TDF Interview: We talk Babyteeth with director Shannon Murphy

Babyteeth is a deeply personal film in the way that it is personal to anyone who as a teenager experienced their first love, or who stakes claim to its emotions. Through use of evocative music, colour and cinematography, director Shannon Murphy makes a heavy topic light, fun and more digestible, exploring the ups and downs of adolescence while remaining breathtakingly tender. Although Murphy had hoped to be in London right now in preparation for the release of her debut feature, it is from her home in Australia that she talks to us about moving bodies, the music of Romeo + Juliet, wig-gait and more.

The Digital Fix: Hi Shannon, it’s lovely to talk to you. I just want to start off by saying I was absolutely floored by Babyteeth, you must be so excited for it finally to be released.

Shannon Murphy: Yes, I am so excited, especially because I’ve just spent so much time recently in London working on Killing Eve and I just really love working there. I also felt like, you know, it’d be my dream to be there when it actually opens which can’t happen now, but I’m excited for it to be in Picturehouse’s beautiful cinemas.

With Babyteeth there is a sort of lack of sentimentally that I think is going to surprise some viewers, considering the subject matter, but works really well in telling the story of this film. How important was balancing this authentic story without straying into the melodramatic would you say?

You know, I think for me, my taste in storytelling will definitely always veer away from sentimentality because it doesn’t really move me or feel real enough to me, to be honest. As soon as something feels a bit cheesy I just sort of naturally disengage. So I think I really wanted to make sure this was as honest as possible, both to teenagers who might see it, but also parents or an older audience as well. I think as a filmmaker you always want to be making something and doing something differently, not just repeating what has been done in the genre before.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that kind of ties into Milla’s character because she has such a frenetic energy to her. How was it creating and capturing her, and Moses’ for that matter, really unique physicality?

Yeah, it was really important to me to pay a lot of attention to that because, of course, that age group, they’re really just coming into their bodies. Bodies are such a focus, such a visceral part and it’s very sexual and exciting and changing and celebrated, so I really wanted to focus on that and also really give a strong sense of that age, whether you’re in it now or you want to remember it and the feelings you used to have then. It was really important through colour and costuming and music that we really gave a holistic feel of that time, those two characters and sense of first love and all the highs and lows that come with that.

So yeah, that was a really enjoyable part of the creative process working with Angela Conte who is an amazing make-up and hair artist on developing all their different looks and how they were going to transform. We did a lot of work with their skin with both Milla and Moses; with Moses breaking down his skin and with Milla, playing with the pigment of her skin during her illness. And of course the wigs are her trying out very different looks on herself but feeling more confident and wanting really to bust out of who she’s been and who she is now.

I was actually going to ask about the wig, because obviously we have the blonde one, but there’s also the teal one that’s in a lot of the promotional images. What was it about that specific colour that spoke to you or Milla’s character?

I think for me it was really important that it wasn’t a pink wig or a colour that we’ve seen a million times before. We were looking at different wigs and Angela she just kind of played with that teal one and we just kept coming back to it. There was something really fun and a bit manga and a bit out-there. The other one we used to call the ‘Amy Winehouse wig’ because, even though it’s blonde it kind of has an Amy Winehouse vibe and so it was just about mix-n-matching the looks. We called it wig-gait, because we were obsessed with talking about the wigs and when we wanted to transform, for us the dream comes down to the night out Milla had a very different look because she was doing something really out-there for her, which was to completely escape from home and go out on one of the best nights of her life. 

It was also distinct that she had a cancer wig, so the long blonde one that was her wig for when she was going to school and that was a real cancer wig that people have when they’ve gone through that. And of course there’s her bald-headed look which was interesting on the night out because she interacts with this performance artist who was alopecia in real life, and there’s this celebration of that mirroring between the two of them even though Milla’s got the wig on at that point when there’s that moment. There was just a lot of wig talk, basically. 

I love wig-gait, that’s so great.

Yeah, like everyday we’d go like “aww what wig is it?” 

Like you were saying, there’s that moment when she’s at the party [with the performance artist] which was really emotional and I think in that scene, and something I noted in the film as a whole, is how integral the music felt, which you’ve already touched upon it. Whether it was the characters dancing to it or playing it, or whether it was Amanda Brown’s gorgeous score, was it always something that was important to you?

Always. I think for so many of us music is such an important part of our lives but particularly when you’re a teenager. I remember when I was younger, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet came out when I was a teenager and I remember that soundtrack being so extraordinary. I played it so much and felt so many extraordinary feelings watching that film because of the music, and so I wanted the soundtrack to feel as original as that did for me in that I can’t associate those songs with anything else, they don’t have other connections for me. So I wanted it to be a really original soundtrack but also for it to connect to, of course, Milla and her musical family. She’s got the world of Gidon and his world music that he introduces her to and, of course, she’s got the classical world of her mother and her own passion for violin playing. Then there’s the world of music that Moses sort of brings into her life, but also is her own inner monologue with herself about what her taste is morphing into.

I focused a lot on Australian artists, we wanted to use people like tUnE-yArDs and songs that I’ve always really been drawn to. Jess Moore, my music supervisor, and my editor, Stephen Evans, we are very passionate about music and we put playlists together along with Amanda Brown and we’d play them through pre-production and talk a lot about music. Then on the day the tUnE-yArDs song and the Sudan Archives song, which she dances to at Gidon’s, we played them on the day so that the actors could respond to it in-situ. I think that makes a big difference as well because they’re choreographically in sync with each other. 

I really loved the way the music interacted with the film and I’ve been listening, not to the playlist as I don’t think it’s out yet, but I’ve been listening to the songs on repeat as they really stick in your head. 

Yeah, for some reason Spotify just use playlists that have them on there.

You mentioned that you focus a lot on Australian artists, was there anything else that you think makes this film inherently Australian?

Definitely. I think the styling of the costuming from Amelia Gebler. She’s an amazing costume designer who does so much work here in Australia and she’s so in tune with what younger people are wearing and I’ve worked with her before because she offers such a fresh and youthful perspective. But also the sound. We shot in summer in Sydney and we have crazy sounding birds and cicadas and the sound they make is just so intense and I kept that in the soundtrack and just really kind of celebrated the Australian-ness of it in an urban way which is something that we don’t get to do as much. And the sense of humour is definitely Australian; really laughing in the face of grey obstacles is very Australian. 

As we wrap up, like the music, I found the colour palette of the film feeling very, almost alive in itself. Did you always envision this film with that kind of outlook?

Definitely. I mean I think my work is always really colourful. I did a boxing series called On the Ropes which was very colourful as well. I think having grown up in Hong Kong, which is a really neon city, I’m very influenced by colour and similar to Wong Kar-wai who I grew up with. And also it is just how I see the world; it’s a very feminine colour palette sometimes but for me, that was how Milla was viewing things. With that energy and that high-frequency and those colours just felt right to match her energy. 

Babyteeth is released in the UK from August 14.

Read our latest review of Babyteeth here.

Alex Dewing

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

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TDF Interview: We talk Babyteeth with director Shannon Murphy | The Digital Fix