The Babadook Q&A with Jennifer Kent

I became aware of the Australian film The Babadook back in 2012 when it was in pre-production. A few months passed before a Kickstarter campaign was launched for the film. Around this time, I managed to arrange a Q&A with the writer/director Jennifer Kent to be conducted for my site once the film was released.

My thanks to everyone involved in the making of the film and in particular Kristina and Jennifer for arranging this Q&A.

Disclaimer: I was one of the contributors to the Kickstarter campaign.

The short film Monster was used to springboard the idea for The Babadook. What inspired you to write the script and how hard was it to transfer the idea from a short film to a feature film?

When I made Monster, I had absolutely no intention of turning that short idea into a feature film. But as the years went on, I was still fascinated by this idea of facing the darkness, of finding a way to negotiate it. Meanwhile I’d had a number of other feature scripts that weren’t getting off the ground. So I took the ideas of this mother and son that are central to Monster and elaborated on the story, and it just grew from there.

It is a challenge to write any feature script but it wasn’t particularly hard to elaborate on this idea. Mainly because I feel very connected to the idea of facing one’s dark side, it’s something I’m fascinated by and so it was easy for me to become excited about extrapolating these ideas into a larger format.

Suppression, especially grief, is a major element in the film. What research did you do to make it as realistic as possible?

I didn’t really do any literary research until I’d done a number of drafts of The Babadook. I’m a pretty empathetic person, and while I haven’t suffered the losses Amelia suffers in the film, I certainly know what grief and loss feels like. And it’s not hard for me to imagine the suppression of that grief, because all humans tend to suppress what’s hard, it’s just human nature to try and avoid pain. So initially I just went off what I felt myself. ‘If I was in this situation, how would I react?’ That kind of questioning

Later on in the peace I picked up a book on postnatal psychosis, to check the experiences of the women with what I had written. To my surprise, the process of mental disintegration that I’d written about was pretty much what had happened to these women. It started for them with hearing sounds in the house, then seeing apparitions, hearing voices etc. I was really excited that my own imagination had taken me to a place that was very close to the real thing. I felt reassured that I was on the right track and could really trust my instincts with this story.

You have stated that early horror films inspired you. Which ones in particular did you tap into during the production process?

I didn’t tap into any during the production process, because by that stage I was making the film my own, and it wasn’t about referencing other people’s work. But early on, when the script was being written or we were in very early pre, I was looking at things like ‘Vampyr’ (Dreyer), or ‘Faust’ (Murnau.) I also watched a lot of Méliès films (all of them in fact!) Another early Danish film called ‘Hexen’ was one that interested me for its handmade style and in camera effects.

A lot of these films can be dismissed nowadays as being technically primitive, too naïve etc, but I don’t’ feel this. I feel a lot of creativity and invention on the filmmaker’s part was used to create something very beautiful and dreamlike in camera. They are often a lot more inventive because of the in camera quality.

What aspects were you looking for during the casting process? How did you settle on Essie and the rest of the cast and crew?

Finding the right people across the board was very important to me. I wanted to find a family of key creative’s (production designer, editor DOP, book illustrator etc) who I could work with again, not just on this film. I was looking for my filmmaking ‘family.’ So yes, they had to have the right skills, but they also had to be people I could see developing a long term working relationship with. I am very blessed to have found the people who ended up on the film and do hope to continue to work together as much as possible on future projects.

I had known Essie for a long time; we went through NIDA together as actors. I knew she was a wonderful actor and I could see she had the range necessary for this very complex role. Essie and I had (do have) an enormous trust of each other. So we jumped into this film with that trust already in place, which was obviously an enormous boon with a very short shooting schedule like ours.

Noah was a much harder actor to find, being only 6 at the time of shooting. We had a great casting agent in Nikki Barrett, she found hundreds of boys that she auditioned, and we ended up with a short list of maybe 50 – 100 that I looked at on tape. Then we had some workshops with groups of boys and then one on one auditions eventually. It was a process of trusting my instincts on who would be the best person. I knew I needed a boy who was very sensitive and open to direction, but who also emotionally robust and could handle the serious subject matter. Eventually, Noah became very clearly that boy.

