Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent has made the scariest and most compelling film of the year, THE BABADOOK, a film that premiered almost a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival as is finally making its way off the festival circuit and into theaters in America. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly, but more importantly, if it opens in a theater near you, you should make a point of seeing it with an audience. Not satisfied to simply make a movie that makes you jump and/or scream every few minutes, Ken has fashioned a work that functions both as a family drama and a scare film, featuring a mother-son pairing living in a home, barely scraping by (both financially and emotionally), who are haunted by a creature pulled straight out of one of the boy’s storybooks that eagerly represents the fears of many single parents throughout the world.
Kent began her career as an actor, graduating from Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art with a degree in Performing Arts (Acting) in 1991, and going on to star in several Australian TV series as well as a small role in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY. But it was in 2005 that Kent made her first step into directing, creating the quite scary short MONSTER, which will feel a bit familiar to those who have seen THE BABADOOK already, but doesn’t quite qualify as the basis for the feature. What it did display was Kent’s unique talent for building tension and delivering the perfect rhythm to scare the crap out of audiences.
With MONSTER as her writing-directing calling card, she went on to piece together THE BABADOOK, something of a modern-day Brothers Grimm tale that has been racking up great notices since its debut in January. And now, please enjoy my talk with one of the year’s most promising first-time feature filmmakers, Jennifer Kent…
Jennifer Kent: Hi, is this Steve?
Capone: It is. Hi, Jennifer. How are you?
JK: I’m well. How are you?
Capone: Good. I’m guessing you’re very far away. Is that true?
JK: Very far away.
Capone: There’s a slight delay in your responses, so I’m going to assume you’re not in this neck of the woods.
JK: [laughs] I am in the world, but not in America. I am in Sydney at the moment.
Capone: Okay, we can make that work. Let me start out with a quick story, because this just happened a couple of weeks ago. Guillermo del Toro was here in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about the current state of horror, and he said he hadn’t seen anything this year that he thought was particularly scary or original, and I brought up your film, and he said, “Oh, right. I forgot about that one.” And then we ended up talking about your film for about 10 minutes. So to him, THE BABADOOK is the exception to this year’s stagnant horror offerings. Congratulations on that.
JK: Oh, wow. What did he say? I’m curious.
Capone: Just how much he loved it, because he’s really big into these stories about--well, he’s made a couple of films about children, both in terms of their imagination, and in terms of how their imaginations get them through very painful times. So he’s definitely a kindred spirit in addition to being a fan.
JK: I’ve had feedback about Guillermo, which I’ve found wonderful, because I think his films touch on similar issues. Not all of them, obviously, but some of them. And it’s a real honor to have him say that, for sure. Incredible.
Capone: I’ve been reading about this film since it premiered at Sundance almost a year ago. Are you glad that it’s finally getting out there now, where people will be able to see it?
JK: [laughs] Oh my god. I’m so glad. I was saying to my best friend the other day, “I really cannot get rid of the freaking BABADOOK. It’s coming back to haunt me.” But it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that the film has been so embraced. It blows my mind. I just wanted to make a film about facing your darkness and facing the things that you think are unfaceable. To have it so embraced has been a real shock to me, because I was just making it as a personal vision. It’s something that I really cared about. You hope that someone else will get it, but it’s been a filmmaker’s dream to have such a beautiful reception to it. I can hardly complain.
Capone: Last week, I watched your short MONSTER, and while there are certainly a lot of similarities between the two, do you consider the THE BABADOOK a feature-length version of that short? Or were you going after something a little different?
JK: No, not really. I can see myself why there are similarities, but when I made MONSTER, I had no intention of making a feature-length film of that story. I guess obviously the similarities are there, but MONSTER is a little stream in comparison to THE BABADOOK, which is more of a river heading out to an ocean. In terms of the depths of what is being explored and how those deeper things are what’s really important about the film, which doesn’t get explored so much in MONSTER. MONSTER stays on the surface, as short films do, generally. You don't have time to explore an idea in a lot of depth.
Capone: I’ve seen THE BABADOOK a couple of times now, and each time I see it, I’m noticing different things and different themes. I now realize that if this had been a story about a family with two parents, it would be just a monster movie. But by making it about a single mother, it becomes about the everyday horrors of parenthood and protecting your child. In terms of the familial roots, what do you think this film touches on in terms of family?
