Love is the Drug

Australian director Shannon Murphy on her artful debut, the screaming intensity of Australia’s bird-life, and the genius of Jim Henson.

Australians are really great at saying, ‘You’ll be alright, chin up.’ There’s quite an optimism in our culture.” —⁠Shannon Murphy

Like a rush of blood to the head, Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth is a coming-of-age film that takes hold of your heart and refuses to let go. The Australian filmmaker makes her directorial debut here, from a script by Rita Kalnejais (based on her own play of the same name). It’s at once familiar and unbelievably fresh: loveable, immediately recognizable characters in situations so conflicting, painful and euphoric that it’s very hard for your heart to not break when theirs do.

We follow Milla (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women), a fifteen-year-old who is navigating her first love. The object of her affection is Moses (Toby Wallace), a low-level drug dealer and sofa-surfing addict, who is a few years older. Milla has cancer, which makes her adoration of Moses seem all the more threatening to her parents, the type of passionate-yet-complicated couple that Australian films excel at depicting. The parents are played by Essie Davis (The Babadook, The True History of the Kelly Gang, Miss Fisher) and Ben Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the lovely Aussie comedy Cosi). There’s also a pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay) with a wayward dog, a lot of pill-popping, many wigs, and the intertwining of love, fear and stress that comes with a family illness.

With a background in theater and television directing in Australia, Murphy’s eye is so strong that she was flown to London to direct episodes of Killing Eve off the back of Babyteeth’s 2019 Venice International Film Festival premiere. (She was one of two women, alongside Haifaa al-Mansour with The Perfect Candidate, to be selected in Competition at Venice—the film went on to London, AFI Fest, Rotterdam and others).

Babyteeth has captured the minds of countless viewers, entranced by the singular world being offered. Writing on Letterboxd, Isaac Feldberg calls the film “deliriously, jaggedly alive, so full of broken and beautiful people struggling not to break each other in the midst of their own existential crumblings”. This sense of all-or-nothing was also felt by Emre Eminoglu, who points to the way “it whispers to your eyes and touches your heart with words that it puts on screen”. And Savina Petkova remembers its first screening and has just one request: “Please let me live in the alternative universe where this won Golden Lion instead of [Joker] please.”

Chatting about devastation, drugs and the punk ambitions of fashion when you’re a teenage girl, Shannon Murphy speaks to our London correspondent Ella Kemp.

How did you first come across Rita’s play?
Shannon Murphy: I didn’t actually see the play, which is crazy because my theater career started in the theater that it was on at, but I missed it somehow. When I came on to Babyteeth, the screenplay was already ready to go. I went back and read the play just before we started pre-production, and the thing I really loved in the play—not actually in the production but on the page—was the title chapters, and the through line of these whispers written in, of what the dead said to Milla.

What did you feel when you first read Milla’s story?
I was really distraught at the end, but not for the reasons you might think. It was more because I couldn’t handle the idea that I couldn’t spend any more time with these characters. It just devastated me that my time with them was over, like with a really amazing novel, you just don’t want your connection with them to end. I thought that was a really great sign. I’d been looking for a first feature for some time, but I knew it had to truly represent my tone, and the kind of artist I wanted to show the world I was. It’s a really difficult thing to do when you’re not a writer yourself.

I felt so distraught when the film ended, and it does just give you the urge to rewatch immediately—it makes you wish it was longer.
That’s so great to hear, I’ve had a few people say that they rewatched it more than once and it’s so exciting to me. That is the aim, that you make something that is worth watching again, because you know you’ll get even more out of it the more you watch it—it’s somehow gotten into your bones.

Shannon Murphy with Ben Mendelsohn on the set of Babyteeth.
Shannon Murphy with Ben Mendelsohn on the set of Babyteeth.

One of your actors, Ben Mendelsohn, said Babyteeth is both “delightfully bent” and “beautifully Australian”. What do these terms mean to you?
The offset humor is what I’d say he’s talking about, and also the idea to really push through the pain. Australians are really great at saying, “You’ll be alright, chin up.” There’s quite an optimism in our culture. In many ways I really focused on the sound design being really Australian. We shot in February, which is summer, so it was really hot, the cicadas were going crazy, and the birds—our birds sound like people screaming, they’re really intense. It brought such an Australian essence to it.

