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The stuff of nightmares

Monday 4th August 2014

We all had them as kids – that book or film or toy that creeped you out, gave you nightmares, sent you crawling into the sheets on dark nights. For me, it was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, from the 1982 hit film: wrinkly, ugly as sin, a voice like a child with an electrolarynx. He appeared in my room as I was falling asleep, and threatened my life at least once. I hated that guy.

The Babadook is about my relationship with E.T. Not specifically (it wouldn’t make good cinema and it’d be an intellectual property minefield). The Babadook dives into that fear as children we found in the world around us, the way things like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Courage the Cowardly Dog burrowed into our imaginations and put down roots. It’s about Amelia, a mother, and Samuel, her hyperactive, difficult-to-love son, and a book they find, Mister Babadook. The terrifying book itself isn’t kept around long, but as it says on the first page: You can’t get rid of the Babadook.

The Babadook is also about very adult fears – of losing relationships, people, control – and the way those fears take hold. Its own scares are pretty effective, too, trading on dread-inducing horror imagery and an exceptional pair of vulnerable, jagged performances from Essie Davis (who plays Amelia) and Noah Wiseman (who plays Samuel). I talked with the film’s writer and director, Jennifer Kent.

ADAM GOODALL: The Babadook shares a lot of elements with your 2005 short Monster – you’ve got the mother on the edge; the destructive, hyperactive son; and the strange kind of horror in childhood images and experiences. Was Monster the genesis for The Babadook or do the roots go deeper than that?

JENNIFER KENT: You know some filmmakers make a short so they can make their feature idea? It wasn’t that for me. I think Monster was sparked by this fascination which I have with people who push down really difficult experiences and can’t face things – because I think it’s really important in life to face everything, even the really hard, difficult parts. … When I finished Monster, I really had no intention to make a feature-length story based on the short. But the idea just kept coming back to me and gaining more depth and complexity, and then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll see if it becomes a feature’ and I started writing it, and it flowed from there.

What was the journey of bringing The Babadook to the screen?

All filmmakers will tell you their first film – well, any film – is a nightmare to get made. This was no different in that it’s hard to make a low-budget independent film. You have to have a lot of conviction in your story. But having said that, I think there was a lot of support in Australia for the idea through Screen Australia. I developed the project in Amsterdam, and I came back [to Australia] with quite a well-developed script, and from there it just kind of flowed. I didn’t have 100 per cent support, but I certainly had enough to get the budget that we needed.

I wanted it to have this rhythm of a sort of slow, sustained torture. Of a pair of hands gently resting on your neck and then they just get tighter and tighter until you realise you’re being strangled. 

There’s a lot bubbling under Amelia that goes unsaid – she rebuffs a lot of inquiries about her emotions and about how she's feeling, she puts distance between herself and others. What was it that brought you to the idea of people who have difficulty dealing with their emotions?

I have a lot of compassion for that sort of behaviour, because I think we all do it. We all run from pain, be it emotional or physical, so it was easy for me to empathise with this woman who’d had a terrible loss and went through something that humans shouldn’t have to go through but they do – the violent loss of a loved one. It was very easy for me to understand that and I guess I just really love that character and wanted to be true to that state. It's really, really freaking hard to face some things in life, but my point is we need to try. Because the repercussions of not facing things are far worse in the long run.

Watching The Babadook, I felt this great empathy for Amelia, both in the script and in Essie Davis’ performance – this really powerful, fractured central presence that makes everything that she does later in the film so shocking. I know you and Essie have a background together in drama school – what was it like working with her?

I think I had empathy for Amelia on the page and made sure that I wrote her as a complex, flawed human being but also one that I really cared about, and I think when Essie read the role, she felt similarly. She wasn’t jumping in and saying, “Hey I’d love to play this role”, because it’s not glamorous, it’s tough, and she knew that before she even set foot on the first day of the shoot. But she is a really empathetic person, so she placed herself in the skin of that very complex, difficult character. For me, it was just a matter of guiding that. But she was a joy to work with, as was Noah, the young boy in the film. Very difficult task, directing a six-year-old in a lead role.

Particularly a six-year-old who’s not meant to be the easiest person to like.

Again, with that character, it’s really important that the audience weren’t yelling at the end “KILL HIM!”, that they wanted him to survive. There was a fine line because he had to be annoying, but you also had to feel something for him. Noah just has a beautiful quality that you want to protect him, so that really helped the casting.

You’ve said Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby had a really strong influence on the film. What were your other influences? I felt elements of the silent work of Fritz Lang and Louis Feulliade, Alison Maclean's Kitchen Sink in there.

I think they’re subliminal references, for sure – Méliès’ silent films; a lot of early horror that was really beautiful as well as horrific, like Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr; and, more recently, Eyes Without a Face, the French Franju film. Things like this that have a layer of terror to them, but also some strange beauty. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want an ugly film. I wanted it to feel somehow beautiful, as well as sort of confronting and terrifying.

I was a kid in the ‘70s and I really shouldn’t have been watching the films that I did – like Carpenter’s films, The Thing and Halloween. They’re masterpieces to me. They’re very simple in their style, not cluttered. … they’re all in [The Babadook] somehow. It wasn’t like I said, “Ooh, I want this scene to look like this and I want that scene to look like that”. I really wanted it to come from a genuine place.

The Babadook has a lot of static shots, it doesn’t move in a way most modern horror films move, and the editing to blur moments together.

I feel that was my intention – I wanted it to have this rhythm of a sort of slow, sustained torture. Of a pair of hands gently resting on your neck and then they just get tighter and tighter until you realise you’re being strangled.  You can’t do that with a kind of fast, handheld, edgy, modern kind of style.

That also came through in the sound design and editing – it’s all very crisp and clean, pushing the Babadook’s noises right to the top of the mix, and the result is really terrifying.

It’s kind of an inescapable audio experience. I’m really obsessed with sound. David Lynch is probably my favourite filmmaker – I think his films are horror, and one of the reasons that they work so beautifully is because of his attention to detail in sound and his respect for it. Hitchcock really knew what to do with sound.

There’s something very frightening in the way the Babadook itself channels childhood fears and anxieties about the iconography and images in books and films.

The fears we experience as children are very primal. Just because we’re kids doesn’t make those fears any less real. I think the boy in the film is very aware. The Babadook energy comes through in this kid’s book, which turns out to have another, deeper, adult layer – which is really terrifying. It was my intention to create this one pop-up style film, with the effects really handmade and in-camera. There’s nothing CGI.

Yeah, I couldn’t tell if there was! It was really impressive.


This pitch-black humour pops up from time to time, like when Samuel sets off some firecrackers and Amelia shuts it down with “That’s no more internet then!” Was it important to you that The Babadook had these kinds of offbeat, lighter moments?

I think that’s just part of me. What comes with facing all the shit and crap of life is that you’ve gotta have a sense of humour about it – otherwise it’s just unbearable. Part of my storytelling style is to keep a hold of the human, no matter how grim the situation is.

The Babadook is screening now as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

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