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Interview: Jennifer Kent on Her "Babadook" Breakthrough and What She Learned From "Dogville"

It's been a banner year for female directors. Two female directors have continually been in the Best Director Oscar discussion, they continue to make inroads in indie cinema (see the Spirit Award first feature and first screenplay citations!) and in many countries outside of the US. And that's not all. The year's most impressive debut stint behind the camera arguably belongs to Jennifer Kent (pictured left) whose controlled, creepy, beautifully designed and acted Australian horror film The Babadook has been winning raves. After a stint on Direct TV it's just hit US theaters, albeit only three of them. May it expand swiftly to unsettle every city.

When I spoke with Ms. Kent over the phone we were experiencing and ungainly time-lag and accidentally talking over one another. A time-lag also happened when I watched her movie the first time; its unique slow build had me more frightened after the movie finished than while I was watching it. It sticks. The tag line is true

You can't get rid of the Babadook.

I mention that I'm pre-ordering the Babadook book as I'm telling this story about how the movie continues to haunt me. "Then you'd better not," she says laughing as we begin our conversation about debut filmmaking, snobber towards horror films, what she learned from Lars von Trier, and the miracles of Essie Davis' lead performance.


NATHANIEL: Have you had a lot of weird reactions to the film?

JENNIFER KENT: Yeah, I have. I’ve had the gamut of reactions from people seeking a roller coaster ride with jolts and scares. They've been like  'Ripped off. This isn’t a horror film!' to people like yourself. What’s most surprising to me is -- more than a  couple of people have said ‘I really didn’t like but I saw it again.' Why would you see it again?  And then changing their minds about it. [More...]

I wanted to make a film that gave the audience credit to make up their own minds about certain things. I feel very clear on what the film is saying and what the Babadook is but I didn’t want to spell it out. It’s great that people are coming up with their own response to it that’s unique. 

Nathaniel: Well this way people can project their own stuff on to it. 

JENNIFER KENT: It’s not to say that it’s vague. There are some people who don’t like to - who want everything spelled out. That’s okay, too. But that’s not the kind of film i wanted to make.

A lot of directors start out in horror. I think that's because it's an inexpensive genre to produce. Plus, if you have style and panache as a filmmaker you can showcase it quickly. Are you drawn to horror naturally or is it just that this story called for it? 

The latter. I never thought 'Oh, I know. I’ll make a horror film. It will be successful and then I can do what I really want to do which is make serious films!' I never felt that because this is a serious film. For me it runs deep and I wanted to explore the issues in it authentically.  

I think that there’s a snobbery — not that you feel this way — but there is a snobbery towards films that are frightening. I don’t know why that is. It’s an emotion as valid as any other to explore in a film. But it immediately gets labelled as genre. It’s a curious thing to me. I’m sure Polanski didn’t say ‘now I’ve made Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. And now I can go make some serious films!’

Nathaniel: [Laughter] Agreed. The snobbery is there. In a perfect world Essie Davis, who is amazing as the worn down mother, would be talked up for Best Actress. With genre films that tends not to happen. 

JENNIFER KENT: I feel sad for that. That we’re not even “eligible” for her to be considered in that way. I think her performance, regardless of genre, is Oscar worthy. I really do. Of course I’m biased. You rarely see an actress let go in the way she does in this film. She’s extraordinary.

I think for American audiences especially she'll be revelatory since we're not that familiar with her. The last things I remember even seeing her were The Girl with Pearl Earring and Australia. It's been a while.

She’s done a lot of theater. My hope for her is that she’s able to get a lot more interesting work out of it.

I understand you were already friends with her in real life?


Did that make it easier to do? She pushes in extreme directions.

I was concerned about working with a friend because the Director/Actor role is not a  --  hopefully there can be a lot of love there but the director needs to run the show. So I was concerned but Essie is one of those brilliant actors who love to take direction, who wants to be directed. Our friendship was left at the door. We both adopted those roles very easily. It happened very organically. It was a joy.

I was watching an interview with you and you had mentioned you served as an “attachment” on Dogville. That's such a genius movie but I have to admit I don't know what an 'attachment' is...

It’s like an apprentice. I was part of the directorial department. Did a lot of shitkicker jobs, short of shoveling snow in Sweden. What I got in return was the opportunity to see [Lars Von Trier] at work in pre-production and production. I had my film school compressed into 3½ months.  It’s such a rewarding thing to do. 

Nathaniel: The Babadook seems like the type of film he would love because it’s daring in content but also stylized. Has he seen it?

JENNIFER KENT: I have no idea if Lars has seen it. I can't answer that. But [on Dogville] I learnt to follow a vision. I wanted to learn in an apprenticeship way because I don’t see myself as a usual filmmaker. My ideas are a bit peculiar and left of center. So I needed to see someone in action who I felt was the same. I learnt a lot from watching his process. He’s kind of reknowned as being this asshole to his actors but I thought that he really liberated them and gave them support and freedom. 

