A great addition to the pantheon of cinematic monsters, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook has been creeping out festival audiences around the world, and with good reason. The story of a grieving mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her troubled son Sam (Noah Wiseman), it is a startlingly original debut imbued with great emotional depth and nuance that is able to both scare and move. One night, Amelia and Sam read a strange book before bedtime, in all appearances a children’s tale about a sinister creature called the Babadook, which has mysteriously appeared in their home. But in doing so they unleash a monster that they will both be forced to fight.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Jennifer Kent about creating a monster, facing the shadows and partial resolutions.
Virginie Sélavy: You’ve invented a great new monster, which is not an easy thing to do. What was the inspiration for the Babadook?
Jennifer Kent: I would say it’s Amelia. Everything started with her. Every element of that entity or energy, or whatever you want to call it, is based on what she’s suppressed, so the focus was really on her first. And then all the physical elements of it started to creep in, things that scare me. I really hate cockroaches, we have big ones in Australia, and they fly when you’re not expecting it, so that frightens me. And I also based it on what I like, early silent horror, early silent films, and Georges Méliès obviously makes an appearance. I’m very inspired by the beautiful handmade nature of these early films, I think they were very theatrical and really something extraordinary. The Babadook is really two layers. The top layer is what you see in the book, it’s that kind of strange-looking male figure. But that’s only the top part, it’s like something quite evil is playing at being human. And what’s underneath is something nebulous and far more sinister.
You say that the monster comes from Amelia, but watching the film, it also feels like it’s something that both mother and son create together.
Yes, I think that’s very true. Take one of them out of the picture and this thing couldn’t have come to life. I think that they both created it, just through their dynamic, and although that’s the case, that it’s Amelia’s monster, it’s certainly taken both of them to bring it to fruition.
How did you work with Alexander Juhasz on the art for the book?
For me the whole film really rested on that book, and not just in terms of story – it’s like a pop-up film. So it was really important for us to get that book right. We were looking at a number of Australian illustrators, and I kept referencing Alex, saying to my producer, we need something like this, and then I just said, ‘Why don’t we just ask him?’ And we did, and he lives in America, he’d never been to Australia. Six months before we started shooting, we took all the core crew away for the weekend, and I talked about the film and I showed them all the films that inspired me. Then he and I got to work on the book pretty quickly after that. I would show Alex my crappy stick drawings and try to describe what was in my head. A lot of illustrators do their own thing, but Alex is very original and inventive and he took directions very well. So what we ended up with was really what was in my head.
Many people would like to see the book printed. How do you feel about that?
Actually, Mister Babadook and I are secretly working on that at the moment. I’ve written a standalone book and it contains the pages and the story from the book, but it goes a little bit further, and we’re really excited about that. So that’s our next little Babadook adventure.
I know a lot of people will be very excited to hear this.
Great! I was adamant that I would never make ‘Babadook 2’. I’m such a purist, so it was, no merchandise, that’s it, nothing. People were joking, ‘What about Babadook trainers?’ And I’d tell them no way. And the only thing I wanted to make was that book, and I think it could be really special for people to own their own Babadook book.
Did you set out to make a horror film, or is it just the way you had to tell this story?
I really think it’s the latter. I’m quite bemused, actually, by the need to place it in a box. I understand that films are marketed via a certain genre. But it would be a shame if people who would love this film don’t get to see it because they say they hate horror. With this I focused on the story of Amelia and her boy. That for me was the entry point. And not just their relationship, but the need to face our shadow side and how important it is in life. And to do that is scary. So it made sense that the world of the film would be one full of fear and terror. I wanted the film to be true to those emotions, so horror was the most logical place for it.
The film is like a dark fairy tale and, like the best fairy tales, it is both very creepy and deeply resonant emotionally.
I love fairy tales, traditional folk tales resonate with us, they’re universal. I wanted this story to be universal, I didn’t want it to appeal just to people who live in Adelaide. For me this film could be happening anywhere. And I think fairy tales and myths have that power, to connect with what it is to be human.
Why did you decide to focus on a mother?
I think it wasn’t an intellectual choice, it was just this need to face the shadows. And Amelia doesn’t. She starts the film as far away from that darkness as she possibly can. But it’s at the point where she’s got to face it or something terrible is going to happen. And it always felt right to see it through her eyes. Early on people said it should be about the boy, but it really was never about the boy. Of course he’s really important, but the point in adding Sam was that, when you suppress things, you don’t only hurt yourself, you hurt everyone around you. And I thought, who would be that person close to her? And it made sense that it was a young child. Even when she goes to some really dark places, I still tried to keep it within her point of view as much as possible, so that people would not sit back with their arms folded and judge her, but they’d actually travel through that experience with her.
The great thing about the film is that you end up identifying with both of them at various points, sometimes simultaneously.
Some people have said, ‘That kid is so annoying’, and I say, ‘Good’! That’s deliberate, he needs to be. We need to feel for her, how hard it is. And I think it does flip, your sympathy lies with both of them, that was my aim, and I’m really happy to hear that that’s how you felt about it.
Through the figure of the monster, the child seems able to understand what’s going on with his mother a lot better than the adults around them.
