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Sundance 2019 Interview: Babadook Director Jennifer Kent on Her New Film, The Nightingale

Jennifer Kent, the writer-director of the Sundance sensation “The Babadook,” is back in Park City five years after her modern-day horror classic took the festival by a storm. She is here with her arresting period drama-thriller “The Nightingale”, which premiered in competition at the Venice International Film Festival last summer and won two prizes: Special Jury Prize for Kent, and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for actor Baykali Ganambarr. “It seems like I spent a full year promoting “The Babadook,” it really took a lot of time,” says Kent, explaining her long absence. “And I was writing over that time, but also adjusting to a new life. And I had a lot thrown at me, a lot of offers, and I was trying to [decide] what I wanted to do. And I kept looking and reading a lot, but nothing was grabbing me.” So Kent pursued her own projects and wrote two films during that time: “Alice + Freda Forever” and “The Nightingale,” which she wanted to make first. “But the good news of that is, now I have another film ready to go very quickly. So I'm happy it's worked out that way.”

Set in 1825, “The Nightingale” trails the story of the young Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Aboriginal tracker Billy (Ganambarr) she teams up with to find the British officer (Sam Claflin) who commits harrowing crimes against her family. Throughout their journey, Kent investigates and displays the violence of the era from an uncompromising viewpoint, without ever sidestepping what makes her survivor characters human. We sat down with Kent ahead of “The Nightingale’s” first Sundance screening to discuss its historical canvas and themes around violence and hope. She also shared preliminary details on her upcoming projects “Alice + Freda Forever” and the sci-fi series “Tiptree”, about science-fiction writer Alice Bradley Sheldon, better known with her pen name James Tiptree Jr.

While “The Babadook” and “The Nightingale” are very different movies, in general terms, they are both centered on very specific female related troubles and horrors. 

I think they reflect my concerns very strongly. And I think I'm attracted [to that]. I mean, it's very hard as a filmmaker to say, "I make these kinds of films." Because all I can say is I try to make films very much from my heart, and from myself, and so it doesn't surprise me that they have similarities. I tend to be interested in films that are traveling from darkness to light usually in some way. Traveling through darkness, perhaps.

“The Nightingale” is a really tough film, thematically as well as technically since you were shooting in remote locations in Tasmania. And you're depicting stories of violence; sexual violence and violence against indigenous people. How did you work through all these risks and challenges?

I think I was really disturbed by the level of violence in the world, and I'd had my mother die, and I think it always brings questions of, "What's this all about? This life experience?" And for me, life is about a process of evolution and it should involve love. When I looked at the world around me, I didn't see a lot of that, and it was very disturbing and heartbreaking to me. I wanted to tell a story that really was about love ultimately. "Can humans love in even the hardest and most difficult of times?" And I think we can. I don't think it's a simplistic ... I don't have the answers to violence of any kind, but I really wanted to look at it honestly and in a deeper way, and I'm so proud of this film for that reason.

It was so tough to make. I mean, let's not lie here, it was so tough on every level. We shot on an island, no crew, really very little infrastructure for filmmaking. We shot in the wilderness, in autumn, in the mountains. But on top of that, this heartbreaking story of my country, which is also the story of this country, and many colonized countries around the world, is something that I wanted to speak about. It was the hardest, but [also] the best experience of my life.

I want to talk a little about the way you engage with and even film sexual violence in this story. For instance, I really responded to the fact that throughout her journey, revenge mattered less to Clare, and preserving something really core to her humanity mattered more. I think I positively responded to that aspect, as I have always had trouble with this so called “rape revenge” genre, to be perfectly honest. Your film subverts that.

Yeah, I have real problems with [rape revenge] too. Even the construct of “rape revenge” irks me. When people call this a “rape revenge” film, [I get] very offended, because I think they've missed the point entirely. But for me, the whole film had to be told through Clare's eyes. So what she was experiencing and feeling, that went in the shooting of it, in every aspect of it, that's how I approached it. I couldn't find a rape scene on screen that didn't show bodies, naked bodies, female bodies. To some sick and damaged mind, that could be somehow titillating. And I really worked hard with my DP. And the wonderful actress Aisling worked very hard to make sure that this was not the case, that we told it purely from an emotional [perspective], from how that person would experience it.

And that was my next point: the gratuitous display of nudity drives me insane in rape scenes. 

And it's a misunderstanding of what rape is. Rape is a violent act, it involves sex, but it's not sexual—the person who is committing that act is doing that to annihilate another human there, whether that human being is male, female, or otherwise. I felt a responsibility to make sure that it really did shock and hit people in the way that the act itself is shocking and heartbreaking. I wasn't interested in making a gratuitous act within a story, and it really needed to be as close to that experience as Clare would've felt it.

