Interview: 'Babyteeth' Director Shannon Murphy on Making Her Film
by Alex Billington
June 18, 2020
"If you're ever making any piece of art, you've gotta be challenging while you're doing it and making sure that it's not something anyone's seen before, otherwise you're wasting everyone's time." One of my favorite films from the 2019 Venice Film Festival was Babyteeth, an exquisite Australian coming-of-age dramedy marking the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Shannon Murphy. Before she got into filmmaking, she was a theater director - starting her career on stage in Australia. She then moved over to television and has been directing episodes of shows like "Offspring", "Sisters", "On the Ropes", and "Killing Eve". Babyteeth is also originally from the stage - it's a play adapted by its own playwright for the screen. And Shannon jumped at the opportunity to direct it, later ending up in the Venice Film Festival main competition selection as one of two female filmmakers chosen that year (the other being Haifaa Al-Mansour with The Perfect Candidate).
Ever since the film premiered in Venice, I've been looking forward to interviewing Shannon Murphy about it because I was so impressed. I wrote in my glowing festival review: "Even if we've seen most of this before, it can still be fresh and unforgettable. And it is. The film exceeds on numerous levels, from the performances and focused storytelling, to the song selection and uplifting vibe throughout. Murphy balances levity and genuine humanity with fresh filmmaking, delivering a smart film that is completely satisfying in every sense." She seems like such an experienced filmmaker well into her cinema career, and yet this is only her first feature! I'm very lucky to get a chance to chat with Shannon for the US release of Babyteeth (in "virtual cinemas" starting on June 19th). And I was honored to have this opportunity to talk about an outstanding film, one that I really think deserves your attention. Watch the trailer here and catch this in "cinemas" soon.
My interview was arranged remotely and conducted over Zoom (technology is cool!). I first saw Babyteeth at the Venice Film Festival last year, and Shannon has been touring festivals all over the world since then. She is currently based in Sydney, Australia. I really wanted to chat with her about crafting this film, how they made sure the optimism and positivity came through, and how she handled making her first feature film. And I hope people will take an opportunity to watch and enjoy Babyteeth once it's out in theaters / on VOD.
This is your first feature film, but when I was watching it this felt like something made from a much more experienced filmmaker already. And that really impressed me and it moved me in so many ways that not a lot of films these days do.
Shannon Murphy: Oh, thank you. I think my theater background actually prepared me a lot for the feeling that you're having of [being] someone really experienced, because I knew from the age of 17 that I wanted to direct and I went straight into studying directing after high school. And so I had a 10 year theater career as a director before I moved into film and TV. And I think theater is a wonderful place to be able to really experiment with really limited resources and it pushes you to really step "out of the box" with how you can solve things. And then… when I went to film school to study and then came out and started doing television, I realized this was actually the medium that I was more suited to.
You mean the screen medium?
Shannon: Yeah, the screen medium. I love the adrenaline-fueled days on the set. And the pace of working with actors was brilliant. Theater's amazing, but the process is quite slow and beautiful in many ways, but with film and TV, I love the stress of how quickly you've got to get actors and everybody else on board with what's going on. I think I just love stress.
With theater, once the show opens every single night it's a "new" performance on stage from the actors. But with film, you shoot on set with multiple takes and then put together a final presentation that can't be changed. So was that a challenge for you in the transition?
Shannon: Well, it's interesting because what you say is correct. When the show opens, you do hand over to the actors a trust that they are going to continue the show that you've been rehearsing on for four or five weeks. But at the same time, there's an incredible freedom in letting them go and knowing that they're going to own it themselves. And I think that's why, as a theater director, with my actors on screen, I really trust them and I really know the range of what they can do. And I also love capturing quite a range of takes, because I want to be able to, in the edit –– it’s as though I've got the 30 performances they would've done in the play but I get to shape them in post.
I mean, I never do 30 takes. I'm completely much quicker than that. Because I'm a fast director in terms of getting them to switch up their performances, but also they really trust me because I'm known as being a performance-driven director, so there's very rarely any sort of long discussions on set, because we've already kind of built that rapport.
