Remember That You’re There, Too: Shannon Murphy on "Babyteeth"

Shannon Murphy discusses her feature debut.
Leonardo Goi

Fifteen-year-old Milla has a baby tooth still lodged among her molars, and terminal cancer. She’s “a medical aberration,” as she calls herself, living with her parents in an unidentified corner of Australian suburbia. Babyteeth, Shannon Murphy’s arresting feature debut, chronicles the last stretch of her life. But instead of slipping into the gaudiest cliches and bucket-list tropes of so many cancer dramas that came before it, it fumbles after an adolescent grappling with her looming death while on the brink of feeling more alive than she’s ever felt. This is not the story of a dying teen fighting to make her last wishes come true: it’s the portrait of a girl struggling to remain anchored to life, and experience the intangible and mysterious force of her first love. 

An award-winning director of theatre, opera and TV (best known for helming Australian hit series Rake, Love Child, Offspring, On the Ropes and Sisters), Murphy teamed up with Rita Kalnejais, who here adapts her 2012 play by the same name. Eliza Scanlen plays Milla, Essie Davis her mother Anna, Ben Mendelsohn her father Henry, and Toby Wallace plays Moses, a 23-year-old oddball who barges into the teen’s life and propels her into adulthood. Babyteeth grants them all empathy and respect, and herein lies the film’s grace. For this isn’t just Milla’s struggle, and Murphy understands the girl’s fears just as well as her parents, conjuring a portrait of a broken family fighting to survive a tragedy with the same dignity and courage of the teenager at its centre. 

And yet, for all the lacerating sadness that permeates it, Babyteeth bursts with contagious and rebellious joie de vivre. “Milla is in a very vulnerable position,” Anna warns Toby early on, but the way Murphy and Scanlen craft her suggests the opposite. Save for one flickering moment, the girl is never shown in the company of doctors, and the film reaches some of its most potent moments when Milla is free to dance her fears away, eyes agleam with happiness under the neon-lights of house parties and the tunes of Sudan Archives. Nor does the film ever slip into a cheap, self-pitying melodrama. Even as it lands on a devastating final act, this remains a boisterous hymn to life, and the quartet of characters a permeable, unlikely family - but a family nonetheless. 

Babyteeth landed a slot in the official competition of the 76th Venice Film Festival. The only directorial debut in the lineup, it injected a much-needed breath of fresh air into the festival, nabbing a Mastroianni Best Emerging Actor Award for Toby Wallace’s performance. A couple of days before the awards ceremony, in a torrid September afternoon last year, Murphy and I sat to discuss her arresting first feature.

NOTEBOOK: I read something you said in a previous interview which I thought was quite striking: you don’t write. 

MURPHY: Well, I come from a theatre background, and in the theatre world it’s quite unusual for a writer to also direct. I spent so many years building up my craft as a director that the idea of suddenly switching to also being a writer… it’s just an incredibly different skills set, and it takes up a huge amount of time. Plus, I’ve just been so fortunate to work with such amazing writers over the years, that I just feel no need. I also think that I’m part of the writing process naturally anyway. You know, as a director you’re also inherently a dramaturg, and I love building a relationship with writers. They’re always so generous in letting me throw a few ideas out. But I mean, I don’t want to write dialogue. How exhausting!

NOTEBOOK: How did it go with Rita Kalnejais then? Was that collaboration you established with her just as organic? 

MURPHY: Completely. Rita was immediately on board. We had a few chats on Skype, and we just really enjoyed each other’s company. She said she really wanted to fly to Sydney, just so that we could do a director’s pass. But really what that director’s pass was… We didn’t even describe it as such: she said she wanted me to feel like the project was my own, like I could put my stamp on it. We discussed what things I wanted to do, which is when we started ruminating on the details, you know: “maybe Milla looks to camera,” or: “maybe we put the titles from the play back in,” or: “maybe we have that silent moment with her in her bedroom.” They were all very subtle things, because honestly the script was so strong, I didn’t really have to do much with the writing at all.  

NOTEBOOK: Those titles you were referring to—the chapter headings scattered all through your film—did you take them from the play, verbatim?

MURPHY: Well… [laughs] It took me a long while to read the play, because I didn’t want to be influenced by other material, even though it was based on that. Once I’d been on the project long enough I said: “ok, I want to read it now.” And it’s in a completely different order. It actually starts with what in the film is the second last scene. But there were these titles that were just so interesting, and really strong in terms of Rita’s voice, which I think you never want to dilute, because she’s got this unique perspective on the world. Some of them are really long, and rambling, and hilarious - you would never be able to put them on a screen. But I like the fact that they either settle you in a time and place where you didn’t have to start thinking of the time frame, or they felt like they were Milla’s voice. I mean, “Fuck this” was actually a new heading we added in, but it had the same function others had in the play. Or they opened up new avenues, which is what happened with another title that read: “What the dead said to Milla.”

