I meet with Kent -- who also directed The Babadook, one of the best horror movies in recent years -- in late July in the bare Los Angeles apartment hotel where she's been staying as she pitches a television series. The now 50-year-old Kent went from being an Australian actress with a couple of short films under her belt to the latest phenomenon in horror filmmaking when her debut feature The Babadook premiered at Sundance in 2014. The bone-chilling tale of a mother and son afflicted by both human tragedy and a menacing children's book monster in a top hat is a violent and tense exploration of what happens when extraordinary grief and the difficulties of parenting meld together. In the interim years, the creature from the (truly upsetting) movie developed a life of its own, finding a home in memes and as an unexpected LGBTQ icon.
But where the internet zigged one way with her work, Kent zagged, creating something that's distressing in an entirely different manner. "It wasn't a matter of, 'Oh I will never do horror,' because I don't think in terms of genre. I think in terms of the story and the idea and what needs to be told," she says. She turned down a lot of opportunities -- she was reportedly a "contender" to direct Captain Marvel -- instead crafting a film entirely her own. She'd come across the seeds of the The Nightingale when she'd visited Tasmania with her first boyfriend when they were both in drama school, and she was struck by both the beauty and sadness of the place that was a British penal colony known for its brutality toward both the convicts that were sent there and the Aboriginal people who were murdered as their land was stolen from them. "The British government wanted to be known as the worst of the worst of the worst," Kent explains. "I wanted to investigate what that meant, what that world was, but more importantly, how can love and compassion and kindness and empathy ever exist in a time like that. That's what I wanted to explore in the characters of Clare and Billy."
To do so accurately and responsibly, Kent worked closely with advisors, including Elaine Barrett, a clinical psychologist, and Aboriginal consultant Jim Everett, who assisted with the film from its script stage. Barrett provided Kent with texts on sexual violence, including one, Men Who Rape, that would be instrumental in crafting the character of Hawkins. The doctor was available throughout the shooting of the inciting incident, which was filmed over two days and involved five rehearsal sessions. "We structured it like you would a dance, without any emotion, and then when we got to shoot it, it was like everyone's body was prepped, the boundaries were set," Kent says of filming the scene in a cramped room, in which the camera remains focused on Clare as she experiences the unwarranted brutal deaths of her loved ones and a horrific gang rape.
Everett, meanwhile, was involved on "every level," Kent says, and even with his expertise, he took details back to the elders at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to ask for permission. "He was involved in costuming, in rituals, in how campfires were placed, and how everything was done, how ocher was put on Baykali's face." It's why Kent balks at any critique that her film itself is insensitive in its portrayal of characters like Billy. "Jim used to say to me, 'It's a shared story and we gave you permission to tell it,'" she adds.