Interview: Shannon Murphy

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Shannon Murphy.

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In August last year I committed the ultimate interviewer sin; I took something I read on IMDb as gospel.

During an interview with Australian actor Marta Dusseldorp, I asked about her role in children’s television series, Sea Princesses, which, according to IMDb, she acted in 52 episodes of.

“I didn’t ever do that show,” Dusseldorp laughed. “I don’t know why it’s listed on IMDb.”

You can understand why I was reluctant to ask Shannon Murphy if she appeared in Sea Princesses during this recent interview. But I had to know if someone was intentionally editing Australian film identity profiles on IMDb to include a credit on that show.

To my surprise Murphy, an acclaimed director of shows like Offspring, Rake and Killing Eve, was in fact a voice actor in Sea Princesses.

“When I was at NIDA as a directing student I was completely broke,” Murphy explains. “I had just moved back here from America and I still had a bit of an American accent. A friend of mine was working on Sea Princesses and asked me if I’d do it. So I did and I played Tata in all 52 episodes.”

Ten years after Murphy’s undersea adventures – and only acting credit – the talented director is finally set to release her feature film debut Babyteeth in Australia following a delay due to Covid-19.

Babyteeth follows seriously ill teenager Milla (Eliza Scanlan) who falls madly in love with a smalltime drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace). The heartbreaking black comedy boasts some of the most incredible performances of the year and should not be missed. 

“Ben is very playful, he’s really emotional and it’s wonderful as a director to get the opportunity to harness that and to craft a performance with such a masterful actor.”

 

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Babyteeth is your first feature film and you’ve completely knocked it out of the park. Had your previous experience making short films and television prepared you enough to tackle a long form project like this?
Yeah, massively. I think also, I had been doing episodes of TV, but then just before Babyteeth, my last project was On The Ropes, which is a four part series for SBS and I got to do all of it. So I had just made the equivalent length of say two feature films of work just before going into Babyteeth. I think that was insanely helpful.

Tell us about some of the new experiences you took away from making Babyteeth.
I think it’s interesting because for me, it was not that vastly different to setting up a TV show or doing all for it, in the sense that you’re collaborating with all your heads of department and you still got a lot of time and financial pressures, particularly for making films in Australia and I just loved it. I actually loved that it didn’t feel that foreign to me and I could be fairly relaxed in the process of it. And I am really grateful that I had a lot of camera experience before this. I mean, in terms of theater experience, working with actors and techs, all that has been monumental as well, in helping me become the director that I am.

Producers Alex White and Jane Chapman are obviously big fans of the play, having optioned it immediately after seeing the opening night performance of it. Did you ever see the original play?
No, I didn’t, which is so crazy because I started my career at Belvoir, as a theater director and I’ve seen so many of the shows there, but I must have been working in Melbourne and I missed it.

Was there ever a time that you felt disconnected from the story or the characters because you hadn’t seen the birth of these characters through theatre
No, not at all because for me, my journey with them just started the first time I read it. And I remember just being so overwhelmed with emotion by the end of reading the script, because I felt devastated that I wasn’t going to spend more time with those four characters, the way that you do when you read a really delicious novel. I just felt so stunned and traumatized that I didn’t have more time with them. And I thought, “Oh, this is a good sign that I want to be with these characters and this should be the first film I do.”

Alex has said that the film was pretty much developed by the time that you were bought on to direct. Were there any immediate changes that you wanted to make to the script or to the production once you came on board?
It was all more atmospheric stuff, such as the night out when Milla goes to the party, I wanted that to feel like an art school party and to have a performance artist and an interaction there. And same with the moment where she’s sitting on her bed and it says what the dead said to Milla. There’s more silent, private moments I got Rita [screenplay] to put in there on a director’s path, but they were all things that Rita completely connected with. And the titles I asked Rita to put in after I went back and read the play finally, the play was quite different in a lot of the titles, but I liked the idea of them and what they were doing. And so Rita and I talked about that and then she put them in.

Eliza Scanlan and Toby Wallace in Babyteeth.

The family at the center of this film is a dysfunctional one. What was it about these characters that appealed to you?
I think the fact that I really love the messiness of life and for me, I really loved all the characters and could understand their flaws and wanted to be able to have audiences watch them with all their faults and still be able to laugh and feel for them. And it was so essential for me to make sure that all the different people and their vices and their outlets and the way that they were communicating with one another, came from a place of authenticity and research and that I gave the actors all the building blocks to make sure that they were prepared to then be able to execute that. So I worked with drug and alcohol specialists and psychologists and Canteen, which is a cancer teenager organization, to make sure that all the information that they had and their thoughts about when they read the script, were discussed with the actors so that they could feel very in the skin of these characters.

That’s interesting that you worked with Canteen. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience?
Yeah, they were wonderful because they read the script and we discussed what was spot on, what things we’d taken slight liberties with in terms of creative license and this and that. And what was wonderful was they said the way Milla’s behaving is very authentic because particularly when you’re cocooned by your parents at a time when they’re so worried about you, teenagers with cancer want to rebel even more often than other teenagers and they’re really pushing back and they don’t want to be defined by the illness and at school they’re often isolated because they’re the sick kid and all these things that Rita had cleverly tracked and researched herself and put in, were playing out in a way that they felt was really believable. And for the wig that Milla wears, which is the long haired wig, that’s a real cancer wig from a company that really makes wigs for the people that need them because they’ve lost their hair from chemo.

