A MAT­TER OF TRUST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM -

THEIRS is a won­der­ful pair­ing. Essie Davis, best known as Phryne Fisher in the pop­u­lar ABC1 adap­ta­tion of Kerry Green­wood’s Miss Fisher’s Mur­der Mys­ter­ies, is fi­nally be­ing cast in the roles she de­serves af­ter re­turn­ing home af­ter a stint in Bri­tain (for which she hap­pened to pick up an Olivier award and a Tony award nom­i­na­tion).

And Jennifer Kent, who trained and worked as an ac­tress — “It’s a tough ca­reer when you’re wait­ing and I was wait­ing a lot” — be­fore be­com­ing a very tal­ented di­rec­tor. Ob­vi­ously, she is au fait with an ac­tor’s lot.

“I think most di­rec­tors — I won’t say most, but some — don’t un­der­stand ac­tors and are fright­ened of ac­tors,” Kent says. “There’s ei­ther too much rev­er­ence for ac­tors, or fear, but a lot of di­rec­tors should go and take act­ing classes. See what it’s like from the in­side and help them un­der­stand bet­ter.”

Af­ter all, Davis adds mis­chie­vously, “not all di­rec­tors are very good. So you have to look out for yourself.”

The Babadook re­quired a par­tic­u­lar lead per­for­mance: Amelia is a bun­dle of hang-ups and in­ten­sity, and she ap­pears in es­sen­tially ev­ery scene in all her frailty and fear. Davis en­thuses it was “an in­cred­i­bly well-writ­ten role, a great char­ac­ter that is in­cred­i­bly com­plex and a bril­liant chal­lenge to play”.

“And I had to map a fairly tricky path through her jour­ney in or­der to come out the other side with­out an omelet on my face,” she says, laugh­ing. It helped that Davis ad­mired Kent as an ac­tress from their time to­gether at Syd­ney’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art.

“Our friend­ship is a deep one,” Davis says. “And also I knew as she cre­ated ev­ery role, (she would have) acted it out in her head as she wrote it. She’s prob­a­bly the only di­rec­tor I’ve ever just im­plic­itly trusted no mat­ter what she wanted.”

Kent con­cedes she couldn’t have made the film with­out some­one like Davis in the cen­tre, “be­cause it’s her film; it’s a pow­er­house per­for­mance”.

The duo speaks of trust but also agrees the film had the po­ten­tial to jeop­ar­dise their friend­ship. “But it could have been jeop­ar­dised if I said I didn’t want to do it, it’s too scary, it’s too con­fronting,” Davis jokes.

The film is con­fronting but in the pure hor­ror sense, not in mod­ern hor­ror’s ma­nip­u­la­tive grub­bi­ness. On a small budget that would shame an Amer­i­can hor­ror film, Kent not only man­ages to cre­ate thrills with a neat sce­nario of a chil­dren’s book tor­ment­ing the mother and son, but she de­liv­ers con­vinc­ing chills with sim­ple and ef­fec­tive spe­cial ef­fects and cam­era work. The re­sult is par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing the film’s bud­getary con­straints. The crew worked with­out pay­ment for the last three days of the shoot and Kent and her pro­ducer, Kris­tian Moliere, raised $30,000 from a Kick­starter cam­paign just to al­low the art depart­ment to fin­ish the de­sign.

A to­ken of the es­teem in which Kent’s short film Monster, and Davis’s ca­reer, par­tic­u­larly on Lon­don’s West End, are held is the list of con­trib­u­tors to the late pub­lic fund­ing cam­paign, in­clud­ing ac­tress Miriam Mar­golyes, play­wright Tom Stop­pard, their agents, friends and fam­i­lies.

Just as strik­ing is Kent’s re­spect for ba­sic hor­ror tenets. It stands, if humbly, be­side more revered ex­am­ples of genre. In that re­spect, The Babadook con­trasts with some of the more re­gres­sive hor­ror films cir­cling the world, films that be­lieve them­selves to be trans­gres­sive but are merely smutty or ex­ploita­tive. That could be be­cause of the lack of women di­rect­ing hor­ror films.

“I don’t think there are many women di­rect­ing films,” Kent notes. “But I agree. Hor­ror has a his­tory of this an­ar­chic, in­de­pen­dent spirit and you have to have balls to do it and most women don’t have balls.”

Davis chips in. “I was told I had balls the size of grape­fruits the other day!”

Kent en­joys the genre de­spite not clas­si­fy­ing her­self as “a woman in hor­ror”. Sure, she has made a hor­ror film and had sup­port in de­vel­op­ing the film but “I had to fight for this story to make it to the screen”.

It’s a good thing. Kent is cor­rect in ar­gu­ing hor­ror needs more bal­ance and more fe­male char­ac­ters “that are com­plex and worth watch­ing and don’t just get gar­rot­ted at the end or 10 min­utes in”.

Af­fir­ma­tion of the suc­cess of her de­but fea­ture, even be­fore it re­leases com­mer­cially any-

Babadook,

The where, is the fact she has al­ready turned down two Amer­i­can stu­dio films that, she jokes, “have prob­a­bly gone to those guys” who gar­rotte women in their films.

“Hor­ror has the abil­ity to shine a light on hu­man frailty and vul­ner­a­bil­ity and our fear of death and our fear of lots of things,” she says. “And I don’t quite un­der­stand why it’s so looked down on. Since the silent era, there have been master­pieces of hor­ror, all the way through, but they get over­looked when the H-word gets men­tioned. There’s plenty of shitty dra­mas but you never hear about them, it’s ‘Oh, you made a drama, lovely drama …’ ”

“Hor­ror haters” for­get the films they love, such as Let the Right One In or The Shin­ing, she adds.

The Babadook, if it can burst be­yond the con­fines of “Aus­tralian hor­ror”, may join that list tran­scend­ing the genre. The friends seem con­tent al­ready, though. Kent’s di­rect­ing ca­reer is as­sured, at least in the medium term, and the stun­ning ti­tle book she cre­ated in as­so­ci­a­tion with de­signer Alex Juhasz will pos­si­bly be pub­lished in as­so­ci­a­tion with the US re­lease of the film later this year.

And, af­ter leav­ing Aus­tralia more than a decade ago be­cause all the screen roles were be­ing taken by a cou­ple of other ac­tors, Davis has re­turned to be one of those cou­ple of dom­i­nant Aus­tralian ac­tors.

She laments an in­dus­try that won’t take risks on bril­liant ac­tors fi­nanciers don’t know be­fore turn­ing to­wards her friend and grin­ning.

“That said, I’m quite en­joy­ing this par­tic­u­lar decade,” Davis roars. “I got to play a lead in a fea­ture film!”

Essie Davis, left and di­rec­tor Jennifer Kent

Davis with Noah Wise­man in

in which a mother and son are tor­mented by a chil­dren’s book

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