Interview: Director Jennifer Kent on 'The Babadook,' This Year's Breakout Horror Movie

Interview: Director Jennifer Kent on 'The Babadook,' This Year's Breakout Horror Movie

Nov 26, 2014

Coming out of nowhere to become one of the major discoveries from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Babadook, the directorial debut by Australian former actress Jennifer Kent, is a captivating horror that plays on our primal fears of the boogey man along with providing a tour-de-force performance by its lead actress, Essie Davis.

But there’s more to this horror than what goes bump in the night. When you peel the layers what you also discover is a film that explores a dark place any parent can attest to: the brief moments when you are fed up with your kids. Kent masterfully elevates this to a heightened hysteria by presenting our heroine Amelia (Davis) as an exhausted single mother who can’t keep up with her destructive son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), and soon discovers a children’s book titled Mister Babadook at their doorstep that quickly exacerbates her bad feelings about Samuel to a psychotic level.

After being picked up by IFC Midnight at Sundance (opening in theaters Friday and currently available on VOD), the film continued to find fans. Selected to this year’s esteemed New Directors/New Films, it proved it isn’t just for genre fans. And more recently it opened across the pond to high acclaim. Even the Mister Babadook book has found a following as a crowdfunding campaign has begun for it to be published.

Here we chat with Kent while she visited L.A. earlier this month to talk about the film’s surprising popularity, the preconceived notions that pop up when a female makes a horror and why you’ll never see a Hollywood remake of The Babadook. Are you aware of the attention the film is getting here in the States?

Jennifer Kent: [Laughs] I’m starting to get a sense of the response to it. Which has been phenomenal. The movie just opened in the U.K. so I’ve been focused on that, but yeah, it’s great. And people aren’t just calling it great, some are going as far as saying it’s an all-time great.

Kent: Wow. I’m very humbled by that because there are so many incredible films that I love and I can only attempt to be close to the ones I’m thinking of. So it’s very generous. We're shocked to learn that you don’t have any children. We imagined only a parent could create a story like this.

Kent: [Laughs] So you must be a keen observer of the family dynamic.

Kent: I think because I was an actor and I’m told as a person I’m empathetic. You have to put yourself in the shoes of other people to make characters believable, so I spent a lot of years doing that before I started directing. Also, I come from a huge family. I have 16 nieces, and have a lot of friends who have kids, so I think you can still tell a story like this even if you’re one step removed from it. You also directed a short film in 2005 titled Monster (see below) that is very similar to The Babadook. What motivated you to make both films? What did you want to explore?

Kent: Well, I never made that short as a precursor to the feature. I tend to be attracted to an idea that I feel very strongly about so with Monster and again with The Babadook it was this idea of wanting to explore what it means for a person to face the dark side, face the shadow, whatever you want to call it. I feel that it’s really important to integrate dark and light into our lives, not just the good stuff. And that’s how I entered that story was through Amelia.

I thought what would happen to a person who pushed down on everything so much, all the difficulties, that that developed an energy and a life of its own? I toyed with that in Monster and then forgot about it for a number of years. We were working and developing other scripts but I kept coming back to this idea of facing the unfaceable, and how would someone do that? For me the horror was really only there to support that story. Because when someone has something so terrible happen as Amelia it’s horrific and it’s very frightening to face it, so that’s why I chose the horror realm instead of a straight drama.

Monster - Jennifer Kent from Jennifer Kent on Vimeo. So through writing the script did you come to realize you were writing a horror, or was that your intention from the start?

Kent: I never saw it any other way. I knew I was going to deal with someone who couldn’t face something and I knew it was going to be scary for her and it needed to be scary for us because I really wanted the film to be visceral. It’s not an intellectual film so I didn’t want the audience to sit down, fold their arms and think about it. I wanted them to be thrown headlong into her experience and to know, on some level, what it feels like to be in her situation. There are some who leave the film believing that Amelia does not love Samuel. I never felt that way. What did you want to get across about their relationship?

