Jennifer Kent has long had a fascination with monsters and scares, which makes it understandable she would choose as her feature film directing debut the new horror film “The Babadook” (opening at the Music Box Theatre on Friday).
“I do love horror movies. I watch [them] all the time. I love the classic films, but even the modern stuff — I’m always watching it, hoping and praying it will be good, and occasionally it is,” said the actress-turned-film, calling from her home in Adelaide, Australia.
The comment was Kent’s way of lamenting the fact that “so much in the horror genre is duplicative and not original. It’s disappointing when you know exactly what’s going to happen from moment to moment.
“I started with a simple idea,” Kent said about “The Babadook.” “And this one was really strong for me — the horror always had to be subservient to that idea. In this case it’s about a woman trying to fathom this unfathomable thing. Emilia, played by Essie Davis, is a woman who has lost her husband in a very violent way. Now she is faced with her son being terribly difficult, convinced that there is a monster living in their house. She comes to realize that there truly is an evil presence lurking there.
“So all of that was most important to me throughout the film’s development — the issues involving the character of Emilia.”
Kent’s actor training was helpful when it came to casting. “It’s important to want the acting to be of a standard that is pretty high,” she said. “Essie and I had gone through acting school together. I adore her as a person, but as an actress she is extraordinary.
“My job early on was to create a character worthy of an actor like that — to create someone who was complex. I wasn’t worried about my characters being likable. I needed them to be relatable to the audience, flawed and very human. That was the starting point.”
Noah Wiseman, the young boy who plays Samuel, makes his feature film debut in “The Babadook,” and was just 6 years old when cast. Kent explained she needed a child who could elicit a passionate reaction.
“I got a lot of feedback, like this one from a man who told me, ‘I really wanted to kill that kid,’ while watching the film. My response was, ‘Duh! That’s the whole point really.’ … It was important that he be the antagonist to his mother in order for this film to be frightening. I felt it should be that Emilia is frightened of her son. I wanted the audience to really feel for her as a parent being in this terrible situation.
Making such an intense horror film with such a young child was a personal challenge for Kent — perhaps the biggest one she faced while filming.
“Some directors won’t hesitate to traumatize children to get good performances, but I think that is one of the lowest things you can do to a child. I personally think directors often underestimate a child’s capacity for comprehension of what’s going on around them. I was not out to ruin this boy’s childhood. I wanted to protect him at every turn.”
The look of the film was important to Kent as well. “The world we created is seen from Emilia’s point of view, and is not really all that naturalistic at all. I think it needed to be an environment that showed Emilia was not helping herself … and she keeps pushing away any help that could come her way. But I also wanted it to be an environment that made the audience feel unsafe and odd. That was very intentional — to create some kind of bad dream that you can’t wake up from.”