This film, Babyteeth, is also based on a play (written by Rita Kalnejais). Is the film that much different from the play? How much did you develop it and how much did it change from the original stage version?
Shannon: I was kind of lucky, because I came on board when the script was already completed. But I read the play much later, close to my beginning of pre-production. I didn't want to be influenced by it originally, but then I was ready to read it. And when I read it, the structure's very different. So the story and the characters are the same, but it begins with the second last scene. So that's the first scene of the play, it's very different seeing the end in the beginning.
What I loved about the play, which apparently has never been in the actual production, but when I read it, there were those title cards and also--there was a thruline of what the Dad said to Milla. It would just pop in throughout the whole piece. And I loved that. And even though Rita's titles in the play were super verbose, they went on for lines and lines and lines, I just made them more concise. And her and I crafted them more as we got into post. But it was something I felt really strongly about because it became chapters then and it stopped you from worrying about time. And just being thrown into every moment. And I really liked that. I do. Plus, it's a Brechtian technique that I really believe in because that's my theater background as well. Having studying Brecht for so long and his idea of the "verfremdungseffekt" of breaking the fourth wall and how, if you do that cleverly and well enough, the payoff emotionally is so much greater, because you're able to be intellectual as well as emotional. And not just manipulated. And I always think that those are the kind of films that really get into our bones, because we've had to work harder in watching them.
Yeah, I agree. After watching this in Venice last year, a number of my film critic friends spent 30 minutes talking about how much we loved those title cards. And how much they brought relief to the storytelling after watching 20 films at the festival before this one.
Shannon: I'm so glad. That was my biggest argument with –– the only thing I really went head to head with at times with trying to convince people to keep them in the film, it was those titles. And I was just so strong about it, because I agree, it's exactly what you just said.
Was it still a challenge to get this film funded? What was the "thing" that convinced people?
Shannon: Look, I know that they've been trying to get it funded for a while and it had been quite a challenge because on paper it's a very difficult film to sell –– from a logline or a paragraph, you know? Because unless you read it, you don't understand how unique the tone of it is. And by the time I came on board, we were about to go into a Screen Australia funding round. And the timing was perfect, because –– Screen Australia is our government funding body.
And [producer] Jan Chapman being attached always helps because obviously she's got an extensive body of work including The Piano. But what it was, I think, was also the fact that Screen Australia had been basically fostering my career for quite some time. And so when they were looking for films to have first-time filmmakers [on], that they wanted to back, it felt like the perfect timing, because they were wanting to know what I was going to make. And this was a film that they’d been trying to fund for a long time and were interested in. It just moved quite fast after that. But at the same time, it's still always touch and go with funding up to the last minute.
Well it sounds like you're saying you just had a great pitch meeting and they said, "we love your vision, let's do it." I mean, I know it's not that simple, but…
Shannon: No, totally. And it was pretty hilarious because Alex [White], our producer, we'd been pitching together to each other all morning trying to prep and then I remember us going into the park across the street from Screen Australia and we had chugged these Diet Cokes, because we need lots of energy. And then she said, let's do Power Pose and then I was like, what are you talking about? I'd never done a Power Pose in my life. So we stood in this park doing these Power Poses looking absolutely ridiculous. And some of the Screen Australia panel people walked past and I was like, "oh my God, I wanna die." But it was pretty cute. I think they saw us doing those Power Poses and felt sorry for us.
It worked though! It worked…
Shannon: But it's interesting you say that I feel like I'm someone who's got a real strong understanding of cinema, because I have to say growing up, I was not a classic cinephile kid who was running into cinemas and watching lots of stuff, because I was in theater rehearsals from the age of seven. And I spent all my time in rehearsal rooms. So that's a real compliment for me because that's the area that I often feel like maybe I'm somehow behind in that even though I love it so much. But yeah, it's interesting.
