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Facing the Darkness of Life: Interview with The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent

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Immediately following its world premiere at Sundance this year, The Babadook became the horror buzz-film of the year. Unlike other buzz topics, however, The Babadook’s steam never slowed; as the weeks turned to months, consecutive reviews and social media praise kept the film alive. No its steam far from slowed, it intensified. If it wasn’t painstakingly clear by then, after sweeping nearly every horror category at Austin’s Fantastic fest in late September/early October, The Babadook was fit to be coined Horror title of the year—and all of this still nearly two months before it’s nationwide release in the States. In his web review of the film early this year, Max Weinstein wrote of the film, “Kent has given us a first-rate horror film by exposing the ugly underside of the proverbial broken home… Under the spell of Kent’s masterful direction and ingenious narrative parameters, Davis and Winspear deliver memorable performances to render an on-screen relationship that is equal parts adversarial and resiliently loving…with her destined-to-be-iconic monster, Kent argues for post-traumatic stress and the plight of single parenthood as both burden and liberation — the literal and figurative mothers of invention.” Max’s words resonate to the core of the film; it is a film about loss, about motherhood, about depression. It’s a slice of life film, only the slice is more of a slash and—in spite of the fantastical elements of the film—life, here, feels truer. We have become accustomed to accepting cinematic reality as the mundane, but is that the truth? Is life so washed out, so monotonous that all elements of darkness must be eradicated? To answer these questions we went to the core of the creation for The Babadook, writer-director Jennifer Kent herself.

Diabolique: The first word spoken in The Babadook is “Mom,” which seems so emblematic of the film, as it seems to be a movie inseparable from the concept of motherhood. How did the story come to you?

Jennifer Kent: It started with a short [Monster] that I had made, but in terms of the feature I really wanted to go deeper. I wanted to explore what it is like for someone who hasn’t faced something in a very long time to have to face it. I guess it comes from the idea of me, as a person, feeling that it is important to integrate our shadowed side, our difficulties, our darkness. So that is where the idea started. All of the stuff about motherhood—its not secondarily themed in the film but it came second, it came later. When someone suppresses darkness they not only hurt themselves, they hurt everyone around them. It made sense that that person was a child because they are the most vulnerable possibility.

Diabolique: The film definitely exists in kind of a long trajectory of horror films that equate motherhood with a sort of psychosis. Was The Babadook a reaction to this kind of long standing trope?

Kent: No, it really wasn’t. It was that idea of facing darkness. For me, in terms of deeper things, I feel that one of the major causes of mental illness—I’m certainly no expert, but what I feel—is people expecting life to be great all the time, and not accepting that some parts of it are really shitty and challenging, and that is all part of it. So, Amelia is walking around saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,’ because she feels that on some level she’s meant to be fine, but the reality is, she’s lost her husband in this brutally tragic way. The question I wanted to ask is, ‘how does one reconcile that and live a normal life?’ You know, how do people go through and have terrible and horrific things happen and still go on? The Babadook was my exploration of that. The themes of motherhood and pregnancy are there; they are definitely there. They weren’t the spine for me, but they’ve become a really important element of the story. I think there is that thing in the story of a woman not automatically adoring her child just because she’s given birth to him. It is a big taboo that we are not meant to talk about, that not all women love their kids or can love their kids, for whatever reason. That idea is good to explore in horror because you can go further than you can in a drama, I think.

Diabolique: Certainly, horror is a genre that is not shackled by the conventions of reality, and because of that I think that it is a place where a stronger comment about contemporary society can often be made than can when films try to replicate reality.

Kent: That is exactly how I feel, exactly why I chose a style that offers more. Horror has a whole lot of myths. It can really explore deep human problems, and yet, not in a totally true way. In dealing with them in a not totally true way, you are actually really hitting to the core of them. And people can really feel things. It is just a much more effective way to tell a story, and, for my money, I am really drawn to telling stories that way.

Diabolique: On that line, what is your personal connection to horror?

