Jennifer Kent on Shooting The Nightingale One-Camera, Contractually Obligated Aspect Ratios and Directing from A Handheld Monitor
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s first two movies present different parental nightmares. In The Babadook, a mother’s fear that she doesn’t love her son manifests itself in the form of the titular monster. In her latest, The Nightingale, a young woman explores the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to punish someone who’s harmed her child.
Set in the early 1800s, The Nightingale stars Aisling Franciosi as Clare, an Irish prisoner finishing out the final days of her sentence in servitude to brutal British soldier Hawkins (Sam Claflin). When Hawkins rapes her and attacks her family, Clare sets out after him into the Tasmanian wilderness with the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr).
The Nightingale opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: Before we get into The Nightingale, I want to start with a scene from The Babadook. Essie Davis’ character plays hooky from work by lying about her kid being sick. She then goes to the mall and sits alone on a bench eating ice cream. I can’t even tell you how much I related to that scene. There is a Chick-fil-a by my house and during my first few months of parenthood there were days where I’d sit in the parking lot alone and eat a sandwich just to decompress in silence.
Kent: It’s funny, because when I wrote the first draft of the script, I thought her character was too nice. She was too selfless and I just didn’t believe her, because I think as a new parent or as the parent of a young child you do want to escape them sometimes. That whole sequence of her basically lying and saying she needs to go home to her sick child and then skipping off and escaping was so important to the character. I think people relate to that sequence because in that scene she’s human and it’s really important to me that all my characters are always human and that they feel real.
Filmmaker: The score and sound design played a big part in The Babadook, but in The Nightingale there’s no score. There’s music in the form of folk songs sung by Clare and Billy, but there’s no traditional score.
Kent: As we were in the edit suite I was looking at the picture and no music came to mind and that’s so rare for me. Nothing sprung up. When I even attempted in my head to think of putting music anywhere, it was just a massive brick wall saying, “Don’t do it.” It just felt like I would be gilding the lily to put music over the top of it, that it would somehow cheapen it to encourage an audience to feel a certain way through music. Lovely Jed Kurzel, who’s a brilliant composer, was so gracious, because I kept contacting him saying, “I’ll be with you soon for the music” and then eventually there was no music. He did come to arrange the crazy soundscapes and music in the forest when Clare [hallucinates that she’s waltzing with her husband]. So Jed’s hand is still in there.
Filmmaker: You never even tried any temp score just to see?
Kent: No, I think the film demands what it needs and that’s what this film demanded. I think what [the lack of score] does as well is throw the actual music of the film, Billy and Clare’s songs, into relief. Those songs wouldn’t have had that same effect if we’d had a score surrounding them.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen a few films in recent years opt for the old 1.375 Academy ratio – A Ghost Story, Cold War, First Reformed, American Honey. What appealed to you about that aspect ratio, which was supplanted as the dominant frame dimension back in the 1950s?
Kent: I really wanted this to be a film about human beings and not a travelogue of Tasmania. The strength of that Academy ratio is that it has a lot of height and depth, but it’s also very good for framing people. In Cinemascope you would show a very tiny human in this big landscape. But in 1.375 we could feature people and still include the height of these amazing trees and the depth of the forest.
Filmmaker: The Alexa has a 4:3 mode. Did you capture in that or did you shoot a wider aspect ratio to give yourself options?
Kent: We shot open gate [which is a 1.55 sensor area], so we had room to play, but in camera we had markings to frame for Academy. So if there was, for any reason, a need to shift the frame in post we could do it because we had extra room on the edges, but 99 percent of the time the [1.375 frame we composed for on set] ended up on the screen.
We were contractually obligated to finish a 16:9 [version of] the film as well, but that hasn’t happened and it probably never will, because it would cost them at least a million dollars to [digitally] remove all the C-stands and everything else that are cunningly put into play [on the outskirts of the 1.375 frame]. But thankfully we haven’t been asked to do that.
Filmmaker: You used two sets of vintage glass on the film—Panavision C Series anamorphics from the late 1960s and PVintage spherical lenses, which are rehoused Ultra Speeds from the mid-1970s. What did you use each type of lens for?
Kent: We used the anamorphics for exteriors and the PVintage for interiors and sometimes for night scenes. I really loved those lenses and how they muddied up the digital look enough to give us a more organic feeling, which we definitely needed on this film. I initially wanted to shoot on film stock, but we don’t have film labs anymore in Australia and the insurance wouldn’t allow us to send the film stock overseas to get it processed. [Cinematographer] Radek Ladczuk and I would’ve been very nervous about that anyway, because we had no contingency days at all and we were shooting a film that was 90 percent outside. If we would’ve lost any footage we’d have been in trouble.
Filmmaker: In the credits I only see an A Camera listed. Did you shoot this single camera?