Kent: I think its semantics. People can say, “She doesn’t love her child.” I would probably say that she can’t. And I think she does but there’s something enormous getting in the way and it’s kind of my point. If you ignore the difficulties, which I think Amelia has done, just hoping they will go away, it not only affects you, but everyone else around you. So in avoiding pain she’s avoiding how to connect with her son. And he feels it. I find it quite disturbing when people want to kill the child. I’m like, wow, there are a lot of Babadooks out there, we better be careful. Because what they are really responding to is unresolved stuff in themselves. Amelia is a drowning woman. She’s not able to love anyone fully, and it’s through the process of the film that that changes, I think. What’s the response been from mothers?

Kent: Not that I’m terribly concerned by what people think as a whole, but I was pretty sure I was going to get a lot of criticism for this portrayal of a woman who is far from perfect. But what I’ve experienced is the opposite. A lot of women are kind of breathing a sigh of relief that there’s a real and complex woman up on-screen. And she’s struggling and that it’s showing that motherhood is not the dream that society wants to pretend it is. It throws up questions like is maternal love inherent in women? Is it always there? And how much do we lose from being parents, male or female, but obviously more for women. So it’s been very moving. I’ve had quite a few people come up to me and say they’ve suffered from mothers or parents who had mental health problems. People who suffered depression or addiction have said they were really moved by the film. I must say, as a filmmaker it’s lovely to hear people were scared but getting these really heartfelt responses from people has been more than made up for the challenges in making it. It’s made it so worthwhile for me.

I didn’t want the film to be didactic and I didn’t want to spell out its meaning and I wasn’t afraid to be a little abstract here or there. I mean, I know what every frame of that film means, but I gave an audience credit to make up their own minds about it and I’m really shocked actually that people have responded so deeply. It’s really heartening for me. What was the reaction you got when you told people you were making a horror? Different from when your male counterparts say they are doing one?

Kent: Oh yeah, definitely. I would have casual conversations and I’d say, “Oh, I’m making a film.” And they’d ask what the film is. “Oh, it’s kind of a psychological horror.” And it was like I’d said I’m going to direct a porno. They were shocked that I would do that. And the other response was that I must be a bit weird or crazy. And maybe I’m weird, but I’m not crazy. [Laughs] Did you feel a responsibility to change the perception of female characters in the genre?

Kent: No. I was never bound by the genre. For me genre is a marketing tool, really. It’s putting a film in a box so that people when they spend their $10 or whatever they feel safe that they probably are getting something they usually like. But for me, the filmmakers that inspire me, like David Lynch and Lars von Trier and others of that ilk, they’re dealing with story by story and often their films cross genres or are a hybrid, so I wasn’t overtly concerned or felt restrained. You were an AD on von Trier’s Dogville, which you’ve said was your film school.

Kent: I was thrown into the directing department and got to watch the whole process, which was better than any film school. What was the biggest takeaway from being on his set?

Kent: Lars von Trier is not the maniac he and others make him out to be. [Laughs] He’s very brilliant with actors. Really brilliant. The biggest takeaway was his stubbornness. Because as a woman we’re not socialized to be stubborn and I saw through his process, because he has such a unique vision, that it’s okay to be stubborn. You don’t have to be an asshole about it but it’s important if you want something that’s undiluted to really, one, know what you’re making and two, be uncompromising about it. And the other thing was it showed me he was a human being, so it wasn’t us and them. Some days were good and others weren’t so it gave me the courage that I could direct. So on your set were you open to Essie Davis’ thoughts or were you uncompromising?

Kent: Both. [Laughs] The way I see it, the director is in control of the story and the actor is in control of the character and they both have to mix. So ultimately it’s the director’s job to make sure that happens. But I think every actor is different and with Essie you’re dealing with a wonderful highly experienced, highly technically skilled and also emotionally mature actress and then her partner in crime was a six-year-old who didn’t even know he was in a film and thought he was going to play drama with Jen. It was a process of me teaching him how to act and what acting is. Had you and Essie known each other before this?