That’s a good segue into my next question, because you said that you hope audiences have a visceral experience watching Babyteeth. Was it a visceral experience for you reading the script?
Look, in many ways, yes and no. I mean, I think for me, because I don’t write as a director, I truly see my role as an interpreter, I always can find ways to find connections. I feel like that’s such a big part of my job. I think, like so many people, I come from a crazy dysfunctional family myself, so I don’t judge any of the characters because of that. And also the teenage experience for me, felt very connected to the feelings I had at that age and I work with teenagers a lot, I used to teach them acting a lot, in between theater directing jobs. And for me, they were always so intelligent, so inspiring and often misrepresented in film and just in the way that people talk about them in the world. And so I really wanted to have all the audience that get to watch it, to feel like they believe and can go back to that time when they’ve felt so electric and had such intense emotions and that incredible raging hormone energy and I wanted to make that believable.

Music plays a huge part in this film and all of the main characters have music in their lives, except for Ben Mendelsohn’s character who feels the least grounded emotionally. Can you tell us a bit about selecting the music for Babyteeth?
Yeah. There was quite a few musical elements in the work, which is of course the classical world of music, which is Anna’s [Essie Davis] world, which is also Milla’s [Eliza Scanlen] world that she’s brought her into. Then there’s Gidon, the music teacher who opens up Milla’s life to world music and also it teaches her lessons about living that she doesn’t get from her own parents. And then there was the music that needed to encapsulate and give us the feeling of Milla’s inner world and what she would be invigorated by. So I love working with music and it’s such a trial and error experience in the edit process, but I like to pick things as much as I can beforehand. So for example, the music on the night out, the party, and also when she’s dancing, we had already picked those. And then actually Eliza, she made an Instagram account where she would dance to different music all the time and send me videos and that’s how we found how Milla would dance. And physically, I’m always really interested in how characters convey language, their own body language and I love the idea of if you took all the words out of a film or a play, that you could still really understand what people were doing based on their physicality and so I focused a lot on that as well. Yeah, look, Henry [Ben Mendelsohn] is lost, he’s feeling trapped and stuck. Often what happens with teenagers with cancer is the father keeps working and the mother becomes the primary carer. So she’s so clued into all the details of what’s going on and the father often feels left out. And that’s why Henry, starts seeking interactions with the next door neighbour, because he is feeling like he’s not in this romance between the mother and daughter and he’s feeling isolated.

Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis in Babyteeth.

This is the first Australian film Mendo has appeared in since Adoration back in 2013. What was it like to work with such an accomplished actor?
Yes, he was amazing and he is such a generous performer with the younger actors, knowing that this is such a big task for them both to hold a feature film and he comes with such a ferocious energy on set. He’s very playful, he’s really emotional and it’s wonderful as a director to get the opportunity to harness that and to craft a performance with such a masterful actor.

I considered Toby Wallace to be one of the great Australian actors working today and I couldn’t help but compare him to a young Heath Ledger. Would you agree with that? I didn’t want to compare him to Heath Ledger, but I just kept thinking of Heath while I was watching Toby’s performance here.
Yeah, it’s interesting because our makeup artists, Angela Conti said the same thing and she’s worked with Heath. I can understand why people might do that. For me, I just am so in awe of what an amazing performer Toby is, and I always find it hard to compare actors because I only know Toby and I never met Heath, so I don’t know. But I think the fact that they’re both so young and so brilliant and Australian, and also have the ability to really range between something so gritty as playing someone like Moses, versus, I remember when Heath did 10 Things I Hate About You, there’s this ability to transform across such a wide range of roles, I think is very similar.

The film’s main character Milla, is played by the very talented Eliza Scanlen. This character breaks the fourth wall from time to time, by glancing directly at the camera. Can you tell us about the decision to have her do that?
In my theater life, I did my masters in Brecht and I studied and taught Brecht for a long time. And it’s a type of storytelling I’m really passionate about because I really believe that particularly with heavy, emotional or say political content, it’s really important to keep the audience thinking and not just handheld the whole way through. And I really loved the idea of breaking the fourth wall with the titles and with her looks and with the music and with the edit, in order to allow you to be surprised and to constantly add other layers to what we were doing.

It’s very clever.
Yeah. Because it’s interesting, people think, “Why would you want to sever the audience’s emotional connection?” And I go, “Well, the disruptions actually pay off.” Initially they might feel slightly jarring, but actually the cumulative effect is more emotional because then the emotion has been amped at the end.

Was Emily Barclay really pregnant here? And I only ask because I know she had a child around the time this film was made.
It’s a great question. She had already had the child, but because the child was still only about a year or so old and she was still breastfeeding, the reason why she probably looked so believable is because she’s got a huge amount of milk in her boobs and she had just been pregnant, so she was able to hold herself very well in a position that looked very believably pregnant. You know what’s hilarious, the actor who played Gidon, the other day, didn’t realise that she wasn’t pregnant on the shoot. He said something like, “Had she had the baby?” I’m like, “Eugene, she wasn’t pregnant.” But he only ever saw her when she was pregnant on set, so he didn’t realise. [Laughs].

You’ve worked in theatre for a while now. Should we be looking to theatre more for story ideas and potential adaptations?
Yes. I think theater, what it offers often is a smaller sized cast, not too many locations. I think it makes sense to take plays that are written in that way, because they’re easier to get up as a not massive budget feature film. But these days I feel like novels, articles, there’s so many source materials to go from in terms of creating films. I mean, not that many playwrights can just transfer to screenwriting, but some of the ones that are doing it, are doing an exceptional job, such as Rita.

Babyteeth is in cinemas July 23.


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