How did you work with your two actors filming those scenes, getting them into that headspace and providing them the right kind of on-set atmosphere?

I am an actor myself; I trained as an actor, and worked as an actor. So I know the vulnerabilities attached to it. I can confidently say I know how to push an actor and when to support and nurture them. And I have to say, the toughest job on that set was Sam Claflin's, and hats off to him. He is an incredible person and beautiful actor, and he had the courage to take on this role, when a lot of men were frightened of it.

And my job was to really support Aisling, of course, but also to support him, because he found it very hard. And without going into a lot of details, I did a lot of research on the mind of the perpetrator, and I wanted to have compassion, I wanted to explore that from not a black and white perspective, from that complex perspective. So, Sam and I worked on that together, talked a lot, we did a lot of improvised, sort of very structured games between him and Aisling. So they developed this dynamic that didn't involve any sexual contact, that involved physical contact, that when they repeated it before a take, it would get them straight to this place. I understood that for Aisling to be touched in certain ways, it had to be very carefully thought out. They really, really were very, very grateful for that. The set had to be very safe. These are terrible things that happen, and I could not put my actors through any of it.

While the events themselves are fictional, your story lives on a canvas of historic reality. Can you talk about building a story like that? That's based on reality, but not a true story. 

It was really important for us to get historical accuracy for many reasons. I'm a white person telling an aboriginal story. So we had an elder, an aboriginal elder, Uncle Jim Everett, who worked very hard with us. I brought him on. He didn't have time but he loved the story, he felt the importance of the story, and it's a story that had never been told about his people. So he was on from the get go, from the first draft, and always I deferred to him. But he was always aware, "This is a shared story," he used to say to me, "I'm here to authenticate it, and make it real," and he and his community were across it, so those aspects you can't make up.

Similarly, the experiences of the convict women at the time were accurate. They were more often than not raped. And it was a culture of rape. And in fact, the violence between the whites and the blacks in Tasmania was a war of women. So women were stolen and they were raped and they were discarded, and it was really common, so common that the men would then retaliate as they do in the film, and they would be killed, or the women would be killed, so this is the story of my country.

And so, I had to make sure that that was very historically accurate, but whether there was two people that travel across the land in this particular time, in this particular way, that's where we could take liberties. Infrastructure had to be [accurate]. I can say, this happened actually, and worse. Much worse than I documented. If you can believe it, I pulled back on the violence that existed at that time.

Even though you pulled back from the violence, you still engage with it in a very uncompromising manner. And I do agree that it’s necessary to show the truth. I'm wondering though if you were concerned at all about what the audiences would make of it. Did you negotiate with any kind of concern or fear in your heart?

I think I'm of the belief that stories need to be told, and we are the guardian, custodian of that story. We put our hand up for it, and if we don't, someone else will. I guess I had a strong responsibility to the story. So I always, and this may sound crazy, ask the story: what does it need? How far to go?

I think as a filmmaker you always wonder, especially if you’re making something slightly controversial. I was quite worried; say for example, how my own people, Australians, would receive the film. Because it's our biggest blind spot as Australians; this period in our history and what we did with colonization. For example, the government refuses to move Australia Day, even though it's the day of a well-known massacre. So things like this, there's a stubbornness. Either we didn't do this or it was over 200 years ago, get over it. So, yeah I was a little concerned about how people may take it, but I guess my commitment to the importance of the story always took precedence, so I always focused on that.

I did find premiering it was quite hard, to be honest. I was shocked at the way the film was received. Not by everyone, there were a lot of people who were really moved by it. But others who just from interviews felt like I'd made pornography or something offensive that should never have been made, and I was really saddened by that. I found it quite tough, because to me, we need to be talking about these stories to evolve as human beings, and if we don't, we're going to go backwards. I mean look at the world that we live in.

You can't heal until you own up to what you've done.

You can’t. And the happy ending to that story is that we premiered in Adelaide in October, and Australians never give standing ovations, we're just too chill, too self-effacing, and that's too fussy. But they just stood and applauded for five minutes or something. It was so wonderful to me, and I had people coming up to me afterwards wanting to talk about our history and talk about their own stories, so I felt very heartened by that, that Australians are ready to face this, and I think that's such a wonderful thing.

Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook." Courtesy of IFC.

On one hand, I don't want to talk about what happened in Venice Film Festival between you and this male journalist who heckled you with a sexist slur. On the other hand, I think it kind of crystallizes one of the points in the film about toxic male entitlement. Did that anger you?

