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Sundance 2014 Preview: How Lars von Trier's Grunt Work Spawned Midnight Movie 'The Babadook'

The Babadook Film Still - H 2014
Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent teams with “The Piano” producer Jan Chapman for a psychological portrait of motherhood.

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch up. So this year, THR decided to do a bit of prep work for you by compiling the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook isn't about the scares -- they're just a bonus. Premiering on Jan 17. at the Egyptian Theater as part of Sundance's Midnight section, the Australian filmmaker's directorial debut is a spine-tingling examination of a mother, her son, and the friction that smolders between them. There's a bogeyman haunting the family... but it might be the physical manifestation of a hidden secret? It's the kind of out-there concept that forced Kent to spend a career searching for imaginative collaborators. When she found them, Babadook finally came to fruition. Here's how it happened:

Background: Kent graduated from Australia's prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art where she focused on performance. For worked steadily as an actress, a job she found both frustrating and educational. "Acting gave me as an enormous love and empathy of actors,” she says. "I'm not frightened of them. I'll push them." When Kent's passion for writing and directing overtook her acting career, she opted out of another round of school (Kent says her own subversive personality wouldn't allow it). Instead, she found a mentor.

After watching Lars von Trier's 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, Kent wrote the director a "very un-business-like e-mail" telling him that she would, "stick pins in my eyes then go to film school." That landed her a job on von Trier's Dogville. "I did a lot of s---t-kicking work on that film but I got to see the whole process from start to finish. The thing I learned about Lars that I've carried with me since is how stubborn he was. He had a vision and even if it was idiosyncratic, he was strong. As a woman, that was something I really needed to take on board."

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The Big Break: Returning home from Dogville, Kent began developing screenplays and submitting for national endowment consideration. She says most of her ideas were too left-of-center for the government to back, so she pursued alternative methods. In 2005, Kent directed Monster, a black-and-white, horror short film that went on to play Telluride and Aspen Short festivals. The movie became an instant calling card. "If Monster had sunk without a trace it would have been hard. I'm pretty determined, so I still would have got there [laughs], but it certainly helps when you're making an independent film to have something accomplished and that has done well. The strangeness of Monster helped people understand where I was coming from as a filmmaker."

When it came time to develop the feature version, Kent high-tailed it out of Australia, nesting at Amsterdam's Binger Filmlab. She describes her time as the best creative experience of her life. "You want to make the film that's in your head. And if it does well or if it does poorly, at least you can say, 'That's the film I wanted to make.'"

Getting the Film Off the Ground: Before Binger, Kent had developed a Western romance film for The Piano producer Jan Chapman. While that didn't get off the ground, Kent had the Jane Campion collaborator as a contact. After expressing trepidation over the film's horror exterior, Chapman gave Babadook a read and immediately wanted to make it. The budget was modest and quickly eaten up by the top-notch production. "We had sets, we had interiors at a studio. We had so much strain on the budget before we even started. We were all looking at each other wondering how the hell we were going to do it."

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When It All Seemed to Click: Hearing Kent describe the making of Babadook, it's clear the filmmaker has a solid support system in the form of Australian filmmakers. Kent's friend Justin Kurzel, director of Snowtown Murders and husband of Babadook actress Essie Davis, told her he spent the first day of his shoot puking up a storm. Kent had a different experience. "When I got on to set on day one, it felt like a coming home. I thought, 'This is where I'm meant to be. This is what it's all about.'"

Kent's Mission for The Babadook: "I do like horror films. I don't look down on them," Kent says of her own relationship with the horror genre. "I think there are cinematic works of art within that genre. I'm very curious what happens to people who sit on something terrible that happened in their life and have to face it. That was the seed of Monster. In Babadook, [the main character] sits on this thing for so long, that in a way, it generates so much energy it becomes another entity."

Twitter: @misterpatches