Jennifer Kent wants you to know that it’s okay to be afraid. If fear is a choice, the Australian filmmaker is convinced it’s dangerous not to choose it. All the same, if you buy a ticket to her first feature, she’s happy to take care of things from there.
Loosely extrapolated from Kent’s 2005 short “Monster,” The Babadook is the story of single mother Amelia (Essie Davis), whose husband was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital when she was in labor seven years earlier. Amelia is hanging on by a thread when the film begins, and the increasingly violent behavior exhibited by her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) isn’t making it any easier for her to maintain a brave face. But the façade doesn’t really begin to crack until Amelia reads Samuel the wrong bedtime story. The hardbound book Mister Babadook is the rhyming tale of an insidious, unstoppable monster, brought to life with pop-up illustrations that owe as much to James Wan as to Edward Gorey. Needless to say, The Babadook isn’t content to stay on the page.
A hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where IFC Midnight quickly scooped up the distribution rights, The Babadook is a hauntingly humane portrait of grief and repression in the guise of a ridiculous creature feature. The Babadook is one of the scariest horror movies in recent memory because Kent possesses a preternatural command of her craft, but it’s one of the most satisfying horror movies of the decade because she has a rare faith in what the genre can aspire to and achieve. Her mastery of sudden jolts and slow chills is a pleasure to watch, and its refreshing to see a contemporary horror film with such a keen eye for composition. But Kent never loses sight of how scares work best when they’re used as a means to an end. Encouraged to confront our fears, The Dissolve sat down with the filmmaker in New York City, where The Babadook recently played in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors / New Films festival.
[Editor’s note: This interview discusses elements of the film’s ending in broad terms; the spoiler-averse are advised to tread carefully.]
The Dissolve: I can’t stop saying the title of the film. The word “Babadook” sounds like such a perfect receptacle for terrible meaning.
Jennifer Kent: Some people go “Baba—what? What are you calling your film that for?” But I wanted a name that was crazy and just sounded stupid and kind of made up. Because I was creating a myth of some sort with this film, so it was just an experiment.
The Dissolve: Did you workshop different ones until you struck something that sounded right?
Kent: I wrote the film in Amsterdam—well, part of it in Paris—but I was staying with a Serbian writer, and I asked him, “What’s Serbian for ‘Boogeyman?’” He said “Babaroga,” and I didn’t think that sounded right. But I started playing with “Baba,” and then “Babadook” came up, and then it was just rhyming with everything, and it just felt right. But it’s stupid, it’s just a made-up thing.
The Dissolve: It’s amazing that such an innocent combination of syllables can be imbued with such terror.
Kent: An onomatopoeic terror, yeah.
The Dissolve: And the word has such a hard sound, which allows it to take on a palpable form through the sound design.
Kent: Oh my God, I’m obsessed with sound design.
The Dissolve: First, I’d like to talk about the genesis of the project. Your short film “Monster” made the festival rounds all the way back in 2005. What’s it like to hold onto an idea for that long and not completely defeat yourself or talk yourself out of it?
Kent: I’ve been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out-there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially. So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate, and this idea… The idea of facing your shadow-side is my myth, something I think is really important in life. You see people who are really messed-up by not facing stuff, and that’s what all addiction is about. People become alcoholics or drug addicts because they can’t face something inside.
The Dissolve: That’s something compelling about the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, which seems rooted in this idea that people need to feel allowed to engage with their fears. Samuel has his little weapons, and he isn’t scared of The Babadook so much as he’s eager to kill it.
Kent: Well, he’s acting out all of this stuff, while Amelia is being a “very good girl” in the beginning. She’s had these terrible things happen and people are trying to help her out, but she’s like, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ll do something for you.” And that’s a typically altruistic feminine trait, and I think it has massive negative repercussions. You get the suppression, and then underneath the nice girl is this monster that’s waiting to explode. [Laughs.] Beware of the woman who’s too nice!