No, I found it funny. And then I had compassion for the man, because he said he didn't know why he said it. I felt compassion for someone who had that sort of automatic response. Because it says a lot about him. And what I felt more saddened by, I think, is the general feeling that surrounds one random comment, that mentality. Because I think you can go, "Oh, one person says that," but I think what's more disturbing is a general feeling within a country or a continent. Someone can say something hurtful and it can just be, water off the duck's back. But when you realize that frame of mind, that perspective, exists in a lot of people silently, that's what I found very disappointing. It's ubiquitous. We're suffering from a distinct lack of respect for the feminine across the planet, whether that's in nature, in indigenous cultures, in women themselves. There's a misunderstanding of the feminine force and how powerful it is, and then there becomes a great disrespect for it.

But I feel hopeful. I feel hopeful that the fact that it's all coming to the surface, like some boil coming to the surface, means it has to come up and out. And that can be painful in the process. But ultimately (and I may not appear to be from my films), I'm an optimist and I have a great belief in humankind. I think we really need to enlist qualities like kindness and empathy and compassion. Without these qualities, we will not survive, we simply won't.

And that's for me what “The Nightingale” is about. Those qualities that are found in the two most unlikely people to come together. And for me, it's a tale of platonic love, and I think the world could learn a lot from platonic love, between man and woman, it's a beautiful thing.

You mentioned the script that you've written for “Alice + Freda Forever.” And I think there is also a TV series you’re working on, “Tiptree.” What can you tell me about these projects, even if it’s a bit premature to talk about?

Well, Alice + Freda is ready to go in terms of the script. We have a script that we're really proud of and excited by, and just thinking of it, I get goosebumps. I really, really want to tell that story next. And we're moving forward on casting. It has two very young girls at the center of it, and it's based on a true story. I want to keep the girls young, because they were. They were the equivalent of 12 and 13 year olds now, emotionally, so it probably means we'll cast 16, 17 year olds, unknowns, if I can get away with it.

We're looking at Savannah, Georgia. It’s not so much an empowering story, this one. It's more of a coming of age, I guess, in a very painful way. It's about the choice to love whoever you want to love and how difficult that was then, and maybe still how difficult it is now.

But yeah, such beautiful characters. It was amazing to draw on something that existed. So to have Alexis Coe's book, “Alice + Freda Forever”… But also I traveled with Alexis a couple of years ago to Memphis, to the library there and to where the girls lived, and to their gravesites. So I really connected with their story.

And I think that Alexis said when she read the draft, the first draft, it was like reading all these documents that she couldn't find to tell the historical story that she'd found in an attic somewhere. So it's more about their love story rather than the stuff in the book, which is all about the court case.

And Tiptree?

I don't know where to start. There was this writer of short science fiction stories in '60s and '70s who was very feted, and of the level of Philip K. Dick, or Ursula Le Guin. He was really creating the most powerful stories of gender and of being an outsider. But they were so potent, very prescient; because it's almost the world we're living in now. So they were written 50 years ago. They're incredibly relevant still, and then he was sort of well known. His stories were well known, but no one knew who he was for 10 years, and then eventually someone uncovered his identity to be a woman in her 60s, in I think Virginia. This woman's story is unbelievable. Unbelievable. And she was a genius. So I want to tell her story.

So you'll make something episodic at a network?

Yeah, but including her short stories within. It's not a straight biopic; so aliens from her stories inhabit her true world, and then she will be in the world of her stories, and it's so exciting to me. It's science fiction, which I love. I came across that because I was being given a lot of science fiction scripts. And I thought, “Where are the female science fiction stories?” So I Googled “female science fiction”, and I came across her! It was so hard to get the rights. And then I got all the rights to these stories, so it's just meant to be. I could sit for hours and tell you how we got these rights. I'm working with producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, who is wonderful. He's engaged with a company called Imperative, and so that's the deal at the moment. But Imperative has thrown some money at the development, but we want to keep control of it. So we didn't want to go to HBO and have it sit on a shelf and not get made, for example. So, we want to come with a pilot and a bible, so I'm working on that at the moment.

After “The Babadook,” people thought of you as a horror director. I am thrilled that you’re also working in other genres, but I’m also wondering if you want to make another horror film too. (I hope so.)

I think horror is inherently cinematic. I love horror. People got the wrong idea after “The Babadook,” cause you do interviews and you say things, and I said, "I'm not a horror director," because I'm not. But they thought then that I was putting horror down. It couldn't be further from the truth. I grew up on horror. I insisted on horror from a very young age. So, of course, for me it's about the story. If a story comes to me and I really want to tell it, its form will present itself. Do you know what I mean?

Makes perfect sense.

So, if I want to tell a story that's in a horror genre, and it's a brilliant story about humanity, then I'll jump in and tell it. I mean, I may be doing something with Guillermo del Toro, I don't know, I have to hear his pitch for it, so there is a possibility.

That's exciting.

Yeah, it's exciting, but I don't see why we should be pigeonholed, because I do want to tell the stories that I'm currently engaged in. Science fiction is another area that has so much worth and can tell us so much about humans and how we operate.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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