At the end of “Babyteeth”, and this does not spoil the film at all, you are on a beach staring at the ocean waves. You’re on the beach rather than watching a beach scene from afar because you’ve gone through this incredible two-hour journey through the eyes of Milla [Eliza Scanlen]. Milla is a teenager who has a terminal illness, and spends the last period of her life with a misfit and outlier named Moses [Toby Wallace]. As their relationship blooms from a friendship into love, Milla’s illness becomes more real. During this time, her parents [Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn] learn how to embrace life through the way Milla sees it and they cope together. As the film comes to an end, your heart is bursting. You’ve fallen in love with these characters and it almost hurts to say goodbye.
All of these feelings, emotions, and aches I felt during and at the end of the film director Shannon Murphy shared with me. Her film, in a way, is a love letter to the character Milla, who originated from the stage-play “Babyteeth” written by Rita Kalnejais. I had the honor and joy of speaking to the Australian filmmaker about “Babyteeth”, her directorial debut. Previously, she had worked in television, and recently directed a few episodes of “Killing Eve” during its third season.
The heart and passion of the film can also be credited to the amazing group of Australian actors involved, specifically Eliza Scanlen [“Little Women”, “Sharp Objects”] who plays Milla. In my conversation with Shannon, we talked about how she built Milla from scratch with Eliza, and about Eliza’s strong commitment to the role by shaving her head and learning how to play the violin. The music in the film is worth noting and is spectacular. Shannon had a great team that sourced music from Australian talent, like ‘The Cat Empire’, ‘Mallrat’, ‘Pacific Quartet’, and violinist Veronique Serret.
The film premieres tomorrow, June 19th, on virtual cinema and on demand. I recommend watching it this weekend, and let the waves of emotion reverberating within Milla wash over you and leave you inspired.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?
SHANNON MURPHY: The producers of the film, Alex White and Jan Chapman, approached me with the project. It had been a play originally written by writer Rita Kalnejais that had been at the Belvoir Theatre. I originally worked in the theatre, and I had started my career in that particular venue. The screenplay was ready to go, and they showed it to me. I read it and I felt so devastated at the end. The idea of not spending more time with these characters is what killed me. I just couldn’t break away from this family, I love them so much. I realized that the way I could continue to be with this family was to make this film. That’s what made me want to direct it.
MARTIN: I’d love to learn more about the writer, as well as the cast, whose chemistry is amazing. Eliza Scanlen was such a standout. How did you go about putting together such a powerful film?
MURPHY: I’m so happy you acknowledged how brilliant Rita is, because she is extraordinary. We are going to be blown away by the things she is writing in the future, she is pretty special.
And Eliza is amazing. We looked at so many different actresses for that role, but what Eliza offered me was the ability to make Milla. We put the character together from scratch. Eliza has so much range, there is almost nothing that she can’t do. For me Milla was the character who was constantly in transition. It’s the hardest character to play by far. The two of us spent a lot of time together discussing who Milla was, what her ideas were of the world, where she was at, and how she was influenced by Moses. In many ways, Milla is the adult in the story. She’s having to become a parent to her parents in many ways because they are the ones not coping. Milla needs someone like Moses in her life to help propel it forward at a rate she wouldn’t have been able to do on her own.
Eliza learned to play the violin for the role.
MARTIN: That was her playing? Wow!
MURPHY: Yes, that was her. We did have one of the most famous violinists in Australia, Veronique Serret, play on the actual track. But Eliza learned it enough to play it on her own. She was extraordinary.
Eliza was also bald. I told her that she would have to cut her hair for the role and she was like, “no problem.” She actually loved shaving her hair. She felt she wouldn’t have been able to honor Milla’s experience if she hadn’t gone through with that. She’s brave. And I think Eliza is someone we’re going to be watching for years and years to come.
MARTIN: And how about Essie Davis? I love her in “The Babadook”.
MURPHY: Essie was in mind even before I came on board. The producers always had her in their minds. When they asked me “what do you think of Essie playing Anna?” That was a no-brainer for me, she was a perfect person for the role. Also, Anna is a character that I think in some ways people would bring too many prejudices toward too quickly, and I knew that Essie would completely blow that up. You wouldn’t feel that way with her. She really understands the complexities of being this woman with a divided heart of wanting to be this incredible concert pianist, but also take care of her daughter. She inhabited that division between artist and mother. And Essie’s sense of humor is just brilliant. She’s so raw, instinctual and in the moment.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the structure of the film. I loved how you broke it up by chapter, and used a chapter name to highlight. Was that a choice you made in dividing the film?
