Interview: Filmmaker Jennifer Kent Discusses Making 'The Nightingale'
by Alex Billington
February 21, 2019
"This is a shared story. So you have my permission to tell it." My favorite film of 2018, my #1 film of the year (which I first saw at the Venice Film Festival last fall), was The Nightingale, directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent. This harrowing, intense, but beautiful story is about a woman who ventures out into the forest on the island of Tasmania seeking revenge. She befriends an Aboriginal guide along the way, and the story becomes as much about their friendship as it is about her revenge. The Nightingale is Kent's second feature film, her first being the world famous horror hit The Babadook. I caught Kent in Park City, Utah in January for an interview, as The Nightingale also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
It's always a great honor to meet and interview the filmmakers behind my favorite films. From my review of The Nightingale: "I don't even think the word 'masterpiece' can do it justice, it's such a riveting, enlivening, extraordinary cinematic creation that it's worthy of more rigorous lingo and more thorough praise… [It] features two of my favorite performances. It's also an important, affecting film that addresses racism and sexism head on, showing that we haven't changed much in 200 years but we can… through compassion." Kent's The Nightingale went on to win a Special Jury Prize and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor (awarded to the superb Baykali Ganambarr) at the Venice Film Festival, and was picked up by IFC Films for release in the US in the summer. Once the official trailer debuts, we'll definitely let you know.
I met with Jennifer Kent for this interview while at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, at a condo near Main Street. I always prefer to conduct interviews in person, and this was a rare chance to meet her and talk while we were both in the same place at the same time. She seemed to be in quite good spirits, despite the intensity of flying to a tiny mountain town in the middle of winter. My interview covers some filmmaking topics, which I wanted to ask about, as well as cultural ideas that I had been discussing with an Australian colleague just the night before. Without any further delay, here's the full transcript from our conversation…
What kind of filmmaker do you want to be? How do you want to be known?
Jennifer Kent: It doesn't really concern me. To be perfectly honest…
You just want to make anything you want?
Kent: Well, I don't think in terms of genre, and that's not to say I dismiss it or disrespect it, not at all. But I think each film tells you what it needs to be. And I think I'm never going to make a naturalistic film or a rom-com or a straight drama. That's not going to happen. But I like to let the film tell me what it needs to be, visually… I don't know what you call The Nightingale. Maybe a frontier film, some people might call it a western or… The next one as well. I think there's similarities, though, that run through The Babadook and The Nightingale.
I've been reading a lot of critics trying to categorize it that way.
Kent: Is it frustrating them?
Because that's what critics have to do - give it some categorization that readers can follow…
Kent: Yeah, I know it's weird… I really love films that create worlds. And I like mythical worlds. I don't mean like Dungeons & Dragons, but I just mean worlds that are complete and of their own making. So the minute you step into a film, you're like "oh, I'm in this space I've never been before." And I love heightened worlds. Even though this is a period film, there's still something that feels more of a mythical approach than nice costumes and sweeping vistas and things like that.
After The Babadook became a major hit… Was it still hard to get this funded and developed? How was the transition between them? Was this in development before The Babadook?
Kent: No, it wasn't. It wasn't like, oh I've made Babadook now I'm going to make the film I really wanted to make. I think people think it's taken five years to make this and it hasn't. I took almost a year pushing Babadook forward, which you really have to do with your first film. You have to be present, very present. And so it was hard to write, because I'm a writer-director. But I was developing The Nightingale about three years ago. And also working on Alice + Freda Forever, which is a film I'm making this year. So they're both close to each other. I was developing them in tandem. So I'd say I had the idea for this, it happened pretty quickly. It wasn't easy to finance. But it wasn't ridiculously difficult. There was a flow to it. They loved the script for The Nightingale. And people really responded well to it, so we had a lot of interested people. And I didn't want to necessarily cast stars, which is always problematic for financiers. But we found the right partners and they were fantastic.
Was there one major instance or something that helped it all come together? What made this project come together and actually move forward?
Kent: Well, it was my choice to want to tell this story first. And the people who really responded to it on the page just saw the value in it. And saw the modern relevance that it has in our world. And the universality of the story. It's set in Australia, but these things happened, and are happening, everywhere. I'm interested in stories that appeal to a universal audience. I might not have a blockbuster, but the thing with Babadook is that it found its people in every country. People from all around the world know this film. When I travel, I know that.
That one's a global phenomenon at this point.
Kent: Yeah. And I love that about cinema. I don't feel like I have to please everyone in America, but if you find the right crowd in America then it can happen, a film can make an impact around the world.
There haven't been too many films about Aboriginals and the horrible way they were treated, which similar in many ways to the way Native Americans were treated in America. But there's been a lot of films with Native Americans over the years. And now with Sweet Country and with your film there seems to be this, I hope, push with more of these films.
