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Director Shannon Murphy pulls at the performances of ‘Babyteeth’

Director Shannon Murphy at the 76th Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2019.
Director Shannon Murphy attends the “Babyteeth” photo call at the 76th Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4, 2019, in Italy.
(Theo Wargo / Getty Images)

The film ”Babyteeth” is the feature directing debut of Australian director Shannon Murphy. She has worked extensively in theater, made a series of short films and also has worked in television — directing two episodes of the most recent season of “Killing Eve.”

“Babyteeth” is based on a play by Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the screenplay, and concerns a terminally ill teenage girl named Milla who begins a romance with a young man, Moses, she meets at the train station. He’s older, a drug addict and pretty much homeless, and her parents are suitably skeptical when he begins showing up at their house. But they put up with it because Milla is trying to do as much living as she can in the time she has left.

Part illness story, part coming-of-age romance, part family drama, the film is held together by Murphy’s free-flowing visual style and the powerful central performances of Eliza Scanlen (“Little Women”) as Milla, Toby Wallace (“The Society”) as Moses and Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”) and Essie Davis (“The Babadook”) as Henry and Anna, Milla’s parents. Wallace was recognized with the best young actor prize when the film premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

“Babyteeth” is available on video-on-demand platforms and was scheduled to play in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge Hollywood beginning June 19. It would have been the first new film to screen in L.A. since the COVID-19 shutdown, but the county ultimately did not give the green light for theaters to reopen. However, the film does have bookings in a handful of hardtop theater locations, including two in California: the Mary Pickford 14 in Cathedral City and the Riviera in Santa Barbara.

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Murphy recently got on the phone from Australia’s Gold Coast to talk about the movie and her techniques for getting such strong, distinctive performances from her cast.

“Babyteeth” is among the first new releases as hardtop movie theaters reopen. How do you feel about that?

Shannon Murphy: I think it’s pretty amazing, actually. I do think the world is dying to open back up again. So it’s pretty exciting to feel like we’re one of the first films that will go back into the cinema. What’s interesting to me is that because the film is about a family who was cocooning around their only child, I feel like in the context of everyone having just done that with their own families, I wonder if it will feel even more potent. But we’ll see.

I think my favorite thing about the movie is that it continues to be surprising all the way through. It’s really unpredictable. The movie often has the lightness of a comedy or a romance, but then it dips really easily into these more emotional or intense moments. How do you deal with the performances and what feels like a difficult balance?

I think that’s what I loved about the story when I first read it. On the page when you try to describe this film, it sounds like a lot of things we’ve seen before, but I think it’s essential when you choose to make a project as a filmmaker that you’re showing a new version of whatever story you’re telling. And so we knew we had to steer far away from melodramatic cliché, over-sentimentalizing a young person’s illness. And it was important to me that we gave Milla an authentic life. So we didn’t want to just focus on the illness, that she’s driven by all the desires that teenagers have and then magnified by necessity to accelerate her life rapidly.

I think it’s essential when you choose to make a project as a filmmaker that you’re showing a new version of whatever story you’re telling.

‘Babyteeth’ director Shannon Murphy

And so when we would do takes, yes, of course I would come with an idea and we would talk about it and do those takes, but then we would all make offers and we would also explore what it could be if it wasn’t what we’d already decided. I think that’s essential, to not be arrogant and assume that you know what the scene is or how these people are necessarily going to behave — give yourself options to do alternatives, because that’s when you can surprise yourself. And then, in an edit, balance the tone whichever way you want.

Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn in Shannon Murphy’s film "Babyteeth."
Essie Davis, left, Toby Wallace, Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn in Shannon Murphy’s film “Babyteeth.”
(IFC Films)

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There is a scene early in the movie where the four main characters all have dinner together, when Milla brings Moses to meet her parents. Part of what is so incredible is that their performances are all really distinctive from each other, almost like they are each in their own movie, and yet it all comes together. How do you begin conceiving a scene like that?

