“I love my country. I love being here and I’d love to make more films here.”
You graduated from NIDA as an actor and have credits dating back to the later years of A Country Practice. You didn’t direct your first film until 2005, around about the same time you stopped acting. What made you want to become a director?
Well as soon as I could read and write I started writing plays and directing and acting in them at school, so that was something I came into the world doing. When I went to NIDA I was discouraged from writing and directing and encouraged to only focus on acting. When I got out of NIDA I was completely bored by being an actor. [Laughs]. I love the process of acting but I didn’t enjoy the lifestyle and I’m also a pretty shy person who’s not very good at self promotion. Over time I was gradually drawn back into the things I love to do. I went and took an apprenticeship of sorts on Lars von Trier’s Dogville, then I made a short and did some TV and was writing for ages and then The Babadook came into being.
So was it anyone in particular who discouraged you from becoming a director?
I think it was the ethos at the time. NIDA is a very intense course and I don’t think they wanted me to be getting distracted by writing stuff. What they didn’t realise was that I have a lot of energy to do a lot of things. So I let it go for those three years but it was still in me – I couldn’t not write and I couldn’t not tell storeys.
You made your short film Monster 9 years ago. When did you decide you wanted to expand it into a feature film?
Well I had been working on a number of features that I was passionate about but there was no traction with them. They would get to the point of almost being made and then they wouldn’t. There was one which I wrote for Essie Davis actually but it was very financially ambitious. It just didn’t get there so I thought I either give up or I don’t. That’s when I decided I wanted to try and write something outside of Australia and I went to a place called Lamina Film Lab in Amsterdam and I developed The Babadook there. It’s often the way with filmmakers that it’s such a long process. Sometimes we write films and they don’t get made but with The Babadook it was quite quick. It took just under three years from having the idea to being on set which was really fast.
Did you have a lot of support around you during the process?
Well people recognised my skill as a writer and director but my vision is a little left of centre and it wasn’t fitting into any film that they could recognise from before. The Babadook was wonderfully simple in that it was achievable on a lower budget but I could still take the bull by the horns and create a unique vision. It’s a credit to my producers and especially Screen Australia that they just left me alone.
Some elements of The Babadook seem to be inspired by late 70’s / early 80’s horror films like The Exorcist and The Evil Dead. Were these kind of films, and others, inspiration for The Babadook?
When you even mention The Evil Dead I get goosebumps. It was a film I was not allowed to watch as a kid but eventually did. [Laughs]. I was a kid in that period so the film was a real passion for me and then as an early teenager. I loved those kind of films. They’re in my DNA. So I was influenced by The Evil Dead as well as John Carpenter and The Thing and Halloween. These are films that have a mythical quality and they’re also quite simple – they run deep but there’s a simplicity to them that I think is really beautiful. The Evil Dead, in particular, is still brilliant. I watched them all in a row recently after I watched the remake and the first one still creeps me out.
It is absolutely terrifying! There’s something about the low-budget, no-frills approach that still creeps me out to this day. The cinematography was incredible and Raimi was so innovative. The films were genius.
Are horror films something you want to continue to make throughout your career?
Well I love hearing David Lynch talk about how films come to him. He starts with an idea and then he falls in love with that idea. I would probably think I’m closer to that message than saying, ‘I’m a horror director and I’m going to continue making horror.’ For me it’s all about the idea at the core of the film.
With The Babadook I was fascinated by how people could possibly push down painful parts of themselves or experiences they’ve had. That was what intrigued me and the horror was supportive of that.
The next film I’m working on is set in a horror world but I wouldn’t call it a straight horror. It’s set in the 1820’s in Tasmania and it’s a revenge tragedy.
You recently received funding for that, right?
Yes I did. Thank you Screen Australia. [Laughs]. I can actually eat while I write this one. [Laughs]. I’ll be working on that more once the release of The Babadook dies down a bit.
Noah Wiseman is a revelation as Samuel and Essie Davis has taken her skills to a whole new level with Amelia. Can you tell us about working with them both and what their relationship was like off camera?
It was a really tough shoot for many reasons as I’m sure you could imagine. A low budget film with huge ambitions is not an easy undertaking but both Essie and Noah are what make this film come alive. Essie and I have known each other for 20 years, we went through NIDA together. She was a year below me and she always struck me as being such an extraordinary chameleon and a beautiful actress. To work with Essie, such an old friend, has been such a joyous experience. I was a bit scared at first because I was concerned the friendship could cog out because it doesn’t always work to work with your close friends, but we fell very easily into the roll of director and actress. Essie loves to be directed and, believe it or not, not all actors actually do. Essie has a generous spirit and she’s very receptive to direction which was wonderful. And we’re still friends and we still love each other. [Laughs].
