“When I told people that I was making a horror film, some of them looked at me as if I said that I was making porn…it was offensive to them,” Jennifer Kent laughs on the line from LA, where she’s driving around the grounds of Universal Studios. “They just told me to move on, so I’m going to drive and talk. I’m in a receipted area, so it should be fine,” she chuckles. Directing a horror film may have initially drawn sneers, but it’s now put Australian writer/director, Jennifer Kent, right amongst the action in Hollywood. Her debut feature film, The Babadook, scored rave reviews at The Sundance Film Festival, which instantly put Kent’s name on the radar of American producers and studios. “We hoped that it would be well received, but it still came as a surprise…and as a relief,” laughs The Babadook’s producer, Kristina Ceyton, of the warm response that the film received in the US, where it was snapped up for US and Latin American distribution by IFC Midnight. “When you’ve been so close to a project for so long, it becomes very hard to judge. We’re so thrilled by the response that it’s been getting. It’s a dream come true, and Sundance was incredible.”
Richly evocative and haunting in tone, The Babadook focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), whose relationship with her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) – who is showing an increased predilection for violence, improvised weaponry, and anti-social behaviour – has never truly warmed or deepened since her husband was killed in a car accident while racing her to the hospital to give birth. Into this already fraught emotional landscape comes the children’s storybook, Mr. Babadook, which seemingly appears from nowhere and lands on the bookshelf, where it instantly catches Samuel’s attention. Filled with baroque charcoal-black-and-grey imagery, and frightening pop-up figures, the book scares Samuel, and stirs up a torrent of unease in Amelia. Though she puts it away out of reach, the book keeps reappearing, with its tale of an eerie presence called Mr. Babadook casting a pall of fear over the already sad and lonely house in which Samuel and Amelia barely eke out an existence. But soon, the horrors of the book become more and more tangible, and a strange new threat – which is taking hideous physical form, and becoming increasingly dangerous – is unleashed.
Enjoyably down-to-earth and enthusiastically candid, Jennifer Kent doesn’t hesitate when it comes to sticking a flag in the ground in the name of horror filmmaking. “If someone asked me if I’d prefer to watch a Cannes-winning film set in Romania about whatever, or a horror film, I’d probably choose the horror film,” she laughs. “I love all kinds of horror films. I see the genre’s immense worth, and I get annoyed when people have that sense of snobbery about it. When it’s done well, horror cinema can really move people, and it can also address all manner of issues. There can be a lot of depth to it, but because there are a lot of crap horror films, people dismiss the genre. But there are also a lot of crap dramas made, and a lot of crappy comedies, yet we don’t give up on those genres.”
The road to The Babadook has been a long and circuitous one for Jennifer Kent, who was attracted to the arts and storytelling from an early age. “I came into the world knowing exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “By the age of about six, I was writing plays and directing and acting, which was just a natural, joyful thing for me, and I really loved doing it. I kept doing it all the way through my childhood.” Unaware at the time that “girls could make films”, Kent instead chose to concentrate on acting, and eventually got into the prestigious Sydney drama school, NIDA, which has launched the careers of the likes of Mel Gibson, Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush. From there, she moved onto acting roles in theatre, film (The Well, Babe: Pig In The City) and television (A Country Practice, Murder Call, Police Rescue, All Saints), before eventually realising that she’d veered off into the wrong creative direction.
“When I went through NIDA, I was very much discouraged from doing other things creatively,” Kent tells FilmInk. “I was told to focus on one thing, so I did, and as a result, I got bored very quickly. After a few years of acting, I thought, ‘Stuff this for a joke! I don’t enjoy it!’ I enjoy acting, but I didn’t enjoy the lifestyle. I found self-promotion very hard, and I hated fighting for crappy work. You’re only as good as the story that you’re telling, so when I was doing Shakespeare, I was in heaven, but when I was doing a guest role on a TV show that I didn’t really care about,” Kent’s voice trails off. “Well, I really questioned it as a lifetime career. I wanted to tell stories about things that gave me a lot of happiness. So gradually, I realised that I didn’t want to do it anymore. What I really wanted to do was write and direct. So I just quietly set about writing, and things floated off from there.”