Everyone is so disjointed in that scene and yet it is the one that grounds the tone of the film. And so what’s really fascinating is that scene was twice as long. When I first watched the first cut of it, I was like, “This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen” because it’s so long, but it’s still sustained. The problem was, as we were putting the rest of the film together, it was too long a scene upfront. It’s a shame because I just wish we could get out there the original version of the full length, but it just off-balanced the film.

Also, Andy [Commis, cinematographer] and I were exploring how we were going to shoot everyone and how everyone’s lens and look was just slightly different on each character in that scene, because we were setting up how they looked and their view of the world. I think it’s the only scene that we got to have the whole day on. ... Because it’s a whole day, and they just have to keep doing the same scene, it just brings with it waves and waves of creativity, and it gets a bit nutty in the sense that it’s like you’re trapped in a strange world that you can’t escape. They just all kept exploring, and going and giving.

How do you keep those performances so unique but maintain the unity of the scene? Was that something that you feel was as much in editing as it was on the day when you were shooting?

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Oh my God, totally in editing. Because they were very much connected to each other on the day. They’re brilliant listeners, all of them. And that’s what’s wonderful, because even though they might seem like they’re in their own little worlds, they’re still very much playing off each other. What I loved, and in fact it was a complete mistake, that moment where Ben dropped his spoon into his soup and he shocked himself. And Essie burst out laughing at it, but they’re all still in character. And I went, “That has to go in,” because that is such a human moment and ridiculous, but it broke everyone’s tension. And then they were trying to get it back together. I just love all those things. You know, mistakes are always wonderful, and you can get those so easily when you’re doing something over and over again. It was a very funny day.

Eliza Scanlen as Milla in Shannon Murphy’s "Babyteeth."
Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla in Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth.”
(IFC Films)

Eliza’s performance is so layered. Milla in many ways seems very innocent and naive, but then she also really understands everything going on around her. What kind of conversations were you having with Eliza to get to that really complicated feeling of who Milla was?

We often talked about how she was in many ways parenting her own parents. She’s the more mature person in a lot of the situations. She has up until now been quite a dutiful daughter and had a very close relationship with her parents. And the pain of breaking away from them — it’s really hard for her and they’re feeling very distressed about it — but she has a drive to do it. What’s unusual about the film is you have only, I think, a minute and a half of seeing who Milla was before Moses explodes into her life. And so very quickly we had to establish who this girl was. From then on she’s transitioning and kind of shape-shifting who she wants to be in the world. That was the great challenge — how do you show a character that’s constantly in flux, but then still feel like she’s grounded and you can connect to her.

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And physically is often how I work with actors; I believe that the physical language is as strong as the verbal one. So she and I talked a lot about “how does she move?” Eliza would make these little Instagram videos for me on a private account of her in her bedroom, at home, just dancing to different music. And I’d watch them all and then pick which ones I thought worked. And same with Toby, he’s a very physical performer. I think when you give actors the ability to play off the text, just with their bodies, a lot of times they can find their characters more.

The performers on “Killing Eve” — Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, Sandra Oh — already know their characters so well, and their performances are so specific and eccentric. What is it like as an outside director to come on to do two episodes of a show like that — do you still feel like you’re having some kind of an impact?

I wouldn’t want to do a TV job if I felt like I wasn’t coming in and able to have an impact. You have to come in and convince those actors that even though they know those characters really well, your insight is going to unlock something in them that they hadn’t thought about and that they then get to explore. So then it’s enjoyable for them because they’re not just doing what they have been doing for however many seasons but they get to feel challenged by what you’re asking them to do.

That was definitely the case, particularly with Jodie and [the character of ] Villanelle, because we’ve got the luxury of having an entire episode dedicated to her and her backstory with her family. And so Jodie and I took a lot of time together to really talk about what we wanted to say about Villanelle — what we did want to give away, and then also keep a mystery. And also how this was really impacting her emotionally. That’s the goal, no matter what — you’re not a gun for hire, well I’m not, I’m not doing that kind of work, it’s so not interesting to me. I have to have come up with some interesting psychology and have a lot more to offer, otherwise the actors will just eat you for breakfast. ... You’ve got to really mine something original.


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