The Iris Interview: Jennifer Kent on writing and directing Australian horror film The Babadook

the baba

As of writing this article, Australian horror film The Babadook sits at a comfortable 100% on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes; and our very own Penny Spirou gave the film 4.5/5 in her review. Praise is pouring in from all over for this story about a widowed mother raising a young boy with behavioural issues and a wild imagination, who just so happens to unwittingly summon a demonic demon from a child’s pop-up book.

The film’s writer and director – Jennifer Kent – has come up with an incredibly interesting horror film with the kind of depth and ambiance that is seeming more and more unique to Australian Horror. Alexandra Donald caught up with Kent to ask her a few questions about the film: where the idea came from, how she approached it, and her thoughts on the future of Australian film.

Why the ‘babadook’? Where did the name come from and were you acquainted with a babadook of your own as a child?

The name came out of my own daydreams. I wanted to have a name that a child could have made up, and was only associated with this story. It was great at Sundance because the Americans thought the Babadook was an Australian mythical creature, which I think works in our favour. Americans already think Australia is exotic, maybe even weird, and little bit terrifying. Good to play on that!

I think we all have our own Babadook, as children definitely, but also as adults. There’s something in our collective ‘closets’ that we’re anxious about, afraid of. My point with this story is that some of those fears can afford to be faced, and integrated. It’s actually more of an effort to keep on pushing them down than it is to face them.

There’s a lot of themes at work within The Babadook – what was the genesis, which idea was there from the very beginning?

I think it is really important to try and accept and integrate all parts of our lives, including our shadow side. I focused on a character who found it very hard to do this, and then was actually forced to face all that difficult stuff. This was the core theme for me, the story I felt passionate about telling. Everything else, the themes of loss and grief, the difficulties of motherhood, they all radiated out from that.

The Babadook is a very mythical film, but it’s also very grounded in reality. What drew you to horror as a way to explore the emotions that Amelia has been suppressing, and the somewhat fractured parent-child relationship she has with Samuel?

I love myths, more than anything. The word ‘myth’ is often used to denote something untrue, but a myth in the real sense of the word is a story that has truth at its core.

And horror is a perfect vehicle to explore myth. The genre gives you space to create a dreamlike world, whilst keeping the emotions at play very real, very visceral. You know how you can be in the midst of a dream, and all kinds of weird shit is happening? But the terror or the joy you’re feeling, that’s real! Well, that’s what myth (and horror) can do. It’s more powerful than people realise. I could shine a light of the absolute horrors of motherhood in a way I couldn’t get at with a drama. I could also focus on the love in there too, it’s just as important to this story.

The only reason there’s so many bad horrors out there is that the people making them don’t understand the power of the medium they’re working with. There are also a lot of crappy dramas out there, but that genre seems to walk away unscathed!

There’s a lot of influences present in the film – like the Méliès films – and you wear them quite proudly. What would you say were your main influences stylistically in making the film and how did you navigate them to make something that was your own?

Yes, Méliès is a big inspiration to me, he is the father of special effects, all of his worlds created by him, in camera. Phenomenal. I also love his use of the childlike and creepy combined, this was a big inspiration for the book at the centre of the film. In true Melies fashion, I insisted on creating all effects in camera, only using post FX to smooth over what was already there. We had an amazing post FX house on board for Babadook (Marty Pepper and his team at KOJO in Adelaide) and they worked tirelessly to enhance and smooth over what we had. So there’s definitely post FX there! But every shot was originated in camera and cared for to keep this handmade look.

I read that you were an actor and studied at NIDA the same time as Essie – what made you want to make the change from acting to writing/directing? How has your training as an actor influenced you as a director?

I have acted, wrote and directed since I was a child, just naturally, it was my way of processing the world. I was acting and directing at the age Noah Wiseman was when he starred in The Babadook (6 YO.) It has always been a natural thing for me to do. Going to NIDA was just an extension of that.

But I did get very bored with the actor’s lifestyle shortly after graduating from NIDA. I knew I wanted to tell my own stories. So gradually, gradually, I moved back to writing/directing after a short (and crazy wonderful) stint as an attachment on Lars von Trier’s film Dogville, in Sweden. I’m very grateful to Lars for letting me work on that, at a time when I hadn’t even made a short. That was my film school.

Do you see yourself sticking with horror in the future? Do you feel drawn to certain genres in your storytelling?

I see myself sticking to stories that I feel are really worth telling on a very deep level. I can’t work on something I don’t get absolutely fired up by. I start with a core idea, something I want to say, and then work out from there. But I have to be very connected to that core idea. That could be horror, it could be other things. I am writing two films at the moment, one a frontier story set in Tasmania in the 1820s. Not a horror, but definitely a horror world.

Australian films have been going really wonderfully at festivals so far this year – what do you think the near future holds for our industry down under?

I think after well over a hundred years of film we are just getting started! As long as we are not cut off at the knees through funding reductions to necessary organisations like Screen Australia, I feel we’ll only go from strength to strength. But we need that support, especially the smaller independent films here. it’s erroneous to think we’ll have an industry if these independent films disappear. Our films and our filmmaking talent is so very highly regarded throughout the world, but most, if not all of us get our start with these strong lower budget films at home. Local audience and government support is crucial to our cultural identity through film.

The Babadook is currently screening in select cinemas across Australia