And I also saw him collapse at times and be exhausted. This was helpful as well because we can deify brilliant directors and think ‘Oh my god. He does something I could never do.' It gave me the confidence to see a normal person going through that process.

Well, actually, I wouldn’t call Lars a normal person! 


...A person. A human being.

I'm curious about the book within the film. It's such a genius prop but you wouldn't have had it while writing the screenplay... so I'm curious how it evolved. The physical prop wouldn't have been in the screenplay, really.

JENNIFER KENT: Yes it was. I decided early on that it was going to be book. That was the way this energy would come in. The Babadook has childlike playfulness and then a more sinister adult layer. We had to go and make that book. I wrote that story for the film. We looked high and low for the perfect illustrator to bring that to life. We found a young guy in America, Alex from New Jersey. He's a brilliant artist, sensational, uncompromising in his vision. He came over and we developed the book maybe six months before the film went into production. Everything radiated out from that book.

Nathaniel: And it's not just the book. The movie plays. The production design, the sound. You had a really strong team. Were these people you knew before or did you have to cast a wide net?

We had to cast a wide net. We looked high and low for everyone. The other thing I learned from Dogville was that Lars had his own family of filmmaking people around her for twenty years; you could feel the shorthand and camaraderie on set. I really wanted to look for a group of people for Babadook who were going to be my filmmaking family beyond this. I really spoke to people about what the film meant and what I wanted to achieve. It was very much about creating a relationship that would be long term with those departments. I feel very fortunate that that actually happened. It took a long time. Our DP is from Poland and Alex is from America so we didn’t limit ourselves to Australia. I will go back and work with these people again. 

The image of the Babadook feels like an homage to Nosferatu in a way. Is that what you were going for or is that just me projecting on to the movie?

No, I can understand why you’d feel that eace I was inspired by George Meleis and Murnau’s work - not just Nosferatu but Faust. And, you know Fritz Lang. There's other films like  The Fall of the House of The Usher by Jean Epstein. There’s a kind of expressionist tone to those that I felt fit Amelia's emotions. It does have those layers, definitely. You're not imagining it. It wasn’t like I deliberately wanted it to look like Nosferatu. But I wanted it to move like a cockroach and I wanted it to be rigid and float at time. There are certain qualities to it that monsters in those early silent films seem to relish in. 

This is your debut future. I'm wondering about your future...

I’m wondering about my future, too! [Laughter]

Should we expect you to be prolific or do we have to wait another ten years for your follow up?

I hope I won’t do the Malick thing! I've got two ideas that I’m developing at the moment that I’m working hard on. I’ve just come back from America and I’ve got a truckload of scripts to read. I want to be prolific!

So you'd direct someone else's writing, too?

I would. But it would have to really light my fire. I’ve turned down a number of Hollywood movies since Sundance. I’m not being ridiculously fickle but I need to connect emotionally. I want to feel as passionate about them as I did about this project. 

I want to be prolific! Through the success of The Babadook I’ve got a better chance of not waiting so long. The biggest positive for me is that people are now able to see what I can do and are giving me opportunities. Maybe I'll get to make another film very soon.

Not the end, then. But the beginning for Jennifer Kent. You can see The Babadook in theaters now. And you should.

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Reader Comments (6)

It's killing me that Babadook isn't opening near me. I'm avoiding SO much good writing about it, unsure when I'll ever see it. (Although I know I'll one day see it.)

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Mike - this interview has no spoilers ;)

November 30, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love that you ask her to be prolific. Don't make us wait for your next film! Great interview. And the movie had a bigger effect on me after it finished than while I was watching it.

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Given she's worked in the Australian film industry, she's well aware of the trouble people can have getting second or third films off the ground. As much as I'd love her to stay in Australia, she'd be wise to get out while the world is embracing her.

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Great interview, I cannot remember another film in the horror genre getting such universal praise. I wish the release had been earlier in the year, it might not get the attention it deserves during the busy holiday period. Let's hope it finds an audience.

December 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

If there's one thing I know from reviewing horror films, it's that the ambiguous ones are the ones that people hate on the most. If it's not spelled out, people feel cheated if it doesn't go exactly the way they anticipate. American horror fans, in particular, have been trained to expect a very rigid set of circumstances and events as horror and don't always respond well to more subtle or artistic experiments.

It's been an amazing year for unusual and unsettling horror. Between this, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, As Above So Below, Under the Skin, Rigor Mortis, and The Taking of Deborah Logan (among others, those are just the top of my head picks), we've had no shortage of really smart horror that refuses to answer every question. May the trend continue for years to come.

December 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

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