Shannon Murphy explores both joy and sorrow in feature debut ‘Babyteeth’

‘Babyteeth’. (Photo: Lisa Tomasetti)

Alex White and Jan Chapman went to see Rita Kalnejais’ hit play Babyteeth at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre on the same night back in 2012. By interval, the two had made a beeline to each other: they knew it had to be adapted for screen.

At that stage, White had already been working for Chapman for several years. For some time, The Piano producer had been trying to help her find her first feature – White having produced successful shorts such as Trespass and Florence Has Left the Building.

“Jan was going ‘This is it, this is it’,” White tells IF.

Both were drawn to the play’s “raw, visceral, irreverent and heartbreaking” tone and dialogue. The play was set on a revolve, with distinctive scenes and sound design, allowing White to clearly sense how it would feel on screen.

“It was just a very vivid experience of what a cinematic proposition could be.”

Her instincts were right.

Babyteeth, adapted by Kalnejais, directed by Shannon Murphy, produced by White and EP’d by Chapman, made its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival last September. It was the only Australian feature in the competition, and only one of two from a female director.

Set in Sydney, the bittersweet comedy centres on Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a seriously ill teenager who falls madly in love with smalltime drug dealer, Moses (Toby Wallace). It’s her parents’ (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) worst nightmare – but as Milla’s love brings her a new lust for life, things get messy and traditional morals go out the window.

The genre-subverting film opened in Venice to prolonged standing ovation, won rave reviews and Wallace was awarded the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actor.

In the US, where Babyteeth was given a multiplatform launch June 19 via IFC Films, trade site IndieWire has named it as one of its top 18 summer releases. The film has also sold widely across Europe and Asia and will release August 21 in the UK via Picturehouse Entertainment.

Ben Mendelsohn, Eliza Scanlen, Shannon Murphy and Toby Wallace at Venice Film Festival.

Back at home, Universal Pictures opened the film yesterday – one of the first local films to be released theatrically since cinemas have reopened.

From the outset, it was clear to White that Kalnejais should adapt her play.

“Rita is such a unique writer, we would have been doing the film a disservice by not having her rewrite her own story,” the producer says.

But Babyteeth’s journey to screen didn’t necessarily run smooth – in terms of attracting finance, there were stops and starts. At one stage Richard Roxburgh was attached to direct.

However, when Murphy came on, Babyteeth got the final gust across the line – with backing from Screen Australia, Create NSW,, Jan Chapman Films and Spectrum Films.

White says of the director: “She had so much drive and motivation. It was a wonderful thing for me, after being attached to this project for so long, to have that momentum come in exactly when we needed it. Quite quickly after we attached her as director it was financed and we were in production.”

Like White, it would be Murphy’s first feature, following an established career in theatre, as well as shorts and TV – she was the sole director on SBS’s On The Ropes, and helmed episodes of Offspring, Rake, Sisters and Love Child.

Murphy was drawn to the film because she was looking for a challenge; she’s attracted to projects where the tone is difficult to execute.

“If you know how to do something, then it’s not really invigorating in the same way,” she tells IF.

While Murphy hadn’t seen the original play, she did have long-held admiration for Kalnejais as a writer and performer. She found simpatico between the writers’ voice and her own, admiring how she eschewed tropes, and fell in love with the characters in the script, feeling an “incredible longing” to stay with them.

“I love things that have the opportunity to be theatrical and heightened, but still in a very naturalistic way. I feel that is actually an incredibly honest portrayal of how people behave, particularly as in Babyteeth, where they’re at a point of crisis.

“Rita had my sense of humour, which is very subversive, and as soon as something got too sentimental, she undercut it.”

In crafting the film, Murphy has tried to incorporate ‘joy and sorrow’ in every frame to honour the duality she felt in Kalnejais’ script. For instance, at Milla’s birthday party, everyone is celebrating, but if you were to look closely, many of the decorations are for Day of the Dead.

When it came to aesthetic, Murphy and cinematographer Andy Commis were inspired by films like A Woman Under the Influence, Breaking the Waves and Victoria, trying to create a sense that you were immersed in the family through vision and sound.

“The camera was another character in the space a lot of the time. Andy was doing quite a dance in a lot of those scenes because he wanted to keep it alive.”

Murphy was also inspired by Brechtian techniques; Scanlen’s Milla occasionally breaks the fourth wall, and the film is chaptered by title cards that bookmark distinctive moment’s in Milla’s life, like “RELAPSE. MILLA RESTARTS CHEMO.” And the director has consciously imbued the film with colour to capture the “electric feeling you have when you’re a teenager, when you sense everything in a more heightened way”, as well as the feeling of first love.

From early development, Essie Davis had been in talks to play Anna, Milla’s mother who has given up her life as a concert pianist to raise her.

