At the end of the interview, The Babadook star Essie Davis mutters a sentence under director Jennifer Kent’s infectious laugh and asks that I don’t include that in my final report. Without admitting I had missed hearing her I say goodbye, eager to get home and listen to the tape to discover what is she’s eager to hide. Playing it back, I realise I’ve hit the stop button before she’s asked that I refrain from repeating it. The final line of the interview on tape is Davis commenting “I have the emotional memory of all the characters I’ve played in my body now. It’s crowded in there.” It’s unclear if that’s the line she’s referring to or another one entirely. An actor of her calibre, however, it seems utterly accurate.
The pair are on tour to promote the feature The Babadook and they’re giddy with excitement. The previous night they’d entertained a crowd at Carlton’s Cinema Nova as part of a Q. & A. event accompanying an early screening of the film. Kent excitedly asks if I was in the audience and I’m almost tempted to lie so as to not disappoint her – I was at Nova, yes, but to attend a different media screening. I saw it last week, I implore, but she doesn’t mind; she’s too busy trading jokes with Davis. They’re best friends and it shows: I can barely get a question in over their joint laughter.
At first glance it’s an odd title but once you’ve seen the film you’ll be terrified. The Babadook, a word invented by Kent, is the best Australian film of the year (so far) and will most likely be one of the best films overall for most critics by year’s end. I certainly can’t disagree – the film had me terrified with its use of manifestation as a tool of fear, coming from the same mould of cinema as early Polanski. The critic buzz outside of Sundance (where it first premiered) has been strong, with most search results touting four and five star reviews. “I wanted a name that didn’t mean anything to anyone at all, ever, in the history of the world,” Kent explains with regards to the film’s title. She certainly made her point.
Amelia, a single mother
Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother whose husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. The story takes place when Samuel is seven and it becomes abundantly clear that Amelia has never taken the time to process the hurt and shock of losing her husband: she spends her late evenings watching black and white movies on free to air (What channel still plays these? ABC2?). She hates her job – who doesn’t these days? – spent reading aloud dull jokes during a bingo game at a nursing home. The film was shot in South Australia but their home could pass for any suburb in outer Sydney or Melbourne. The interior of the house is painted an incredibly depressing dark blue colour but it’s a step up from the common white sludge of most houses one would expect Amelia to own.
Samuel, like most young children, is desperate for his mother to focus all of her attention on him. Her sister has tired of his “weird” antics to the point she can no longer humour him like most aunts would. Exhausted, Amelia gives in to his chanting of being read a book before sleep one night. It’s a new book, titled ‘The Babadook’, and Amelia asks him where he got it. “The shelf,” he answers but she’s too tired to give it any more thought.
Reading it aloud it becomes obvious that this book was not meant for children. Filled with threats of house invasion and untimely death, the book is closed up and she comforts a crying Samuel. It’s another nail in the withered coffin that has slowly begun to consume her sanity. Watching the trailer on youtube most of the comments were sarcastic takes on why she read him the book in the first place. “Who the fuck would read a book like this to a kid?” one commenter writes. It’s unclear if this is a nervous reaction to a trailer or a comment on the action itself but it seems to come from the same place as Amelia’s sister’s friends: ignorance.
“I thought I was going to get a lot of slack for this role from women,” says Kent, seeking to explain some of Amelia’s actions. “Women see themselves in that role (and) I’ve had the opposite: ‘Wow, I’m relieved to see that on the screen.’” Indeed, it comes across as though Amelia is speaking on behalf of most of us when she tells one of the Mums – credited perfectly as Eastern Suburbs Mums – to “fuck off,” when they’re sympathising with Amelia’s depression in the same breath as discussing gym workouts. Given postnatal depression is said to affect up to sixteen percent of mothers – either short or long term – it comes to little surprise. “Every woman feels that way,” Kent continues, looking directly at me as if it were a public service announcement. “Every woman I’ve spoken to feels like a bad mother.”
Perhaps the terse delivery is due to myself being a male in my late twenties and there’s an assumption I’m oblivious to such things. It’s an understandable hypothesis seeing as the most recent male blunders in attempting to understand womanhood include U.S senator Todd Akin declaring that in the case of “legitimate rape the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.” (Akin is yet to clarify what makes rape legitimate.) For that reason I can’t begrudge Kent for wanting to make her point quite clear to a person that has never worked at a women’s welfare clinic, nor speaks to any mothers frequently apart from my own. But that’s the point of The Babadook: Amelia doesn’t have that outlet. She’s held everything in since her husband passed and now it’s itching to be recognised.
“Jen and I have been very good friends since we went through NIDA,” Davis explains. “Jen was a year ahead of me at NIDA and a brilliant actress that I would aspire to be as unique and extraordinary as. Jen wrote a film for me that we worked on making together for quite some time and unfortunately never came to fruition. It almost did but never quite did. I think Jen, in retaliation with this, began this.” Kent nods repeatedly, affirming everything she’s saying. “Anyway, when she showed it to me I went ‘holy fucking shit, what have you written? This is fuckin’ freaking me out!’ and I’m sitting here in the middle of the day on my lawn in the sun! Terrified me. When she asked me to audition for it I was really daunted by the prospect of having to play someone so close to myself.” Davis whispers this last part but it’s unclear if she’s embarrassed to say it or as a punch line to a joke. Laughter explodes like machine gun fire regardless. Having given birth to twins in 2006 with husband Justin Kurzel (director of Snowtown), maybe it really was an admission of guilt.
