EXCLUSIVE: Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent burst onto the international scene with her feature directing debut, 2014’s The Babadook. The horror pic premiered to great acclaim in Sundance, was quickly acquired by IFC and went on to win more than 50 awards, ultimately making over $10M worldwide on a reported $2M budget.
Kent was offered projects from the U.S. after Babadook, but turned back to Oz and to The Nightingale, which she also wrote and which world premieres here at the Venice Film Festival later this week. It is notably the only movie in the competition that is directed by a woman, a fact that instantly became a major source of controversy when the lineup was first revealed — and its reprecussions have been felt all the way through the first week of the festival amid numerous calls by male filmmakers, including jury president Guillermo del Toro, to better the balance. A gender-parity pledge was signed on the third day of the festival.
While Kent would like in a future world, “to be seen just as a filmmaker,” she feels it’s “important that we even the balance.” Speaking with Deadline is the first time she has addressed the matter and we discuss it and more below as we talk about the road to The Nightingale and why the period thriller’s themes are so relevant to today’s world.
Set in 1825, The Nightingale centers on Clare (Game Of Thrones‘ Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence committed against her family by British officer Hawkins (The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin). To find him, she enlists the help of Billy (newcomer Bayakali Ganambarr), a young Aboriginal tracker as they chase through the rugged wilderness of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), where a fledgling British penal colony had been established in 1803. Hard crime repeat offenders were sent there to face severe punishments. Women, who’d often committed minor crimes, were also sent there and were outnumbered 8-1.
DEADLINE: You have found yourself in an interesting position as the only woman in competition in Venice and, in a way, it’s made you the poster child for this festival and the debate surrounding gender parity. How do you feel about the situation?
JENNIFER KENT: I’m just curious, are you asking the men how do they feel? I think we need to open up that conversation to everyone, because that’s the problem here. It involves everyone and I know for a fact that the colleagues, my peers in competition, care about this subject too. But I’m probably being a little facetious in saying, “Have you asked them?”
If you ask me about being a filmmaker, I feel really honored and excited. It is a dream come true to be at the festival in this context.
If you ask me personally how it feels to be a woman in competition, if I’m really honest, I don’t think of my gender in these situations. I’m not thinking about my gender most of the time. It is a part of me, it’s not all of me. So I’m not thinking about it when I write. I’m not thinking about it when I direct. You know, I would love in a future world to be thought of as another filmmaker in competition. I know that given the nature of this year I can’t, but that would be the ultimate emancipation: to be seen just as a filmmaker.
But if you’re asking me how I feel about the need for more attention on the feminine voice in this festival or any festival, it is a primary concern of mine. Of course I feel it’s important that we even the balance. We need to not just for storytelling. I think there needs to be a greater respect for the feminine voice across the planet. It’s a real issue and it’s something that affects all of us, not just women. If we can respect women it will help everyone else as well. For me it’s vital. It could not be more important.
DEADLINE: You’ve said the The Nightingale was difficult to make, what were the challenges?
KENT: I think it’s a number of things. It’s a very tough subject matter that I found harrowing to research because it’s based on an actual story — not of Clare and Billy, that’s a created story — but the world that they inhabit. I researched it for a number of years and then to put it on the screen, we all cared so much about the authenticity of it and the integrity of keeping it true. It was very tough for all of us to tell that story, but really necessary because of the impact that it’s had on Aboriginal people at the time and the legacy still lives on. Also the sexual violence, and violence in general, at the time was a way of life. But for us, it was really important to tell that story because for me in particular it relates so clearly to the world we live in now.
Other reasons why it was so hard are because we were filming in Tasmania. It was really remote… Tasmania is an island with no film crew and a really small population. So we had to bring everything in and go out to those locations.
DEADLINE: Can you expand on the relevance to today?
KENT: I think we’re at a really crucial time in world history where I feel like the feminine force across the planet is being disrespected and ignored. So for me that ties into a lot of reasons why we have so much violence in the world and I think it’s really crucial now that we start to respect that force in regards to women, in regards to nature. In all the ways that the feminine exists in our lives, it’s crucial for our survival. I ask the questions, “How do we retain our humanity in very dark times; how do we focus on qualities such as love, compassion, empathy, kindness when it’s not easy to do that?” because I think that’s the only thing that will save us.
DEADLINE: Do you think that there’s an answer there and we’re not yet grasping it?
KENT: I know what you mean. I think I would never be able to say, “This is the answer” because the problem is so wide-reaching and complex. But I think the answer lies in each individual: What choices do we make to be part of the problem or work towards the solution? It sounds simple, but obviously it’s not, because if it was we wouldn’t be in this mess. But I think the relationship of Clare and Billy in the film goes part of the way to exploring what are the options, what are the other options to violence and hatred.
DEADLINE: It’s perhaps even more important for filmmakers who have a voice and the potential to reach a great many people to be telling these stories now.
KENT: I think film has become less art and more entertainment. But I’m more interested in what it can do to hopefully wake people up or reach them, move them in some way to provoke thought and feeling and that’s why I’m interested in cinema. It’s a lifelong commitment. Film can’t change the world necessarily, but it can make us feel things we haven’t thought of before.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about casting The Nightingale. How did you find your actors?
KENT: It was very important to me that I could have actors that disappear into this world and become a part of it. So rather than such and such in another film, I think the world needed to feel complete and we looked far and wide for the role of Clare and we auditioned a lot of girls, and a lot of girls were very passionate about the role. I was ultimately drawn to Aisling because of her extraordinary talent and sensitivity and warmth. Also, Aisling speaks Irish Gaelic and she’s an opera singer and the character has to sing solo a number of times in the film. She had just a beautiful warmth to her and I’m really grateful for her presence in the film, she’s the heart of the film.
DEADLINE: And for Sam Claflin this is a departure of sorts.
KENT: Hawkins is a very damaged character and Sam wasn’t my first thought, but he was so passionate about the role and auditioned and really blew me away, and after that, there was no other choice I could make but to cast him. Our Australian lead Baykali is phenomenal. It’s his first performance on screen, he comes from a dancing background and he gives the performance to rival anyone.
DEADLINE: Looking back, were you ready for the reception of The Babadook?
KENT: I think if it had happened in my 20s it would have been, you know… I take everything with a grain of salt. For me, it was extraordinary how well the film did and how much success it’s brought me in the way that I can tell stories I want to tell… A lot of colleagues of mine or friends of mine have fought to tell their stories and have not been able to just because they haven’t had a successful film. I guess it was surprising, but it wasn’t daunting, I just continued with my own work… I guess for me what’s important is to tell stories every time that I really care about, and that’s my driving force: Do I care enough about this to spend three years of my life devoting my time to it?
DEADLINE: And looking ahead, where do you see yourself? Do you want to work with bigger budgeted movies?
KENT: Well, making films is the way I live my life and to make stories I care about. If that story is a big budget film, then I gravitate towards that. But I’m not, I guess, career minded in a traditional sense. I do want to be moved by the stories I tell. I want to care for them and feel something for them. So it’s not the aim to make the most expensive and the highest grossing film. It’s not the way I think or feel about filmmaking. For me, I want to be where I am now and continue what I’m doing. For me, to be in a festival like Venice and to have that kind of berth for my second film is an enormous achievement.