Interview: Jennifer Kent Discusses Violence, Art, and Her New Film ‘The Nightingale’

The director of "The Babadook" speaks plainly about grief, trauma, and why we need to be open to discussing them.

Writer and director Jennifer Kent caught audiences by surprise with her feature film debut, “The Babadook” in 2014. The atmospheric horror film about a widowed single mother whose son starts seeing a terrifying entity called the Babadook, quickly established Kent as an exciting new director to watch.

Her follow up film, “The Nightingale,” surprised viewers for different reasons. While most expected another horror film, Kent went a seemingly opposite direction. Her second feature is a period drama that tells a tale of revenge in the face of violence. It is the story of a young Irish settler named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who becomes the victim of unimaginable violence at the hands of an Army captain. Clare teams up with a local Aboriginal man, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to track the soldiers through the harsh Tasmanian wilderness.

I recently sat down with Jennifer Kent to discuss “The Nightingale,” which premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival and earned Ganambarr the Marcello Mastroianni Aware for Best Young Actor or Actress. Kent also won a Special Jury Prize. In this conversation, she spoke frankly about the themes and violence of the film, and her concerns about the future of film.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: You still have a fairly short filmography, but you’ve made a big impact. It’s pretty amazing.

Jennifer Kent: Thank you! Thanks. This film has really stirred the pot with people.

KP: You kind of knew it would though, didn’t you?

JK: No! I naively didn’t realize how people would be affected so much. Yeah, I’m surprised.

KP: What are some of the responses you’ve gotten?

JK: I think that I would call them extremes. Extremes in either direction, so I never know what I’m going to get at Q&As. It’s like what’s coming next? There’s been some crazy responses, but I guess maybe we’re not used to feeling negative feelings in the cinema anymore. Film has become so much about entertainment and diversion that I think when something hits home, people sometimes can feel affronted by that. They’re made to feel uncomfortable. But I’m of the mind that in order to really heal, we need to look at certain things, and so that’s the spirit that I went into this. This is the story of my country. It’s my history and it’s not a pretty one, but we don’t do ourselves any favors by turning away from it.

KP: And it’s a history that a lot of people outside of Australia don’t know anything about.

JK: No. No, but I would venture to say that it’s a history of many countries. But, yeah, it’s certainly a history of Australia and of Tasmania. Unfortunately it’s not a fiction.

KP: I was talking with Baykali earlier and he was talking about how it’s the story of his family and his people. For you, as you were writing the script, what were some of the things you felt were so important to make sure to include without making it feel like too much of a history lesson?

JK: It all started with Billy and making that character a real human being. So of course it involved initially a great deal of research and working with our Aboriginal adviser, Jim Everett – Uncle Jim Everett – who was the keeper of the information. He was the person that I went to and he had final say in everything to do with Billy and beyond, and the aboriginality of the film. So he was there all the time and I was nervous. I initially said to myself, “I will not make this film unless I can find meaningful Aboriginal collaboration.” And he wanted to be on this and wanted this story to be told. I let him dictate what was right. Also trusting my instincts and wanting to make [Billy] a beautiful, flawed person. I think he is the heart of the film, that character. I tried to go into as much… letting myself be taught by our advisers along the way.

KP: What are some things you learned while writing this?

JK: It was the most profound, the whole experience. From writing and shooting and delving into the lives of the traditional owners of our land was the most profound experience I’ve ever had as an adult. And creatively it was something that I think all Australians should do on some level, but most of us don’t have the access or the desire to connect. Aboriginal people are very advanced, developed people. They have a culture and a civilization that is incredibly sophisticated. Through their scientific knowledge and understanding of the land to their spiritual inner lives to their mythologies which are so present in their day to day life. These are all the things that we had many eons ago – if we had them at all – but have lost contact with them. I’m from Irish/Scottish background, so Clare’s culture also drew me in because it contains similar elements. The use of song, the use of ritual, the adherence to myths. These are things that I think make Clare and Billy share more similarities than differences.