The Dissolve: Over the course of the film, the role society needs Amelia to play—and how people discourage her from confronting her fears—becomes one of the greatest obstacles she has to face.
Kent: She’s drowning, she’s like a drowning woman. Other people aren’t helping her, but she’s not making it any easier, either. She’s kind of put herself in this scenario. And sure, her sister is hardly empathetic, but then Amelia doesn’t ask for direct help, and that’s frustrating for her sister. But I understand it. I mean, who goes through what Amelia had to go through? It’s a horror you don’t want to imagine.
The Dissolve: And certainly the people at Samuel’s school don’t want to imagine it. They’d rather give him a one-size-fits-all solution.
Kent: Yeah, that’s right.
The Dissolve: So with that in mind, how did you walk that line in writing Amelia, to make her damaged but not too unsympathetic?
Kent: I was an actor, and an actor’s job is to sit in the skin of another human being and make them real, so I really felt for Amelia. But I didn’t want to make her too good, either. Her colleague gives her the opportunity to go home and look after her sick child, but she lied about her sick child, and she goes to the shopping mall and goofs off! So I just wanted her to be human. I didn’t just want to look at the light. As human beings, we’re curious creatures, and when anything goes wrong, we feel like we’ve done something wrong. But it’s actually the nature of existence, that there’s night and day. There’s shitty weather and there’s good weather, and that’s true of humans as well. We have to integrate all those difficult parts of ourselves.
The Dissolve: Working with Essie Davis, how did you massage the transition from Amelia being a “very good girl” to her revealing the “shitty weather”? There’s a great thrill to realizing she’s becoming the biggest threat to her child.
Kent: Well, there’s an immense trust between us. She knew me as an actor, so that existed. She said to me later, “I can be quite combative and argue with directors about their direction, but with you I never did!” Because she knew I would have acted out the role in my head, and we mapped it together. She’s a very bright woman, very instinctual and also very strong, so I needed to pull her back in the beginning and make her sweeter and actually more of a doormat than she really is, because she’s not like that at all. And then when it came to the really big powerhouse stuff, I just let her rip.
The Dissolve: The film is beautifully composed in a way that’s rare in contemporary horror. It’s clear from the very beginning, when we’re brought into Amelia’s home via a top-down shot of her bed. There are so many empty pockets of space on the floor, it’s easy to imagine them filled with terrible things. Was the film very precisely storyboarded beforehand?
Kent: I’m a very visual person, and Radoslaw [Ladczuk], our wonderful DP, said, “Jen, I’ve never worked with anyone who’s seen the whole film in their head!” Which isn’t to say that we didn’t work on it together, but every scene had a certain visual map. And I did storyboard—I did very bad stick drawings—but I always came in with a sense of how the world had to look. It starts very centered, everything is framed very centered and composed, and as the film goes on, people’s heads start to drift to other sides of the frames, and things start to become more discordant visually. And Radoslaw was always on hand to make things better.
The Dissolve: A lot of horror films have a certain day-night-day-night progression, with all the action happening in darkness, and then the sun providing something of a respite. You have that for a little while, and then suddenly it goes away, and things become relentless.
Kent: [Laughs.] Yep. During the day, there’s also shit happening! Deciding the structure of it, I was always trying to make it more and constrictive. It’s a matter of rhythm. For me, films have more in common with music than with novels or literature. The flow of this movie was determined by its musicality. We didn’t stop in the edit until it felt that way. We clipped out a lot from the first half until we got there. About 10 minutes, I’d say.
The Dissolve: Watching the short film, it feels as though the element that most explicitly connects it to The Babadook is the fate of the monster, and how the evil in both pieces is ultimately impossible to extinguish.
Kent: We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending. To be perfectly honest, if I had to have killed that thing I wouldn’t have made the film. You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it. Even with Amelia, she can’t ever forget that her husband was killed in a car crash, that will never go away. So yeah, it’s the most crucial thing, to keep that thing alive on some level. I recently heard Russell Brand talk about addiction, and he was saying that it’s every day, it’s every day… I’m fortunate enough not to be in that kind of place, but every human being goes through that on some level.
