A conversation with director Shannon Murphy

Door Estelle Ottolini • 31 jan 2022

On November 22, 2021, our Filmclub starring Babyteeth took place - and none other than the director of the film, Shannon Murphy, joined us! We asked her thoroughly about Babyteeth's making process, her experiences as a director and her favorite memories from this film.

(Dutch version here)

Hanna: Shannon welcome! Thank you very much for making time for this group of film-loving dutchies all the way in Holland. You’re in London, I think at this moment.

Shannon: I am, I’ve been living in London for a year! Can you hear me okay?

H: Yes, I can hear you excellent. We are extremely excited and honoured that you were able to make time for us. Babyteeth was really a film that moved all of us in a way, we actually started out with someone saying he just finished the film and still has goosebumps all-over. It’s such a special film, such a special project. I think you maybe even refer to it as your baby.

S: I actually have one daughter but Babyteeth was my baby for 2 years for sure, it still is. It’s still being birthed constantly into the world, it seems.

H: Because it was released in 2019 and had great reviews in Venice, can you tell us why this film is so close to your heart?

S: Yeah, I’d been looking for a first feature film for a long time because I began in theater for ten years and then I moved into television. I am not a writer, so to find a film that really feels like my voice is quite hard, because i don’t write the words. I ran into this script and I just remember finishing it and I couldn’t stop sobbing and I was just beside myself, because I was so devastated that my time with those characters had finished. I just felt like I wanted to spend more time with them, and so I thought ‘Oh my god, I’m grieving characters that are fictional’. It must be a sign that I really wanted to tell this story, and then of course “how am I going to win the pitch”, because I’ll be devastated if I don’t get it because it feels so right.

H: How did you win the pitch?

S: It was so nerve-racking, because they didn’t tell me I was the only one they were looking at in that particular time. I thought I was going to be up against like 50 other directors so I was sweating and panicking and I took a few too many beta blockers, which is not good - I don’t recommend it - but it’s like, to keep you calm. So Jan Chapman, who is the EP (executive producer), she produced the movie Piano and in Australia she’s like an incredible kind of legend in film. I had to go into her office, and the producer Alex pointed to a piano and she said: “Here is the piano out of the film” and I was like “Oh my god I’m even more nervous now”. I sat down and thought you know what, I just have to go for it - and I talked about all my ideas and my casting thoughts and how I saw the film. And hilariously, Jan had to leave the meeting early but there was a laptop open in front of us, and 20 minutes after she left I was still talking to the producer Alex. All of a sudden on the screen it said: “She’s great, let’s get her” and I went “Oh oh my god I got the job”. But I thought how hilarious would it have been if Jan had written: “Oh my god she’s terrible”, I would’ve seen that as well. So Alex started laughing and said “That’s a good sign I think”. So I pretty much knew on the spot that I had gotten it. I was in such shock that I decided to walk home which took me like an hour and a half because I just couldn’t process how exciting that idea was.

H: What a good story! There’s this quote “No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us” and of course this script by Rita really resonated with you, why this story is so true to you. How were you able to capture it the way you did?

S: I think because Rita is an incredible observer of human behavior. What Rita is really able to do, is inject so much detail and create such a believable emotional world because she really uses honest humour and madness of people that put under extreme levels of stress and I think that’s what makes her so special, she is such an out-of-the-box thinker. We are working on other projects together at the moment and if we’d needed to talk about the projects we’re both currently working on, her perception will be totally different from mine and half of the time when she says something I think “How.. why would you even think of that part of that story”, that kind of doesn’t even come in to my mind. I think so much of Babyteeth is so amazing because of Rita’s voice - which I love, since it is so much like my sensibilities and my ideas of the world and people, so that’s why I think we’re a good fit.

For the first time, I was watching a young character being portrayed in a honest way as she goes through the final moments of her life. It’s often so over-referent or too earnest or everyone is really looking at them sad all the time andI thought, that’s not how people behave. Or it can go the other way when it’s all too free and loose and they’re living in the moment; it’s much more messy than all of that, and I felt that this script really captured all of that.

