Growing Pains

Shannon Murphy is an Australian director of theatre and television, including episodes of the recent series of Killing Eve. She now makes her feature debut with Babyteeth, adapted from the play by Rita Kalnejais, and starring Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects) as Milla, a terminally-ill teenager who falls in love with Moses, a small-time drug dealer.

ASFF: How did Babyteeth start?
SM: It began as a play, which premiered seven years ago at a theatre company [in Sydney] called Belvoir St Theater. And immediately after seeing it, Jan Chapman, our executive producer, and Alex White, our producer, were running towards each other in the foyer, because they knew that this was what they wanted for a feature film. And so they got Rita, who’s a very talented writer, to do the adaptation because they knew that she’d be able to go from theatre to screen. Which is actually quite hard for a lot of people. But she originally trained as an actress. So she has a real understanding of the difference between theatrical words and performance, and then the more naturalistic cinema style. I only came on board two years ago. I was interviewed for the role of director. And then they gave me the job. And then I worked with Rita very minimally on the script, because it was already in incredible shape.

ASFF: Can you talk about the tone of Babyteeth? You seem to mix humour and tragedy…
Totally. I guess it’s always really important that when you’re dealing with really heavy topics that there is humour because that is so often the case in real life. And I think that that’s what Rita nails with her writing; she is not overly sentimental or overly reverent. She’s really capturing the fact that when you are standing around someone who’s not well often you are cracking jokes…not wanting everyone to focus on [the illness] the whole time. And Milla, in particular, isn’t wanting that; she’s wanting to accelerate her life and move forward and experience things that she hasn’t before. She’s not wanting to wallow in any of the negative things that are happening to her. She’s a realist.

ASFF: Eliza Scanlen is amazing. Was it hard to cast her?
I had quite a few chats with her. And I did actually audition her a few times because I had to keep making sure that I was going to make the right decision. Because that pressure is huge!

ASFF: How did you research the story?
SM: I worked with a drug and alcohol specialist. Which was really a beautiful experience because he spoke so much about how the drugs are not what’s interesting. There’s always a cause. Like with Moses, we talk so much about how all he wants is to break into a family, literally and emotionally. Because he’s created havoc with his own. And he’s been rejected. And then with the cancer, Rita did so much research before she wrote it. Spent a lot of time with people in the medical field. And Eliza and I would do meetings with Cancer Care in Australia for them to read the script.

ASFF: The film’s already drawn comparisons to the work of Jane Campion. How does that feel?
SM: Obviously I love Jane Campion’s work. And particularly, I guess, her early work such as Sweetie…[which] has the duality that we have in this film. I also think she’s quite bold with colours and imagery, which is something that I love to play with as well. Which I think could be just my excitement of not being trapped in a box in the theatre!

Babyteeth is in cinemas from 14 August. For more details, click here.

James Mottram