MURPHY: Yes it was. What happened was I had been avoiding reading the stage play because I didn’t want to be influenced by it, until the very end. When I read it, there were these chapters in the play, even though they were never used in the production of the play. What was hilarious about the play version was that they were really long rambling titles. When I was reading them, I was thinking we’ll need to make these more concise, but I really loved them. And also, there was this beautiful throughline of what the dead said to Milla. I wanted to combine those two ideas, but also what I loved about the chapters was that they could start out as very straightforward about all of these things, announcing time or place, and as they went on, they became Milla’s voice. When the chapters went on in the film, they became quite poetic and epic.
For the chapter structure, people would say you have to have rules about how you do this or that. I was like, “No, they’re only going to come when we want them, when we need them, and when they serve a purpose. I don’t care about the rules.” It was great because that’s what ended up happening, and they worked really well. They worked well because it allowed you to not obsess about time or where are we, or what day is it. It’s about being in the moment, which is what Milla’s doing, and it allows you to do that as a viewer.
MARTIN: I would love to discuss your use of music and movement in the film. Specifically the scene when Milla is at the party, and the lights and fireworks go over her face at exactly at the right moments of the song.
MURPHY: The scene you are talking about was one of the more complicated sequences. The moment they are coming up the stairs into that art school party that is all done in one take, all the way up to the end of her interaction with the performance artist. The fireworks going across her face was something we had lined up, but it took a lot of takes to nail it. We had the music for that scene pumping all day on set. The music added an incredible energy to the performances. I think it’s important to use the music that you’re going to have in the film for potent scenes like that one.
Our team contributed to the musical quality of the film. My editor has got great taste in music, and so does my music supervisor and my composer. We obsess about the music, and make playlists before we start shooting. Everyone listens to them, all the departments, like the costume department, and all the actors have access to it too. We talk about it a lot and we find the right pieces. For me music is so important, it’s important it’s used in a way that’s super effective and does not feel like it’s laid on us afterward by trying to fix something that was going wrong, or trying to pull your emotional heart strings in a manipulative way.
The restrictions that music budgets give you are sometimes really frustrating, but sometimes they’re kind of wonderful. They’re wonderful because they make you look for pieces that are less obvious. We also wanted to celebrate some Australian artists like Cat Empire and Mallrat. The Golden Brown cover at the beginning of the film is by an Adelaide group called the Pacific Quartet. Through this film, we got to open up our Australian talent to the rest of the world.
MARTIN: What have you learned about yourself as a filmmaker through making “Babyteeth”?
MURPHY: As a director, you ask actors to be open, free, available, and emotionally receptive. You also have to come to the party with that same expectation for yourself. In order to really know when you are capturing honesty, what the energy is onscreen, and what you are watching, you have to be an open vessel as you’re viewing it being shot. That way you can try and erase everything you know about the story and see what you’re feeling in the moment as you’re watching it get captured. I think the process of shooting involves all the feelings that you feel when you watch the film.
There were days on set when all the crew were either in hysterics or beside themselves crying. It’s because we are so invested in these people and this world. I think the film can often represent the experience in making the film.
Having said that, the shoot started out very difficult because Ben Mendelsohn’s scenes needed to be completed within the first ten days of shooting. He had to go straight from shooting our film to “The Outsider” [HBO]. We didn’t get that wiggle room. Like if we didn’t get through a scene with him, we would never get it again. That pressure was intense. Also, he wouldn’t be able to fly back for a reshoot. Ben is so in demand, and we knew that. Shooting his scenes was a really intense part of the shoot because we had to do all of those big group scenes and emotional scenes up front. But that allowed us this space in the back end of the shoot to focus primarily on the Milla and Moses love story. I think that breath and space you get with those characters is also represented in the energy in how we had to shoot.
I know this sounds crazy, but I didn’t know going into this if I would love making films or not because I had never done it before. I only worked for television, and I’m so satisfied when I work in that medium as well. I adored particularly the post-production experience in making a film. To spend so much time on a singular vision, on a singular time capsule of a story, was something I loved.
I remember the moment where my editor and I were convinced that this was the final cut. We sat there together, held each others’ hands and cried at the end. We were so relieved when the final cut felt right. We just knew. We did wait to hear back from everyone, but luckily they agreed. You just have to constantly keep up your instincts, like being on fire, and always make the best decisions for everyone.
MARTIN: What do you hope people take away from your film?
MURPHY: It’s not the kind of film where you walk away and say that was lovely, and go on. I think what I really want people to do is think about it for a long time afterwards. To me my favorite films are the ones that stay with me for whatever reason, either what’s most relevant to my personal life, or I’m inspired by what I’m witnessing. But I think it’s about the longevity of how it feels inside your body. I feel that this is a film that does that to people.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
MURPHY: As a director, it’s more helpful to study psychology in many ways. A lot of your job is people management. That may sound kind of dull, but it’s not. It’s a wonderful thing for when you’re dealing with so many personalities in front of and behind the camera. I think the more you can understand people and get yourself to a place where you can get the best out of that person, I think it makes your job a lot easier.