NOTEBOOK: I was just about to ask about that one. It’s such a mysterious segment: we see her alone in her bedroom, silent and still, and it only spans a few second of perfect quiet.

MURPHY: That was everywhere in the play’s script. But none of these headings made it to the production. But that one in particular, “What the dead said to Milla” came in moments like “Dance Dance Dance,” or “Feel the Sun on Your Skin.” And I just loved the quality of them, and I really felt that spiritual world she begins to access later on was an important thing to sit with.

NOTEBOOK: There’s also a constant seesawing between tragedy and irony. I remember a scene when Milla’s mother warns Moses that Milla “is in a vulnerable position.” Yet you never hash her out as such. She’s flamboyant, no-nonsense—she exudes this joie de vivre that’s miles away from that description. 

MURPHY: The only moments you get to sit with Milla before she starts transforming are just a few minutes at the beginning of the film. After that, she meets Moses, and he starts to change her, in some sense. He allows her to push out of the cocoon that she’s been trapped in by her parents. If you’re a single child that kind of relationship can be very powerful, because it always crosses a line between parent and best friend. And the needs from each other are so great I think it’s a very hard liaison to get space from. A lot of them commented on her being vulnerable, and… Well, yeah, she’s been diagnosed with an illness, but at the same time it’s the fact that her parents want to keep her in that space, and that smothering of love is not always what a child needs.

NOTEBOOK: Moses is a drug addict, but so are Milla’s heavily medicated parents. And yet you resist that oft-abused downward spiral of the drug addict. You don’t really chastise their addiction here, which I found really eye-opening, and somewhat refreshing. 

MURPHY: Well, the reality with people doing drugs is that they often do it very well. By that I mean, they continue to exist, and hide it. To show it degrading and destroying people is to demonize that behavior. And I think that’s not fair. Because addiction always comes from something much more complicated, and it’s never really interesting to pay attention to the drugs—it’s far more interesting to think about why those things are happening. I like to think that the film opens you up to question, but not judge those people in any particular way.

NOTEBOOK: And there’s no room for self-pity either here, which was another thing I found particularly liberating.

MURPHY: For one thing, Rita’s writing never went there, really. But anytime I felt may have gotten there—say with performances—I stopped it in the edit. And that’s because it just wasn’t interesting to me. The honest reality of people in those difficult situations is that they’re not pitying themselves, they’re getting on with it. Especially Milla. She’s not feeling sorry for herself at all, she just wishes everybody could stop talking about it. That’s why she likes Moses: he never makes it a thing. In fact, the only reason he’s interested in her is that he could steal her drugs. It’s a very unique attraction that they have to one another; I’d say a lot of it is also about using one another.

NOTEBOOK: There are moments in which their relationship almost feels parasitic.

MURPHY: Precisely. But it’s almost platonic a lot of the time, too. I think you can have those incredible relationships with people without necessarily having it be sexual, and I love that side as well. 

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned Milla’s dancing. What was the name of that song she dances to after the first time we see her with her music teacher, Eugene Gilfedder’s Gidon?

MURPHY: Oh, that’s Come Meh Way by Sudan Archives.

NOTEBOOK: And how did you go about choosing those tunes? The soundtrack you put together is just brilliant, shifting between classical to soul to electro.

MURPHY: Actually, I’d worked with the film’s music supervisor, composer and editor before. They all worked on On the Ropes, a TV show I did just before coming up to this, and we all had very similar taste in music. Now, that song our music supervisor brought up to me many times before. I’d been trying to use it in something for a while, but it just never felt right. And then this came up, and it was perfect, because it fit with Gidon’s world. He’s such a music lover, and he would have a world music collection. And it also spoke to a specific moment in that scene, when he says: “I see something in you, you need this.” That song for me was just so… [pauses] There was a tribal nature that allowed Milla to relax, and be herself, in a way she wasn’t able to earlier in the film. There was a freedom in it, and the instruments, and the way that Eliza was able to move to it. It felt like the perfect way for Milla’s to let her hair down, ironically, give that she has none…

NOTEBOOK: That freedom is somewhat amplified by Andrew Commis’ handheld camerawork. Why that choice?

