhausts a lot of people. Sometimes people drop out because they don’t want to keep fighting that. But there should definitely be more work from women.”
There is a huge sense of freedom that comes out of this movie. It comes through the light, it comes through the air, and it comes through these characters that stumble around. Did you feel that sense of freedom as you were shooting?
“Definitely. I work with some really amazing people and they’re incredibly talented and they really support whatever we’re doing. And Andy Commis, the cinematographer, and I have a really strong relationship. We were always in complete creative flow with one another, which was great. The whole crew is made up of such amazing artists and visionaries in their own right. So by the time that we’re on set and shooting, it does feel very liberating.”
Babyteeth is released in cinemas on July 23. Click here for our review.