Absolutely. For me he’s the hero of the film, and I don’t underestimate the strength that children have, and their intuition, and their connection with something other than the mundane world. And it’s him that first sees this. He feels that energy that’s coming. And he’s trying at all costs to protect his mother, but he’s six years old, so he’s not able to do this, and ultimately it’s her choice. She needs to face up or pay the price of not doing so.
The end is very nuanced and unconventional. Did you always know it would end that way?
Yes I did. It is unusual but it’s very much how I feel about life. I couldn’t have written it any other way. We had offers to finance the film if we changed the ending. And that was non-negotiable for me. Because darkness is not something that you throw away, and then life starts and you’re all happy. Darkness is a part of life. And it needs to be integrated.
It’s a very brave and interesting way of finishing the film, because it’s neither totally reassuring, nor totally dark.
It pisses some people off, but I think, OK, fine, it’s good! It isn’t the usual way to end a horror, definitely not. It’s a partial resolution, a negotiation that’s begun, but we never really arrive at an ending. If you go through what she did, how can life become exactly the same again? It can’t. You wear that with you for the rest of your life.
As an actress, did you consider playing the character of Amelia?
No way, that would be my own horror film! I have no interest in acting anymore, none whatsoever, and I haven’t in a long time. I love doing what I’m doing. And I think all those years of acting have given me enormous compassion for actors. And it’s given me a lot of feeling reading them and instinctively knowing what they need, and pushing them when they need to be pushed. For example, I could never have done that work with Noah, directing that little boy, without my acting experience. So even though I have no desire to do it I’m very grateful for my ability to act and understand what it is from the inside.
It definitely pays off. Both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman give incredible performances.
Without sounding too schmaltzy I think a director should really love their actors. Can you imagine Essie, what she had to go through to do that performance? It was my job to take care of her, and make sure she didn’t look foolish, and make sure she could be as brave and horrible as that woman is at times. I have enormous respect for actors.
Most of the action takes place in the house, and it becomes a sort of mental space where past traumas have to be resolved.
The most wonderful scary films that I can think of, like The Innocents, The Tenant, or Rosemary’s Baby, the environment they play out in are all extensions of the characters’ mental space. Even The Shining. And it doesn’t need to go anywhere else. Gradually the film becomes just the house. But the house is alive, it’s a reflection, an extension of what’s going on for Amelia – and for Sam, but mostly for Amelia.
The atmosphere of the house is also determined by the work on colours. They are all very muted. How important was that for you and how did you work on creating that atmosphere?
I really needed a world for this film, and the biggest thing I love about cinema is that you can create such complete worlds. I knew that this was not social realism. I knew that for this monster to spring out and to be believable, it needed to be captured in a world that reflected it and that wasn’t something that felt naturalistic. So I wanted things to feel grounded in reality but for them not look modern. I worked really closely with our wonderful production designer Alexander Holmes, and we created an aesthetic that wasn’t quite black and white, but the colour palette was really reduced, so we had just blue and burgundy and then black through to white. I was really stubborn about that and I think I drove Alex a bit mad in the beginning. I didn’t want to put filters on the lens or gel on the lights, so we did it all in camera. And he’d be like, ‘Can’t we just put this brown cupboard in?’ And I’d say, ‘No it’s brown!’ When we saw the finished effect, we were really happy because there’s a cohesiveness through everything in terms of colour. It felt right for the world to feel quite cold. It was deliberate, and it creates, for me anyway, a fugue state, a dream state.
In keeping with this, your filmmaking style is very unshowy, elegant and restrained.
Yes, I’m not so much into flashy. I wanted it to look beautiful. Early silent horror and 1930s horror really appeal to me. It has this elegance and beauty. And even 70s horror, John Carpenter, Halloween and The Thing are very elegant films, they’re very sparse, they’re not crowded aesthetically, they’re really strange. And I love that.
The special effects are also very simple.
I was really adamant that I wanted handmade-looking special effects. The reason for that is the world needed to reflect the nature of the book, and the book is this pop-up, handmade-looking thing. So I wanted the effects to look like that, because that’s where the Babadook springs from. So it’s not like, if we could, we would have done CGI, not at all. I really wanted the effects to be stop motion and in camera. Everything, I’m proud to say, is in camera, and of course we did do some smoothing in post-production.
It’s interesting that you started by being reluctant to categorise the film as horror but throughout the interview all your references are horror films. It seems that it is a territory that you like working in.
I absolutely do. And I can’t deny my inspiration. Unfortunately the ‘horror’ word is reductive for many people, and on the other hand when you say ‘horror’ you have this large subculture who cross their arms and say, ‘OK, scare me’. And I’m not interested in that. What I find most satisfying is when people come up to me after the film, like this one guy who had lost both his parents before the age of 15, and he said, ‘That was the most moving study of grief for me’. I’ve had people in tears after the film and that means so much to me, much more than people saying, ‘It was really scary’. I like that too, but it’s not my entire focus.
What’s your next project? Are you going to carry on working in the sort of horror area?
I have two film projects. What is more appealing to me is creating a unique world from an idea. So the film that I’m working on at the moment is set in Tasmania in the 1820s. Tasmania is an island at the base of Australia and it was considered hell on earth in that time. It’s a story of revenge, portrayed through the eyes of a female convict, and I’m exploring how futile revenge is, and what the other options are. So it’s a horror world, certainly, but it’s not what most people call a horror film. I let the ideas dictate the forms the story needs to come alive.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Watch a clip from The Babadook: