Interviewed by Paolo Bertolin, the Australian filmmaker talks about her theater studies and how she got into film directing, with some help from Lars von Trier. In September she’ll embark on the filming of Alice and Freda Forever.
Before she became a director, Jennifer Kent was also an actress. She went to drama school to become one, but then something changed, and she decided to go behind a camera and not in front of one. Graciously answering Paolo Bertolin’s questions, the director of The Babadook and The Nightingale opened up about her way into directing.
“I have always felt that I was a storyteller, and even from a very young age, as soon as I learnt to read, I would get books out of the library at primary school and find plays and direct in them and act in them. And get other people in the school to come and see them. And it was really a preoccupation from a very young age, I mean seven or eight. And for me, acting and storytelling were one and the same. I love to do both. And then when I finished high school,” Kent continued, “I went to a place called NIDA, which is our National Institute of Dramatic Art here, where I took theatrical training. It’s our premier acting school. I’d already studied in my home town, acting for two years, so all off, it was a five-year education, basically just playing the classics, so Shakespeare, Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen. These were the works that truly inspired me and made me feel that that was what I really wanted to do.
“And then it was a matter of, how do I do this, but at drama school I was very much told: no, you either have to choose acting, or you choose directing. It was a different time, and I think I chose acting because I didn’t really understand that a woman could direct a film. It wasn’t something in my consciousness. So I started acting professionally, after NIDA, and really did not like it. You know, I’m a person who needs to get u and be creative every day and be able to put energy into that. Anyone who’s acted will tell you that it can be a very passive experience. So I gradually, out of frustration, drifted back, thankfully, to my first love, which is writing and directing. So I feel very fortunate that I had that previous career, though, I love actors and I understand how hard it is.”
If there really are turning points that propel us in a whole new direction, for Jennifer Kent, one of hers has to be when she met Lars von Trier.
“I knew I didn’t want to go to film school, because I’d studied acting for five years and at the end of it, I hated acting. I think by nature I’m quite subversive, and I don’t do well in schools. So, at the time I was very moved by a Lars von Trier film, Dancer in the Dark, so I wrote to Lars von Trier. To cut a long story short, he accepted my proposal to come on set [Ed. Note: Dogville] for one day, so I flew from Australia to Sweden for this one day of filming, and then somehow it turned into the entire shoot. That was the biggest gift Lars von Trier actually gave me, was to watch his process and see that, you know, it’s hard. Because I thought, if it’s hard for him, it’s okay if it’s hard for me, too. And I just kept going and developing lots of scripts, and then eventually, The Babadock was the one that stuck.”
“I think the most interesting part of filmmaking for me,” Jennifer Kent explained, “is creating a unique world that doesn’t exist anywhere else. And although I have seen many documentary-like films and really appreciate it them, it’s not a style that I would gravitate towards. I think it was Guillermo Del Toro that said that cinema is closest to dream. And I really think that’s true. The way it works and the way it’s formed and the way we perceive it can be very dream-like. You know, it can be documentary-like and it can be dream-like, and I’m certainly drawn to that heightened dream space, for sure.”
After briefly talking about her two feature films, the filmmaker mentioned her new project.
“Something I’m casting at the moment is called Alice and Freda Forever. And that’s a love story set in Memphis in the 1890s. So that’s the next one, which is working with teenage girls as the leads, so I’m sure there will be challenges there but lots of rewards as well, I think. We’ll be shooting in Cincinnati, which, unlike Memphis, has a lot of beautiful old Victorian buildings.”