Kent: Yes, much to the horror of the 1st assistant director. (laughs) We did one scene, and I’m not going to tell you which one it is, but we did one scene with two cameras out of necessity because it was very late at night and we were never allowed to do overtime. I’m happy with how the scene played out, but I just don’t think you can give yourself to the image in the same way [with multiple cameras]. I can’t watch two shots at once. It’s like trying to paint two paintings at once.
Filmmaker: As a director who comes from an acting background, where do you like to be during takes?
Kent: I have been in the strangest of places with my little handheld monitor. (laughs) I tend to be very close to my actors, but I think it’s off-putting for an actor if the director is looking right at them from very close. Watching on the handheld monitor provides just enough barrier to give them the space they need, because the worst thing for an actor is when they’re trying to impress or please the director. I’m very intimate with my actors. I like to connect with them. There was one very difficult scene in the film where I actually held the actress’s hand in some shots, but that’s very rare. I also listen to what they need. So if they need space, I’ll back off and go hide behind a tree with my monitor. (laughs)
Filmmaker: You don’t strike me as a filmmaker who would want to test your movies, but did you have any sort of contractual obligation to do a test screening for The Nightingale?
Kent: No. Thankfully we didn’t have to. I understand the need for test audiences with a film that has to appeal to almost everyone and is a little more about pleasing the audience. I think with a film like this, it’s very dangerous to go into test audience territory, because I want to put forward a story that will shake people up a little, that will challenge them. If an audience doesn’t like that, they’re going to give it a negative rating and then it becomes a form of censorship, I think. If I don’t have to test, I won’t. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get feedback from trusted people. I’ll call on other filmmakers I love and respect that have the same taste and they give very honest feedback and sometimes negative feedback. The film was honed that way. I remember distinctly an experience with The Babadook where we had a test audience. I don’t even know why ]the distributor] did it because the film was locked, but the test audience absolutely hated it and said it was a piece of rubbish. If we had been influenced by them in the edit it would’ve been damaging to the film. So I’m glad, knock on wood, that I haven’t had to deal with test audiences in any serious way.
Filmmaker: The publicist asked that I read a statement about the film’s violence in the press notes before watching The Nightingale. When the movie has played at festivals, there have been some strong reactions. I’m surprised by the degree of that reaction. There are certainly scenes that are brutal and difficult to watch, but there are so many other films with violence that I’ve found much more disturbing.
Kent: I was surprised too. I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that I’m a woman. I really don’t know if that’s the case. I do know films that show the true implications of violence can been seen in a much harsher light, which to me doesn’t make any sense because if you’re showing violence in a casual, cavalier way, isn’t that something to be criticized? If I was going to include violence, then I needed to include it honestly. And I don’t make any apologies for that. Ultimately I think it’s good that we see violence’s true face and I’m very proud of the film in that way. It took a lot for all of us to put those things on the screen and I feel that we did justice to a very difficult time in Australia’s history that hasn’t been talked about in the realm of feature film.
Filmmaker: I agree with your point about movie violence—people are upset by violence that disturbs them, but not by violence that entertains them. Did you see the remake of Pet Sematary?
Kent: Yes, I did.
Filmmaker: The movie uses the potential death of a toddler in a road accident as a suspense misdirect. I don’t mean to single out that movie’s director—I loved their film Starry Eyes—but that scene bothered me because it felt, to use a word you mentioned early, cavalier.
Kent: I also hesitate to give examples because I know how hard it is to make a film and I don’t want to criticize other filmmakers. All I can say is that I felt the need to tell this story about violence because I find violence toward women disturbing and I find the violence in my own country’s history disturbing. I also find the violence playing out now in the world very shocking and disturbing. I feel the greatest crime would be if we become numb to that violence. So, if people watch The Nightingale and they feel affected and shaken and sometimes angry, I’m okay with that, because I think these things should make us feel something.
Filmmaker: The press notes describe one of the movie’s themes as “the futility of violence and revenge.” I agree that Clare will find no comfort or catharsis in retribution, but, that said, if there is no institutional justice and you have a man in Hawkins whose only mode of expression is violence, what other recourse is there other than meeting violence with violence? [SPOILER ALERT] I have to be honest, I know it goes against your intention for the movie, but I was hoping Hawkins would get it in the end.
Kent: (laughs) It’s a complex issue. Empathy is not always about forgiving people for their terrible acts. Empathy can just be about endeavoring to understand why a person behaves the way they do. I wanted to draw him as a human being who does terrible things rather than a villain or a monster and I do have empathy for men like that. It doesn’t mean that I want to reach out and hug them. It’s more about understanding where that violence comes from in someone like Hawkins, and also how we create a society that in some instances encourages them and rewards them for their behavior.
I really didn’t want to be didactic with this film. I’m not saying violence is bad and peace and love are good. I think it’s too simplistic to say all actions that involve violence are unnecessary. Sometimes action needs to be taken and I think the film explores that as well. What I wanted to say with the film is that it’s important for us to focus whenever we can on love and compassion and kindness, because they’re necessities in dark times.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.