Australian actor turned director Jennifer Kent on her breakout feature, the mother-and-son horror The Babadook.
In The Babadook, one of the better horror films in recent memory, a harried single mother finds herself being chased by a mysterious figure in her house. Its strength comes from the characterisation of the mother and son—the horror is a manifestation of grief and loss—and the tone is perfectly creepy. While the film loses a little when it shifts to a more literal horror, the acting (Essie Davis, in particular), impressive editing, and moody tone guarantee it’s effective both in terms of drama and freaking you out.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
JENNIFER KENT: Insanity [laughs]. It was a natural progression for me. I started as an actor, and I was working in theatre and film. I worked in a long-running TV show (Murder Call), and I had a core cast role in Australia. We were running a bit short and we had to make up an episode with a scene here and there. I guess we were writing things, and I thought to myself, “yeah, I want to be involved more in that than as an actor.” I was really keen on going to the other side of the camera. I had done that as a kid, writing and directing stories, and it was just a natural gravitation towards the other side as an adult.
BG: I understand you worked on Dogville. You haven’t gone down the typical film school route for a first feature nowadays.
JK: I studied acting five years and by the end I really hated it. I didn’t want to be an actor anymore. I guess I’m not really built for schools or institutions. I’m a bit subversive by nature. I knew I didn’t want to go to Film School because I knew if I just sat in these classrooms I would go crazy. I knew I wanted to do it the old way of taking on an apprenticeship and it was a natural progression. I’d seen Festen, which really impressed me, and I saw Dancer in the Dark, and there seemed to be an energy in these films. They were very different from anything else that was being created at the time. I just approached him [Lars von Trier] personally and for some reason I ended up on set. It was the best film school I could have had. Incredible.
BG: Why did you decide to make The Babadook and how did you decide to approach the film knowing that horror is a very specific genre?
JK: I was very well acquainted with the horror genre. As a kid I was watching films that were way too scary very early, and continued to watch them, and still do. It’s a genuine love. At the same time, I didn’t focus on horror while I was developing the script. I knew it was in the scary realm, but I was more interested in the woman and developing the character, and this story of a woman who has a descent into madness. It seemed to make sense in the horrific realm. I think everyone’s terrified of losing their mind and it seemed to make much more sense in that realm than in a drama context, which could have been a kitchen sink drama or maybe melodramatic. Horror’s much more visceral and dramatic, and it just felt right.
BG: Given it has been put into the horror genre, is it difficult to find original ways of approaching the subject matter?
JK: I think with any film, the challenge for a filmmaker is to be original, whether it’s horror or drama or comedy. It was very important for me to focus on story and the woman’s descent. I didn’t even concern myself with the horror tropes. It was, “what do we need here, and what happens here?” It was never a sense of, “I shouldn’t do this, I shouldn’t do that.” It was, “how can I be honest with this character and her story?”
BG: Two of the best things about the film is the realism and the sense it doesn’t feel glib, like horror films can play for laughs. Because of that tension between drama and horror, it works effectively as a horror film.
JK: There’s this idea of horror commenting on itself is a product of people who are making these films and not understanding how powerful horror can be. I find it important never to look down on a genre and to give it its due, and recognise its power. I was dealing with intense taboo subject matter, a mother who just cannot love her child and actually wants to kill him. I was dealing with something pretty serious. It was easy to avoid that winking at the audience. However, I think people do find moments quite funny. You can’t escape humour, it’s part of the film as well.
BG: You go down the psychological route rather than relying on gore. It places more on the audience to understand the character. Does this require a bit of ambiguity to make the horror work?
JK: I don’t think the filmmaker can be ambiguous, but I think there’s room for abstraction and for everything not to be literal. For some people it’s dissatisfying to them. That’s okay. I can live with that. For me, what’s truly frightening is the unknown and the film deals with a lot of the unknown. I know very clearly what the Babadook is, and I know what it represents for me, but I’m really careful not to spell that out to an audience either in the film or in interviews. I feel it robs the audience of their own experience of what it is. I’ve had some people who have been moved, who have come up to me or written to me, and they’ve got something completely different from the film than what I intended. Not completely different, but a different reading according to their own experience of grief and loss. It would be mean of me to go, “but wait, the film’s not about that.” I think the fact it’s abstract may irritate some people but for others it will be moving for them.
BG: I guess it’s the tension of the genre, with the expectation of a resolution, something literal.
