It’s been a longer wait that anticipated given COVID-19 but Babyteeth is about to arrive in Australian cinemas. I had a chance to see the film back in March and it’s stuck with me since. I recently spoke to director Shannon Murphy about the production…
Matt: One intriguing development is that COVID-19 led to the postponement of many big Hollywood blockbusters and that’s allowed a lot of smaller films into cinemas, particularly here in Australia. Do you see that as a positive and hope people might be buying tickets to Babyteeth instead of heavily marketed blockbusters like Mulan and Tenet?
Shannon: Yeah, I do. I actually just went to the cinemas here on the Gold Coast to see the Icelandic film A White, White Day and it was in this massive, amazing cinema at the Home of the Arts and the surround sound was incredible. There were probably about 20 of us there and they spaced us all out well and it was a really beautiful cinema experience. Cinema is coming back alive and it was a good feeling.
Matt: Let’s go back to the origins of this project. Babyteeth is based on a play from Rita Kalnejais that was first performed in Sydney in 2012. Did you get to see it back then?
Shannon: No, I didn’t actually. I’d directed at the Belvoir St Theatre before and it’s where I began my career and it was unusual for me to miss a play there.
Matt: So how did this cinematic adaptation come across your radar?
Shannon: It was brought to me by producer Alex White and executive producer Jan Chapman. They’d seen the play at Belvoir and loved it and knew immediately they wanted Rita to turn it into a screenplay. They’d been working on it for about 6-7 years and when it was finally sent to me, it was ready to go and incredibly well crafted.
Matt: Wow, that’s worked out well. You’ve come in just at the right time and avoided the long lead up?
Shannon: Yeah, I can’t complain. I now feel a bit spoilt and I want that to be the same case for my second film.
Matt: There are so many people out there that would love to be making movies but it’s a tough industry to crack. As someone who has now made short films, TV shows and now their first feature, what lessons can you share with budding filmmakers in terms of how you broke through?
Shannon: Staying true to your cinematic personality and tone is really important. Even back with my early theatre work, my sense of humour was always quite left of field and my work was always very physical and I kept experimenting with how far I could push all of that. I made very different choices and continued to challenge myself with what projects interested me and why I wanted to make them. I didn’t want to get stuck in any areas where I wasn’t still expanding myself. That’s helped me to keep growing.
Matt: Eliza Scanlen really looks to be another Australian name to watch with her performances in Sharp Objects, Little Women and now here in Babyteeth. I’m sure a lot of people would have been interested in the role so what stood out most with you in casting Eliza?
Shannon: She was so original that it actually terrified me. She auditioned for me a few times and I remember going “I just don’t know who she is?” She came in and every time she was a different person. There was one audition where she was doing some crazy stuff and I took her outside and I said “this doesn’t feel like the girl I met in the café for coffee six months ago”. I told her to come back in and relax and be herself. She walked in and did it again and I was like “there she is”.
She’s got so much range. We ended up sitting down together and crafting the character from scratch because she can do so much and she’s very smart and dedicated. For example, she learned the violin in three weeks. Yes, there’s Veronique Serret who is amazing playing over the top of her in the actual sound mix but she really worked so hard to make all her bowing look excellent. Not a lot of people would do that.
Matt: There are some really good conversations in the film – particularly those shared between Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace. How did you and Rita approach that and create authentic teenage dialogue for the movie?
Shannon: Rita was really conscious of that and had paid a lot of attention to teenagers that she’d met. You have to do that research to actually understand the psychosis of what people are saying and talking about. Also, once you give the script to actors in a room, they’ll tell you if something doesn’t feel right. I have to say in this case that on the whole, they really believed it and we only had to tweak a few small things.
Matt: It’s very jolting the way the film cuts between certain scenes – in terms of both the music and the visuals. What was behind that creative choice?
Shannon: When I completed my studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, I did my honours on the work of German director Bertolt Brecht and his techniques. I was drawn to those techniques in my theatre work and that has translated into cinema in that I love the ability to sever moments before they go where you expect them to.
Also, the cumulative effect of that over time and breaking the fourth wall in different ways helps give you a greater emotional release at the end because you’ve earned it and you’ve been able to intellectualise and emotionally connect throughout. When you get that balance right, it can have a greater impact on the viewer and hopefully the film will sit with them longer as a more memorable experience.
Matt: I noticed a lot of facial close-ups in the film. Am I overthinking that or was that a conscious decision on your part?
Shannon: It definitely was. I was talking a lot with our amazing cinematographer, Andy Commis, about how unlike other Australian films which was about the landscape, for us, the landscapes were these characters’ faces. It was about these four people and how they were dealing with an incredible crisis. It was very much a deliberate decision.
Matt: To finish up, is there anything you’re working on at the moment? What might we see from you next?
I’d love to make another feature film sooner rather than later but the next project for me is a TV show called The Power which is based on the novel by Naomi Alderman and is produced by Sister Pictures who made Chernobyl. It’s about what would happen in the world if women could electric shock men, similar to what electric eels do to each other, and if women become the more dominant, violent genre, how does that shift the world?