Three-Dimensional Characters, Méliès Movie Magic, and Making a Monster in Camera

Australian director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook marks a return to psychological horror, while many cheesy American genre films rely on loud noises or ghosts standing in the frame’s background to scare the audience. It depicts a mother (Essie Davis), still shell-shocked from the death of her husband in a car accident, trying to raise her young son (Noah Wiseman). Her child’s behavior grows erratic when he discovers a children's pop-up book called Mister Babadook. The literary monster seems to cross over into this family’s real life. Kent brings a new and fresh touch to the horror genre, with a carefully controlled visual style.

Studio Daily: The look of your film is very monochromatic. Did you achieve that in post? 

Jennifer Kent: No, I was really adamant to not do it in post. A lot of it was through the production design. We had controlled environments. Inside, all the furniture was chosen to be black through to white and then blue and burgundy were the only colors we chose. Outside, we were very careful to chose only buildings that had those color schemes. We did some slight desaturation in post, but I didn’t want to put a filter or wash over the frame. I wanted to do it in camera.

Still from The Babadook. All photos by Matt Nettheim

Still from The Babadook. All photos by Matt Nettheim

This is your cinematographer’s [Radoslaw Ladczuk] first film in English. How did you meet him? 

I developed the script at a film lab in Amsterdam. I had an Israeli director friend. He’d shot her film there. We’d been looking for Australian D.P.s for a while, but couldn’t get one that matched the project. I spoke to Radek, and it was meant to be. He was wonderful. He’s Polish. His English got better throughout the film, but it was a challenge. Still, I’d much rather have that to deal with that and beautiful work than have someone who wasn’t right. I got better at communicating with him because film’s a visual medium. He’s doing English classes for the next film, though! I’m insisting on it. 

How hard was it to find a child actor for the role of Samuel? 

It was a challenge. We have a wonderful casting director in Australia, Nikki Barrett, who’s very used to finding kids. When she read the script, she loved it but knew what a big job finding a kid for it would be. I can’t remember the exact number. She looked at about 500 kids on tape. Then we narrowed it down to 100. Out of that group, I chose small groups to improvise with and then we did a few one-on-ones. Noah was the clear standout for me, once we found him. That said, when we got to Adelaide with him and I realized he was only six years old, I thought “What have I done?”

Noah Wiseman in The Babadook. All photos by Matt Nettheim.

Still from The Babadook. All photos by Matt Nettheim

How many of the film’s darker elements does he understand? 

We can underestimate kids. I did want to protect him, but he was made aware that the film had a darkness to it and that’s what it was about. I took him to the Adelaide zoo and talked to him about the story. He knew how important his role was. That was really the best thing I could have done. When you film, you shoot out of sequence, but he was able to understand the story. That gave him a lot of input, as well. He knew it was scary. He hasn’t seen it yet, though. He just turned eight. 

You thank your Kickstarter contributors in the end credits. Was Kickstarter the starting point for your production money? 

No, fortunately we had money in place at the beginning. I wouldn’t say it was a micro-budget, but it was a modest budget. We had a large set: the home location is a set. So the funds we had didn’t quite cover all the design expenses. Kickstarter was a way to close that crucial gap, so that we could build the world of the film and have a special visual world.

There are few female directors who’ve made horror films. Because of that, did you feel any special responsibility in terms of how you represented your heroine? 

I think there are very few women making films, full stop, although there’s probably more of us out there than ever before. I felt more of a responsibility to be true to the voice of the film. The film is about a woman facing her shadow side and integrating that. So I felt a responsibility to that, if that makes sense, rather than thinking “Oh, I’ve got to make a feminist film or put forward feminist views.” It was more about trying to create a complex, well-rounded human being on screen. I didn’t want her to be perfect. Film stories can suffer from characters who are too good or too bad. Amelia lies about her child being sick and she evades some of her issues. She’s far from perfect. She’s human.

Still from The Babadook

Still from The Babadook. All photos by Matt Nettheim

Do you see the mother and child going through a personality transfer? 

Definitely. I always thought those two characters were on a see-saw. When she was really suppressed, he was acting out and being crazy. As the film starts to progress, the dynamic shifts. The Babadook is definitely Amelia’s creation, but he’s a part of it as well. 

Was the Babadook created in CGI? 

No. We had a wonderful post effects supervisor who helped smooth over everything we did and make it look beautiful, but we tried to do everything in camera. I love Georges Méliès. He’s a master of special effects. He invented all of that stuff, and I wanted to go back to that spirit and do something raw. Some of it was through puppetry, some through costumes and stop motion. It was delightful to do all that. When you have something in camera, the brain recognizes it differently. It’s scarier to me. 

Are there really TV stations in Australia that play Méliês films all the time? 

No, only in my world. In a perfect world. I watched all of Méliês’ films to get that footage, and picked the moments we needed. 

In America, we have Turner Classic Movies, which possibly would show all the movie clips included in your film. 

If you buy cable, which is very expensive in Australia, we have something similar. But she’s watching free-to-air. Everything on that TV screen means something to me in regards to Amelia. It was such a delight to me. It was a horror to my producers because they had to go and track down all the licenses. But it was so wonderful to choose all of that and have it reflect her state of mind. In Australia, they can show ads for 900 sex numbers on an ordinary station late at night. 

Was the two-actor nature of much of the film largely a product of budgetary constraints? 

No. Not at all, actually. I tend to like intimate stories. I don’t see myself directing a war film, although who knows? Maybe I will one day. I like stories created in small environments. So that was more to do with my taste than the budget.

To me, the word “babadook” sounds somewhat Eastern European. What was its origin? 

Well, I was looking at foreign words for monster or boogeyman. I had a Serbian friend who mentioned babaroga as the Serbian word for monster. I kind of liked it, but it wasn’t quite right. I came up with all these nonsense names. Then, babadook came. It needed to rhyme. It rhymes with booklook and lots of other words. It feels a little silly, which I liked as well. It could come from a child’s imagination. 

Was there a specific children’s book that inspired Mister Babadook

Not in terms of content. I love children’s books. I used to write and illustrate them as a kid. I’ve still got one that was similar to Babadook that my mom kept. Stylistically, I really loved Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, which is a shadow-puppet film. She cut all the animated figures out of paper and pinned  them together. That was the inspiration for the book. 

You worked in TV as an actress before directing The Babadook. Did that experience help you behind the camera? 

I absolutely adore actors, and I’m not frightened by them. I know how to push them in a way that’s not going to traumatize them. Actors need direction, they want direction. I’m very grateful for those years I had as an actor. It’s really hard. It’s seen as such an easy, glamorous job, but it’s really hard. You have to lay your soul on the line in front of a bunch of technicians. It’s not a cakewalk. 

Did you think of casting yourself as the mother? 

Definitely not. I’m actually quite shy. I much prefer being behind the camera and guiding actors. 

Do you have a new film in the works? 

I’m working on a second and third film. My second film is a sort of revenge thriller, for want of a better term. It’s set in a Danteish world of Tasmania’s frontier in the 1820s. It’s about the repercussions of violence from a woman’s perspective. Then, I have another multi-protagonist story that has three different worlds going on. It’s inspired by my father’s last months on Earth, when he was in a coma. It sounds quite downbeat, but it’s actually a celebration of life, I feel. Neither of them are horror. But they do have strong, surreal worlds that I’m creating through their stories.