JK: Yeah. Even if it’s a negative resolution, people are very trained to have every one of the answers tied up neatly in a box. It’s just not the way I view life. Life is not: I arrive in a place and there’s a happy ending. It’s very important for me in The Babadook to be true to how I feel about that story.
BG: There’s definitely a sense that it’s playing out in her mind, like in Repulsion. Was there a sense when you were imagining the story that we were flitting in and out of her mind-set?
JK: Yeah. Definitely films like the domestic horrors of Polanski, and even David Lynch, he’s a master at delving into the mind and exploring its horror. That was the place I wanted to be. I made a decision early on in the script that I wanted to stay in Amelia’s POV as much as possible. Even when she goes to that place, I wanted to encourage the audience to feel it with her. I think that’s what freaks people out watching it. They are experiencing the film through her eyes.
BG: There’s also a tension between societal expectations of motherhood and her personal feelings towards the child.
JK: Yeah, I thought I was going to get a lot of criticism about the portrayal of the mother and then I realised that there has been a collective sigh of relief from the mothers I have spoken to. They said, “thank god, someone can say these things about motherhood.” It’s provided relief for mothers who I’ve spoken to; the expectation to be perfect is so strong. It’s crippling. To see a story where it has opened that can of worms has been a relief to them.
BG: I guess on top of the mother, there’s a sense of grief and depression as part of the narrative. I thought of the novel Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, which had a literal black dog following Winston Churchill around. It was almost as if the blackness of Babadook was this manifestation of grief and the past.
JK: Yeah, that really makes sense to me what you say. I think that’s along the right [lines]. That’s what I feel. It’s something that has been suppressed so strongly and for so long that it splits off from her and becomes this entity, and that’s why I chose the horror genre because you can take things to the next level and not have things be too silly. There’s a distinct world being created, where it’s natural for that thing to exist. That’s the beauty of pure horror to provide those unique worlds.
BG: You were helped by great acting by Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. A lot depended on them. How did you find the actors in the first place and how much did they bring to it?
JK: I was an actor and I went through our national institute and Essie was the year below me there. We’ve been great friends for a very long time. I knew her work so well and I’d seen her show an extraordinary range, which is pretty rare amongst actresses. A lot of actresses don’t let themselves go like she does in this film. It was very un-self-conscious, which is rare. Women are taught to look beautiful for the camera and Essie decided to break all of those rules. For her and me, it was a really wonderful experience, because we had a level of trust already as friends. I was a bit nervous to work with a friend, to be honest. We set up an audition, and it wasn’t to see if she could act or simulate the experience, but to see if we worked well in that environment. And we did. With Noah, it was the opposite experience going on. He was a six year old with no acting experience at all. Just a natural talent. With any child under 10, they really only learn through mimicking, through copying. That’s not to say, I said, “here, this is how you do the lines, now you do it.” But what it meant was is if he was angry in the scene, I literally had to go in that place with him. That’s how he just let it rip. He was given permission to do what he needed to do.
BG: You set him up as monumentally irritating at the start. Did you have to do that as well?
JK: Yeah. Ultimately he had to be lovable. You had to care for him all of the way through the film even in his most irritating moments. He is set up as the antagonist. You need to be in the shoes of Amelia. This kid is really cute but he would drive me crazy too. As the film progresses and we learn the story, you really need to feel for him. It had to be very clearly mapped out by me. I wouldn’t say it was an ordeal, because that’s such a dangerous thing, but it was a harrowing experience getting that performance. Also, it’s one of the best things about the film.
BG: It’s key because the horror comes from him literally (with the book) and metaphorically.
JK: It was absolutely crucial we got the right boy for that. And it was a bit of a terror for me. The week before we were going to shoot, I had a lot of experience as an actor but still I thought, “can this child do this stuff?” We built up a lot of games and improvisations, and built up a relationship with Essie. But still, there are cameras, a schedule, and there was very little time to do all this. Thankfully it all worked out.
BG: What’s the plan for you with this film, and what next? Have you got another project?
JK: I’ve got two that I’m working on. I’ve entered into the world of the U.S. market, which is exciting and also strange. I guess I’m interested in projects that resonate with me on a deeper level. I’m not likely to be directing the next Marvel comic adaptation. I’ve got two scripts, neither of which are pure horror but have more elevated elements to them that I’m working on.
BG: Has The Babadook taken over your life a little bit?
JK: It has taken over my life, but it’s slowly coming to an end. I went to France and did the French release there, which was wonderful. France really loved the film, which was very heartening. It has been six months full time for me and I’m back to writing my own projects now. I get a bit nervous when I’m away from writing.
Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other