MURPHY: We just wanted the human presence in the film to be really strong, and to be very connected to whatever energy each scene offered. It’s not consistent. But with that particular scene, where Milla dances to Sudan Archives—it burst with so much joy, because it was a dance between Eliza and Andrew, they were just spinning around each other. It was magical: it was this small space, and we were all there, watching. And Eliza would do videos for me. She knew she’d have to do a big dance piece, so she’d send me videos of her dancing to different songs all the time. Which allowed me to work out what kind of dancing I wanted from her. It was just wonderful. We’ve all danced privately in our rooms, and there’s nothing more liberating than that. It was great to let her do that for me, privately, and to see which bits she really let go in, and then recreate those bits on the day.

NOTEBOOK: And it also strengthens the feeling that you are part of the family, as it were.

MURPHY: Totally.

NOTEBOOK: For me, the moment that proximity feels most explicit comes toward the end, when the family gathers around after the drama’s climax, and the camera trembles – if ever so slightly – as if to remind you that you’re not a passive observant, an intruder, but an active participant in the tragedy.

MURPHY: Yes! [snaps fingers] That’s very interesting, because at times people have asked me why I decided to put that in there. This was when we were just testing it out, and I went: “no, that is essential, you have to have that moment so that you can remember that you’re there, too, you’re a witness to it.” That particular scene was very interesting, because it was one of the only days when we had two cameras. I set up one in the living room and one in the bedroom, and we hid the camera in the closet, so Ben didn’t actually know where it was, and we kept Eliza away from everyone the whole day. We put make up on her, even if I knew we wouldn’t show her. I wanted them to see her the way she needed to be. And what we did was, we just rolled them both at the same time, and I went in and discovered her, and they could both hear each other from the other room. So the overlap is real – and that first take is what’s there. They really fed off each other in that moment. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of settings, Babyteeth is shot in present-day St. Ives, Sydney, but you get a sense that it could really be anytime, anywhere. There are very few overt temporal or spatial clues. For one thing, nobody seems to use phones that much.

MURPHY: I just didn’t want it to be bogged down in a particular year, or a particular time and place. I mean, yeah: the whole setting is Australian, but I wanted people to be able to access it and not think about that. Which is why I also didn’t want them to think about the timeline. That’s what the chapter headings are really helpful for: you just go with the fluidity of it all. Plus, mid-century homes are just so beautiful. But there’s also the fact that the youth these days are so great at mixing vintage with periods, and the whole story feels sort of weirdly timeless, and I wanted to go with that. As for phones, I hate them, really—screens and all that. It’s all just not visually interesting to me, and anytime I can eliminate it, I do. And it just felt right for the original vibe of the script to do so.

NOTEBOOK: Script-wise, I was also really quite fascinated by the way you seem to gradually parcel out information. You don’t really know what’s going on with Milla: you do get a sense that something’s not right when her father says, early on: “she’s going to be OK.” But you have little clues as to the extent of her drama, until a chapter heading tells us that she’s going through chemotherapy.

MURPHY: That’s interesting, because that chapter heading I only added at the very last minute, and mainly because it took even longer for people to work out what was going on. I didn’t want to over-manipulate or confuse the audience, so we put that there. And I did love those gradual revelations, too. I think… [pauses] I don’t think anyone wants to be ahead of the story. That’s the worst feeling ever. And we were very careful to make sure that would not happen. Which is why I think when you fall into the flow of: “I don’t know what’s coming up” the ending has such an impact.

NOTEBOOK: But that ending is so abrupt! Which I guess runs counter to the gradual parceling out we were talking about just now. It’s as if the narrative constantly oscillates between a gentle and brusque pace.

MURPHY: Yeah. And I think Rita nailed that balance very well. The reason why I think there’s some hope in the film is that the relationship between Anna and Henry is going to be OK. And you know that because of the last scene. But you also feel that in the second last one. You’re in a moment of humour with them, just before you find out what just happened. It’s very clever.  

NOTEBOOK: How did you work out that chemistry between your cast? I’m assuming a lot of your background as a theatre director informed the way you liaised with your actors here, but I was wondering how specifically that played out.

MURPHY: Look, we didn’t have a huge rehearsal time. We had about a week with everyone, and that included hair and make-up tests, and everything else. But I had a little bit more time with Eliza and Toby, which was great. And because of my TV background, my shorthand with actors is usually very fast. So even if we haven’t had all the time to discuss it through rehearsals, on shooting day I rarely don’t give out information unless it is just incredibly helpful. It’s all quite quick, and they trust me. The process of shifting performances happens quite fast, and I like to give myself lots of opportunities in the edit room. I always want to see their offers, and then if for any reasons they differ from what I had in mind, then I’ll also chime in just so I get the range, and then I can keep playing with it later. I don’t waste time doing loads of the same take, I’m not interested in that. I want variation.

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