The Dissolve: And Amelia is still afraid when she goes into the basement at the end. She’s going to be afraid every day.
Kent: Yeah, that’s not going away anytime soon!
The Dissolve: I’d imagine that people who are coping with grief are going to find the film to be an unexpected source of solace.
Kent: That would be great. I’ve lost people, I’ve lost my dad, I know what that feels like, and it feels like it’s never going to end. So I think it’s important to have stories that can help you through.
The Dissolve: The texture of the film extends into the world around Amelia and Samuel. One detail that really jumped out was their neighbor’s Parkinson’s. It was the kind of thing where, in a lesser film, there’d be a scene later where the neighbor is fleeing something and she’s fiddling with a key in a lock and her hand is shaking. But here, it felt like it was just another human element that fleshes out Amelia’s crisis. Much like the love interest who’s introduced early in the film and then abandoned, forgotten as quickly as Amelia would forget about him herself.
Kent: This is why I put myself in the films that I write. I love it that you’ve picked up on that detail. My mom has Parkinson’s, and she’s just a beam of light. And the neighbor character, Mrs. Roach, is very much like my mom. And so it wasn’t a conscious thing, actually, I just put it in there. I wanted this character to be really loving, but also frail. The two characters who are genuinely helping Amelia are Robbie—who is ineffectual, but he tries—and Mrs. Roach, who we feel for because her frailty is so evident. They come from me. There are a lot of weird, kooky things in there that come from my own outlook on life. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts recently, and I feel like it can be hard to find the writer in them. It’s curious. I look back and wonder why my casting agent didn’t tell me to take a hike, because I told her I wanted someone with Parkinson’s to play Mrs. Roach.
The Dissolve: And the actress you cast, Barbara West, does?
Kent: Yeah, she’s had a tremor since she was 40. That’s not acted. It’s such a beautiful performance. It’s a small role, but she was such a find. We found her in the state in which we shot the film. And Samuel also came from me. When I was little, I also used to make stuff, I used to make weapons and go-karts and shit like that.
The Dissolve: There are a number of films about grief, but part of what makes The Babadook so interesting is that the horror genre allows it to have this element of audience interaction. I wonder if you’re attracted to the horror genre because of how palpable it encourages you to make a story?
Kent: I think so. Can you imagine this story as a domestic drama? It would be so melodramatic and stupid. I like films where I’m forced to feel something. I saw To Kill A Man at New Directors/New Films, and I was sick to my stomach the whole time, and when it was over, I was like “I loved that!” I want to be put through something. If cinema can be visceral, then it’s great. And horror allows that to happen unashamedly.
The Dissolve: Speaking of what the cinema can do, and what it contributes here, there are references in your film as diverse as Georges Méliès and Roman Polanski. Were there other unexpected cinematic influences on the movie?
Kent: Well there was also Segundo de Chomón, who was the Spanish equivalent of Georges Méliès. He’s amazing. I love silent horror. It’s so old now, obviously, but it was beautiful because of how influenced it was by theater. And then we got so literal and we lost that. When did that happen?
The Dissolve: Which brings us back to the sound design, which is so immaculately textured. Was that something you could also envision in advance, or did it really come alive in post-production?
Kent: I was reading about David Lynch doing Eraserhead, and he was doing stuff like dropping a bolt, and someone would be listening through a tube to get the right sound. I always wanted to do that kind of thing. I know that film gets made this way, but I find it perplexing that they lock off picture before they do the sound, and I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s a financial disaster to do both in tandem, but that doesn’t work for me. So you have to imagine sound. I remember at our fine-cut screening, people were saying it wasn’t scary, or that a certain shot is too long and that I should change it, and I refused. I knew when I got to put the sound in the movie, the sound I heard in my head, it wouldn’t be too long. It would be terrifying. And we created a lot of sounds ourselves.
The Dissolve: Oh yeah? Can you say which?
Kent: No! [Laughs.] That’s our secret.