Interview: Director Shannon Murphy on her debut feature film Babyteeth

Director Shannon Murphy has spent much of her initial career cutting her teeth on television productions. Most notably Killing Eve, Rake and Offspring are amongst her filmography credits. The young Australian director will finally have her debut feature film Babyteeth releasing in Australian cinemas from 23rd July. The film is an adaptation of Rita Kalnejais’ play of the same name that was first staged back in 2012. The story follows teenager Milla (Eliza Scanlen), diagnosed with terminal cancer, who randomly meets and subsequently falls in love with wayward drug addict Moses (Toby Wallace). Whilst her psychiatrist father (Ben Mendelsohn) and her artist mother (Essie Davis) try to manage their emotions and grief knowing full well that time is running out for their only child. 

We had a phone chat with Shannon to discuss Babyteeth and the complexities of bringing the experiences of a terminally ill teenage girl to the big screen.

First off is that this film is an adaptation of a play. How did you actually come across the play?

SM:  So the producers, Alex White and Jan Chapman, saw the play at Belvoir St about seven years ago and they were both running towards each other in the foyer so excited, because they could tell that this was the next project they wanted to turn into a film. And they knew that Rita (Kalnejais) was the perfect person to write that and she already had experience writing for television. So they worked on the adaptation with her for seven years and then about two years ago, I came on board and the script was in an amazing place and pretty much ready to go. So I didn’t develop it. I’m going to say I think it’s amazing to just be given something that’s ready to go. It doesn’t happen a lot and it was really lovely.

Did you find that because it was ready to go, that made things a lot easier for you as well?

SM:  Look, I mean definitely. I think what probably helped more than anything was I had just made a four-part SBS series called On the Ropes, so I’d literally just come off doing the equivalent of the length of two feature films myself. And that was great preparation to then go straight into my film.

Rita Kalnejais wrote the original play and here she’s done the screenplay adaptation. Was there anything that Rita specifically wanted to retain from the play?

SM:  The film is very similar to the play in the sense that all the characters are the same and the stories are the same. The main thing that is different is the order. The second last scene in the film is the first scene in the play. So the order is very, very different. But other than that, so much of the play is in the film and in many ways, Rita always said she felt like the play was a film.

One of the things that I did noticed is that towards the end, it feels like it plays with time.

SM:  Ah, that’s interesting you think that. The only time jump is the last scene. That goes back in time. So the birthday party is the day that she dies. Then she dies and then we go back to the morning of the birthday party, which is the night where she dies and they go to the beach. But it’s interesting because you’re right. The sequencing of time is something I didn’t want people to focus too much on and that’s why I put those chapter headings in there. Because I thought it was really important that people didn’t get bogged down in those details, the same way we didn’t want them to get bogged down in the medical details because it’s no more a story about illness as it is about someone who plays the violin. It’s actually about a lot more than all of that. 

So I wanted to not have the focus on all of that and the title actually came from their original play. But they weren’t in the production, but they were in the script and I really liked them and we changed them and did different things with them, but that was something I thought was very clever that she had done in the play. And I thought there’s no reason we can’t put that in the film. And they’re a great punky voice of Milla’s. They start off as things that are a bit more factual, but then they become definitely her inner world.

With each of the main characters, they’re all in some way a little damaged. They’ve got their own issues and their problems. How did you manage to balance the need to highlight the four core characters in the film?

SM:  It was really important to me that I cast people who could be incredibly fallible, but also from a place that an audience could completely relate to. They’re all behaving in very strange ways because they’re all coping with a crisis in a different way. So for me, it was really about balancing their flaws and also being able to understand them. But all those actors are extraordinary at that tonal balance.

With Eliza Scanlen in the lead, did she actually audition for the role?

SM:  Look, to be honest I actually took a long time to cast Eliza. She did an amazing audition, but it was one of the first ones I saw and I wanted to see a big range of people, and then I circled back to Eliza because what she does so incredibly well is she’s the most extraordinary chameleon and she can play so many different things. I hadn’t quite landed exactly what Milla needed to be yet, but I knew that with Eliza, I’d have every opportunity at my fingertips and that she and I could together craft Milla’s journey. 

Unusually for a lead character, we only get a glimpse at the very beginning of the film of who Milla was before she met Moses. And from then on, her life is accelerating at a very rapid rate and she’s becoming so many different versions of herself because she’s trying to work out who that is and she’s wanting to experience things so quickly. So yeah, I needed somebody that was a mature enough actress to be able to navigate all of that, but also have an incredible innocence about her which is what Eliza has.

The character of Milla, she’s going through a lot of changes in a very short space of time. How important was it for you to make sure that was actually being conveyed on screen?

SM:  It was really important for me that this film was authentically representing the teenage experience. Honestly, I feel so often it’s done in a schmaltzy way or they’re made to seem as difficult people in our society and I have spent a lot of my time with teenagers because I’ve taught acting to them for years.  I find them so inspiring and intelligent and at the forefront of being spokespeople for what’s going on in the world. And so I really wanted to honor that and the teenage experience authentically.

Rita had also done a lot of research and talked about the reality of how often when children are ill and they’re in that age bracket, they’re actually pushing even further against their parents and breaking boundaries and wanting to expedite their life. And so that can be really challenging for parents because they’re wanting to cocoon their child more than ever and they’re behaving like teenagers, and also not wallowing necessarily in their illness. They’re wanting to be defined as something other than that.

Being a female director, there were things that happened to Milla during the course of her story that you could potentially relate to a lot easier than say if it was a male director trying to direct a female led film with this particular story.

SM:  Yeah, for sure. I mean I think what’s interesting is so often now films or TV shows are coming out that are clearly female characters and female stories, and yet they still have male directors and you just go, “What is the point of that? Because we have seen all those versions.” I think it is really important to question why isn’t a female director on a project if the story is driven by women because we’ve seen so much less of that. But having said that, I don’t want in my life to not be able to direct an all male project if I happen to want to tell that story. But I mean for me, it’s so much easier to be telling a story about someone like Milla because, of course, yes, I naturally understand the female experience of being a teenager more than being a male boy.

So as I mentioned, the film does revolve around themes of terminal illness and a young person who’s dying before they’ve really had a chance to live their life to the fullest. So what would be the one thing that’s on your bucket list that you’d want to tick off and achieve?

SM:  Oh, that is such an interesting question. I guess I’m obsessed with the idea of going to Bhutan. Because it’s a place that’s considered to have one of the highest percentages of happy people in the world and it looks so magical and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, and I grew up in Asia, but I’ve never been somewhere like Bhutan. And I’d love to go there. That would be on my bucket list.

 

Babyteeth releases in Australian cinemas from 23 July 2020 through Universal Pictures Australia

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