JK: First off, you’re right; that’s true. It’s interesting, just as you were saying that I was going back in my mind to the Polanski domestic horrors, the trilogy: THE TENANT, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and REPULSION [commonly referred to as the “Apartment Trilogy”]. And all of those really focus on a person who is alone. Rosemary has a husband, but he’s hardly husband material. And the other two are on their own. So yeah, I think what you’re saying is true, actually.
The broken family unit here is really important. The film is about not only the damage that’s done to ones self when you suppress and repress things, but the damage around you, and the way that I could show that best was through a child, because who’s more vulnerable than a child? And I didn’t set out to make a film about family, actually, even though it’s really touched a lot of people, this woman’s plight, this single mother. I wanted to make a film about those other issues, but the world that was created, somehow it’s made that issue a really strong part of the film.
Capone: You say that wasn’t even what you were really thinking of when you were making it, but it’s there, and I think most people are seeing it. So it’s there whether you want it or not, I guess.
JK: [laughs] Yeah, because when you’re making a film, when you’re writing a story, you need to be very true to the idea, and then the other elements to the idea will come up, and that was something that came up very strongly. I have friends who are single parents, and they would say, “I’d rather not have kids than be a single mother because it’s a really hard road.” So I’d seen that second hand, and I have a lot of empathy for women that have to go through that. It’s really, really hard. Just as a base note, it’s very hard, but to go through it when you’re dealing with repressed grief and loss . My heart breaks for that character.
Capone: Based on the people who have seen it and talked to you about it, do people with children have different reactions than people who don’t?
JK: I thought that the film might be vilified a little bit because of the bad-mother syndrome. She doesn’t step out of the pages of “Vogue Living” [laughs]. It’s not a glamorous character, but so far I’ve had no negativity come back on that score, just relief, and women saying, “Thank god, there’s a character up there that’s real and that I can relate to.” I have a friend, a dear friend, who cried when she saw the final cut of the film, because she said that she realized there’s one scene, without giving the film away to readers, where she glides towards the little boy, towards Sam, and just screams all this stuff at him. And my friend just bursts into tears and thought, “Wow, when I loose my patience, I must seem huge to my children.” It touches on something for women who have kids, I think.
Capone: The other thing it made me consider is how wild my imagination was when I was young, and about how annoying that must have been to my parents. But that is another way of seeing the film, that somehow this creature is the product of this child’s imagination.
JK: Well, I don’t think he’s imagining anything that’s not there. In America, I’ve been a bit shocked at how many people have said they wanted to kill that kid. “Whoa, maybe you have a Babadook inside that’s waiting to get out, because that’s a really strong thing to say.” And I really defend Sam as a character, because I think he is the most conscious person in the film. He’s the most awake person. And he’s desperately trying to save himself and his mother.
He’s the film’s hero because he’s trying to fight this thing that we find out is real, on whatever level, whether you see it as psychological or supernatural, that thing is real; you can’t get rid of it. And so, his imagination is warranted. It’s not a figment of his imagination, is what I’m saying. He’s just very awake and able to see what’s coming. The thing is, as a child, we don’t have the capacity to save our parents. We can’t do that, so that’s why the job falls back to Amelia. I think a lot of people don’t listen to kids, they don’t give them credit for having any wisdom, and I don’t think that’s true. If I had a kid that was saying to me, “I’m seeing something constantly,” I’d be listening to that child, personally. I wouldn't be doing my best to ignore them.
Capone: You mentioned part of what’s going on in this film is this grief that the mother is feeling, and I noticed that their home is almost frozen in time. There are little clues around their home that she has not moved passed this loss in her life. Talk about the design of the home, because it seems very deliberate.
JK: Yes, well it is. I wanted an environment that looked like it could have been beautiful, but it was cut short. It’s frozen in time, that house, and it’s caught them both. It’s like a character to me. When we were looking at creating the world inside that place, I wanted it to be like they moved in, and they were going to renovate it, and had it beautiful, but it just got stuck in time once that thing happened and not much has been moved and shifted since. It’s an important thing, because there’s not much in this film other than those two performances and some peripheral characters in that house. So the house says everything that she isn't saying. She keeps saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I don’t talk about him. I have gotten over it.” And the house tells us a different story.
