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Following the international success of her debut film, 2014’s instant classic The Babadook, Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent could have easily jumped into a Babadook sequel or another horror film of her choosing. Instead, she took on The Nightingale, a more challenging and personal non-genre project ripped from her country’s dark history that features scenes more horrifying and upsetting than anything in her previous effort.
Set in 1825 Tasmania at the height of British colonialism, The Nightingale focuses on 21-year-old Clare (Aisling Franciosi). The Irish convict serves out her sentence as an indentured servant to British soldiers, but when her captors commit an unspeakable act against her and her family, she obsessively embarks on a path of vengeance. That involves traveling across the dangerous land in search of her victimizers (including the cruel Lt. Hawkins, played by Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin), with Aboriginal native Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as her reluctant guide. Written and directed by Kent, The Nightingale (now in theatrical release from IFC Films) powerfully examines the repercussions of violence and vengeance.
Q: After the grim Babadook and the even grimmer The Nightingale, are you itching to do a comedy next?
JENNIFER KENT: [Laughs] Well, there are a few jokes in each of them! I don’t know what to say. But, yeah, if someone throws a comedy at me, I’ll do it.
Q: Was it difficult to resist, say, doing a Babadook sequel than take on such a challenging sophomore film like The Nightingale?
JK: Not really, because I never, never had that as my goal to continue to make or remake a version of The Babadook or do a continuation of it. That might have been the expectation of others as far as thinking, "OK, will this happen next or will there be another horror film?” But I’m more drawn to just an idea that speaks to me, and it could come in any form, not just a straight genre film. I need to feel really passionate about an idea before taking on a project, because films take so long to get made.
Q: The Nightingale is such a downbeat story in a lot of ways. Was it tough to write and direct? Was it difficult for the actors to deal with such horrifying events?
JK: It was definitely challenging, there’s no doubt about it. The crew and cast were largely Australian and very devoted to the idea of the script and the story. So, there was a real commitment to veracity and telling the story honestly and authentically. So that kept us going. And there was a lot of support for each other as well. So, it wasn’t as downbeat as you might think it could be [laughs]. We did form a strong bond and got each other through. It certainly took its toll at times, but we all realized the importance of it, and the need to tell the story honestly. That gave us energy.
Q: What inspired the story in the first place?
JK: Well, it’s our history, it’s part of our story and that was something I really wanted to talk about. As well as more universal themes about the need for the very important qualities that make us human, like love and compassion, in even the darkest of times. And I wanted to explore that through the characters of Clare and Billy.
Q: Any basis in actual events?
JK: The world is very historically accurate. These events were commonplace for Irish convict women in general, and they endured a lot of sexual violence because there was a ratio of one woman to every eight or nine men. And there was a lot of crime and corruption within that [system], and an imbalance as well. It was a very unsafe place for women, and they were tough, they had to survive. So that was very, very true to life. Equally, the Aboriginal story within the film is also all historically accurate, unfortunately.
Q: The movie is a savage indictment of colonialism. What made you want to shed light on such a dark period in Aussie history?
JK: It’s a world story. In order to really evolve as humans, we need to acknowledge our darkness and our shadow side. And that involves our history. And it’s a universal story. Colonial invasion happened in a lot of countries, a lot of so-called developed countries. And beyond that, colonialism is not, unfortunately, a historical concept or conceit. Aboriginal people, for example, still suffer under colonial thought. And the violent mind that created colonialism is the same violent minds that exist in the world today that are creating problems for us all. It’s not like it was a brutal time then and now everything’s solved. Quite the opposite.
Q: Baykali Ganambarr is such a revelation as Billy. How did you find him?
JK: I had a really brilliant casting agent who had contacts with the remote Aboriginal communities. And so, we organized with the elders to go in and meet with young men and women, speak with them, tell them about the story and then audition them. So, we went out to them, and then when we had a short list, the [casting agent] came to us and we worked with them in Sydney. It was really important for me to go out to those communities myself and meet with people. That’s the way that we approached it.
Q: Aisling Franciosi is also amazing. Was it difficult for her to channel such rage, anger and other painful emotions?
JK: I don’t know if “difficult” is the word. Every actor benefits from support, direction and guidance, but Aisling has a lot of empathy and compassion as a person, and she really understood the character. And so, everything her character goes through, then the natural result for that is rage and other things as well. We worked together to create this character who had a certain response to a very traumatic event. Aisling’s a powerhouse, so it was really just a matter of supporting her and nurturing her so that she felt safe to be as strong as she was.
Q: Cast against type, Sam Caflin plays one of the most despicable villains ever. What attracted him to such an unlikable, evil character?
JK: I don’t know if he is evil, really. We never approached it that way. Of course, the depiction is that he’s evil, but we really worked from another angle, which was to really humanize him, to make him a very damaged person. And we did a lot of research on perpetrators of violence of all kinds, but in particular, sexual violence. And so, we were able to get to understand this person, if not obviously love him, but to have some kind of human compassion for someone who was so horrifically damaged and then just continues to damage everyone around him. Sam really wanted to play that role, and I didn’t initially see him in the role at all, but he convinced me through an audition that he was perfect. And the beautiful thing about Sam is that he has got such humanity and warmth, so it makes it even more shocking when someone like that has the capacity for such damage.
Q: You found such virgin territory with your locations. How smoothly did all that outdoor work go?
JK: Oh, it was very grueling. We shot in alpine wilderness in winter instead of autumn. We were really proud to go to areas that have never been put on screen and present them and show them. Tasmania has a very mythic landscape, and it gave the film a certain feeling, which I’m really pleased about.
Q: Any anecdotes?
JK: One day we had no snow for a scene. Then we had to go back and shoot the next day, but it had snowed. So, we had to get dryers and heat blowers and get rid of all the snow on the side of a mountain to match continuity. So, yeah, nature threw us some curly ones at times.
Q: What was the toughest thing about this shoot?
JK: Just completing it, just getting to that final stage where it was all done. There were challenges every single day, whether it was the terrain or the emotion or both. But there was a lot of love on set and it got us through.
Q: What kind of reaction do you hope worldwide audiences have to The Nightingale?
JK: I hope that the film gets seen and that people can make up their own minds and hearts about how they feel about it. I’ve done my job, and I hope it becomes visible and the people who want to see it can get a chance to see it.
Q: Going back to The Babadook, were you surprised by the international success and recognition the film received?
JK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s not something you ever expect. You hope that people see it, but just for it to take off in the way it did and reach so many people…It’s just been an incredible, incredible experience.
Q: What’s next for you?
JK: I am making a film next year called Alice + Freda Forever, which is based on a true story, a love story, between two girls in Memphis in the 1890s. And then I’m developing a sci-fi series called Tiptree, which is about the incredible life and work of science fiction writer Alice B. Sheldon, who was at her height in the late ’60s all the way through to the late ’70s. So, that’s my next two, both of which I will shoot in the States.