Poetic Memory: An Interview with Shannon Murphy

Australian film Babyteeth (2019) is not your typical sick teenager film. After the terminally ill Milla (Eliza Scanlen) falls for Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year old drug addict, he soon joins her family, shaking up the lives of Milla and her uptight parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and former concert pianist Anna (Essie Davis). What could easily fall into over-sentimentality and melodrama is instead a film that deftly balances humour and tragedy, euphoric feelings of young love and crushing heartbreak. A family of lost souls finding solace in unlikely places. 

For a feature film debut, Babyteeth and its director Shannon Murphy are having quite the run, screening in competition at Venice, and going on to nine AACTA awards, including Best Picture. This year, she’s been nominated for Best Director at the BAFTAs, becoming the first Australian director to be nominated for the award for an Australian film – previous Aussie entrants (and even winners), Peter Weir, Baz Lurhmann, and Bruce Beresford were all nominated for their American productions. When I inform Murphy of this factoid, she sits in a disbelief. “That’s incredible. Oh my God, what?” she asks over and over. It’s an incredibly humbling and special moment to be a part of, as she lets the news sink in. When Murphy and I first met back in 2016, she was an emerging filmmaker participating in the Melbourne International Film Festival Accelerator talent lab, a program I was volunteering at. With a couple of shorts and a few television blocks under her belt, a feature film of her own was still years away. Back then, I don’t think either of us knew our paths would lead us here (at least, so soon.) “That does make me smile,” she admits, unable to keep the grin off her face. 

Ahead of the Awards, I caught up with Murphy to deep dive into Babyteeth, discussing the particular heat and imagery of an Australian summer, young love, and depicting teenagers with the care and celebration they deserve.

Claire White: Let me start by saying congratulations on the BAFTA nomination!

Shannon Murphy: Thanks! I’m still trying to just take it in and connect to the idea that that’s really happening. I think because part of me knows that if I really connect to it, I will just burst into tears because I’ll be so overwhelmed by the reality that you work for so hard, for so long, and it actually gets recognised by a group of incredible creatives that vote for it that you never anticipated would be looking at your work in that way, so it’s so — it’s so exciting. 

CW: What is it about Babyteeth that you think resonates so much? Especially being an Australian film doing so well overseas.

SM: I think a lot of it has to do with the authenticity of those performances, and how much we worked to capture something that felt so incredibly raw, and electric, in a way, between the chemistry, between all the family and between all the characters. But also I really wanted to make sure that the sound of the world was so messy and visceral, like a documentary, so you felt like you were completely submerged into that space. Into that Australian… summer in suburbia, which is a very particular heat, and sound of birds, and cicadas, and sweat and kind of discomfort, really. And to show Sydney in a way that feels much more realistic to all of us, because it’s not showing it off, it’s just letting it be a character in itself in a very natural and organic way. 

I don’t know why we often push our landscapes so hard in our films, but I think it’s because we know it is unique and it can be quite enticing for people who have never been there, to feel like they’re in another world, but that wasn’t really our focus. I did think that the humour in the film in particular, is very Australian, but also hit the right chord with people, which is why I wanted to do it because I think Rita’s [Kalnejais, the screenwriter] tone is so incredibly specific and unusual. People often think that they can do black comedy, but she really takes it to another level, and I think that’s really bold writing. 

CW: One thing that has been on my mind is where did you find that house? Because it is amazing.

SM: That house is in St Ives, and Alex White, our producer, had found it. And it is so amazing because it is mid-century but it has never been renovated. The most amazing woman lives there; she was one of the first female pilots in Australia and she has lived there I think for most of her life. The lines and the architecture of it gave us the ability to look the whole way through the house. So Milla would always feel quite exposed in many ways, but also like this bird trapped in a glass atrium where there was still so much love, and she felt warmth, but she just wanted to get away. I tried to find somewhere that had that mix of that incredible love from your family but that suffocation that you feel also in that environment at the time when you just want nothing more but to bust out and break free to become your own person, especially with the situation that she’s in. 

