Intimacy vs. Sentimentality: Shannon Murphy on Babyteeth

Director Shannon Murphy isn’t new to the scene. She’s been acting and directing in theater productions for about a decade and has been involved in TV for the last few years. With "Babyteeth," she’s firmly on the map, though, immediately running to direct episodes of "Killing Eve" after her debut. Premiering at last year’s Venice Film Festival, "Babyteeth" follows teenager Milla (Eliza Scanlen) and her relationships to those around her, from her 23-year-old drug dealing “boyfriend” in Moses (Toby Wallace) to her pill-popping parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). It’s an intimate, messy, yet closely controlled portrayal of a group of people in flux, those without a sense of steadiness during this moment in their lives. And it’s a cancer movie without most of the beats of cancer movies. Murphy flips the narrative and focuses instead on a young girl rebelling against her family and bursting into life, creating a story that hits you like the train that just misses Moses in the film’s opening moments. 

Murphy spoke with RogerEbert.com about stories on set, Ben Mendelsohn’s mustache, and missing her actors. 

Since "Babyteeth" premiered last year, when you watch it again, do find yourself looking more at the parts you love about it or thinking about the things you could’ve changed?

Actually, I’m pretty happy. You know what it is? You fill in the blanks of sort of the moments that were happening in reality when you were shooting it. You end up sort of just chuckling to yourself how it actually came together when you know what’s actually happening off to the side or behind the scenes or that noise issue that was such a punish or whatever it is. 

Like the bathroom scene with Eliza [Scanlen]. I remember she was in the school bathroom which was literally our production office bathroom around the corner and it had this really terrible male urine smell. Because it was actually a boys’ toilet and we had tried to make it smell better but it just didn’t. It was all clean and all of that, but all of a sudden the people next door started drilling and then a forklift went off and wouldn’t stop and they didn’t care that we were shooting a film. I just remember the pain of the noise being so loud that Eliza was starting to get a headache. And I was just like, “I’m so sorry.” She didn’t care and kept pushing through. I remember thinking that it was such a great scene and just the drama that was going on for those poor actors at the time. It’s just amazing how it all turns out.

Yeah, it's actually funny that you even bring up that scene. As I was parsing through interviews, I actually didn't see a lot about that scene. How was the filming of it?

Yeah, look, you know, I always loved that scene. And I loved the other actress in that scene, because she offered a very different approach to that girl at school that you've always kind of looked up to, but it's all got that just slight, slight bullying edge, but it's subtle. And I thought the way that she performed that was just so believable to me, and I loved it. And I think, you know, there's so much vulnerability formulating that scene and blocking it was interesting, because we've all seen 1,000 bathroom scenes. And I remember us trying to line up the shots and we'd be like, “Oh, we've seen that before.” Or, you know, “It's almost impossible to get angles with a bathroom mirror,” and blah, blah. 

And then I remember, Eliza did that tape which is in there, where she went up into the corner and then she sort of just started talking to herself. I don't even think she realized she was necessarily doing it. I mean, she is such a genius performer but, you know. I remember saying to her afterwards, “I loved how you did that.”

It feels like you are going back to those days of filming as we talk about this.

Totally, because that was our last day of the shoot. We shot that scene and then we shot the rooftop when she wakes up and when they're up there on the roof, having that conversation, so, you know, that was quite a good chunky last day to try and achieve.

So that was the last day overall? How did that feel, as it kind of wrapped up? Was it bittersweet?

Completely. I mean, it had been pretty funny on the rooftop, because we needed to capture this particular kind of sunset with the purple when she first wakes up and Moses isn't there. So we shot the morning first, when she wakes up, and because that was a very tiny roof and you only allowed so many people on it, there were like six of us. So sound, makeup, everyone running behind Andy [Commis] as he's spinning around doing his shooting. That would have looked so stupid. After capturing that, then we did that night scene, which was always a really tricky scene.

And then I just remember afterwards, we just kind of started hugging. it was just Toby, Eliza, and I and they sort of cocooned into me, and I knew that it had been such a monumental experience for them, because they're both so young. They both had such pivotal, huge parts in this piece. And for Eliza in particular to make something in her own home country, which she’s never done before, to this extent, was a really big deal for her, so that was lovely. I mean, I think having done this now since I was 17, for me, I don't get sad when things end. it's one of those times where you're exhausted. You're on such a high in that moment, but the next day, good luck trying to get out of bed, you know?

How is it filming out of order, like you did here? How do you get actors to bring up the feel range of emotion? 

You have to be so strict with yourself and really know what you're doing, because you could get it so wrong if you weren't really on top of every moment. Because you still don't know what you're gonna do in the edit. I always have my editor send me at the end of every week what he's assembled so far, so that my brain can start to work the transitions and and work out what to do. Look, shooting out of order ... I don't really know any different to be honest. Because TV, that's all we ever do. 

I mean, I am strict about certain things, like it was essential to me that we still shot her hair-cutting up front. That was a big debate with Ben when we were losing time with him. And moving the schedule forward. What I kept thinking was well, “As long as we can keep the consistency, I like the continuity of the haircut being short.” We get to see that because I didn't want to wig her for that punk hair look. It felt like it wasn't the same. 

So it's about balancing that and it got to [where] I almost had to forfeit it, because I I didn’t know if I could shoot that out in technically two weeks. But by the time I'd done the two hair days, it was like eight days, we had to shoot him. 

He sounds like a busy guy. 