Kent: I think that it's been our biggest blind spot. You have that in every culture, every country has that. They don't want to talk about it. And people get really angry. There was, recently, this thing in a university, someone described the colonization of Australia as an invasion and people were up in arms. "How can you call it an invasion?!" Suddenly [they] became very patriotic. But it was. It was an invasion of an existing, very sophisticated, [one of] the oldest cultures on Earth. [Their culture has] been present for 60,000 years. And these Australian's survived and thrived for 60,000 years. And then we came in and we caused a lot of damage, environmental damage. It was an invasion. Not that this film is intended it to be political, but I guess it is on some level, saying things that I think Australians are actually ready to hear now. But I also think in terms of Aboriginal stories there's a lot of — I want to stand back and let Aboriginal people tell their stories. Great directors like Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, another Aboriginal director. Ivan Sen. There's so many Aboriginal directors coming through. It's a really vibrant filmmaking community.
That's what I was kinda hoping to talk about.
Kent: I wouldn't have gone in to this story if I didn't have a strong Aboriginal consultant. His name's Jim Everett. He's a Tasmanian Aboriginal elder. And he's also an artist and a poet. And a writer. And he worked on this film from the get go. And so everything had to go through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Commission and through Jim and — Kristina [Ceyton], the producer, and I became very close to Jim. And it's very, very important to us that we have permission to tell this story. And he said to me from the beginning, "This is a shared story. So you have my permission to tell it." We needed to make sure that we consulted and that they were happy. And they are happy.
I can't speak for every Tasmanian Aboriginal person, but the feedback we got was really moving. We had a Palawa kani language expert, a consultant on the set during all of those scenes where Aboriginal language, the Tasmanian Aboriginal language, was spoken. So I feel we did what we could. There's been a history, a tradition unfortunately, of white filmmakers coming in. And asking nothing to tell the Aboriginal people's story. It's just colonizing them all over again. It's doing the same thing again. I love Walkabout. I love the old Aboriginal films with Aboriginal elements, but they're this idea of the mystical native is really – we're not at that place anymore.
I want to ask about filming this in The Academy aspect ratio. How did you decide upon 1.37:1?
Kent: So – it's not as square, but still pretty square. It's a ratio I've loved for a long time and a lot of my favorite films are in that ratio. And it's not "oh I like that look", it's a very human ratio. A lot of paintings, and portraits, are actually in a similar ratio. And it just felt like a very emotional choice. And it kept us connected to the characters. Because we're telling a film in nature. What CinemaScope [2.35:1] does beautifully shows these wonderful vistas. But when you have to pull out that wide, because Tasmanian trees are really tall, and if you pull out that wide you completely lose the characters in the space. It becomes about nature. So I wanted to show humans traveling through nature and show the impact it was having on them. So with The Academy ratio you keep the height and you keep this beautiful depth.
That's what I love about it.
Kent: Yeah. And I loved it. I'd be on set just looking at this frame – and Radek Ladczuk's such a beautiful D.O.P – and just pine away. And people go, oh you're not showing nature. I think "what?!" You're seeing nature in the frame. CinemaScope is also very unnatural.
Yeah, I know, but we're used to it by now.
Kent: Yeah, we're used to it. And for Babadook – it's not like there's one superior framing. But Babadook works so well because it's all about negative space. And that's what's frightening: what's in the edge of that? What's in the darkness on the edge of that frame?
How much did you just let your DP do all the framing, or did you get behind the camera and frame anything yourself? It's so evocative and adds so much to every shot. Were you sitting there and checking the lens and making sure everything looks exactly the way you want?
Kent: Well… Yeah. Radek is a superb DP and he is Polish. He has an artist's eye. And he's so dedicated to making a unique world. Which he also did with The Babadook. But we prepared a lot. We shot on digital. It was impossible, we wanted to shoot on film. We did film tests, but we don't have labs in Australia anymore, so we couldn't shoot on film. Modern digital images are too sharp for this film. So we used C7, C-series lenses. And old '70s lenses. And Anamorphic, so that there is a distortion, an aberration, especially on the edge of the frames. So that was a decision we made together. Which was [initially] Radek's input, and super important. I think it's a question of me feeling the film visually. I'm also a very visual person. And then it's also him bringing something really precious and much better than I ever could… If I shot the film it'd be terrible. But I have the idea and then Radek brings his genius to it.
And just simple things like, always the phrase, "the faces are in center frame." And so it's very confronting to watch emotionally. I'm really proud of the way it looks. I think it's something quite unique.