Capone: Adding on to that, the the Babadook itself seems like it’s sprung forth from that environment, from that house. Like it was born out of that house; it’s even color coordinated. Can you talk a little bit about the design of the creature?
JK: Yeah, it’s called THE BABADOOK, so it’s very important that he was at the core, and the core of that is the book. The book then radiated out to inform the rest of the world, if that makes sense. I didn’t want it to be like, “We have a normal world and we find this weird book in it.” It’s like the book has created the world in a way. It’s all of her making. It’s all from her mind. So yeah, it was very much about creating in a sense a pop-up world. A world that could have been fashioned by a child.
I guess that’s why I’ve been drawn to fairy tales, and I don’t mean Disney. I mean like the brutal, universal, mythical quality of a true, early primal fairy tale. That was the model for creating this world. Without going into too much detail, the design was very sparse, like it is in children’s books, and there wasn’t a lot of modern looking detail, which is why I think people think the film looks old, because there’s no people in it. The streets are bare. There’s few characters, and the designer who we had is a genius, and he really got what I was on about. A lot of the film I owe to Alex [Holmes, production designer], because his work is extraordinary.
Capone: You’re right, the film does look old for a couple of reasons. It reminded me actually of a black-and-white silent film. This character looks like one Lon Chaney would have played back in his prime. And the way that the craeture is designed, it does look very black and white, not unlike the book’s color scheme.
JK: If you were a real film nerd and want to go back, you’ll see that the film gets more black and white. It starts out with more color, and then as we get trapped in that house, we took a lot of the color out, and I don’t mean we did that in post; we did that on the set. We did it in-camera. A lot of work went into creating that. It’s like blood draining from a face. I wanted it to be very gradual, and so it’s deliberate. Hopefully not too obvious, but that’s what happens.
Capone: I noticed the actor that played your creature worked in your art department, but did he possess any special skills to play this character?
JK: [laughs] I’m already laughing because he really wanted to be an actor. Because his name is Tim [Purcell], we ended up calling him Timadook because he became Babadook. He has the distinct look. He’s incredibly tall. He’s like 6-foot 7-in. tall, and very lean. To my production designer Alex, I was like, “Who can we get for Babadook? We need a human. I’m not doing CGI.” He was like, “Tim really wants to be an actor.” I was like, “Are you joking? He’s perfect.” [laughs] And he loved it. Without giving all the tricks away, everything you see is in-camera. There’s no CGI in the film. There’s post-smoothing and taking out wires and cables and whatever, but there’s no CGI. He really had to do a lot of that himself, and we employed camera tricks to make it look strange.
Capone: That’s great to hear. When you make a horror film right out of the gate as a director, it becomes pretty clear right off the bat whether you have any skill at creating tension, or are able get the beats of a horror film correct to make it scary. And you clearly have done that. Where did you learned to do that? Were there certain films, certain directors that you paid attention to that seemed to get those beats and atmospheres right?
JK: Yeah, I’m very film obsessed, so I watch films all the time, and have done forever. I watched them from the point of view of, “How do they do that? How is that happening?” always. So I guess that’s just my mind. I’ve got an inquiring brain in that way. But as you asked that question, there’s someone I never bring up, and it’s not because I don’t think he deserves a mention, it’s because he’s so ubiquitous. It’s Hitchcock. I watch a lot of his films. I’ve mentioned Polanski and David Lynch, and others that are also brilliant at creating worlds and a mood, but I think in terms of suspense, he was my film school. Hitchcock in terms of sound... We’ve lost the art of sound in horror, but he knew how to create fear by taking out sounds a lot of the time. By creating an absence that’s unusual. He’s a master at slow-burn fear and making you feel like there’s something not right, and you get that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. He’s a big one. What Poe does on the page, he did that in film.
Capone: In both cases I think, as storytellers—and people making horror these days don’t seem to understand—that if you care fully about the characters, thanks to a richly developed script, richly drawn characters that have some depth to them, we actually have a stake in whether they live or die. You’ve done a great job of that.
JK: Oh, thank you. Why is that, do you think? I wonder if it’s just laziness.
Capone: It might be; it’s not just horror films.
JK: No, it’s certainly not just horror. This is why I’m hesitant to use the word “genre” because people go, “Oh genre. Oh we don’t need characters in genre. It’s horror. We don't need good character development.” It’s like, “Um, yes you do if you want people to be engaged by the film.”