H: It’s really beautiful how you describe that and it’s funny because we’re talking to make-a-wish director Hanneke Verburg too today and she also talked about how she sees with these kids the positivity and the strength, and how often everyone around them wants to fix things and the kids just want to be in the moment. We also really see that in Milla, she doesn’t want to fix things, she wants to feel things.

S: We actually worked with an organization in Australia called CanTeen, which works with a lot of teenagers that are dealing with cancer. We got a lot of them to look at the script and tell us if they felt that there was some authenticity to it. I learned a lot speaking to people about pre-grief, and that these parents are already in the throes of grief; they know what’s coming and they are already mourning the loss of their child - and how do you cope with that when they are still right in front of you? So I listened to all these experts talk about it and I wanted that to come across in the work.

H: It definitely did! It’s beautiful what you said about Rita but also quite modest. I think we need to focus more on you as a director, also the choices that you made. We were talking to the Dutch actress Olivia Lonsdale, she mentioned that her favorite moments in the film are when Milla all of the sudden looks into the lens and really reels us in as an audience, was that a choice you made?

S: Yea, I started in theater and my honours in University was in Brecht. So i’m quite obsessed with Brechtian techniques and have forever used them in my theater work, so when I started in TV and film I thought: “Why don’t I use them in that as well?”. So I’ve been playing with them for a while but that’s not new, already so many people have done it over the years. It does feel very special to me when you can get it right, it gives this amazing moment where you can have a conversation directly with the audience. You know, let them know I’m looking directly at you; we’re having a transaction here but also be aware of the facade that is film, so you can stay emotionally engaged, especially with this kind of content. My big fear was that you’d feel too manipulated or that the nature of the film would overwhelm the audience, and I wanted to make sure that we paced it in a way that at the end, if and when, that emotional release came.

H: For me the first moment Milla looks into the camera you’re just there, you just want to stay in the story and you completely fall in love with these four characters. I think in one of your interviews you said that if you just read the story it can be quite disastrous, but it comes completely to life with the work of Rita but also yours. You mentioned before how important it was to get the tone right. Can you tell us how you did that? And how did you work with the actors, because of your theater background it must’ve been quite the organic process?

S: For me the most exciting thing is when I read the script and go: “Oh my gosh that tone is really challenging, how the heck am i going to do that?”. That’s almost always the reason why I say yes to a project. Babyteeth really felt like that. I hadn’t seen that tone before, even when people ask me now what the movie is about, I think to myself: “Please don’t make me say out loud that it’s a teenage love story”, like, I can’t, nobody wants to watch that film.

The way I worked with the actors, I didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, but we did something I’d never done before. We went into that house we filmed in and we pre-blocked the entire film in that house with four other actors - which was so amazing because a lot of the time on set, it can be going like: “That line doesn’t work and so doesn’t the timing and the walking towards the fridge” so we eliminated the time that goes into that. By the time the actual actors came and I gave instructions, they were like sure, and it would always work because we had already tested it. So it was lovely that they felt confident being told where to move and what to do, but that’s also because they are just excellent. Often i’ve been told you can’t tell actors to do specific things… but of course you can. If they believe that you know what you’re doing, then they’ll do it. At the end of the film when Milla dies, we set it up so that the other actors didn’t see her all day and I made sure Milla had make-up on that made her look like she had passed away even though we were never going to shoot it. But when the actors went into the room, I really wanted to capture their authentic reaction. We had two cameras, one was in the kitchen with Henry and Moses and the other was in the bedroom which recorded Essie (Milla’s mom) going in, and Ben could hear Essie crying from the other room. And that’s why I think that scene was particularly heartbreaking; because they were all feeding off each other's emotions. You really feel that emotion when you watch it.

H: It really worked for sure. I was on the floor pretty much, even my husband was pretty much on the floor as well. I think it’s interesting how you really used theater, that way of really being in the moment.

