One of only two female-helmed films in the Venice competition, the unpredictable family drama “Babyteeth” is the feature debut of Australian Shannon Murphy, an award-winning director of theater, opera and television.
What drew you to the story?
The producer Alex White sent me the script. By this stage, it had been developed for five years and was very ready to be made. Jan Chapman (producer of “The Piano”) knew immediately after seeing the play at Belvoir St. theater in Sydney that it had to be turned into a film. Alex and Jan began the process with playwright Rita Kalnejais to translate the theatrical world of the play into a cinematic world. I feel so fortunate to have been given her words for my first feature. She feels like my creative spirit animal. Her tone, observations of people, deep emotional intelligence, dark and unsentimental humor were a perfect match for my style and taste.
How did you and Rita collaborate?
Rita and I worked together on a director’s pass that incorporated more private moments for the characters and visual beats with no words in order to make sure we had enough material that explored how the characters occupied the world when they were alone.
You cast some of Australia’s best performers: Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis and Eliza Scanlen.
We worked hard on the casting. The balance of younger actors and older ones had to be just right so that the world and family felt authentic.
I have spent my life surrounding myself with actors that I think are unusual, atypical and can offer a much deeper, unpredictable and intellectual interpretation of their roles. Ben, for me, is the pinnacle of this kind of performer.
I believed Essie and Ben as a couple would be an inspired combination that would crackle and spit like a well-made fire. I knew that they had always wanted to work together and they hadn’t had the opportunity.
Eliza is an incredible chameleon. Milla is a character that from the moment we meet her is in a constant state of transition, she’s experimenting with who she is and yet stays wise and grounded beyond her years, facing an incredible existential crisis.
I have to mention Toby Wallace, the fourth violin in our string quartet, so to speak! He plays Moses and his transformation for the film is remarkable. He’s very intuitive and he never stops playing and as a result Moses is by turns emotional, wild and chaotic, funny and bereft.
How did directing a feature compare to your other work?
I love the large scale of film and the people I get to work with. The pace of “Babyteeth” was the fastest I’d like to ever want to go considering the expectation was to make a feature film, not a television series. It was scarily fast and we had no room for error due to cast restrictions and the budget.
Rehearsals with Eliza and Toby were three full days and two days with Ben and Essie. Having directed so much theater and TV before this I know how to maximize my time and we jumped into the difficult scenes to make sure we had explored them before the shoot began.
I’m hoping to receive a script as excellent as “Babyteeth” for my next feature. I don’t write. I’m a firm believer that very few people in the world can write and direct and I’m not one of them.
In the meantime, I’m very excited to be directing Episodes 5 and 6 of “Killing Eve,” Season 3. I can’t stay away from TV for too long — I love the pace and the intensity! I am a huge admirer of the bizarre tone of the show and I’m always drawn to projects that can be both intimate, moving, darkly humorous and in some way bonkers — which “Killing Eve” really is. I’m hoping I get to direct some outrageously violent Villanelle style executions.