A MATTER OF TRUST
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-
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