CW: Andrew Commis was your Director of Photography, which is so funny because he was the guy who did The Daughter (2015), and we spoke to him at MIFF in 2016, at one of those parties [during the MIFF Accelerator program] and I went up to him saying “Hi, The Daughter is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” and then we were in a conversation with him together.

SM: Do you remember? So Claire, that was the first time I met Andy Commis, with you, that time.

CW: I was there? Amazing. 

SM: You were there, and I remember, because we had seen him do that talk and we went to that thing afterwards, and when I was talking to him — I think I ended up talking to him for like two hours that night, or something. I couldn’t leave his side because I was so captivated by his talk and I was so enamoured by his work and talking to him that night, I remember thinking to myself “I have got to work with that guy.” And that’s so funny that you were there and that you remember that. That was the first time that I met him and honestly I don’t think I’d seen him again since that night until we met to talk about Babyteeth. And I’m so excited that he liked the script and wanted to do it. We really hit it off. 

CW: You mentioned earlier about showing Sydney in a way that wasn’t showing off, and I keep thinking about how Milla’s world is quite insular, how the whole world felt very insular, kind of similar to The Virgin Suicides (1999), in a way.

SM: Definitely. We spoke with Canteen, which is an organisation that specialises in working with teenage cancer patients, and they talked about how often a family, when a child is sick, or even has a re-diagnosis, they start cocooning around the child in a way and even treating them like the age they were when they first ever got sick, so they sort of stunt the child’s emotional development in some ways because they are just wanting to wrap themselves around this person and hold them and keep them safe. So there is this closing in that happens to these kids worlds. Also they feel very isolated at school, they suddenly become the “sick kid” and that’s the last thing they want to be seen as. So you’re right, a lot of peripheral people in their lives sort of drop away during that time, so it is a very insular feeling, and I think the architecture of that house sort of lent itself to that too.

CW: The humour of the film is kind of off-beat —

SM: Totally.

CW: — primarily through all the performances. Like, I don’t know if this is intentional, but I feel like Ben Mendelsohn is always eating and taking photos.

SM: [laughs] You mean like in all the things he does?

CW: In the film, he’s always eating, and he’s always taking photos. And that’s just like, not quirky but you don’t see that often, I guess. It’s a very dad thing to do.

SM: It is, and also I think Henry is often hiding behind other things, you know. He’s hiding behind cameras and his iPhone and his iPad, because he can’t confront what’s really going on. He’s trapped, in many ways, in his Dad Cave, and a lot of that’s because, often with children with illnesses, the mother ends up being the one to do a lot of hospital visits and the really hard grunt work of it all, and the fathers start to feel really left out, and it’s very isolating time for them. I think the thing with Ben though, too, is that when he eats, it’s something that you can’t not pay attention to? You know, he’s not a subtle eater and so I think that’s also part of it, which I love because some actors can be really vain about that stuff, but he doesn’t care, he just will really go for it, and I think that’s one of the many fascinating things about Ben Mendelsohn.

CW: There were a lot of salad sandwiches, or she drank green cordial when she was about to be ill, and that was also something that stuck out to me, because that is an image of summer in the suburbs.

SM: Yeah, and I love playing with that very sumptuous imagery, and exactly those things you’re talking about. That, you know, she’s in that hybrid stage, she’s drinking cordial in the summer, whereas Moses would want to be drinking tequila, but that is not what is happening right now. So would Anna, really, but I think it’s all those tiny details that also adds to the humour … how do you capture that youthfulness, as well as this impending doom. It’s always trying to mix both things in the frame, and a lot of that was done with colour and costume when something was more serious. 

CW: You talk about Milla being in this in-between stage or of parents trying to keep their kids younger than they are: I see this a lot in Milla’s costuming. She has that purple unicorn t-shirt, or in that first violin lesson she’s wearing those shorts and a floral t-shirt, but when she is with Moses she tries to dress older.