That then led Kent down another creative path, as she worked on a number of scripts, and attempted to mount a series of film projects. Finding little joy, she then applied for work with the production company of controversial Danish filmmaker, Lars Von Trier, the man behind such cinematic acts of provocation as Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, Antichrist, and the recent sex epic, Nymphomaniac. “It was just as a general dogs’ body,” Kent laughs. “You know, as a shit kicker. I got to work in the directing department, and I expressed a commitment to learn more about directing and filmmaking.” The experience was a rich and fulfilling one, and it prompted Kent to direct the short film, Monster, which served as a kind of cinematic in utero piece for what would eventually become The Babadook. The film got a warm response at various festivals, but it didn’t exactly kick-start Kent’s career in Australia. After attempting to mount more projects locally, she hit more brick walls, and became increasingly disillusioned. “I thought, ‘Stuff this! I haven’t given up. Go outside of Australia and try and develop something in another country!’”
True to her word, Kent packed her bags and hauled her wares to Amsterdam, where she was accepted into the writing programme at Binger Filmlab. It was there that she returned to the story of Monster, which she expanded upon under the tutelage of a number of film professionals. “They had a wonderful way of helping to encourage script development,” Kent says. “After six months, I’d done three drafts of the script, and it flowed on after that. But it wasn’t like I made that short film thinking that I was going to make a feature out of this story.”
Returning to Australia, Jennifer Kent again arrived at the doors of our principal funding body, Screen Australia, where she ironically found that all of her previous attempts at mounting film projects had stood her in good stead. “I think that I had the weight of all of those previous projects behind me,” Kent offers. “I had great support from Screen Australia through other works that I had done with them. I think that they were like, ‘Yep, it’s her time, give her a go.’” Were they excited about doing something in the horror genre? “They were, and I’m not just saying it because you’re interviewing me and someone from Screen Australia will probably read it,” Kent laughs in reply. “I had a lot of support, especially from Martha Coleman, who was head of development at the time; she was a great protector of the film. But it wasn’t without a battle, and it’s an interesting question to ask, because if you look at most classic horror films – like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance – a lot of the great horrors were made independently.”
In Kent’s corner through much of this process was actress, Essie Davis, the ravishing redhead who has given stand-out performances in the likes of Cloudstreet, Burning Man, and The Slap, as well as creating a truly original Australian television character with ABC-TV’s popular series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Davis and Kent had been through NIDA together, and were longtime friends. “Jen was a year ahead of me at NIDA, and I looked up to her because she was an outstanding actress, and she was just really brilliant,” Essie Davis tells FilmInk on the line from London, where her husband – Snowtown helmer, Justin Kurzel – is directing a new big screen version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
“It’s surprising that Jen didn’t have an incredible career as an actress because she was phenomenal. But I’m glad that she became a writer and director, because now she’s giving me the opportunity to work with her and play the parts that she has created.” The Babadook came Davis’ way after Kent had attached her to another project which had nearly gotten off the starting blocks, with development money from Screen Australia and a run through the script development programme, Aurora. “It never got made,” Davis sighs. “So Jen sat down to write this horror film in retaliation for how long it took to try and get that other film up.” Davis’ voice then takes on a mock tone of curt aggression in imitation of Jennifer Kent’s supposed frame of mind. “Right, well that’s it! I’m going to write a horror movie then!”
When FilmInk asks Davis if it was unusual to be directed by someone that was a friend first, and a cinematic mentor second, the actress replies in the negative. “If I was maybe a less experienced actor, that might be the case,” she says. “But I love directors, and I love being directed. I can come up with a lot of stuff by myself, but it’s so refreshing to have someone who makes suggestions, and takes you outside of what you know. There are always new ways to approach things, and I found it pretty easy just to hand Jen the reins, because I admire her work, and I trust her vision. And as much as I was terrified, she’s a talented and intuitive person, and if nothing else, I would have fulfilled this for her. There were a lot of challenging and embarrassing things that I had to do in front of her or the crew, but I was prepared for wherever she needed me to go.”
As well as being involved in a number of highly physical and violent scenes as The Babadook starts to exert its horrific influence, one of the film’s greatest challenges for Essie Davis was working with young actor, Noah Wiseman. With the film essentially a two-hander, Wiseman and Davis carry The Babadook on their backs nearly alone, and both give sensational performances. Due to the graphic nature of the film’s dialogue, and the often intense exchanges that boil over between Amelia and Samuel, the young actor had to be protected for much of the shoot. “It’s complicated, but we knew what the situation was going to be,” says Davis. “Before we were even looking at rehearsal, Jen explained to me how we were having a stand-in for certain scenes with Noah. That said, there was still a lot of stuff that Noah and I did together that was very intensive, but it was all highly protected. In the beginning, we rehearsed together, and we played lots of games together. We really got to know each other, and it was like doing drama together. At the end of every little improvisation or game, we’d give each other a cuddle and say, ‘That was fun, wasn’t it?’ Jen also told Noah the story of the film; it’s a beautiful story because as she explained it all to him, he’s really the hero of the film.”