“I remember when I saw the play, sitting in the theatre and thinking ‘Essie Davis would be incredible in this role’,” White says.

“She’s just such a powerful performer. [Anna’s] actually described in the script as electrifying, and I’ve always found Essie to be that on stage and on screen.”

Murphy agrees: “I would never come on board something that was precast unless it felt spot on. But for me, Essie was spot on for Anna.”

Davis was was drawn to Anna’s eccentricity and her quandary between doing everything for her daughter and setting boundaries. Initially Anna believes the sacrifice of her gifts will stop the world from falling apart, but eventually – like her daughter – she has to prepare to live life in the raw, and not hide behind anything.

Essie Davis in ‘Babyteeth’. (Photo: Lisa Tomasetti) 

“I wanted to do it because it was such a profoundly unusual, funny, tender and brilliant script. It’s the kind of film that I’d want to go to the cinema to see,” she tells IF.

“There is a lot of joy in the film, a lot of hope and discovery of deep understanding – owning who you are and owning that everyone’s messed up. Nobody’s really perfect, no matter how much you try and make your perfect life.”

Yet Davis readily admits the role of Anna “scared the hell” out of her – and not just because she had to learn to play classical piano in just three weeks. “She drives most of the scenes she’s in. It’s got to come from a total place of honesty, but be unexpected and believable.”

Everyone in the team had dreamed of Ben Mendelsohn as Henry, Milla’s father, but it was assumed it would be difficult to lure him back to Australia.

However, when Murphy saw the actor do an “incredible dance of pain” in a Sia concert video for her song ‘Breathe Me’, she felt compelled to reach out.

“There was something about it; I just couldn’t stop crying,” she says. “I wrote him a letter. I think he’d probably expect people to talk about all his film work, but I talked on and on about that music video. He read the script and he loved it. Then, honestly, it was the easiest phone call I’ve ever had. He just said, ‘I’m already doing it. Don’t try and convince me. Now, let’s just talk about the character in the story.’ So that was amazing.”

Many young actors auditioned for the roles of Milla and Moses. For Murphy, casting the role of Milla was difficult, because when the audience meet her, she’s already ‘in transition’.

“Normally, you meet a character, you spend some time with them before they start to shift. But as soon as she meets Moses, her life is changing. You have such a small moment to ground who she is before that. Then she’s in flux in many ways.”

Scanlen was the first actress the team saw, but it was still a year before she was cast.

“I was so trying to get my head around who Milla could be and who was perfect for her, because it’s a very demanding role for a young actress,” Murphy says.

“Kirsty McGregor, our casting agent, said ‘Can we go back and look at Eliza again?’ We looked at her tapes, and I was like ‘It’s completely her’. I just needed to go through the experience of feeling like I’d seen every possibility, and also, in that, discovered who I wanted Milla to be.”

Murphy was drawn to Wallace because he was “spontaneous, alive and generous” with all the other actresses he auditioned with.

Accepting his award in Venice, Wallace described the project as having the best script he’d ever read.

All describe the reception at the festival incredible, with White noting they were just a small film among titles like The Joker and Ad Astra.

Shannon Murphy. (Photo: Rupert Reid)

The most nerve-wracking experience for Murphy was the first press call – at that stage, there hadn’t even been a cast and crew screening, so she had no idea what anyone would think of the film.

“The questions started coming and they were so moving. We had some press get up and start to get teary. We were so overwhelmed by how beautiful and detailed their questions and responses were. It was very clear to us they really understood what we were making. “

After Venice, Murphy stayed on in Europe to shoot two episodes of the third season UK drama Killing Eve. In the ensuing months, Variety named her as one of its ‘10 Directors To Watch for 2020’, and she was attached to direct episodes of Amazon series The Power and Australian-UK co-production The Strays.

Murphy has been working towards her dream of being a director since she was 17. In that sense, she is appreciative of this moment.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel so grateful that I’m someone who gets to do the job that I’ve always dreamed of doing. I know that that doesn’t happen for everyone. I just love what I do.

“I also have no other skill sets. I genuinely can’t do anything else very well (laughs). Thank god I’ve been able to stick with it and make a career out of it. But we also know that these things come in waves. I’m in it for the long haul.”

While The Power and The Strays are both series projects, Murphy is keen to make another film and is actively reading. “I don’t write, so I always have to find someone who’s got my view of the world and some form of voice that I share. I’m really looking forward to finding that.”

While audience numbers are hard to predict given COVID-19, all are happy Babyteeth will get to cinemas.

Murphy says: “We made this film for an Australian audience first and foremost; they were in our thoughts. I’m very excited to see how they respond now that I’ve seen how much the rest of the world does.”

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #195 June-July.