Shannon Murphy on Babyteeth

The past few weeks, Shannon Murphy was locked up in the editing room to complete season three of Killing Eve. Last Wednesday, the job was finally done and the Australian director travelled directly to Rotterdam, where she finds her feature debut Babyteeth among IFFR’s audience favourites.

In Babyteeth, we see teenager Milla Finlay enjoying life to the fullest. The same can’t be said for her parents: Milla is suffering from cancer in an advanced stage. On top of that, they worry about Milla’s new boyfriend, drugs dealer Moses. Babyteeth is a tearjerker, in a way that only Shannon Murphy can make one: tragicomic, sparkling and absurd.

You have already made a host of plays and TV productions. With so much experience, directing your feature film debut must be a walk in the park.
“Well, it wasn’t very scary. I’m very relaxed on the set. Working with actors? Piece of cake. The most stress probably comes from the expectations that people have of a first film. That feeling that everyone is watching you.” Laughing: “With a second film, that will only get worse. Everyone wants to know if the first one was a fluke or not.”

Babyteeth sets the bar quite high for your second film. Your debut is a big hit with the audience. Was that unexpected?
“As a filmmaker, you already know whether something is good or if it doesn't work on the set or in the editing room. I don't think about the audience during production, because then I am the audience. When the film is finished, you obviously want to reach a bigger audience – but above all, you have to be proud of what you made, trust your feeling and hope that it will pay off. Making a film is a delicate blend of all kinds of elements that must come together. You feel when the balance is right. And that feeling is fantastic, overwhelming.”

The film tells a fairly simple story, but is not easy to describe. In the world of cinema, a film like Babyteeth is often called 'quirky'.
“I know. It reduces what it really is, because ‘quirky’ often means ‘cute’. What attracted me to the scenario, is that it felt different. It’s a gloomy, funny and also emotional story of the end of someone's life. Quite messy. But as soon as you start describing the story, it sounds dramatic. That’s why I prefer to avoid terms such as ‘terrible disease’. The screenwriter summarised it perfectly: Babyteeth is a story about how good it is not to be dead yet. That’s the tone of the film. Also, I want to make it clear that the film is about more than just the daughter. It is a complex family drama about addiction, whether it’s a self-medicating parent, the cancer treatment of Milla or the drug addiction of her boyfriend.”

Babyteeth was a play originally. Was that a challenge when translating the story to film?
“The writer of the play, Rita Kaljenais, also wrote the film script. Originally, she’s an actress. I think that’s why the translation to film, which is more intimate, worked out so well. She understands the difference in acting, language and visual style like no other. Most playwrights cannot write a decent film script. Rita is one of the few who did hit the nail on the head with this film adaptation. There are also some considerable differences between the play and my film. For instance, the play began with the end of the film. And the chapter titles that you see in between, I took from the original theater script. They provide structure and also work a bit like Milla's inner voice. Milla’s development is reflected in the titles.”

It’s a low-budget film. Isn’t it strange to have more money at your disposal for an episode of Killing Eve than for shooting a feature film?
“The amazing thing – and this is the reason that so many filmmakers nowadays work for television – is that the budgets are comparable. The costs for making one episode of a TV show are on par with the costs of an entire feature film. TV is also an excellent opportunity to gain experience, and to learn from working in a completely different world. I don't want all my work to look the same. But I also want to make another feature film, I hope in 2021.”

Written by Anton Damen

Photo in header: Shannon Murphy © Joke Schut