Yeah. And you know, that puts so much pressure on him. it's hilarious when you hear Ben [Mendelsohn] talking about the film he’s like, “Oh, my god!” But it was horrible. The pressure was so full. And I've never actually experienced that much pressure, because we knew that we wouldn't be able to really pick anything up. Because he’d be off on another job. And then he'd be on another job or another job. 

And he had a mustache, you know, and that was my fault. But I was committed to that. And I was like, “Well, we're never going to get that back.” It was just knowing that at the end of each day, that was it. What you had was what you had, so it was actually good. We all really rose to the occasion. But I remember coming home at night and almost bursting into tears just being like, “Why is this so f**king hard? I never want to make a film again.” And then once we'd gotten through that first two weeks, I was like, “Oh, okay, this feels like the right pace now.” And it became much more enjoyable.

Yeah, I have to ask. Why the mustache? 

I just loved it. I thought it was very Henry and I also hadn't seen Ben with that for a little while. I thought it also had a tiny comedic edge to it that I liked. Yeah, yeah. And he's just been in so many roles recently where he hasn't had it. And I just, I missed it. I was like, I really like that. Yeah, it just felt very Henry.

Yeah, I like the intimate nature of the film and wanted to ask about that. I read somewhere that you said you didn’t want to sentimentalize the film. But I think it’s hard for audience members to feel or know the difference with these characters. So I was hoping you could talk about the sentimentality versus intimacy within the film, especially with this portrayal of characters kind of all in flux.

You’re right, like I see that as I'm a very emotional person and I think my work is very emotional. But that does come from the intimacy that I create, on set with the actors, with the story, but also with all my creatives. Like I have, probably, deeply co-dependent relationships with my heads of department. I really formed strong attachments to these people and and yet, I don't like to over-sentimentalize the story because I think it takes away from the believability of it to be honest. I think, often in film and all storytelling art forms, we romanticize parts of our lives that don't help us actually to understand who we are and aren't the point of what stories or parables, or whatever you want to call it, that we put out there into the world for each other to kind of learn from or open up discussions with. They're supposed to be, you know, truths for us to look at not easy excuses, I guess. I want the work that I make to have impact and I think the only way I can do that is if you're holding up a mirror to people. And so I try to do that as honestly as possible.

I had a couple questions about certain lines, too. By the pool after Milla throws up, and Miles gets kicked out. He walks away and yells, “F**k!” Is that something that was planned?

That gate was really stiff and we made it harder for him. And I think Toby just couldn't get it open and yelled, “Really?” That's just a very Toby moment. Actually, I mean it's a very Moses moment, but I don't know. 

So he was just upset about the gate?

Oh, yeah. He was just no, he's just committed. He was committed to kicking that gate open and he couldn't get it open. Australia, we're on smaller budgets. So yeah, no we don’t have, “We've set this up beautifully. And you just have to act kicking it and then by the third kick, it'll open.” Like no, you can kick it until it opens.

Okay, second one, what about the line in the kitchen during breakfast where Moses says, “I’m not ready to be functional.” Is that something you had to film multiple times and work with on him? It feels like a pivotal and important moment.

I don't know, it was one of the hardest lines to get right. So actually, we did. I remember Toby being very frustrated in that scene. He just kept going, “Ugh!” He just felt like he wasn't getting it and he wasn't happy with it. And I never want actors to feel that way. So we just keep going until he does feel good about it. And I've given the confidence that we have it and all of that, but no, that was one where we did keep going again and again quite a few times, because he was like, “I haven't quite dropped in.” He wanted more, you know, and that was, he was right. It's a big moment in the movie. And it’s his scene in many ways. And it is a big complex idea and it's something that a lot of people don't want to respond to. But it's I think there's so much truth and beauty in what he's saying there. It’s his philosophy, you know?

I was hoping to know if you had any specific stories on set that really stick out to you, or even that represent the exact feelings you felt like making this?

So the scene where Moses comes out of the bedroom and Henry and Anna have just been eating cake and Milla is in the bedroom. I set that up so that I hid a camera in Milla’s bedroom. And I said to Ben, “Do you want to know where that camera is?” He's like, “No.” I said “Great. We're going to film both rooms at the same time and record sound at the same time.” And I knew that I don't even have to say it to these kinds of performers, but it's so that they could hear one another and respond to one another in the other room. And then I also remember towards the end of that take, I mean, we're all standing there quite shaken watching it. But also, Andy then as he slid down Toby as she's crying, Andy went down as well and then there was like a bump with the camera. I remember going that I just love how imperfect that all was. 

And just for me it's just so much connection to that moment and what was happening and the noise that they were making. And I remember afterwards Eliza being really upset because just even lying there hearing them was really full on for her. And the whole crew was, you know, in tears. When you feel that power, the power of the people in the story that you're telling is, um, is  really wonderful and that's when you know you have those moments and the tingle on set and you go wow, that's gonna be that's gonna be something special. 

But then counter to that what I loved is the beach scene, which is also a beautiful moving thing. But you know, there's Ben with his boombox playing music and I've got the most hilarious video of him and Eliza dancing to Chaka Demus & Pliers “Tease Me” song and just being ridiculous. And then just going into like a really serious phase. I love [that] it can go either way. And I think that's what's great and you just have to  sense what the actors need to achieve this. It’s different every day.

Doesn’t sound like you’ll get sick of talking about them anytime soon? [laughs]

I don’t think so, because that sh*t did just have such a full life. I think there's just so many complex levels to these people and how they have dealt with this crisis. Probably just because I still love them too much. And it's my way to keep them alive.

That’s a good thing, though, right?

Yeah. Yeah. I love them. I’ve missed them actually.

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