When FilmInk asks Jennifer Kent about the process of working with Noah Wiseman on the film, her seriousness about the subject is instantly detectable. In many ways, The Babadook hinges on the young actor, and the debut director didn’t want to see him gouged in any way by either the complexities of a film shoot, or the dark nature of the film itself. “He was protected, and he wasn’t robbed of his childhood,” Kent says. “I wanted it to be a beautiful experience for him. I’m a very intuitive person, and I went completely on my instinct. I also acted when I was a child, so I related to this little boy. He was very similar to how I was as a child. He’s sensitive, but he’s emotionally robust. We auditioned a few other kids who could have probably done the role in terms of their acting, but they wouldn’t have survived emotionally. I was extremely particular in the way that I structured the environment for Noah. I talked him through the story, and gave him the G-rated version. He knew that he was the saviour of the story. And of course, in any of the scenes where Essie is screaming at him, he was never there for any of that. He was heavily protected. I checked in with his mum after every day of shooting. He now looks back on the shoot fondly, and I’m proud of that. It was bloody exhausting though,” Kent laughs. “Oh, my god! It nearly killed me! But I feel so proud of both of Essie and Noah, and the relationship that they built. We all built that together before we even started filming.”
Though Noah Wiseman gives the film its soul, Essie Davis provides the dark heart. While there is a monster in her house, Davis’ Amelia is the most arresting and ambiguous figure in the film. Grinding out her days working in a depressing nursing home for an unfeeling boss and a group of patients who barely know who she is, Amelia has little light in her life. Her icy, dismissive sister (Hayley McElhinney) is a stuck-up yummy mummy who has little sympathy for Amelia’s emotional ravages, or her son’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and her only real friend appears to be the sweet old lady (Jacqy Phillips) next door who is showing the first signs of dementia. Davis is truly heartbreaking in the role. “I love Essie,” Jennifer Kent says without hesitation. “She’s a powerhouse, but she’s utterly delightful. She’s a very heartfelt performer, and she’s totally underrated. I needed an actress with a huge range, and Essie outdid my expectations. We worked hard together to create this, and to make Amelia real. I’m extremely proud of Essie’s work.”
It’s in the character of Amelia that The Babadook makes it boldest moves. Rarely depicted in fictional cinema, she is a single mother having a hard time loving her child. Broken by the grief of her lost husband, and twisted by the unintentional but pivotal role that the unborn Samuel played in his father’s death, Amelia occasionally flinches and recoils from her son’s touch, and often looks at him with feelings much more complicated than love in her eyes. In contemporary society, the subject of a mother who doesn’t love her child is close to being a back-in-the-closet taboo, and it’s a dark-hued twist of irony that finds such a theme driving a horror film involving a literary bogeyman with talons for hands and a cracked, horrifying voice straight from hell. “What was really important to me was to explore the necessity of facing the dark side,” says Jennifer Kent. “We cannot keep the skeletons in the closet. By suppressing that darkness, we not only hurt ourselves, but all those around us. The mother-son relationship was a byproduct of that core investigation. It’s also a fascinating area to cover because it’s such a taboo. So many women feel it, like, ‘Oh, my god! I want to strangle my kid! He’s driving me mad!’ No mother can ever say that though! Mothers are just meant to love their children, but it’s not always the case. It’s hard for women to be a mother. I’m not a mother myself, but I’m a very empathetic person, so I can feel how tough that is.”
The film feels extraordinarily authentic in its depiction of a mother cut adrift from what those around her would see as her natural instincts and responsibilities. In one telling scene, Amelia – with a rare afternoon to herself away from Samuel – wanders around in a haze, merely enjoying the basics of existence, like looking in shop windows and eating an ice cream. It’s scenes like these that ground The Babadook in a sense of truth and honesty rare in horror cinema, and Kent is quick to credit her nearest-and-dearest when it comes to the downbeat realism of scenes like this one. “I’m blessed to have pretty honest friends,” she laughs. “I tend to elicit honesty in people, and they will come to me and say things that they may not say to other people. So I had a window into a few friends’ lives. I feel such love for them, for opening up and sharing that with me, because it’s not an easy burden to carry. Whether it’s for a month or a year or whether you just don’t connect with that child, I have friends who have had that. So I had personal contact with all my friends, but it’s difficult and very interesting if you try to Google the subject of mothers who don’t love their children. You see very, very troubling stuff there. I just went on my instinct, and put myself in that place.”