Now, Noah was a different kettle of fish because he’s six and had no experience whereas Essie is incredibly experienced. What Noah did have was an innate empathy for others and he’s a born actor, he really is. Don’t get me wrong, I had to work very hard with him, but it’s not like he just walked in and gave that performance.
I think the fact that I had been an actress as a child I knew what he needed and Essie and I got there together with Noah.
So he didn’t have any difficulties with the story of The Babadook?
I really wanted to protect this little boy and it was of vital importance to me that he didn’t come out of this emotionally and psychologically scarred. It’s ultimately a positive story but it’s a tough story.
I knew Noah liked animals so his mother, I and he went to the Adelaide Zoo when he arrived and that’s where I told him the story of The Babadook. I left out all the scary bits but he understood. The worst thing you can do to a child full stop, but certainly a child actor, is to underestimate their ability to comprehend what’s going on around them. So I gave him as much power as I could in that regard and he really felt for the film and he really felt for Sam and was really empathetic towards him. I love Noah and funnily enough his mum is a child psychologist. [Laughs]. She read the film and she just loved the story. She felt it was a story that women in particular had to see and that they needed to see the less than perfect version of motherhood as well as the grief involved in the joy of being a mother.
A topic that often comes up during my previous discussions with other filmmakers is the difficulty in promoting their films. How have you found that side of it so far as a first-time director?
Well Essie and I are out doing it together, so that’s been great. It has been great fun. I guess the hard part is not the promotion of the film – that’s easy for us because we love the film – but what’s difficult is the lack of funds. You have a Captain America or an Avengers and the budget is $250,000,000, or whatever it’s up to these days, while they also have millions of dollars set aside for advertising worldwide. Our budget is zero. [Laughs].
We can have our film which has done incredibly well overseas, and has received rave reviews from critics like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter but it still doesn’t trickle over to our shores so it’s vital that we have local support for this film just so it gets seen. The marketing is skinny.
Why is it so skinny? Why isn’t there enough money put aside for promotion?
Well I was having this discussion with a filmmaker friend the other day. There was a period in Australia’s history, when Screen Australia was being developed, where all the money went into development, which was amazing, but there was no money out the back end to actually sell these films. They where often very good films which relied on word of mouth as well as overseas press. I think we’re luckier now that we do have social media at least. With it we can reach fans that would have had zero idea about the film and would have probably heard about the film five years later through some DVD shop. Now we’re taking the power of social media into our own hands.
I’m also actively supporting the film by flying to Brisbane to do a Q&A. But it’s the lack of funds that make it really tough, not lack of enthusiasm. I also think that exhibitors are a little bit apathetic because they’re paid a lot of money to have these American films in their cinemas but they’re not paid anything to screen Australian films. It’s a huge risk for them. What will really help us is for people who see the film, and love it, get out there and spread the word.
The film has been very well received critically. Being your feature film debut do you find yourself wanting to read everything that’s said about the film, or are you relaxed about that kind of thing?
Well it’s a slippery slope to hell to do that. [Laughs]. If you read one great review like yours from Cinema Australia, and then you want to go and have a look at what else is online. And that can be bad [Laughs]. We’re lucky because we haven’t actually had many bad reviews but all it takes is for a couple of comments on a page and you can be in hell for the rest of the day.
I’m really trying not to read too many because I want to get on with my new film and I want to create new art now that baby Babadook has been born. It’s lovely when you do read reviews that get it as well as think it’s great. It’s a joy for me.
Do you hope to revisit these characters again, or new ones, with a sequel to The Babadook? It seems like the possibilities for a sequel are endless.
No. [Laughs]. I’m quite adamant that I don’t want to do a sequel. I joke in Q&As that maybe in 20 years, if I haven’t made anything, I’ll come back to The Babdook. I feel that with this film that I’ve explored what I need to explore. I could be wrong, but it’s not fitting in sequel territory for me at the moment. Sorry to disappoint you Matt. [Reacting to your humble interviewer’s disappointed groan.]
What if another filmmaker came to you with a request to make a sequel?
They would have to have a pretty great idea up their sleeve because (producer) Kristina and I own the rights to that sequel. Anything is possible in the world isn’t it, but at the moment I will say no.
The whole experience has connected me to a heap of different filmmakers and I’ve actually turned down two American films so far.
Sorry if it’s a personal question, but why did you turn them down?
Don’t be sorry. That’s a fine question. Basically they were big studio films and I didn’t feel they were right for me and that they didn’t speak to me on certain levels. It takes a long time to make a film and I’m not someone who can go through with something unless I feel very, very connected to it.
So we have you in Australia for a few more years yet?
Well you’ve got me here for good unless we don’t end up having Screen Australia. But I’m a citizen of the world and I love my country. I love being here and I’d love to make more films here.
The Babadook is in cinemas from May 22.