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BSS 2014: dook, dook, dook

First time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent retraced the journey to The Babadook and beyond in her lively Big Screen Symposium session.

Compared with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kent’s THE BABADOOK premiered at Sundance this year to five star reviews and plenty of excitement about both the film and its writer-director’s prospects.

Some will have caught The Babadook during the NZIFF. For others there was an opportunity to see it following the BSS session, at a special screening at the Academy with Kent participating in a Q&A session afterwards. For everyone else, Vendetta releases The Babadook on DVD and BluRay on 5 November.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook trailer

Kent was, she said, one of those people who’d known from a young age that she wanted to be a storyteller. After some digression, and spending a fair amount of time as an actor, interpreting rather than creating stories, she’s found her way back to it.

“If you can look at what you did when you were seven, and find something of it in what you’re doing now, I reckon that’s OK,” she said.

Her personal journey was a good fit with the BSS theme of the Power of Voice, starting out by becoming an actor because “I had no conception of a woman as a film director”.

Kent also admitted she hadn’t attempted to go to film school because “I’m not good in institutions”.

Jennifer Kent

Jennifer Kent at the Sundance premiere of The Babadook
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

So, how does one discover, develop, nurture and protect one’s vision, one’s voice, without those formal structures around to offer support? “It’s important to be able to be stubborn,” Kent said, echoing and referencing similar statements made by James Napier Robertson in the day’s opening session.

She wrote to Lars von Trier, and suddenly it was like being back in 2013 listening to Daniel Joseph Borgman describe his journey to The Weight of Elephants. Unlike Borgman, Kent got no response from Denmark, so she wrote again – a more passionate letter the second time around.

She explained that she’d rather stick pins in her eyes than go to film school, and yet desperately wanted to learn. von Trier agreed, Kent went, and “It was the perfect film school. I got to watch someone with a distinctive voice go through the whole process.”

She made short film The Monster which won the Audience and Distinctive Achievement gongs at Aspen Shortsfest in 2006, got stuck into wiriting a number of features which didn’t come off for various reasons, until someone pointed her at Amsterdam’s Binger Lab which she describerd as “the best creative experience of my adultlife”.

Why? Because they wanted to know “what your vision was” not that your film was going to be “a bit like this meets that”. And so The Babadook was born, outside of Australia and outside of Screen Australia’s funding and development systems.

Kent maintained that she never set out to make a horror film. She intended to make an arthouse horror (and was happy the BSS programme notes had described it in those terms).

“You can’t make an arthouse horror,” one executive had told her.

“Wanker,” was Kent’s (unverbalised) response at the time. Now she cites Nosferatu, The Shining and others as examples.

“I’m very horror literate,” she explained, but The Babadook wasn’t intended to be a horror. “I always developed the script through the story and characters, not the conventions of horror.

“It’s better to face things than to hide them away. That was my way into The Babadook. The film deals with loss, a woman who can’t come to terms with it. The fear of facing the loss is worse than facing the loss and that’s why it had to be scary.”

Kent explained that she’d spent a long time preparing for The Babadook, including a year with her producer finding the voice of the film. Everything, Kent believed, trickled down from that to the HODs, cast, even the marketing.

“I did storyboard, with crap stick figures. I’m very particular. When you’re on a low budget you need to be very particular and know absolutely what you need.”

What was that budget? AU$2-2.5 million, “although we had to build the house”. The production also shot pretty much in sequence to make it easier for six year old Noah Wiseman (as did Max Currie’s Everything We Loved, which also had a very young child in almost every scene). Even so, the shoot – originally scheduled for five weeks – was pushed to six weeks and then seven, with the crew gifting three days at the end to complete it.

The Babadook

The Babadook’s Noah Wiseman
Photo: Matt Nettheim

“Directing a six year old is like trying to get mercury to form in a straight line,” explained Kent. “And Noah’s mother is a child psychologist.”

Kent explained, before showing one clip, that Noah hadn’t been present for any of the scenes in which he was being mistreated. “We got a small Scottish man for Essie (Davis) to abuse.”

Six months before the shoot, the very particular vision was in place and Kent began communicating it to her HODs. Polish DoP Radoslaw Ladczuk’s one lament was that he had “only six months to prepare”.

Again acknowldeging James Napier Robertson, Kent agreed that post was the easiest place to lose one’s voice. “Suddenly, there are lots of voices – and they tend to panic. It’s not working! Cut this! Cut that!”

At one point her editor showed her a cutdown which had taken on board all the notes they’d been given. The film ran 35 seconds. “You’d be a real tool if, as a director, you thought you were the only voice, but all the other voices have to understand your voice, because yours is the voice that is the conduit.”

Even when it was complete and quickly selected for Sundance, the pressure didn’t come off. They had to wait six months before they could tell anybody, and obviously couldn’t make any other announcements ahead of the world premiere confirmation. “Everybody thought ‘poor Jen’ had made a dog,” Kent recalled.

Post Sundance there’s been a lot of opportunity.

“It would be easy to go onto a big budget piece of crap where you’re a cog in the wheel,” Kent said. “I’ve read a lot of American scripts recently and it’s amazing how few of them have anything to say. I’ve turned down two studios movies because I still want my own voice.”

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