For Essie Davis, this subject matter was extremely difficult to come to terms with. “When I first read the script, I found it terrifying,” the actress admits. “And when Jen asked me to audition for it, I really didn’t know if I wanted to. I didn’t know if I wanted to play this part. I found it quite confronting, and it still terrified me even when I said yes,” she laughs. “It’s an ugly journey, but it also feels incredibly genuine, and I did a lot of research. I am a mother, and I know many mothers, and there’s a lot that’s not said. It is tough being a mother, and it’s tough being a parent, especially when you know that you make mistakes. I’m sure that a lot of mothers have gone, ‘How did I let that come out of my mouth? What on earth am I doing to my child?’ I read this amazing book about postpartum psychosis. It is a phenomenon; there’s post-natal depression, and then there’s post-natal psychosis, where there’s a very fine line where mothers are really terrified that they’re going to hurt their child. It’s interesting because it’s really about the repression of grief, and what it can create…the monster that it creates within itself.”
Does Davis worry that audiences might miss these nuances in The Babadook, and instead just get off on the shocks and scares that the film offers in chilling abundance? “It doesn’t worry me at all,” she replies. “The film will resonate in many different ways. It was an amazing thing to see it at The Sundance Film Festival with the American audience. It was just phenomenal! People were screaming and jumping out of their seats and cursing and swearing, and then laughing their heads off at their own fear. Then people of every age group came up afterwards and talked to us. For some people, it was just a scary movie, and for some people, it made them cry and bawl as they recognised themselves or their own mother in the story. There was this massive bikie guy who was like, ‘Wow! That’s the story of me and mother.’”
The Babadook is certainly far removed from much of the modern horror canon. “First and foremost, it’s a psychological horror, much in the vein of Roman Polanski domestic horrors like Repulsion or The Tenant,” says producer, Kristina Ceyton. “But what sets The Babadook apart is that at its very heart is a love story between a mother and a child. It’s those deeper themes that underpin The Babadook, and which could move an audience beyond the simple scares and frights.”
Thankfully, those scares and frights come without buckets of blood. Though The Babadook is a fearsome, threatening creature, and the film boasts brilliant production design that ingeniously locates surreal horror smack-bang in the middle of everyday experience, the film is only occasionally dotted with plasma. “There is a little bit of black vomit,” Essie Davis laughs. Jennifer Kent always believed that bloodletting was never intrinsic to the world of The Babadook. “I have great respect for films that use that kind of violence and horror, and there’s a reason for it,” the director offers. “It’s often integral, but with The Babadook, there was no need for it. The terror in this film is psychological. That’s what this film is about. I would’ve used it if it had have been necessary though,” she laughs. “It would be a shame if people discount the film because they hear the ‘h’ word, and would deny themselves seeing a story that might go beyond what they think just because they don’t like horror films. I hope that it reaches the audience that will actually get a lot out of it.”
Jennifer Kent is certainly getting a lot out of it, with her determination and perseverance in finally getting The Babadook made paying off handsomely in terms of international recognition. Her name was even in the mix around the choice of director for Marvel Studios’ first female-led superhero movie, Captain Marvel, but Kent’s follow up film ultimately turned out to be an Australian one. A period piece set in colonial Tasmania, Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is The Nightingale (which will screen at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival) the story of a young convict woman seeking revenge for her family, who ventures into Tasmania’s rugged interior with a male Aboriginal outcast as her guide. Her object is the British soldier who wronged her.
Talking to The Guardian, Kent said that she was interested in depicting the reality faced by women in the early 19th century setting. “It was a really crazy time for women. We only hear the sanitised version and I wanted to explore it for real.” The Nightingale will also look at the genocide of the Indigenous Tasmanian population which occurred at the time. “I couldn’t go down to Tasmania – which was the worst place, the worst attempted annihilation of a culture – and not do this the right way,” she says. “I feel that we’re grown up enough now to look at it and accept it as part of our history.”
For the engagingly straight-up Jennifer Kent, the bright lights of Hollywood have pleasingly failed to blind her. “I’m still not really majorly impressed by Hollywood and the system here, but it’s an adventure,” Jennifer Kent giggles. “I have an American agent now, and if I can continue to do my own work and have other opportunities to present it, then that’s exciting. I don’t take it too seriously though. I just continue with my own work, and that’s what I feel very strongly about. There have been wonderful opportunities, but I really just want to tell my own stories.”
The Babadook will screen at The Sydney Film Festival on June 10 at 3:00pm as part of David Stratton’s Australian Women Trailblazers programme. For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website. The Nightingale will screen at The Sydney Film Festival on June 9 (8:30pm, The Ritz, Randwick), June 10 (6:00pm, Event Cinemas, George Street) and June 16 (6:15pm, Dendy Newtown). For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website.