A real and quiet horror

Katerina Sakkas: Interview, Jennifer Kent, director The Babadook

Noah Wiseman, Essie Davis, The Babadook (2014)

The most powerful horror films are underscored by reality, presenting recognisable fears and anxieties in magnified and fantastic form. Writer-director Jennifer Kent’s first feature The Babadook, the newest film to arrive on the Australian horror scene, encompasses within its monstrous narrative themes of loss, the fragility of motherhood and mental illness.

Kent, who has a background in acting and short filmmaking (she also worked for Lars Von Trier on Dogville (2003) to gain directing experience), developed the project for six months at Amsterdam’s Binger Filmlab. From this point it was barely three years before the film was in production. Kent says of the film’s development, “I’d made a short film called Monster, and I wouldn’t say that this film is the extension of that but there’s certainly the seed of Babadook in Monster, this idea of what happens if we suppress our darkness and our painful and difficult experiences. I guess when I was looking for a film that I could make on a modest budget and actually get to the finish line, The Babadook just kept coming back, this idea, this woman and this little boy in a house, so it just grew from there.”

The film’s eponymous monster, while convincingly folkloric—some audience members at the film’s premiere in Sundance thought it was an Australian creature—is Kent’s invention. “I wanted it to sound like something a child could have made up, so it comes in the form of a book called Mister Babadook, which sounds reasonably innocuous, and then develops into ‘The Babadook,’ which is a far more sinister entity.”

The film focuses unflinchingly on the relationship between Essie Davis’ Amelia, who lost her husband the night their child was born, and her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman), a ‘problem’ child assailed by nightmarish fancies which get him into trouble in everyday life. It’s a scenario demanding a great deal of emotional force from its leads, something particularly challenging when one of them is a young child. Drawing upon her professional acting experience and her history as an imaginative child who would write and act in her own plays, Kent was well positioned to support the fledgling actor. She is full of praise for Wiseman’s commitment, but doesn’t understate the difficulties: “It nearly killed me to get that performance on the screen, and I say that with absolute love for him, but anyone who’s directed a six-year-old will know what I’m talking about. They’re very little beings. But the genius in that performance really lies with Noah. He had it there to begin with.”

The transformative role of Amelia requires an actor of Essie Davis’ versatility to do it justice. While Kent didn’t write the role specifically for Davis, the two have been close friends since studying acting together at NIDA. “When you’re casting a role that has this much of a range, you don’t have a pool of actresses that are actually that suitable, so it was really a boon to have her on board,” says Kent.

“She’s very grounded as a person, very strong and full of heart…if the performance became too cerebral, people would disconnect from her; she brings a warmth to a very difficult character to find empathy for, I think, and it made her very human. My job largely lay in toning Essie’s strength down and making her more fragile in the beginning part of the film; then when we got to the end I just let her rip, because she has that power. And she’s not afraid to look less than perfect on the screen; she’s an extraordinarily beautiful woman but that performance is full of all sorts of horrors, and she went there and I owe the film to her and Noah, but her performance was extraordinary.”

Davis’ performance is instrumental in making The Babadook into that rare thing: a horror film exploring a nuanced female perspective; one dealing with motherhood to boot. Kent has been “tremendously moved” by mothers—friends and strangers—who identify with Amelia. “I thought that there would be perhaps a disapproval of her actions in this film from some women, but what I realise is that all mothers feel like that at some point and they all feel not good enough, so I think it taps into what it means to be a mother. Motherhood is a big taboo, isn’t it? It’s a thing we can’t really discuss in regards to not being good at it, or not wanting to do it sometimes, or not liking your child, sometimes even wanting to kill your child on certain days…that’s why I wanted to put it into the horror genre and not just a drama, and to take it further, and it’s worked in that it helps some women connect to it.”

The film’s stylistic approach mirrors the trajectory of its characters, with Kent describing a progression from balanced camera work using wide lenses into a slightly off-kilter world which becomes increasingly Expressionist. There’s a quiet intensity characterising the film which separates it from the manic bombast of much contemporary horror. Kent was inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which she describes as, “a very simple film, [with] a mythical quality to it. There’s no bells-and-whistles and so it gives an audience time to be genuinely terrified. A lot of, say, American studio pics are too crowded; visually, aurally we’re just assaulted and we’re not giving the audience credit for just taking things in on a very simple level.”

Homegrown horror is notoriously difficult to get funded, promoted and seen in Australia. Kent, who speaks positively about the support she received from Screen Australia, believes the fault lies with Australian exhibitors and distributors: “I feel that there is an unwarranted snobbery towards genre in general and particularly the horror genre, so although people can say, ‘Oh well, horror’s not popular in this country,’ it’s actually a fallacy, because it’s incredibly popular. It’s just that people are being forced to illegally download it in order to see it because it’s not on enough screens in our country.”

Of further concern to Kent is the Commission of Audit’s proposal to cut Screen Australia’s funding by 50% and merge it with the Australia Council, a move she believes would lead to the death of film here. “Then not only do we lose all of our independent films and most of our big films, we lose all of the talent being discovered that goes into those independent films. You look at Strictly Ballroom, you look at Chopper, you look at Snowtown—any of these kind of films have birthed some amazing directors, actors, technicians across the board, so we can’t let that happen.”

Kent’s next project is a tragedy set in Tasmania in the 1820s exploring “the true nature of violence and revenge.”

The Babadook, writer, director Jennifer Kent, cinematography Radoslaw Ladczuk, music Jed Kurzel; opening night film Sundance 2014; Umbrella Entertainment, Australian release 22 May

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 21

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 June 2014