S: The takes we used were simultaneous takes, so it’s what happening in the room and it’s what’s happening in the room next door. There was this moment where my cinematographer filmed a wide-shot where Essie crumbles down to the floor and Moses catches her; Andy sort of went down and fell as he went down, and I remember him going like “Wow I really did not mean to do that” but I loved it because the vulnerability of the people and the vulnerability of the camera was like a perfect moment really.

H: That scene… wow

S: We talked about that all the time when we shot it, for Andy and I it had to be imperfect; these people aren’t perfect, and we wanted to keep all of the mistakes and the flaws. We never wanted any shot to look constructed.

H: That’s why you can’t describe this film, that’s why there's this authenticity and freshness. It’s just well done, I think I could speak to you for hours and I have tons of questions but of course we’re here with a group whom also have questions, so I’m just going to open up the floor for our film club. If you guys have any question for Shannon Murphy, ask away!

Danny: I have a lot questions, but there’s one I’d really love to ask: The scene during Christmas at the dining table, they're all sitting dining together, it almost felt for me that it was a big applause for all the characters. Was that something intentional or is it just how I interpreted it?

S: So you mean Milla’s 16th birthday party? That’s interesting, you know it’s funny that you say it felt more like a theater piece.

Danny: Like they came on stage and got the applause they deserved.

S: That’s so funny, we used to joke all the time. So that script was originally a play on a Belvoir Street Theater, where Rita and I started our career in street theater and it was the one scene where Rita always used to turn to me and go: “It doesn’t feel like a Belvoir play, does it?” and I was like: “No totally not, it doesn’t at all, it’s cinema”. So it’s funny that you picked up on that. It’s one of those amazing thing about Rita’s writing. It’s a woman that’s pregnant, all of the sudden she’s having a baby, it’s birth and death, it’s a young boy who came into a family, it’s so theatrical - but I love that Rita pulls it off in a way that doesn’t feel contrived and cheesy and that’s what’s amazing. There are so many little moments like that, she’s so clever with it. I made sure we keep it as light, organic and messy as possible to make sure it also doesn’t feel like that, but it’s funny that you noticed.

Amal: What made the movie extra emotional for me was the music. It seemed very intentional, so I was wondering what that process was like?

S: I love working with music and there were so many things to musically grab onto. It’s Anne’s classical world that she’s trying to celebrate with Milla, and it’s Milla’s musical world that’s she’s discovering with Gidon - who’s kind of her life teacher in a way, and there’s of course her own musical world that she has in her own mind, but then she also gets influenced by Moses.

I have an amazing editor called Stephen Evans whom I’ve worked with for years. He is such a music junkie, he is actually working with me right now in Londen and every night I’ll ask him what concert or band he’s seeing tonight, so he’s always coming in with most amazing and fresh ideas. So it’s a mix between Stephen, myself, the music supervisor and our incredible composer Amanda. We all made playlists at the beginning of working together, and we would just show our Babyteeth-playlist to each other, and we would play it for ages. When we were doing pre-production all the actors could have it and I always ask the actors too to make a playlist for me. Also, to get an understanding of Milla’s dancing, because she would dance pretty often in the movie: she would do these private Instagram videos where she would be dancing for me. She (Eliza) was dancing around in her room and she would send one every day. They were fantastic and beautiful and that’s how we decided that one of those was going to be the way that Milla danced, so she was finding a lot of music herself too.

H: I love how music is always so central to great films.

S: Because it is like the soundtrack of your life. For me, it’s also very important to use music that we don’t reference to too many other things so it can feel original to that story.

Olivier: Shannon, thank you for being here! You said that when you were going in for your pitch, you also had to pitch some casting, so I was wondering: did you already have the main four in mind? Or was that more of a process where you ended up with Ben, Essie, Toby and Eliza?