SM: Yeah, we really played with her having very sort of pastel-y, youthful colours in the beginning and those kind of graphic shirts, like you’re talking about, and then, definitely transitioning as she starts to experiment with those wigs and those looks and impressing — not so much impressing him, but playing with her different personas and who she’s gonna be in front of him. So I think the other thing was then starting to show that she’s combining her look and colliding into his look, which is them both wearing lilac on the night out together, accidentally. You know, it’s pretty great. We played with the wigs a lot … but then there was something so important to me that when she died she was in that green wig. It just, I can’t still explain it today, but for me it was just, so important that that was the look that felt right, when she was looking at the birds and she was lying in the bed… yeah.

CW: It’s kind of like a sense of… being whoever she wanted to be in that moment. Not everyone gets to have green hair, a bit of fantasy?

SM: And how she wanted him to… yeah, how she wanted all of them I guess, to…. I love that actually, you know I like your interpretation. 

CW: I haven’t even talked about how well you do young love!

SM: [sucks in teeth] Yeah, I’m obsessed with it. I’m so obsessed with young love and I still like, even now at this age, I’m obsessed with, like, capturing it and I’m obsessed with trying to experience it again, even as a woman who is definitely not anywhere near that age anymore. I think it’s because there’s such a vibrancy and such… like, strong memories and senses and smells and I feel like nothing is more potent than those early experiences of love, and I so often don’t think it’s captured properly. It’s not messy and awkward and crazy and uncomfortable enough. It’s something I think to be celebrated. 

CW: That reminds me, because one of the only other things I’ve watched recently that has really transported me back to that age group is PEN15 (2019-), that TV show, which is like these 30-year-olds playing 13, and they nail the awkwardness, exactly how your body moves, the way you talk, the way you relate to everything, in all these cringey, embarrassing ways that you kind of forget about, but then you’re watching it and you’re like yeah, that’s exactly it. And when Milla is asking Moses to go to the Formal, she’s like hiding her face in the grass, and as soon as he says yes, she just bursts out in this joy, and I’m just like yeah, that’s it.

SM: Yeah, you’re right about the physicality. I think that’s also something we shy away from a lot. Those bodies are transforming so fast in ways that are hard to keep up with, but they’re also just so in it in moments, more than we are today. There’s something that happens in that teenage time too where, it fluctuates between being so in your body and then suddenly so out of your body, and getting that right is yeah, is interesting. 

CW: It’s interesting how you mention all the sensory experience of young love, because in the notes I wrote when I reviewed the film last year and then when I re-watched it recently, both times I wrote “romance = lights + music.” In ROMANCE Part 1 and ROMANCE Part 2 [two sections of the film], they’re very much imbued in this awesome neon lighting and these beautiful music moments, firstly with herself and that dancer, and then again with Moses, and that always stuck out to me. 

SM: It’s that thing of going: okay, so your real experience of something is one thing, but then your poetic memory of it is even greater. So for me, those moments really had to feel like the beautiful memory that Milla will have of those nights, and so there is a heightened level of colour and projection work and those interactions that you have with people, so that when you have reflected on one of the most amazing nights you’ve ever had, it feels and looks and sounds like that. It’s something that’s almost impossible to try to even explain to others. You just have this amazing, vibrant energy kind of get into your bones, in a way so that was what I was hoping to capture. Colour is so important, and [I’m] so heavily influenced by Wong Kar Wai’s work and having grown up in Hong Kong. I think I see the world in very bright colours; I can’t help it. 

I used to live in Tsim Sha Tui in Hong Kong, and every night I would wake up and I used to be able to look out across the harbour, and see all the neon lights on all the buildings, and all the reflections on the water, and my favourite thing to do would be at 3am to sit on my bed and just look out, because it was one of the only times the water was completely still and there wasn’t like a million boats coming across. It was probably just my strongest memory growing up –  just all those bright lights in such a noisy city that occasionally would just seem quiet and still for a moment. I think as well, the colour pallet of the night out is also probably influenced by the sort of bold look of Hong Kong clubs. You just turn a corner and you’re suddenly in a very different looking space. It was also really important to me that Milla, despite having been so hurt by Moses the moment before, could still find it in herself to get enough strength to still enjoy her night, no matter which way it went.


Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Vogue Australia, Junkee, The Big Issue, Senses of Cinema and more. Follow her at @theclairencew.

Claire White