Could you recommend any Australian filmmakers or specific titles for Letterboxd members?
Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade is amazing. The Last Days of Chez Nous by Gillian Armstrong. And of course Sweetie by Jane Campion is a brilliant piece. I also love Samson and Delilah by Warwick Thornton.

Note: See Shannon’s other Australian film recommendations.

Moses is such an untraditional love interest, yet so charming. How did you build that character from Rita’s writing, and work with Toby to bring such a physicality to life?
It was so important to me with all the characters that you didn’t judge them, despite the behaviors they’re showing because they’re under stress. With Moses it was really important that it wasn’t just about the drug abuse, that it was really about understanding the behavior behind that and why that’s happening. We worked closely with a friend of mine who is a drug and alcohol specialist, and he was always saying, “Don’t talk about the drugs, it’s not what is actually behind this.” We did detail his poly-substance abuse and what he was taking, so that at least Toby and I knew as we were charting the journey.

Toby, in his audition, was just so generous to all the other Millas in the room. Not once was he really thinking about himself, although the stakes were really high and I knew he really wanted the role. I love that, because to me Moses is a really generous person to Milla. I knew I’d have to transform him physically quite a lot, because he’s a very good-looking guy, and we also wanted to break Moses down a lot. With his skin we did that, with his tattoos, and each of his tattoos has a lot of meaning for Moses. Toby and our make-up artist Angela Conti crafted that together. And he’s a very physical performer, very in his body. Who else can pull off shorts like that, quite frankly? I just loved that about him. He’s fearless.

“Who else can pull off shorts like that?”—Toby Wallace with Eliza Scanlan in a scene from Babyteeth.
“Who else can pull off shorts like that?”—Toby Wallace with Eliza Scanlan in a scene from Babyteeth.

Toby gives such an amazing performance. I hadn’t seen him in anything before but a friend said she’d seen him in a Netflix show recently in which he was so despicable, whereas he’s totally transformed here.
He’s really my kind of actor because you can throw anything at him and he’s up for it. He’s got an incredible range. And the same with Eliza, they can shapeshift so easily. They’re two very intelligent people, they’re able to get out of their heads and into their bodies quite easily.

I have to ask more about Eliza. How did you create Milla with her, physically, specifically in terms of her clothes, her style—I have the image of the blue wig in my mind. How did aesthetics feed into Milla’s psychology?
You know what’s so funny? Everyone calls it the blue wig, but it’s totally green. I don’t know what happened in the [color] grade there, but everyone calls it the blue wig. Even Eliza in an interview the other day said the blue wig, and it was totally green! Anyway, hilarious. Everyone is calling it the blue wig so we can stick with that.

At that age, you are constantly reinventing yourself. Particularly when you meet someone you’re falling in love with, you’re like, who am I going to be to this person? Because this person is also changing who I am and how I see the world. And also she’s completely being a punk, and she’s pushing against her parents, pushing against the world. With her outfits, we spent a lot of time talking about that with my amazing costume designer Amelia Gebler. She’s so bold. We were like, at that age, you just don’t give a shit. You’re trying out different things. Also, the new generation is experimenting with fashion in a way that I think is really impressive. So we wanted to make sure that it felt timeless, and so we did the big pattern clashes for the night out, and also she’s wearing that great unicorn T-shirt, it’s so childlike, but also a bit punk-y when she’s in her home. But then she transitions from the more feminine, girly colors to lilac, which is Moses’ color for the night out. We loved the idea of them both being in the same color for that night.

And then the different wigs, we called the blonde one the Amy Winehouse wig. We would call it “wig-gate” on set, because you always had to make sure you had the right wig on during the transformations. We talked about how initially she has that cancer wig, which is the long blonde one, which is a real cancer wig from a company that makes them specifically for that. Then we moved to Amy Winehouse for the night out, and then we’d go to the blue wig. It always felt like we were doing it at points when she was really shifting emotionally, and playing different versions of herself in many ways.

What was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
Is it okay if it’s not a film? I was quite obsessed with Jim Henson’s television series The Storyteller. It was such a dark fable that I watched at such a young age. I remember John Hurt being the narrator, I would just get so sucked into these stories. Even still today I can remember so many of them so vividly. They were really creative. Jim Henson was someone who was so out of the box, really pushing our imagination in ways that have stayed with so many of us.

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