S: So a few years before I came on board, they actually had been working with another director who had eventually changed his mind. They let me see the list of actors they had considered with the previous director. There’s only one where I thought “this is the one” and that was Essie Davis. I was like: I don’t even want to think about anyone else playing this role. I had always wanted to work with her, and I knew she could portray this role beautifully and empathetic, and I knew that was a difficult role to fulfil because I knew that people would judge a mother that would take a lot of prescription drugs - but for me, I understood that. I didn’t want the audience to be critical of any of the roles because they are all addicts in some way. I wanted us to understand it rather than judge it. So for me Essie was perfect, I think she’s the best actress in Australia.

In the back of my mind, iId always had Toby in my mind for Moses because I had been watching his work for a long time. For Eliza, I was introduced to her by the casting director, but it took me like a year to cast her. She’s such a chameleon, she could play anyone. Every time I met her she was doing a different performance - it was actually quite scary, I don’t know which version of Milla you are, but then I realised that I don’t know who Milla is so the problem was that I could not nail the character in my mind, she’s transitioning every second. The first thirty seconds she meets Moses, and she starts shapeshifting. Eliza is so intelligent, so I realised I needed her so we can craft the character from scratch and that’s what we did.

And Ben, he is the perfect Henry because he’s amazing with comedy, and he’s such a brilliant father, but we don’t see him in that kind of roles enough. I knew he had that in him, so it was just a matter of convincing him to come back from Hollywood to do an Australian indie film. From the moment he read the script he was on board. I couldn’t believe it until he walked on set.

H: You were starstruck

S: I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to hug him but I had to play it cool. I had been told he wasn’t really into rehearsing, but that didn’t happen. As soon as he came in to the room he was like: “Let’s go, let’s get on the floor”. We really did it like theater. Essie and Ben had done theater before, so they thrived going back to their roots.

H: Can we just talk about that first scene where we reveal Anna and Henry. I thought it was brilliant that they were making love on his desk while he literally feeds her drugs. Was it exactly like that in the screenplay, or did it just happen while rehearsing.

S: It was definitely in the screenplay but since they are so professional but playful it was so easy. They were just like, putting their hands everywhere, they really go for it.

It was actually a very fun day, it was the first day shooting them together and I was expecting it to be hard, but it really wasn’t. Something was happening the entire time; he was throwing things around, and I had to tell him to do it differently, so the props were definitely the hardest part. It’s always fascinating to have these conversations, because how does Anna begin to pleasure herself in front of his workplace? We would have these conversations beforehand and they would often end up in us all hysterically laughing.

H: It’s funny that you mentioned that because the only reason it really worked was because it was so technical. Time flies when you’re having fun, so I think we have time for one more question!

Hanneke: Shannon, can you explain why you put these little text slides between scenes?

S: For me, it was very important to not have people worry about the timeline. Is it a week, is it two days? Where are we at? I find none of that interesting, I wanted it to feel it was from moment to moment and staying in the present just like Milla always is, but it was also very practical: this is where we are, this is who this is. And it would move into Milla her voice and after that it got more metaphoric as the texts got more emotional and more connected to where she was spiritually. The texts evolved as she evolved.

H: I think i speak for all of us when I say that this movie was such a gift. Grief is love in a heavy coat, it’s a rollercoaster of all these different emotions and all these different colours, it’s such a realistic experience of what love is. So thank you so much for telling this amazing story with this amazing crew and amazing actors. We would really love to hear what’s up next for you? What are you working on? Next film maybe?

S: Film? I don’t know, maybe, i’ve got some things in development I’ll be trying next few months, to really get that moving. Right nowI’m working on this tv show called “The Power”, it’s for Amazon and Sister Pictures who made “Chernobyl” and it’s based on an amazing book by Naomi Alderman. It’s about what could happen if women became more powerful than men and what would happen to the entire structure of everything. It’s an incredibly interesting piece and I’m very passionate about it and I’m very fortunate to get help from Reed Morano who set up The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s an amazing team, the five of us and an all female team.

H: Cool! I’ll be very excited to watch that and any other of your projects. I want to thank you so much for making Babyteeth, a story that grew close to our hearts. Let’s give a big applause for Shannon Murphy!