KP: With Aisling and Baykali, you chose actors that are not familiar faces to a lot of people, and in his case he was not an actor at all. How did you choose them? What was it about them specifically that spoke to you?

JK: I wanted to create a unique world, and so I was very hesitant to put a star. X actress doing an Irish turn in a film. And so I really wanted the world to be as authentic as possible. I was hoping for an Irish actress. That was my ideal. Obviously we were going to choose an Aboriginal actor. Baykali lives on an island off the mainland of Australia and he hunts and he is connected to his culture in a way that Billy would have been. When I saw Aisling’s test, I got the goosebump test. My body gets covered in goosebumps and I think this is the one. She was Irish, she spoke Irish Gaelic. She was trained as an opera singer, young, she was the right age and she has a beautiful, open heart as a person, so it was a no brainer. The fact that she wasn’t well known was a bonus to me so that she could disappear into the world.

KP: Okay, so let’s talk about some of the violence.

JK: Yeah.

KP: One thing that really struck was how vivid it is and how visceral it is. And I kept thinking about the fact that if a male director were including such violent depictions of rape, they would probably get a lot of criticism for that.

JK: I don’t know. To me, it’s not violent in the sense of graphic or gratuitous. In each time it happens, it’s a woman’s face in close up. So I would hope a man would depict it that way.

KP: Do you think they would though?

JK: I don’t know. I can’t speak for all mankind, just as I can’t represent all womankind. I don’t understand the obsession with sexual violence because there’s other violence in the film that’s equally as horrific. But we come from such a repressed culture. Australia’s not much different to America where there’s this idea that if we don’t talk about something, it will go away. It hasn’t worked for us yet. Rape is at epidemic proportions across the world, and I think to show the true cost of it and what it does, in context – in the historical context these women were raped repeatedly. That was their existence. So I’m just showing what happened in the way that I could see the most sensitive, that aligned us the most with the woman experiencing it.

KP: I think that’s one of the differences, at least from other films I’ve seen. I think the way you depict it, there’s no sexualization of it at all and I appreciated that.

JK: Yeah.

KP: It’s not fetishized.

JK: No, not at all.

KP: It’s very clear that this is terrible.

JK: And unless you’re extremely sick, there’s no way to get off on it. In the way that other scenes would show half naked bodies. I don’t want to mention names, but I’ve looked at a lot of rape scenes on the screen and a lot of them show semi-naked women and I have a problem with that. Because it’s again focusing this idea that a rape is somehow sexy or that it’s okay because it’s a sex act or I don’t know. It’s such a minefield. And I mean, I’ve been attacked for including rape and I think that’s ridiculous because I don’t believe in censorship. And if I’m going to show a story where this was the historical reality and I omit it, that’s irresponsible. [Then] I’m not telling a true story. And I don’t feel that it’s gratuitous. I think it’s a part of Clare. It’s not all of Clare. And the film is so much more than that. But it takes a subtle audience member to pick up the subtleties.

For me the film is about love. It’s about love and compassion and it’s about plutonic love between two people. It grows into that. I would hope for that in dark times, that we can ultimately, despite what we’ve been through, focus on. It’s important.

KP: Sam Claflin. I watched this and thought I can never look at him the same way again!

JK: (laughs)

KP: And it’s not just because of the rape scenes. It is all of the violence that happens throughout the story. What are some things that you talked with him about so that he could do this? I assume he’s not like that person!

JK: No! He’s a darling! He’s a sweetheart. We talked about it always, not from a point of evil. It’s very common to use the word “evil” when describing a character like that. But we always looked at him as damaged. And then allowing for some compassion to arise. It doesn’t mean you excuse the behavior or condone it, but as an actor you have to play that person. How are you going to connect with that? Damage makes sense. We always spoke from that point of view. And then there was a book from a psychologist, Nicholas Groth, called “Men Who Rape,” which is a clinical text of interviews with anonymous, incarcerated sexual offenders. They described encounters they had with people in regards to sexual violence. It is an eye-opener, and I think required text. It should be part of the school syllabus. When I read it, I cried a lot and I was scared at night. I was scared and saddened by it. And I think these men are – they’re largely men – I think they are imprisoned.

