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Jennifer Kent: musings on pre, production, post & beyond

The Nightingale writer/director Jennifer Kent on ideas that demand to be told and distribution for independent cinema.

Jennifer Kent

When Jennifer Kent was working as director’s attachment on Lars von Trier’s 2002 film Dogville, it struck her that Trier had worked with much of the same crew over many decades.

“I thought, when I make my films I want from the get-go to choose people who could potentially be long-term collaborators,” she said.

Jennifer Kent and Aisling Franciosi on the set of <i>The Nightingale</i> Jennifer Kent and Aisling Franciosi on the set of The Nightingale
And across the two features she has written and directed – The Babadook and The Nightingale – there are indeed a lot of familiar names, from cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, to composer Jed Kurzel, editor Simon Njoo, production designer Alex Holmes and producer Kristina Ceyton.

The Babadook was really a labour of love for all those people,” she says. “So whether that Head of Department was available, interested, or we wanted to work together [again] – my intention was to continue that relationship because I think as you move forward in your work you can develop together.

“And you also develop a shorthand, so it takes less time to arrive at the same decision and with independent film you've got so little time. So these relationships, I really treasure.”

But it took some time before Kent was able to reach out again after The Babadook, simply because she didn’t launch into her next project straight away. After The Babadook’s international success, there was a period of about a year where Kent read scripts and waited for something to connect with her on a level where she could commit to directing the story.

One idea did grab her attention – the adaptation of Alice + Freda Forever, which she became attached to in 2015.

“It was something that was pitched to me while I was over at Warner Brothers. They flew me over to talk about superhero films, but it was this sort of gothic love story that got me in.”

She began developing and writing that story in tandem with another idea – a feature called The Nightingale that tackled revenge and violence through the eyes of Irish convict Clare in 1825 Tasmania.

The Nightingale ended up taking form first (Alice + Freda Forever is set to go into production in 2020), and after an esteemed festival run, it’s now in Australian cinemas.

But it has not been without its hurdles.

“A story like The Nightingale was never going to be an easy task,” she says. “It's not been easy to write. It was painful to make. Same with the edit. And also on tour there's been very varied extreme reactions.” At Venice International Film Festival, where it won two major awards, a male critic also yelled out a sexist remark. And some patrons were reported to have walked out of screenings at Sydney Film Festival in 2019.

“But it's the subject matter that provokes this,” Kent says. “When you go in needing to tell the truth there's certain repercussions for that. Not everyone wants you to do that.”

Read on to hear Kent’s thoughts on why she is drawn to storytelling, her filmmaking process, distribution challenges, and the making of The Nightingale:

When did you know you wanted to direct?

It was inherent in me. As soon as I learned to write I wrote plays and directed them and got kids in my year at school to be in them. It was irrepressible. I couldn't not do it - it was my way of processing the world.

[But] when I was growing up I didn't know that women could be directors. I went through NIDA as an actor and it was through becoming an actor that I realised I wanted to tell stories I could create… You're only as good as the work you're doing as an actor and I wasn't satisfied. So I gravitated back towards writing and directing.

What makes you decide to commit to a project, knowing that a feature film will likely be years of your life?

I think an idea demands to be explored and developed.

I try and do a lot of meditation and think [about the] deeper story I'd like to tell, and I just wait for the ideas to bubble up. It's got to be something that I think has enough weight that I can pour all my love and care into it to go the distance.

So I have an idea and then I think 'oh that's what I want to talk about'. And then that idea won't go away. And then I start to flesh it out and it's like the idea dictates what I'll be doing next.

I'm here to serve the idea and not the other way round.

So I always try and really put all my energy into the story not into my ego, whilst telling it.

What’s your writing process?

I am a person who very much needs to create. But I, like a lot of writers, find it painful and lonely and so what I do is create a schedule with a deadline at the end of it. I'll give myself a certain amount of weeks or months to map out something and then I go back… and go ‘okay you're going to be doing this in this week’ and then I break it down into days. It's quite detailed, because no one's going to tell you to do [the work]. It's a very lonely process, writing solitary, and you have to be your own master. And then you might have a day where you don't achieve anything, [but] you go ‘well that day was just meant to be about something else more important’. But ultimately I think you'd never get anything done, I wouldn't, if I didn't have some kind of schedule in place. And it makes me accountable for completion because I see a lot of brilliant writers doing a certain amount of work, but never completing anything. There's a lot of joy in completing something.

What part of the filmmaking process (pre, production, post) do you most enjoy?

There's pros and cons to each stage. Writing I love, when I'm in a flow, when it's good. But it's also, as I said, very isolating and lonely. I like editing, but I'm always so exhausted by the time I get there that it's somehow a protracted painful process.

I think I am naturally a probably introverted person, so [while] I am very communicative, I usually like doing that in groups, like one on one, [or] five people is my ideal max[imum]. And so being on set sometimes is quite challenging for a person like me… But then for The Nightingale for example, the cast and crew were amazing and we had a very strong bond. I think there's beauty in every stage of the process and also challenges. And it changes with each film as well. The Nightingale shoot was not pleasant. It was harrowing in many ways physically and otherwise, but I'm so proud of the result. So it was worth it.

What are your thoughts around the challenges of feature film distribution in Australia?

I have lots of thoughts about it, but I don't have any answers. I still am a bit old school in the way [that] I like to see films in the cinema. I always have and I probably always will. I like being at home too, but I think… there's something magical certainly about going out and seeing films that are intended for a large screen… People say ‘that's annoying to me, I want to experience everything on my own’. I think we experience so much of our lives now solo. But theatre and cinema were places to have a sort of communal experience…

But I think the crossover is in process. I mean it's very hard to know where it will end up. I'm just a bit concerned that we'll just end up with these big streaming giants spewing out content. I mean I even hate the word ‘content’ because it's to me ‘anti-art’. And filmmaking or even television series for me is an art form. I would hate to think that it just all boils down to algorithms and how can we get more subscribers. So I think art has always sort of found a way, but it's not an easy time for independent film, that's for sure.

Jennifer Kent, Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi on the set of The Nightingale

There are so many exterior shots in the film, was it difficult to achieve and maintain the look of The Nightingale?

There were lots of sunny days or sunny hours – they were the bane of my existence, because I wanted a film that sat in this overcast world, until a certain point where the sun appears. So it was horrific, mainly because we had zero contingency days. A bigger budget film may have months or weeks or even days. We had zero contingency days. It was stressful, but I had an incredible crew. The key grip and the gaffer were just extraordinary people who really devoted themselves to this film and made sure there was always protection where there could be from the sun. Then in post-production, the people working there helped to alleviate any sun issues. It was really across the board a total commitment to this vision that I had and it was not as easy as it may look in the film. It was very tricky. But [it all came down to] teamwork

Final thoughts?

It’s so important for independent cinema to stay alive that [audiences] see it in that first weekend, if they can. And to support it right off as it goes out the gate, because it's only through word of mouth and through early attendance that films like this one will stay on in cinemas.

The Nightingale is out in Australian cinemas now through Transmission Films.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

PRAISE FOR THE NIGHTINGALE 

"It takes a bold and brave storyteller to begin these difficult and complex but urgent conversations.” – The Guardian

“[Kent]’s made one of the most powerful films yet seen about the country’s colonial foundation and the cruelties that were an indelible part of it.” – Sydney Morning Herald

“…[Kent] has a sense of structure, a feel for cinematography, and a talent for metaphor that adds layers of meaning to a story. She also writes a mean script. What’s not to like?” – Australian Financial Review