The splendid new Australian film The Babadook could be billed as either horror or a psychological thriller and it has already lead to writer/director Jennifer Kent being offered two US studio films, both of which she has turned down. What she says here is a stark reminder of how much effort goes into making a great film.
21 May 2014 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

The Babadook is a mother-and-son tale starring Essie Davis as Amelia. Telling a compelling story was Kent’s focus and also making her leading lady feel safe.

Jennifer Kent: “When people get into the cinema they may be surprised by the depth of the story. I rarely thought about how to scare people when I was making The Babadook; I thought about telling a story about facing up to dark things in your life because, if you don’t, there are ramifications. We all know what it’s like to suppress difficult feelings and experiences. It’s something that fascinates me and it spurred on the writing and making of this film, which also taps into the fear of going mad.

“Amelia’s son Samuel is out of control because his mother is completely repressing her sadness and grief and he can feel it. He is playing up to try and get through to her on a deeply unconscious level. And on a very deep level she knows that.

“The role of Amelia is a very challenging. She starts out very meek and mild and then heads into utterly monstrous territory. I trained as an actor with Essie at NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) and we are very good friends. Having mutual trust was important: if you go to the places that Essie goes to in The Babadook, you have to know your director is sending you in the right direction. Early in the film I had to make sure the character kept a lid on her feelings; towards the end it was about getting out of Essie’s way. She is an extraordinary actor. To her credit, she is very receptive, likes to be directed and is a joy to work with.

“When Essie was considering the role she was concerned that her kids would look at this film in 10 years and say ‘That’s what mum was really like!’ We use to joke about that.”

In the clip below, Amelia is still clearly unhinged at the loss of her husband, who died in a car accident six years earlier.

It may be necessary to draw on talent from across the world in order to assemble the right team. In the clip below we see the children’s book that US illustrator Alexander Juhasz created for the film. The Babadook is essentially a two-hander and Kent says that Noah Wiseman’s performance as Samuel matches Essie’s “and that’s no mean feat for a six year old”.

Jennifer Kent: “I always saw the book as the core of the film’s design and imagined that everything else would radiate out from there. We looked at everyone and anyone in Australia but exhausted all options: I just couldn’t get what I wanted. We were using the work of a young US illustrator, Alexander Juhasz, as a reference because it had a strangeness to it, a naïve quality and also something dark hidden within it. One day I thought ‘maybe we should see if he’s interested in designing the book because you never know’. When I spoke to him on the phone I immediately knew I had our guy – and he had never been to Australia and was really excited about the idea. He was wonderfully collaborative. He didn’t try to impose design on the film but interpreted what was in my head and made it better.

“We seemed to collect people from all around the world. We couldn’t find a director of photography in Australia that was the right fit either and an Israeli director friend recommended Radek Ladczuk. He’s a wonderful Polish DOP, very experienced, but this is his first English-language film. I did a directing attachment on Lars Von Trier’s film Dogville and saw that Lars had a family of people around him that had worked with him for 20 years. There is incredible shorthand that develops around long-term creative relationships. I wasn’t just looking for people to work with for this film; I was looking for a family of collaborators to work with for the long term.”

The Babadook has a very distinctive look and feel that hugely contributes to its immersive quality. Creating the world required an immense amount of planning and control.

Jennifer Kent: “I wanted the audience to feel like there was a pair of hands around their necks from the very first frame, getting tighter and tighter.

“Cinema’s biggest attribute is that it can create unique worlds. For me, the most interesting films do that. I wanted this film to be believable but to have a heightened feel. The studios at the South Australian Film Corporation gave us the opportunity to create a very claustrophobic interior world.

“Originally, I wanted to make the film in black and white but decided to limit the colour palette instead. I chose to use blue and burgundy (with touches of blue green) and every shade between black and white. It may not be something that people notice, but when we pull up outside the school, for example, all the cars are black and Amelia’s car is a very pale blue. There are many other examples. This gives the film a very heightened look without being too crazy. It was extremely difficult to achieve but once we saw the completed film, it was worth it. The look is a credit to Alex Holmes, our phenomenally gifted production designer, and to Radek.

“I worked very closely with both of them. Early in the film what is in the frame is very balanced but very tight, so it feels claustrophobic because you can’t see the world beyond. As things start to go off the rails, the film becomes more black and white and the framing more off kilter. Then craziness does set in, reflecting Amelia’s descent.”

This clip gives a further taste of the film’s visual style.

Kent had only made the short film Monster and a thriller for the Two Twisted television series, before her debut feature The Babadook.

Jennifer Kent: “Monster taught me to be stubborn in the best possible way. You need to listen to people when you’re developing a film because there are always things you need to hear but you can’t take on all the feedback without your film becoming a mess. Within its 10-minute run time, Monster contains the seed of The Babadook. It is a baby Babadook if you like!”

The Babadook is in cinemas from 22 May. Click here to watch the trailer.