Jennifer Kent has been acting since her teens, but nobody had really heard of the Australian writer, actress, and director until she burst onto the scene with her truly frightening horror indie The Babadook. New Yorker critic Anthony Lane was so impressed by her debut that he said, “Let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. The law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition.”
Funny enough, when Kent started out in her career, she didn’t see directing as an option open to her. “I wrote, directed, and acted in my own stories as a child. But when it came time to study in my late teens, I chose acting. I wasn’t really aware at that stage that women could direct films. After a few years of professional acting, I naturally gravitated toward writing and directing,” says Kent.
Kent had written a few screenplays, but she was not able to direct those because the scope was so big and she wasn’t able to secure the budget for it. “I’d been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially,” says Kent.
“So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate, and this idea…The idea of facing your shadow side is my myth, something I think is really important in life. You see people who are really messed-up by not facing stuff, and that’s what all addiction is about. People become alcoholics or drug addicts because they can’t face something inside.”
Kent was able to get the last bit of funding for her movie with a Kickstarter campaign. She said, “Kickstarter was incredible in that they gave us that house. Without Kickstarter, we’d have a pretty flimsy-looking set. The construction of the house was meticulously planned. It had real floorboards and was very large. All of that had to be created. The money went to that construction and we would have been lost without it.”
While writing The Babadook, Kent explored what makes a mother turn into a monster, not the nurturing ideal of motherhood usually portrayed, and she realized that few movies dealt with this subject. “Apart from We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can’t easily think of other examples [that address the subject] and it’s the great unspoken thing. We’re all, as women, educated and conditioned to think that motherhood is an easy thing that just happens. But it’s not always the case,” says Kent.
“I wanted to show a real woman who was drowning in that environment. I thought that maybe I would be criticized by women, by mothers, because I’m not a mother. The opposite has happened; I’ve experienced a collective sigh of relief that women are seeing a mother up there that’s human. Sure, it’s an extreme situation, but what I realize is that a lot of women have felt those feelings that Amelia [protagonist of The Babadook] goes through at some point along the way.”
Kent’s approach to directing The Babadook was to storyboard everything like legendary horror director Alfred Hitchcock. “Every scene had a certain visual map. And I did storyboard—I did very bad stick drawings—but I always came in with a sense of how the world had to look,” says Kent. “It starts very centered, everything is framed—very centered and composed—and as the film goes on, people’s heads start to drift to other sides of the frames, and things start to become more discordant visually.”
A mysterious book, The Babadook, is the entryway for the monster in the movie, which harkens back to graphic stories children were told as warnings, such as in Grimm’s fairy tales. “I think some fairy tales are designed to keep kids in line and make them stay safe, and there are the other ones, the ones I’m attracted to, that point out the chaos of life to kids. Because it’s not perfect. It’s not always neatly tied up. I think that’s what horror can do as well. It can actually be a refreshing way to look at the world, when it’s not about perfection,” says Kent.
While directing the movie, Kent ran into snobbery from others when she said it was a horror film. “People would be very excited to hear that I was directing. Then when I described it as a horror film, I may as well have said I was directing a porno. They were like, Oh, that’s not a real film. It’s disgusting. And also, why would a woman want to direct that kind of stuff?” says Kent.
“People very easily forget films like The Shining and Let the Right One In, and going back further, Les Diaboliques and Eyes Without a Face. All these films that have a poetry to them, and something deeper going on.”
Since her success with The Babadook, Kent is fielding a lot of offers for directing. She says, “I’m reading a lot of scripts at the moment, and they’re all from the male perspective. Most are written by men. That’s where I think it’s difficult. It’s difficult to get the stories through that give a female perspective. That’s why I’m committed to writing more stories from my perspective. We just need more balance.”
The next project she has coming up is a film based on a U.S. true-crime story that happened in 1892 when two women fell in love—nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell and seventeen-year-old Freda Ward. Mitchell decided to dress and pass as a man in order to marry Ward, but their love letters were discovered and the two were forbidden from seeing each other.
Ward accepted this in a cavalier manner that crushed Mitchell, and so she slashed Ward’s throat with her father’s razor. During a trial in Memphis, Tennessee, Mitchell was declared insane and sent to an asylum. She died there a few years later under mysterious circumstances. The film is based on the book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis and has been likened to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
Jennifer Kent’s Top Ten List of Horror Films
- Black Sabbath (1963)
- Georges Méliès Shorts / La Maison Ensorcelée (1908)
- The Tenant (1976)
- Lost Highway (1997)
- The Amityville Horror (1979)
- Halloween (1978)
- Vampyr (1932)
- Black Swan (2010)
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
- The Innocents (1961)