“(I had to go on a) particularly precipitous path across a mountain range... (I was) just looking at it, going [she makes a sound of complete disbelief]. It was just an incredible journey to go on and how could I possible say no to that? I was quite terrified but also in complete trust because Jen is such a fine actress I knew that in her writing and having experienced her writing earlier I feel that she had acted every part of it in her brain, and...” Here she trails off.
Essie Davis’ own contribution
Davis has a long history of playing troubled characters. In 2011’s Burning Man she played Karen, a woman struggling to set her brother free from depression while battling it herself. The Slap featured her as Anouk, a woman attempting to hit the reset button on her bored life that consists of dating a much younger man. She’s currently hamming it up as Miss Fischer in Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries on ABC. Kent had brief success as an actress in the late 90s on TV’s Murder Call, another product by the bastion of Australian cop dramas Hal McElroy, but hasn’t appeared on anyone’s screen since 2003. One can only assume she’d been concentrating on that aforementioned unrealised script and then The Babadook for Davis since then.
“I think it’s quite good to be terrified.” Kent says about Davis jumping into the role of Amelia, but it’s equally appropriate for anything she’s ventured into since embarking on a directing career. “Of stepping into a creative venture. I was terrified too. I didn’t know if I could do it either but I think that’s the perfect point to take off and have something interesting happen.”
Where it all began
The Babadook first grew legs in 2005 when Kent directed her first short Monster, a black and white piece that looks like a product of German expressionism. It concerned a frustrated single mother who grows bored of her son’s complaining that a monster is hiding under his bed and in the closet. After inspecting a couple of times it turns out he wasn’t lying – a huge, hideous creature really does exist in his room. (I won’t spoil the ending if you’re tempted to view it.) There are a few similarities between it and her latest but Kent says we’re misguided to assume that was the plan all along. “It was about embracing one’s shadow side I guess and that’s what Monster was about and that’s what The Babadook (is) about. But I certainly didn’t think, ‘I’m going to make a feature inspired by this one day.’ And I never thought ‘I should make a feature of that short.’ It was more the themes within Monster that kept drawing me back because I feel (that) strongly about human nature, that we need to face stuff. That’s where the link comes in.”
It’s this bond between Kent and Davis that is so exciting and what makes her film succeed. “We kind of looked at each other and jumped off a cliff together in a way,” says Kent. And jump they did. While the film does contain bog-standard horror tropes, they’re executed in such a fashion that it’s as if you’re watching them for the first time. It’s a testament to both Davis’ talent as an actor and Kent as a director (not fully revealing the monster, using the camera in such a way to reflect the monster’s point-of-view that it alone scares you). Having earned a Master of Arts in film production I’m well aware of how difficult some scenes are for both parties but I ask them if any in particular stand out, looking back on the shoot, and I’m surprised that the question makes Davis begin to cry.
“In order to go to this place ... we had to go to the impact of the initial grief and (Amelia) feeling it, and trying to fucking shove it down, and explain. There were points when I was standing on a trolley basically with my mouth open to the heavens, screaming straight grief and then trying to speak to little, our stand in on his knees, and try to look at him and see Noah and have to go back in my place and someone would walk through the studio in a room of silence and I would go [makes intense noises to illustrate her frustration].” She’s referring to a scene where the manifestation has become so great within her that Amelia swears at her child, as an adult would to another adult in a fight.
Kent adds, “But the thing is, when you’re dealing with that kind of scene, all you can do is get out of the way of the actress and support them. And the last thing I want to say (is) acting is a really tough job and it would bode well for many directors to go and learn how to do it and if nothing else, to create some empathy for what has to go on to get roles like this on screen.”
The road ahead for Kent looks promising. Her next film is set to delve further into some similar themes. “My next film ... is about the inherently destructive nature of violence and revenge and how it eats away, how you punish someone by stabbing yourself.” If this comes into fruition then Kent will reaffirm herself as a director to keep an eye on.
The organiser of the interview has been motioning for me to wrap this interview up for the past five minutes and I don’t want to inconvenience them any longer. I leave the hotel in South Yarra and return to my small apartment space in the inner west. My room is incredibly cramped and I’ve been aware of how claustrophobic this space is since previewing the film. Before I write this I decide I’ll go to a café and sip an espresso outside and escape my own dark spaces. I’m touched by Davis’ crying in our interview but I also feel bad, like I’ve done something wrong. I then see a mother with a screaming child in a pram and notice her screwed-up face while she’s trying to communicate her order to the barista. He does what a person in his position only can do – offer a glance of sympathy – before continuing the rest of his life. The mother takes a seat and attempts to coo her baby into happiness. I think of what Kent said earlier, that every mother goes through what Amelia does, and watching this play out in front of me I realise I cannot even begin to understand what it would take to do all of that by herself. For Davis to communicate such lonely horror has established her as one of the best actors in the country, even though we already knew it. It really must be crowded in there.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
The Babadook opens in limited release on May 22.