Kent: Yeah. We went through acting school together and she’s one of my best friends. I think we started this journey with an enormous amount of trust. We jumped off the cliff together. I mean, we had three weeks of rehearsals with Noah, but that was less about the scenes and more developing the love and trust between them and me as well. It was a highly satisfying and very difficult experience directing Noah because he was only six. Will you work with kids again?

Kent: Yes! I’m a weirdo, I love working with kids. I’m not frightened by it. The pacing of the film is so well done, was that a challenge to develop the right feel and tension?

Kent: Yeah. I was aware of it in the writing. For me, film is very close to music in that it has a rhythm and if you drop the ball you lose that rhythm so I was aware I didn’t want the audience off the hook. So for example, to shoot handheld, for me, would have broken the tension. Everything about the film was to create this relentless feeling of dread, of something awful coming. And eventually it does and the film explodes and a different energy takes over. I didn’t want it to be a museum piece. I wasn’t trying to make a film that was behaving and paying reverence to an earlier tradition, I wanted to make a contemporary film that came from me. But I also wanted it to be a heightened film. So we reduced the color, not in post, we reduced it on set and on location. I was very particular about that being the way we went and we chose two colors so that the world felt very claustrophobic and cool. I’m much happier we did that than opting for black and white. And most of the effects are in camera?

Kent: There’s no CGI. There’s some smoothing done in post to take away the wires and all of that but I’m particularly obsessed with [George] Méliès and I like the idea that it was rough and ready and in camera, I didn’t want it to look smooth and sophisticated. The film had to reflect the primitive savagelike imagery that’s in that book. I was adamant that we didn’t use CGI. Have you currently been bombarded with horror scripts?

Kent: I was initially bombarded with horror scripts and I choose some very lovely agents and a wonderful manager who know I don’t want to repeat myself and that I’m really focused on finding ideas that I connect with very deeply. The horror scripts have stopped after I turned back a couple of offers. I don’t think I’d make a straight drama. I’m very drawn to worlds, unique worlds. If there’s another absolute reason for another scary film then I would do it. It’s really about falling in love with an idea. Because of the amount of praise for The Babadook do you feel pressure that whatever you do next has to be as good or better?

Kent: I don’t put that pressure on myself. I’m trying to stay very grounded. I’ve been in the industry for a long time, obviously not as a director but as an actor, and I want a long career so I’m really being quite discerning. The yardstick for me is does it resonate for me? Is it staying something about human nature that is important to say? I’m writing a frontier story set in Tasmania in the 1820 and it’s a revenge story told from a woman’s point of view and it’s really about how futile revenge is and what are the other ways? Where can we go? And it also looks at Australia’s shady colonial history and how we treated the indigenous people, so it’s a whole world that I’m establishing, but it’s not a horror. What are your top horror films?

Kent: I hate doing that. But I’d say for me right now, today, it’s Don’t Look Now, the Nicolas Roeg film that is really beautiful. I love Eyes Without a Face, which many people may not class as a horror, but for me I’ve got a pretty wide net when it comes to calling something horror. Diabolique, I love. The Fall of the House of Usher, by Jean Epstein. And a more modern one would be Let the Right One In. That really impressed me. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film. Oh, and I really love Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I saw the remastered print of it at a drive-in a couple of months ago. My friend owns a similar van that the kids in the movie ride in, so we were under the blankets watching it— You guys showed up in a van similar to the ones the kids have in the movie?

Kent: We drove up in the van and he had “Help Me” written on the back window in red paint like it’s in blood, and we’re under these blankets and I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if Leatherface showed up right now?” And then this chainsaw starts up during the movie and this guy came running right up to the van. We were screaming and laughing, it was the best. [Laughs] Because The Babadook has been so well received and is relatable all over the world, would you ever allow a studio to remake it?

Kent: No. I won’t allow it to happen and I don’t care how much I’m offered because I think it’s pointless. Have you been offered?

Kent: No, we haven’t, actually. Which is really heartening. I own the rights along with my producer, and she knows I would never allow it. I just don’t want that out in the world. It’s not worth the money. And I think I said what’s been needed to be said and I said it in English so people can watch it in English or in subtitles, but it’s good to get folks to go out and make original films.




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