I don’t think it’s a good existence and I don’t think Hawkins is winning in any step of the way in the film. I wanted to show the damage that colonial thinking does to everyone, including the perpetrators. We prepared a lot for it. And [Sam] had access to clinical psychologists and advisers. In all those scenes that involve some kind of sexual violence, I worked with the actors very closely doing improvisations to make sure that it was safe to film those scenes and that people weren’t going to hurt each other, physically or otherwise.

KP: I talked to Aisling a little bit about that too, some of the things you did to really ensure that it was a safe atmosphere for everybody.

JK: Yeah, it’s vital. I was an actor, I trained as an actor and I think that actors are not protected enough in their work, so it’s my job to make sure that happened.

KP: You read so many terrible stories.

JK: Awful, yeah, you can’t do that to your actors.

KP: “The Babadook” and now “The Nightingale” both deal in very different ways with grief. Is that something that is intentional or does it grow naturally from the stories you want to tell?

JK: I think it’s been a preoccupation for me. Grief is a very tough emotion to sit in and feel, but it’s absolutely necessary to embrace a loss that provokes grief and to know that you’re going to get through it. Feeling it. And yeah, it’s a linking theme in both films. I lost my mom, I lost my nephew just before I started writing this film, so it makes sense that it has the flavor that it does. My sadness is in the film.

KP: It’s something that everyone experiences, even if they don’t acknowledge it. To see it on display, obviously in a much stronger way than a lot of us will.

JK: Yeah, I didn’t go out and murder people, but–

KP: They had it coming!

JK: They had it coming, exactly! It’s not my fault. But I think rage and revenge and anger, all those things Clare feels come from a deep place of grief and hurt. I’m oversimplifying it. What I was interested in is, okay I want explore grief, explore revenge, exhaust it, and then find out what’s underneath that. In the act of playing out those acts of revenge, what’s left? And that, for me, is when the film becomes interesting. What is underneath that hard shell of violence and rage? Because I think that’s what’s going to save us as human beings.

KP: What are some of the things that inspire you as a writer and director?

JK: I’m inspired by singular vision. I love David Lynch and I think he’s been my mentor by proxy in that I see somebody just really developing an idea in its purest form. And every bit of attention and focus is on servicing the idea. I think he’s a true artist and there’s very few of them in the realm of cinema. Alive. I aspire to be that. I don’t mean be David Lynch, but I want to continue to make films that are true to the initial and original idea. And it’s getting harder and harder to do that. But it’s what gets me going. That’s what really inspires me.

KP: Why is it getting harder?

JK: Films used to be called films and now they’re called content. That’s one thing that kind of irks me. It’s like, how much content can we shove on a streaming service so that people get what they want? They can have it any step of the way. But the way that the content is selected and chosen to get made is algorithms and how many people will watch it and will they feel good watching it? You can’t make art that way. If art happens that way it’s in spite of the process, not because of it. The auteurs that have come before, they all had a burning desire to communicate an idea to an audience. They weren’t trying to make money out of it or trying to get enough likes. It’s a mentality that I feel very unnerving and I try not to lose my faith in humanity over it.

KP: Don’t go on Twitter then.

JK: No, no, I’m not a Twitter lover. I think it represents probably the worst. Social media is often about pleasing the masses. Maybe that’s why independent films are harder and harder to get made, because they don’t please everyone.

KP: It’s interesting to hear you say that because I think you vocalized something that’s been a gut feeling I’ve had for awhile. There have been a lot of discussions about how it’s great that Netflix and Amazon and all these different companies have given this extra platform to a lot of filmmakers. There are different ways to get your movies out. But no one ever talks about the fact that everything is so algorithmically based.