Well, I notice with a lot of different filmmakers, that often times they don't know how to free themselves from what "cinema should be" to make something that's unique and different. And if you can free yourself from that, you can possibly make something that is more personal and more of an expression of you in the end. At least that's my perspective…
Shannon: And I think busting open those ideas and those rules is something I even did in my theater world. I think if you're ever making any piece of art, you've gotta be challenging while you're doing it and making sure that it's not something anyone's seen before, otherwise you're wasting everyone's time.
I have to ask about Ben Mendelsohn - he's a key part of the marketing, with "it's his first time back making a film in Australia in nine years." But I am wondering - how hard or easy was it to convince him? Did he just read the script and that's it, he's in? How did that happen?
Shannon: Yeah, it really was easy. His agent in Australia knows me and the casting director really well. So she doesn't just put anything in front of him. But she really wanted him to read this. And he loved it. And I remember having to have a meeting with him on the phone and I was like, "oh God, okay," I was meditating beforehand trying to keep really calm. Because I knew what a big coup it would be if we got him. But he called in immediately. He was like, "Shannon, don't even try and convince me. I'm already in. Let's just talk about the film and the character." And I thought, "ohhh, incredible." The writing really blew all of us away. And then I think, yeah, he believed in me as a director and wanted to "back that horse", to quote him.
I love the lightness and the optimism of your film, it makes it more endearing. While it's dealing with a sad story, there's still so much goodness and warmheartedness. How do you maintain that positivity in production and make sure it comes through in the film?
Shannon: Yeah. During production was an incredibly stifling time. Just because in Sydney in February the weather is so hot and as everybody knows, we were having incredible bushfires. And so it's a very oppressive time to be shooting –– mixed with obviously quite heavy content. Australian crews are really upbeat and we always keep the energy up on set by pretty much cracking jokes all the time. But also because Ben would come on set with his UE Boom and would constantly play music. And Ben's all over pop music in the most hilarious way. So he's always playing songs and knowing all the lyrics to it, whoever it is, Iggy Azalea, gosh, who knows? And you just go, "I can't believe you know these songs." But it makes everyone laugh.
I remember during the beach scene, which was a heavy day, he was playing music and dancing with Eliza on the beach and it was just beautiful. With very dark material, you’ve gotta keep it light on set. But also there was so much joy in this film and this story. And that's what we were all drawn to, the humor, and I think that makes it more honest than anything I've ever seen about this age group and going through this kind of challenge. Because people behave like this. They don't sit and wallow in their difficulties. Everybody would be wanting to create a buoyant atmosphere for Milla. And so that's the vibe we also were creating on set.
Yeah. Definitely. I think it clearly shines through and it makes such a huge difference…
Shannon: Though –– it's about the team you put together. I always say, for my First AD or any of these people, my first criteria is "do they have a sense of humor?" Because if they don't, I don't want them on set.
I hope that becomes the new guide in Hollywood on sets. Like oh yeah, before anything else, they must have a sense of humor before you hire them for your crew.
Final cheesy question for you! If Lucasfilm came to you and asked you to make a Star Wars film, would you say yes?
Shannon: No… No, because I don't really watch Star Wars films and I wouldn't be able to get into it.
Even if they said, "you can do anything that fits your story style in the Star Wars universe?" Or in any sci-fi universe… I know it's not your thing, but always curious to ask.
Shannon: I'd make Spaceballs.
I love Spaceballs!! We need a Spaceballs 2. Why has this never happened?
Shannon: I'd make Spaceballs 2. But I'll tell you what, it's also because… I just think, even though people say you can do whatever you want, they wouldn't let you. And you have to know that when people say, "oh but that's why we're hiring you to put your flare on it." But you're like, no, but you're not, because this is still the story you're telling.
True. Very good point. Well then continue to make films that stay true to you, please.
Shannon: Thank you so much.
Thank you to Shannon Murphy for her time and to Cinetic Media for arranging the interview.
Shannon Murphy's Babyteeth will be available to watch in "virtual cinemas" nationwide and on VOD this weekend - June 18th. Check your local listings & VOD services. Read my Venice review. And don't miss it.