Jennifer Kent's Australian thriller The Babadook is of the big success stories from this year's Sundance Film Festival. The story seems standard enough: A boogieman character named the Babadook terrorizes a single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who's so poorly behaved, he's a bit of a monster himself. But the film has surprising depth.
Using familiar horror tropes (among them: the bad kid, the haunted house, and my favorite, the woman telling the truth whom no one believes), Kent creates something far more thoughtful than typical jump-scare fare: a meditation on the hell of parenting especially in the wake of tragedy. IFC Midnight snapped up the rights to the movie, which currently has a perfect 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Babadook is set to be released later this year, possibly around October to coincide with Halloween. It played over the weekend at New York's New Directors/New Films festival, and I spoke with Kent while she was in town about her film, horror's misogyny, and empowerment.
Gawker: I feel like calling The Babadook a horror movie doesn't exactly do the job of describing it. Do you consider this a horror movie?
Jennifer Kent: I don't look down on horror, but I my definition of horror is probably quite a lot broader than most. I don't see it as a straight horror film. Gavin Smith (Film Comment editor and the Film Society of Lincoln Center senior programmer) intro'd the Q&A on Saturday night. And he said after watching it again, it's like 10 percent horror and 90 percent something altogether different. I thought that was a really big compliment, actually.
And it's also, like, what is the true horror of the movie? I mean, the Babadook character is a terrible thing to live with, but a child that you can't love that seems like the real horror.
Yeah, that's the real horror. I was fortunate enough to have a supremely loving mum, really felt safe as a kid. And for me to kind of think of the worst horror was to go there and think, what if I didn't have that? What if, and some people don't. And I think that is the real horror of the film, for both of them [the mother and the son]. For him, clearly, but for her it's agony to not be able to—to really, physically, not be able to love her son.
That said, I detected a subtle sense of humor at times. There's a broadness in some of the acting, and when Amelia's hair is all tangled and teased out, she's cartoonishly frazzled.
I did want to create a crazy world. My friends say, "You should write a comedy!" But, you know, I don't think I'll get many comedy offers after this. I wanted the outer world to kind of reflect how Amelia sees it, so it's larger than life, and that was really intentional: the police, the [other] mothers, the rest of the world is just a little bit off-kilter and a little bit too big to be real. I think to have a story where this entity can sit and be believably there, the world itself had to be heightened. It's not the kind of found-footage kind of approach where everything is completely, supposedly, real and natural.
I love how ultimately pragmatic this movie is. The message I gathered was: Bad shit happens, and you either live with it or die.
Yeah. Well, that's a great compliment, Rich, because that's the reason why I wrote the film. Because I feel we're all feeling like everyone else is coping and we're not. We're all looking on the outside in, at other people's perfect worlds. You know, you only have to go on Facebook for half an hour to feel like, "Shit, everyone else is together and I'm not!" And I think I was really interested in exploring a character that was presenting to the outside world, "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine." But then was, you know, drowning inside. And every human being, I'm sure, can relate to that.
Horror is often criticized for its misogyny.
Do you agree with that critique? Is your involvement with it a feminist move?
I don't think it's a conscious, "Oh, I'm going to make this kind of film and I'm going to make it a feminist statement," or anything like that. But I just think through the nature of who I am, I couldn't tell a horror story and have a woman just be chased and killed. I watch them and I go, "Ohhh, OK, that's a really well crafted film." But, you know, I think, "Come on, I've had enough of this." And I don't find those kind of heroines that end up seeking revenge on guys and things like the new I Spit on Your Grave…
Or even the old I Spit on Your Grave, right?
Yeah, I don't find them particularly empowering, either. Because it's just offering a masculine perspective on a kind of feminine problem.
You also have to sit through watching them get raped for a half an hour.
On one hand I don't want to look at a movie like: This is a woman's movie...
...But on the other hand, there are too few women directors, and here you are.
Yeah. I think you can't deny the elephant in the room. It's there. But I wouldn't want to say I'm a feminist filmmaker because I don't understand what that actually means. I'm just trying to make stories that appeal to human beings. And in fact, before we released Babadook in any capacity, we were saying, "Oh, it'll be appealing to women." You know, you've got to do those demographic things, between the ages of, I don't know, 25 and 45 or whatever. But then it was the 15-year-old boys who came up to me at Sundance, going, "That was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life!" That really touched me. Because I thought, OK, so they can hear a story like this, see it, and still get something from it.
This does not strike me as something a man would have made.
No, no. Why do you think?
Well, because you care so much about the interior life of this woman, this mother, you know?
In general, men just don't care like that, you know?
[laughs] Right! So true. And was that – I'm not going to interview you – but I'm curious if that was a surprise.
It was definitely a surprise. But like I said, the word "horror" just seemed too simplistic when I watched this movie. I love horror. That's why I rushed to see it as soon as I got the invite. I couldn't wait. But I was surprised at the issues that the movie was dealing with and how it was really just more of a tragedy and then a triumph, really.
And it's sort of ungodly that people have to live through. And I don't judge my characters, generally. Even if they are liars, or they're not so strong, you know? So I really sat within her skin. I think it comes from my experience as an actor, that I have empathy. And I think as a person I just have empathy for others. But it's interesting, going back to that idea of different characters for women, especially in horror. There was a great review from Slant. Actually, I don't normally read them, but my producer said, "Please read these." It was a really great review. It talked about how the film felt like an echo of these kind of seventies horror heroines, for want of a better word. But not with the sardonic male P.O.V. And I think that's a really big complement. I really wanted the audience to have two gentle hands placed around their neck until they felt like, "I can't breathe. Make this stop." And then it explodes. So I did. I wanted it to be uncomfortable. I wanted them to feel what it feels like to deny your own experience.
Do you have kids?
No. I've got a lot of nieces and nephews. I've got, like, 16 of them. So I know kids. But I think actually not having them gave me some perspective to write this,
I think maybe somebody else would have too soft of a heart to write a kid that is not just unloved by his mom but is also kind of unlikeable in general.
Yeah. And you have to find a line with that.
It's a hard line to find, right?
Yeah. Because you don't want the audience going, "Kill him!" So it was in the casting as well, but in the writing of it, you know, it's a fine line. You had to make him adorable but also infuriating and exhausting and… Yeah, but I love kids, and I love working with them. I'm just really proud of Noah's performance in this film because he's just 6. But yeah, not having them, I think, has given me a little distance from the horrors of motherhood.