JK: Yeah. What are they getting out there? I’ve had the experience of getting “Alice + Freda Forever.” Pitching that, taking it round, and it’s not sparking. And it’s not because it’s not good. I really believe in the project. But I just think if I had to make “Babadook” in this territory, maybe because it’s a horror it might get through the net, but I don’t know.

KP: Which is really interesting with that one in particular because I think a lot of people found it through Netflix.

JK: Yeah.

KP: But that’s because it already had good buzz when it was making festivals and it was in theaters. And with “Nightingale,” I don’t know what’s going to happen with this one.

JK: No, I have no idea.

KP: And it’s so good and people need to see it. But will people be able to find it?

JK: Don’t know. I have this weird sort of optimism about a film. When “Babadook” came out it did no business, zero business. No one knew about it. It came and went. But now it’s an enduring film.

KP: It’s the symbol of Pride!

JK: Yes! It’s great!

KP: Did you ever expect that to happen?

JK: No, of course not! I never expected anyone to see it. I remember hearing Scorsese had seen it, I was like, “Whaaaaaat? You’re kidding me!” I don’t know. All I know is I love my children equally and I wish the best for them and there’s so many films like “The Shining,” so many films that upon release were not adored. They took their time. But as an artist it’s not my job to worry about those things. I’m here talking to you and I’m promoting it because I believe in it. But ultimately these things are way beyond my ability to control.

KP: So what is next for you?

JK: We continue to try to get “Alice + Freda Forever” made. I’m also working on a sci fi series that I’ve been pitching while I’m here. It’s had a number of offers, which is really exciting. It’s based on a real person’s story. That is a series that I would write all the episodes and direct all the episodes. So that’s coming up. And then I also write for other people sometimes. I’ve written a couple of things for other directors to direct.

KP: That’s fun, but probably not as fun as directing it yourself.

JK: It’s nice to just work in my pajamas at home and be able to write and not have to get out and direct everything I do. It’s a really wonderful thing.

KP: When you are running a set, what’s your style?

JK: Hopefully I’m not too bossy but I probably really am. I’m really careful of my cast. I want them to be adored and cared for and supported and protected. I’m tough on my crew but I’m supportive. I like to think I know what I want. “Babadook” was hard to gain respect. The crew were like, “What’s this film about?” But “Nightingale,” I had a superb crew who were big fans and supporters who wanted the film to be made so I think we ran a very difficult experience well. It’s hard making a film in the wilderness with no backup days. No contingency days. It was stressful. Not much money for equipment.

KP: How much were you roughing it?

JK: We never slept in tents, but we were in the wilderness so we slept in pretty rustic accommodation. We had long drives to and from set. It was cold, it was trekking up sides of mountains, territory. It was leeches and it was, looking back on it, it was wonderful, but my god it was hard.

KP: What was one of the best days?

JK: I think the best day was infused with a lot of pain and suffering! One of the best days was watching Aisling and Baykali do a scene where he says, “What’s your name again?” and she says, “Clare,” and he said, “If I had’ve been you in your situation, I would have done what you did.” There’s a shifting in their relationship. The scene itself, by this stage they were like well-oiled machines and they got in and we were all tired. It was the end of the day and I was just struck by their genius. And I just said, “It’s an honor to work with you two. You really are very special.” There was a lot of love on the set. I consider those two, they are very dear to me still.

KP: They are lovely. And they had great things to say about you, too. They loved working with you.

JK: They’re just darlings. Baykali sort of adopted me as a mum and I took that because it’s very meaningful in Aboriginal culture to say that. To make you part of their family. It’s a beautiful thing.

KP: It’s a beautiful culture and you’ve depicted it so beautifully.

JK: Thank you. I really appreciate that. It is a special, special culture.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Jennifer Kent for taking time to speak about “The Nightingale.”

“The Nightingale” is distributed by IFC Films and is in limited release now.