I agree and that's what I truly admire about The Nightingale – it's not just one part of it that is great. All the parts of the film are great. All the pieces together are great. To me a film is the culmination of everything, not just the script, not just…
Kent: Yeah. I agree. And it only really comes to life in that final moment. It was pleasing to me to watch, but even with sound design, we have a brilliant sound designer – [Robert Mackenzie]. And when that is all layered through because there's no music in the film. I mean, there's singing, but no music. It was like wow, it just jumped up. Yeah. All the elements are so important.
Going into the production, what did you think would be hard and ended up being easier? And what did you think would be easy and it ended up being harder than you expected?
Kent: Nothing is easy. I'll tell you now. [Laughs]
Really? Not a single thing?
Kent: Not a single thing. Not a single thing… It really pushed me to my absolute limits as a human being. Anyone who was on that set will tell you… We had a really seasoned gaffer and grips and technicians and who'd worked on The Matrix and lots of really big films that were shot in Australia. No, everyone's like — this is the hardest film I've ever had to make.
So many elements together… Where do I start? It was 150+ locations. Shot on an island that has very little film infrastructure. No weather contingency. And I wanted the whole film to be overcast until the end. And so we had to create shade… My protection of the actors, making sure they were psychologically, emotionally okay. And being in these remote regions in mountainous areas and alpine wilderness. And areas that had never been on film before. In rivers, very dangerous rivers. It just went on and on. I would say to Radek, my DP, when we shot that scene, that's over. And he'd say, "yeah, but tomorrow's this scene." It was like oh my God. But I think in terms of maybe… not what I thought was hard then was easy, but I got so many rewards from the film… So many beautiful connections. Like Baykali [Ganambarr, who plays Billy]… [he] made me a member of his family.
Kent: And I get emotional thinking about him because I just love him so much. And I feel so privileged to have been invited in in a very small way to that culture. And that's — it's the hardest thing I've ever done. It's the best thing I've ever done.
So, do you like to challenge yourself through filmmaking? Is that something you enjoy?
Kent: Maybe not this much anymore [laughs]. But yeah, I do. I do. I'm not… dismayed by something being hard. I really feel a story comes to me and tells me what it needs. And then I have a duty to it. So okay, yeah, it would've been easier to shoot on the mountain that's in the middle of Hobart and we would CGI all the vistas. But I just couldn't do that to the film. So yeah, sometimes I will take the hard road to get the better result.
I can appreciate that. I hope all the other viewers do, too.
Kent: Yeah. No one will ever know what went into this film. No one will ever--
But I think as a professional film watcher, you can see it in the frame.
Kent: Can you?
I can. I don't know if everyone else can, but I can. Maybe you don't recognize it when you're watching it at first, but I think it's all baked into the frame in a way where you feel it more. And it has more of an impact, perhaps even subconsciously.
Kent: Yeah. Maybe it is. It's something that – you're not consciously aware of it. But after seeing the finished film all the way through, yeah… I could not be more proud of it, to be honest. Because of that. Because we could've shot in Victoria. Would've been a lot cheaper. Would've had access to a lot more equipment more easily. But these locations have never been on film. And it's where this all happened. I think what people may not understand is that this is a true story. Clare and Billy are fictional characters, but the world of the film is real. It happened.
Do you think cinema can change the world? Or does it have the ability to influence society?
Kent: I think art is really important. And I think film sits very much in the realm of art. I don't know if it changes the world, but it offers a way of looking at the world that then can be a catalyst for change. But it's up to the viewer. I can do my job and I treat it with the utmost importance. And then it's up to the viewer. 100 people can see the same film and [each] take something so different from it. So yeah. But the potential's there for some kind of change.
I think it's purely in the expression, which becomes a catalyst for change to begin.
Kent: Yeah. But then it's up to the human[s] to do the work. I mean, it would be great if people could watch this film and go, okay, there's no more rape and violence in the world. That's not going to happen, but… I think it can offer some catalyst. I think it can provoke people to think and feel something different that they hadn't considered before.
I agree. That's what I tend to say as a critic. I'm so moved by what I've been able to see, but this is because I'm watching so much in my life. And that the least I can do is try and convince people to go see something.
In the hopes that the ability for them to see it allows them to begin to think more.
Kent: There have been films that have changed the course of my life, my creative life. Have you seen a film called Come and See?
No, I don't think so…
Kent: Go and have a look at that. It's a Russian film. In a nutshell it's about a 13 year old boy who wants to go to war. And it's set during World War II, in Belarus. And he's a part of the Partisan Army that's working against the Nazis. And it's about the descent into hell and madness. And it's the only true anti-war film I think that's ever been made. But it was a big inspiration for this film, for The Nightingale.
Thank you to Jennifer Kent for her time & openness. And to IFC for arranging the interview.
Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and just played at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is set for release from IFC Films this summer, around June/July. Stay tuned for updates.