Review/Interview: Writer-Director Jennifer Kent Unleashes ‘THE BABADOOK’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

THE BABADOOK | 93 min. | Rated R | Director: Jennifer Kent | Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Cathy Adamek, Hayley McElhinney and Tim Purcell

One of the biggest standouts of the year is the incredibly effective Australian horror film THE BABADOOK. The film follows Amelia (a knockout Essie Davis), a depressed mother who thought her biggest issue was her son’s violent outbursts. Well, that was before Mr. Babadook, a ghostly figure that haunts the family.

With most horror films these days, the climax happens somewhere around the middle and loses momentum afterwards to where everything that follows doesn’t have the same effect (think INSIDIOUS, which is, nevertheless, a decent horror movie). But in THE BABADOOK, there is comic relief brilliantly placed throughout to bring you down from your own climax just so they get another opportunity to make you fear up and fall once more. First-time feature director Jennifer Kent understands the psychology behind tension and builds suspense through mere scene construction.

The scares, the pacing, the sound design and camera work all lend to the film’s high standing, bringing messed up to a whole new level and it’s spectacular.

We spoke with Jennifer Kent recently to discuss her design for the film, what scares people nowadays, and how the The Babadook creature stayed with her after filming.

I caught the film at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, and I thought you should know that myself as well as the theater audience found the film quite scary. I loved that THE BABADOOK had a human story to it. It was relatable, and the supernatural factor, if you want to call it that, is more like the backbone of the story. So congratulations for delivering a very memorable film.

Kent: “Aw [Laughs], thanks, Preston.”

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman play mother and son in THE BABADOOK. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman play mother and son in THE BABADOOK. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

My pleasure. Even though you developed the story, directed it and probably spent a lot of time with it in post as well – do you have the capacity to be scared of your own film when you watch it, or does it not affect you?

Kent: “Uhh, no [Laughs]. I don’t think so. I felt more moved at times by Essie Davis’ character and the little boy. That was probably the aspect that hit me most. I felt for their situation. But I guess on some level I found certain elements a bit creepy. So yeah, some things creep me out a little bit.”

Yeah. I was wondering because I was really drawn to this article on Alfred Hitchcock that I read, and Hitchock said that the only way that he could get over his fears was to make movies about them.

Kent: “Yeah, that’s great. I mean, I guess what was weird for me was when I was in post, I was seeing things around the house. I thought maybe I was going crazy for getting scared by The Babadook’s shadows. I thought, ‘Wow, he’s seeping into my consciousness!'”

That is crazy. But I could imagine something like that happening after you spend so much time with The Babadook. However, what I cannot imagine is doing some of the things that Essie has to do in the film. It seems so intense, especially in the latter half of the movie. How do you call cut on something like that, something that has to be so emotionally draining?

Kent: “Well, you know, Essie and I are very dear friends, and for her mental health I tried to keep things with as much levity as possible. We also have a child on set that we had to protect. Essie was very good about it. You could hear a pin drop in those very difficult scenes. She demanded and needed 100% quiet and focus, and that was my job to provide that for her, to give her support. But she is phenomenal, you know, just incredibly professional. But, you know, there were times when she really couldn’t cry anymore, so we cracked jokes, took breaks, and had a hug. We got through it that way.”

Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

[Laughs] Yeah, the story calls for those kind of moments. I wanted to ask you about the color palette that you worked with on the film. I found it incredibly effective. It fit the film’s dark and grim tone quite well. But I watched the original short film, MONSTER, that you did on The Babadook, and it’s in black-and-white. What made you decide to do the feature length in color? Were you ever at any point going to do the feature in black-and-white?

Kent: “It wasn’t seriously on the table. It crossed my mind, but I made the short film more as a homage to early cinema. But for the feature length, I am really happy that we didn’t do black-and-white. I didn’t want to create a museum piece, or a replica of an old piece of cinema. Black-and-white didn’t feel like the right choice. I am happy that I opted for a reduced color palette.

I mean, we created most of the colors on set and not in post. The whites were very pure and clean; it’s not like we put a gel over the lights or did it in post-production. It really has a unique quality, and I am very proud of it.”

As you should be. You mentioned early cinema. I am curious about the research that was involved in making this, and how early cinema tricks influenced this film. I remember an instance in the middle of the film where there is an old, black-and-white film on the television as Essie’s character is kind of dosing off, and she sees The Babadook in it. You had to create that piece from scratch, I imagine, and you had to make it look like an old film.

Kent: “Yeah, we had to go back to the roots, to see how to do those things. We did everything practically. I have a deep love for that kind of cinema and storytelling anyways, so I am always fascinated and obsessed with that kind of magician style. It was a natural progression, something that I did my own research on over the years. It’s very satisfying to do effects that way; there’s a magic to it that’s very different from our world of cinema today.”

Noah Wiseman is Samuel in THE BABADOOK. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Noah Wiseman is Samuel in THE BABADOOK. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

What about the sound? I know that the film is available On Demand, but everyone needs to see this film in the theater because the sound is just a great device that is utilized, and it really adds to the creepiness of the film. What was the process of that like, and creating all those unique sounds?

Kent: “I am also really obsessed by sound. I had a very experienced sound designer and mixer. I mean, a lot of the film is owed to the sound design. According to my sound designer, they don’t care as much about sounds as I do [Laughs]. They would say they were quite impressed, which I would agree with.”

Where did the design for The Babadook stem from? The gloves, the hat, the coat – all of that.

Kent: “It wasn’t an intellectual choice for me, all of that stuff. All of it started with how Essie’s character, Amelia, was feeling. It comes from her fear. I guess I didn’t mean for it to look a certain way. The top layer, the part you see in the book in the film, was made to look very childlike. I also didn’t want to see any skin, so the face looks like a mask. It looks like a wig for hair, and then the hats and gloves. You get this sense that it’s something that is playing at being human. You know the words in the book? ‘Once you see what’s underneath, you’re going to wish you were dead.’ It’s more about what’s underneath, the part you don’t know, that’s scarier than what’s on the top.”

Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Right, right. And I like when films doesn’t always reveal all its parts. That mystery is what carries with you after the film is over and makes it worth remembering. But I feel like what scares people is constantly changing. Like you brought up with early cinema, films such as NOSFERATU may not scare a teenager nowadays. However, if you show him or her something like this or THE CONJURING, they’ll probably will be more terrified. Why do you think is the biggest difference for what scares people today compared to back then?

Kent: “Yeah, it’s an interesting question, really, because, well, I guess for one, the focus was really not on scaring people. It was more about the relationships in the film, like you mentioned earlier, between the mother and son. The descentagration – she basically has to go through hell to get to that kid, and that was my focus. It’s terrifying to watch her face what she hasn’t faced.

Now, for a 15-year-old kid who hasn’t been through much, they are not going to relate. But for someone who might have lived a bit of life and suffered a bit of loss – different things scare different people. This film will scare some people to bits and others not so much. That’s why for my money it’s born from the characters and their relationships. You can never tell what’s going to work for people. It’s a very hard thing to pin down: what scares people. But people just have different expectations.”

THE BABADOOK is playing today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.