Kent: I was maybe seven or eight when I starting watching them, you know much to my parents’ concern. It’s not like an obsession with bad things; it is a way to look at all aspects of human nature. I remember reading once about a psychologist saying people who can watch horror films—and I don’t know how true this is—actually have more of a healthy psychological state because they are not frightened of difficult things. Why I love horror, is that you can explore really terrible stuff and withdraw it. There is an element of being able to face it and accept it. It is certainly how I approached The Babadook, that is what I am saying: ‘face it. Face these things. See if you can.’ The moving thing for me, is having people of all walks come up to me after seeing a screening of the film—you know, I had one young guy who had lost his parents and said it was a really honest portrayal of grief; another woman who’d grown up with a mother who was schizophrenic who said it was really cathartic to watch it; others who’ve had drug addiction, depression, mental illness—that’s amazing to me, that they can get something from this film. That was my hope for it. It is nice when people say, ‘wow I got scared,’ but it is amazing when people are moved by the story.

Diabolique: And the response has been quite impressive. It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that it is quickly becoming the number one horror film of the year—in terms of fans and critical opinion. Did any part of you expect this kind of immediate and wide spread reaction?

Kent: Honestly, it is the weirdest thing. It’s weird. I am shocked and humbled by it, if anything. I really wrote this film from a place of ‘I need to tell this story,’ and I hoped that it would mean something to some other people in a way that it does to me. I feel that a lot of us are drowning in these expectations of a perfect life that we think we should be living and the real life. I wanted to show the real life. That was my only focus for making this film. I never thought, ‘I want to make a successful film.’ Of course you want people to see it, but I never thought I’d make a scary film and there’d be all this crossover. None of that went through my head. I didn’t think it’d have that kind of appeal.

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Diabolique: One thing that struck me about the film is that it doesn’t feel like a first time feature, you feel very much like a comfortable and confident director—a veteran. I know you have a history in film as an actor, but coming to it as a first time feature director what were some of the hurdles you faced?

Kent: That’s a big compliment, thank you. I guess, like I’m not 21 and I’ve been in the industry a long time. As an actor, I understand storytelling from that perspective. I’m a visual person, and I watch a lot of films. I watch everything, from arthouse to very commercial films. It’s my love. It’s my passion. All of that gave me a confidence that was really unshakeable. And I don’t mean that I always felt like, ‘hey, I’m going to do a great job,’ but I always felt like I could do it on some big level. I didn’t know if it’d be good, but I knew I could do it. I think the biggest hurdle for us—what most filmmakers find—is time and money. In particular, with this film we had a six-year old child in almost every scene. And, we shot in a studio. So it is not like we were doing a found-footage film where you can collect shots just on the fly. Everything was considered. Everything took a long time to set up. I am so grateful for my experience as an actor because in my preparation I could work out where we needed to spend the most time, and where we needed to spend the most time was with those actors. Those were the challenges, but somehow we did it. I have a brilliant producer  I work with, who really protected the film. I owe a lot to her. It’s as much her film as it is mine.

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Diabolique: While a lack of female voices is a problem with all of the industry, it seems especially problematic in the horror world. Do you feel that as a female director you experienced any extra hardships?

Kent: No, I don’t, but it is a hard question to answer. I understand why it is being asked because there is such an obvious imbalance that is kind of mind-boggling. Maybe it is something to do with my upbringing, but I was brought up to feel equal. And I owe that to my parents. So, I am not aware of gender. Having said that, I know that there are a lot of women who have come before me who have really fought to get to where we are at today, which is still not great but it is a lot better than it used to be. I personally am not encumbered by my gender. I don’t think about it at all when I work. I just told a story that was true to me, that I felt really strongly about telling. I am really not concerned at all with who else out there is doing what, whether they are male or female or anything else. I know that is probably not a very clear answer, but all I can tell you is that I am not ruled by gender.

Diabolique: So what is on the plate for you next?

Kent: Well I’ve got two films that I am writing. They are not horror films, but they have kind of horror elements to them, or scary elements. One is a frontier story set in Tasmania—an island off the coast of Australia—in the 1820s. It was really a hell on earth there, and I am looking at revenge from a female perspective. I’m questioning revenge in that story. The other one is a very heightened, strange drama but I am right in the middle of it so it is kind of hard to talk about it.

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The Babadook opens nationwide this friday, November 28th.

About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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