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Writer and director Jennifer Kent talks us through the making of her horrific and deeply affecting masterpiece, The Nightingale. You can read our full review of the film here.
“I really wanted the violence to be experiential. I wanted people to feel what it actually meant to take a life.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
I was reading back on an interview we did in 2014 for The Babadook and we were discussing your next film – a revenge tragedy set in Tasmania in the 1820s. When did the idea for The Nightingale first come to you?
I can’t really remember the exact point it came to me. I know that I was thinking about what I wanted to talk about. I had a couple of loses, a couple of deaths in my family, and that took me to a very introspective place. Actually, it wasn’t so introspective. It was more looking out into the world and thinking about where we’re at as humans and seeing that the response to a lot of our problems was violence. And also witnessing what I saw as vanishing empathy in the world. It struck me as something that I really wanted to talk about. The need for compassion and love and kindness and empathy. All of these qualities that are absolutely vital to human revolution. I wanted to explore how very vital they are. Especially in a time of darkness.
You had so many offers to direct other films. Why were you so determined to tell this particular story.
Because it was the most important story I could have told. It was the most important thing that mattered to me. It was the topic that mattered the most to me so it was an easy decision to me and I’ve never regretted the fact that this was the story that I must adhere to.
This film absolutely destroyed me, both emotionally and mentally. Many violent and shocking films are made in this country, but they rarely get an audience reaction like The Nightingale. Why are people reacting so strongly towards it?
I can’t speak in comparison to other films. But I have witnessed something extraordinary when I’ve been at Q&As. I’ve had some people come up to me shaking and thanking me. You’d have to ask the individual I guess. But maybe it’s because I really wanted the violence to be experiential. By that, I mean I wanted people to feel what it actually meant to take a life, or what it meant to harm someone and how heinous it is and how anti-evolution it is. I guess the choice was made in terms of how things are acted and framed and directed. It’s all based about the violence being as terrifying as violence is. I can only guess that that has put people in the skin of the characters and has had an effect that’s shaken them. I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I didn’t set out to traumatise anyone, that’s for certain. I think if people can go the distance maybe that will break something open for them and make them see the need for love and empathy.
Did anyone ever suggest you should tone down the film’s violence during the development of The Nightingale?
No. I think it’s important. It’s a war film. Did anyone ever tell Speilberg that he should tone down the violence of Saving Private Ryan? No one did, because it’s a war film, and this is also a war film. It’s never been talked about in this form, in a feature film. What’s been referred to by historians as The Black War has been largely ignored. It’s not even viewed as a war by our government, but it was. You can’t go soft on that because a lot of people lost their lives. One culture set out to destroy another culture and it’s something that people don’t understand. My hope is that a bit of light can be shed on that history and that we can at least understand what we did. Or from a white perspective what our ancestors, direct or not, did. It’s not about going soft. You can’t do that. I think some people are thinking the film is full of exploding heads or gratuitous violence, but it’s not. Every bit of violence in the film has a point. It has an emotional impact.
I grew up in rural WA. Aboriginal culture was a big part of my schooling, but Australia’s indigenous history was not. Looking back, I’m frustrated that I’ve had to learn about the dark side of Australia’s past in my adult years, through my own research. In your opinion, has Australia’s education system failed entire generations of Australians when it comes to the truth about the colonisation of Australia?
Most definitely. It has failed all generations. I don’t think it’s still being taught in schools the way it should be. There is a lot of damage being done. Anyone will tell you that in personal relationships, if damage has been done the first thing you need to do is acknowledge the damage before any kind of healing can take place. Aboriginal people and abouriginal culture is superior. Certainly superior to colonial culture. We came in and destroyed what we didn’t understand and there needs to be reparations for that. I think there has been some, but nowhere near as what is needed. My experience of making the film was an introduction to the culture in a way I hadn’t experienced before and it was a very moving and humbling experience to see how sophisticated and advanced culture it is and how important it is to our identity. I just hope the film can shine a bit of light on that and open a conversation.
Through your research, what was one of the most shocking things you learnt about this time that you didn’t know before?
I researched the film over a period of five years and I was shocked every day by the things I read. Things I couldn’t include in the film just because they’re so heinous that you wouldn’t be able to film them. People say that already about the film but what they don’t understand is that this violence was commonplace. The motivation here was genocide. It wasn’t just Tasmania, it was systemic all over Australia. Sure, Tasmania was amongst the worst, but also Queensland was shocking. A lot of these massacres were never recorded out of shame from the perpetrators. We’ll never know the true extent of the damage that was carried out. Daily I would be shocked. It was a heartbreaking period of my life to have to seep myself in it. In collaboration with the Tasmanian aboriginal elder we had on board, Uncle Jim Everett, we both felt it was necessary.
Prior to shooting, you went to Tasmania so you could travel the path that lead characters Clare and Billy would take throughout The Nightingale. Did you have a sense of empathy for the Brittish soldiers who were forced to come to this alien world who were constantly in a state of fight or flight?
I did. I think Jago, the character played so beautifully by Harry Greenwood investigates a bit of that. He’s a young man who knows better, but he’s in a terrible situation where he’s outnumbered and weak-willed which is probably his biggest failure as a person and he couldn’t speak up. He pays a great penalty for that. I think it was a hard life all around. The white invasion of Australia and the immediate period after that was very tough. I think it was also tough for the convicts who came through who were basically slaves or worse. It’s a history and it’s amazing that we all survived it.
Did you encourage your actors to do their own research?
Yes. I think they wanted to. Aisling had a year between casting and filming because of financial issues. She really threw herself in. Baykali had grown up with a lot of the history and his elders telling him what happened. Everyone threw themselves in and I made sure they had what they needed. Also, in terms of the sexual violence, we had a clinical psychologist on from the first draft stage. She worked through to the casting and rehearsals. She was there along with the Rape Crisis Centre in New South Wales and helped Aisling research as much as possible. There was a lot of help on hand for anyone who needed it in terms of research.
What did you do to lighten the mood once filming had wrapped for the day?
I’m known to be a bit lighthearted actually. [Laughs]. I can be as stupid as the rest of them. Aisling and I developed a great repore, Baykali as well. We laughed a lot and we had to. Certainly not during those intense scenes, but most of the time. The thing about this film, Matt, is that there was so much love from the cast and crew. There was an enormous amount of love and care and the feeling that we were telling a story that was very important and so that love was infused through the shoot days. We were ok. We always made sure we looked after each other. There were days where we all cried but we all did it together and supported each other.
What can you tell us about your next film, Alice and Freda Forever? You move so quickly.
Thank goodness. [Laughs]. I’m enormously excited about Alice and Freda Forever which I’m working on next year. I’m also developing a SciFi series. I’m moving into projects which are away from Australia. Alice and Freda Forever is a love story and it’s based on a true story that happened in Memphis in the 1890s between two teenage girls. It’s about love, but also about obsession and the damage that that can have on people.
So the Americans finally got you?
[Laughs]. They’ve got me for now. They haven’t got me forever. [Laughs].
The Nightingale is in cinemas from August 28, 2019.