Capone: Well I’ve told people that THE BABADOOK is a family drama with horror elements in it.
JK: [laughs] Yeah, good one.
Capone: Let me ask about Essie and Noah, your two lead actors. How did you find them, and did you have to do a chemistry test once you had cast them, or did you audition them together?
JK: That’s a good question. I went through NIDA [National Institue of Dramatic Arts], which is our national drama school here. Cate Blanchett went there, Mel Gibson went there. So Essie and I were at drama school together, acting school. I love Essie. She’s a really good friend, and I had reservations about working with a really good friend, but at the end of the day, she really was the person I felt would be able to pull off this extraordinary role. So we cast her first.
And then we had the horror and challenge of finding a six-year-old to play that role. When I was writing it, I never thought about that. I just thought, “Oh, yeah. We’ll find him.” And then as we started to audition, I went, “Oh my god. What have I done? Am I an idiot? What am I expecting?” But we had a great casting agent who had worked a lot with children and was very good at casting brilliant kids. So I felt hopeful, and I was right; she did an amazing job. We found Noah; he had this extraordinary imagination. I wanted a child that could be directed, so that was my main criteria, and that could change from take to take and was emotionally sensitive, but also robust, because I didn’t want a child that would be saying “I want to go home” after the second day. So he was all of those things.
Then I showed Essie his tapes, and we didn’t get them into the room together, because she was very busy and was overseas. But we cast him, and because I am an actor, I was very conscious that the key to the success of this relationship was in getting them to love and trust each other, so we started rehearsal three weeks before we started shooting, and that first week I just spent with Noah, just telling him what the story of THE BABADOOK was—the G-rated version. Impressing upon him how important his role was. He didn’t even know he was going to be making a film. He just thought he was coming to Adelaide to do drama. That’s what his mom told him. And then he gradually started to realize what was going on.
So we introduced the story elements, and then we introduced Essie. And we played games, and we went to the zoo, and we did stuff together. And they developed a relationship and really loved each other. And then when it was safe, then we started to take the game further so that Sam was really naughty, and he got it. He really got it. I remember one day his mom said to him, “You never behave at school. You never do your work. What’s going on here?” He said, “Mom, this is important.” He really got the sense of how important it was. And I’m really proud to say that he loved doing this film. He wasn’t traumatized. We really protected him from any sensitive, horrible material. We had adult stand-in to work opposite Essie when things got tough. So he never heard swearing, even to the point where if she had to say the f-word in a frame, and he was in it, she mimed it, and we sunk it in later. He was really, really protected from the dark parts of the film.
Capone: It sounds like you took the riskiest path to get the best performance.
JK: I was not going to give that child lines and get him to learn them. In fact, we had one day where we had five scenes, and he hadn’t learned his lines. I don’t know why, he just didn’t learn them. And I was like, “Oh my god, this is a disaster.” But the thing about children is they learn really quick. So for me it was more about, “In this scene, Sam’s mommy is not listening to him, and he’s right.” Noah is a very empathetic kid, and he really tapped into Sam’s space. It was amazing. He’s an amazing child.
Capone: Do you have a drawer full of scripts that you’re just now ready to unload on us, or are you getting scripts? What’s the next step?
JK: Maybe not a drawer, maybe not like a huge drawer [laughs]. But I’ve got two scripts that I’m really passionate about. One’s a revenge story set in Tasmania in the 1820s. It’s not a horror film, but both of my films are creating unique worlds. I think that’s what I really love about film: an audience can step inside a cinema or sit down in front of a screen, and for two hours they’re transported to another world. So my two films have got unique worlds, and I’m just fielding other scripts. I’ve turned down a number of scripts; I need to feel passionate about the subject matter, and once I do, I will grab it. I don’t need to write the material to feel something for it.
Capone: You have created something that is so uniquely terrifying in places, and also very heartfelt, and I hope that you don’t completely abandon the horror world, because you’ve done something extraordinary here.
JK: Oh know, I never would. It was just need to embrace deeper things and have something deep to say. In a year, if I can find that, I’m up for it. If it was good enough for Polanski to do three times, it’s good enough for me [laughs].
Capone: Jennifer, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much, and best of luck with this.