Noah was very strongly protected from any of the darker more violent elements of the story. He wasn’t involved in a lot of the shooting of those scenes (we used an adult stand in to work off camera with Essie on a lot of Essie’s more intense shots.) Essie, myself and Noah’s mum (who happens to be a child psychologist) really went out of our way to make sure he was not harmed in any way to get this story on the screen. I feel very proud that I didn’t rob that wonderful little boy of his childhood! He had a wonderful time on the shoot. I’m very happy to say it was a positive experience for him.

The other roles were easier to find once we had our two leads in place. I wanted to create a heightened world around Amelia and Sam, so apart from Mrs Roach, Claire and Robbie, the other characters had something slightly peaked about them, because they were all being seen through Amelia’s eyes. We found a lot of these wonderful actors in Adelaide.

The book plays a major part in the film. How long did you spend on creating that before the rest of the teams came on board?

The book was designed before anything else came into play. It was the first thing to tend to because I always saw the design of the book influencing the world of the film. It had to be right first and the look of the film could radiate out from that.

We had a core crew weekend away about 5 months before we started shooting (with DOP, designer, producers, etc.) It was time for us to dream on the film together, to get clear on the world of the film. Alex Juhasz, our book illustrator, came over from America for this weekend, and our work together started there. I had a strong idea for how I wanted the book to look, but Alex brought something unique to it. He elevated my ideas and made it something special.

Were there any major challenges when designing the set and costumes for the film?

I think our biggest challenge was having a studio build with such a small budget. Or should I say it was Alex Holmes (our production designer)’s major challenge! I have never seen anyone work so hard; Alex really did work 7 days a week to make that happen. And he really is a superb designer, so all the effort he made well and truly paid off. But it was in no way an easy task. Heather Wallace’s work as costume designer was equally as detailed and beautiful. It wasn’t an easy task for either of them because they were working with a very restricted colour palette (black through to white and only blue, some teal greens and burgundy shades for colour.) And I wanted to do all of this in camera (rather than create a generic colour palette in post.) so this meant that they had to really reduce their design choices to accommodate this colour palette. This might be a lot easier for designers with massive teams behind them, but they were doing a lot of this work with very small teams, and a large portion of it done on their own. They both deserve medals!

The film marks Radek Ladczuk’s English-language film debut as Director of Photography. Did you notice any differences in the experience he brought due to his work in foreign-language films?

I think the Polish DOP training is very much about the art of filmmaking. So Radek’s approach was always from a purist’s perspective. I really appreciated this. It meant the focus was always on trying to get the best work to support the world of the film. Radek was very thorough in his efforts to understand the film’s world and to honour that as much as he could. I’m not saying that doesn’t come from other DOPs, but I can only speak of the personal experience with Radek. He brought this very serious, considered approach to The Babadook.

The score is always crucial to a film. Did you give composer Jed Kurzel any notes about what should be incorporated into the score?

Jed and I (like all key creatives on this film) worked very closely together to prepare. First, we worked together a lot just to get on the same page about the world of the film, and then we started bringing up references to play to each other that we thought could be interesting. We were both pretty in love with 70s Italian horror and were listening to a lot of that to get us going, Morricone in particular. And then I let Jed go and he came up with this beautiful stuff, with lots of delays on it and kids voices thrown in. It felt suitably childlike but also creepy and disturbing. I was very clear I didn’t want wall to wall music, but what we do have in there I’m very proud of. It’s creepy and also sometimes sad when it needs to be.

How much was the Kickstarter campaign vital to the film?

The Kickstarter gave us vital funds needed for the design department. Without that extra money we would have been up shit creek without a paddle. We were lucky enough to be financed by Screen Australia and SAFC, but even so, the funds were just not stretching far enough. Kickstarter was crucial to helping us fully achieve the world of this film.

In the future after its cinema release, what kind of extra features can we expect to appear on the DVD?

I wasn’t really keen on doing a lot of behind the scenes footage. I know some directors go mad for it, but I feel we lose something by finding out absolutely everything about the process of how a film was made. It demystifies things in a way that I don’t feel is helpful. So you won’t see a lot of behind the scenes footage.

But I am keen to get a version of the pop up book out into the world. It’s all a matter of finances at this stage, but if it does become possible, I’d like to do a companion book to the film, that would build on the original book but add some new/different elements alive. That is something I feel could really add to the DVD release.


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