Jennifer Kent’s feature directorial debut The Babadook is the story of an estranged relationship between a mother and her child. It is also a nerve-wrenching, nail-biting modern fairy tale of a creature invading a family’s home by means of a mysterious picture book. When single-mother Amelia is asked to read this new book to her son Samuel, an eerie warning plays out regarding the horrific Babadook's presence around them. And so begins Kent’s multilayered film.

Kent, who began her career as an actress before making the switch to behind the camera, initially wrote and directed a short film, Monster, in which a mother confronts the unexpedly real monster in her young boy’s closet. The Babadook further explores this confrontation as its protagonist must accept the reality of her son’s fears and in turn face them for herself. As audience tension rises to the extreme, what exists underneath this unsettlingly suspenseful film is the story of a woman struggling to understand the strange behavior of her young boy in order to help him.

FilmLinc spoke to Jennifer Kent about the source of inspiration for this bold debut, her background in film, and where she found influences for her visually stunning and frightening fairy tale. The Babadook will screen at the Film Society for one week beginning November 28.

FilmLinc: In addition to viewing The Babadook, I also watched your short film Monster, which follows a very similar concept. How long has this idea been with you and where did it come from?

Jennifer Kent: I didn’t know I was going to make The Babadook after I finished making Monster or during Monster. It was just a fascination with the deeper themes in both films I think, certainly in The Babadook: the idea of facing darkness and integrating darkness and not being frightened of it. I’ve been working on a lot of other stories and this idea I explored in a very minor way in Monster kept coming back. So I said, “I’m going to see where this idea takes me.” It wasn’t like I’d been writing The Babadook for all that time, but it took about two-and-a-half years to explore that idea and there I was, making it into a film, into a feature.

FL: You started out in the film industry as an actor. When did you know you wanted to pursue writing and directing?

JK: Writing and directing was always something I had done as an actor. All three of those things. Even at a very early age, like 6 or 7, I was writing plays, acting in them, and directing them in school. As soon as I could read and write, basically. So it's always been something I feel I’ve known. It wasn’t like, “I’ll do acting,” and then, “Oh hey, how about directing?”

But when I was a teenager and looking to study, I chose an acting school: the national acting school here [in Australia], NIDA [The National Institute of Dramatic Arts]. At the time, they didn’t encourage actors to do anything else. It was a very purist approach and so I let writing and directing go for a while. But then once I finished studying, I just got bored with acting. I’m not the most extroverted person in the world and I didn’t like the whole self-promotion thing and self-focus. And for women, acting is all about how you look, unfortunately, a lot of the time. That really bored me. So it was just a natural gravitation back toward my first love, I think. But what I think that’s given me is more of an understanding of the directing process as an actor. It’s really hard to be a good actor. It’s a real skill. It’s underrated.

FL: Did you know right off that you wanted to direct a horror film?

JK: I don’t see it as a horror movie. I see it as a scary movie, but I don’t think in terms of genre. I never have. I tend to be drawn toward films that really defy genre. I love David Lynch's and Lars von Trier’s films. For me, it was more about that woman’s story and about her facing difficulties that drew me in. That, by virtue of what’s going on, is very terrifying for her. So the film had to be scary. But it wasn’t, for me at all, I didn’t think, “I’m going to make a horror film.” Having said that, I do love films that fit in that space. I’m really drawn to them, so it’s something I know well.

FL: Were there any films or filmmakers that influenced this film in particular?

JK: Probably many, yeah. David Lynch’s Lost Highway was really inspiring to this because it shows someone’s descent from the inside and it’s not so literal. So I really loved that film and I love the Polanski domestic horrors, their humor and their strangeness. He’s a master in creating a unique world. You step inside Rosemary’s Baby and you feel like it’s a real world that really existed and still exists somewhere. Those kinds of films were really inspiring for me.

FL: In Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” he really emphasizes and explores location, which you do as well in The Babadook. The house seems to be endless as you’re watching it.

JK: It’s funny, I just moved into a new place, a new terrace in Sydney, and it has a vibe. A house reflects so much of who we are and it’s interesting to explore that on film. It’s another character. I think with a lot of the German Expressionist films, which are also really appealing to me, the space around those characters is very important as well.

FL: Even the look of the Babadook character does recall German Expressionism. In particular, the shape of its hands and its jagged fingers.

JK: Yeah, I really love that period in cinema. It’s something that appeals to me and it has a lot of tie-ins with fairy tales as well, which this film explores: a fairy-tale reality. I’m not talking Disney, obviously, but the more brutal, true roots of fairy tales or something that contains a lot of those strange-looking characters and was really inspiring for The Babadook.

FL: I’m sure with a film like this, when you work with a child actor, their initial approach to these kinds of scenes would be to act in a more cartoonish or over-the-top way. What was your process directing Noah Wiseman?

JK: I watched close to 100 auditions so I know exactly what you mean, because a lot of them are over-prepared. It’s rare to get a child who actually sounds real when they’re acting, especially a 6-year-old. It was about choosing the right boy. It was about a lot more as well, but ultimately it was choosing someone who could be directed. That was my biggest objective: to find a kid who could change, who could take direction, where it wouldn’t come across that he was acting. I also needed him to be emotionally robust because he was going to be in almost every scene, and not only that, but the material is tough. So I needed someone who was sensitive, but who also wasn’t going to crumble on the second day. And of course we protected him. As we shot any horrible scene in the film, he had an adult stand-in for him. But yeah, he was perfect for it. He exceeded my expectations. It was not easy to direct him. It was really hard, and I’ll say that because a 6-year-old doesn't have a long attention span. 

FL: The mother character, played by Essie Davis, goes through such a transformation from the beginning to the end of the film. I’d assume, like most productions, you didn’t shoot it in chronological order. How did you approach working with her and keeping the character’s internal time line in order?

JK: We did try to shoot in order as much as possible for the actors, because I know how hard it is to shift. It’s very hard to go backwards. We were very sensitive to that in our scheduling. But of course, because you don’t have 15 weeks to shoot something, we had to do things out of sequence. I think I knew why every scene was there, which helped, and that sounds like an obvious thing for a director to know, but maybe it isn’t always so obvious. I pitched where she needed to be at any particular time, and Essie has done that as well because she’s very thorough in her preparation. So she was very clear and I was very clear and we are friends, so there’s a lot of trust between us. She also trusted me that I knew what I was doing and she allowed herself to be directed, which was fantastic. It’s not an easy role and, I think too, that she knew I wasn’t going to make her look foolish. She could have. It paints a fine line with a role that extreme.

FL: There’s the Babadook story, as far as the specifics of the plot, but a good amount of the film deals with the relationship between Amelia and her son, Samuel, and Amelia coming to terms with her role as a mother. How would you describe the relationship between these two central characters?

JK: I always said that this is like a love story [laughs], which is probably not what most people would see it as. You know, it’s a woman traveling through the center of hell to get to the other side to get to her son. We don’t know if she’s going to make it and that’s, I think, what makes it terrifying for someone watching it. The impetus there is love. It’s damaged, but she’s trying to do her best and she’s trying to connect with this boy. For me, the mother-son relationship is a by-product of the central idea, which is “face the difficult situations.” No matter how difficult they are, it’s better to face them than not to face them at all, because if you don’t face them you not only hurt yourself, you hurt everyone around you. We see that to the extreme in this story, with her son. It’s a positive story. In my eyes, it’s a positive story.

[The Babadook plays at the Film Society November 29  December 4.]