At the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, a man was booed by the audience when he asked Jennifer Kent during a Q&A if she believes someone in the theater would have the intent to rape after the screening. Kent and the cast were disgusted and did not answer before moving on to another question.
Extensive research was done by writer-director Jennifer Kent on the history of convicts in Australia and the history of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The filmmakers and cast also researched PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), violence against women, and how people deal with trauma.
A crucial production team member, brought on early in the process, was Aboriginal Consultant Jim Everett, a Plangermairreenner man whose Aboriginal name is "pur-lia meenamatta". "Our people lived through two Ice Ages," said Everett. "We were here when the ice melted and the land bridge that connected to the mainland became submerged. Evidence uncovered in one of the latest Tasmanian archaeological digs dates back 42,000 years."
The film's Official Director's Statement by Jennifer Kent reads: "I wanted to tell a story about violence. In particular, the fallout of violence from a feminine perspective. To do this I've reached back into my own country's history. The colonization of Australia was a time of inherent violence; towards Aboriginal people, towards women, and towards the land itself, which was wrenched from its first inhabitants. Colonization by nature is a brutal act. And the arrogance that drives it lives on in the modern world. For this reason, I consider this a current story despite being set in the past. I don't have all the answers to the question of violence. But I feel they lie in our humanity, in the empathy we hold for ourselves and others."
For writer and director Jennifer Kent, the inspiration for the film emerged from two profound places. First, the experience of deep personal loss, and second, questioning the state of the world. "I was in a particular frame of mind," Kent recalled. I looked out at the world and was struck by how much violence was coming back at me. It was overwhelming and saddening. I wanted to explore that violence, and importantly, the fall-out from violence."
At the heart of the film is the central character of the Irish female convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi). Convicts generally came from terribly poor backgrounds and stole for survival. A theft of a loaf of bread, or a coat, could see a person being transported for seven years, as an indentured slave to a free settler or soldier, their poverty ensuring permanent exile. Female convicts were often treated badly by their masters.
Director-writer Jennifer Kent was determined that the violence in the film would be an honest and authentic depiction, that in order to respect those who suffered and died during this period in colonial Australia, she wouldn't shy away from the truth of what happened. "Many Australians know what happened in certain parts of the country during that time, and other people don't," Kent said. "A lot of people outside Australia know nothing or very little about it. I couldn't go into this part of our history and water it down." She added: "Like many other countries that have been colonized, the indigenous people of Australia were subject to horrendous treatment by the colonizers. The systems of power were brutal, and I wanted 'The Nightingale' to reflect this."
Writer and director Jennifer Kent set out to ask two important questions in the film. They were: 'What are the alternatives to violence and revenge?' and 'How do we retain our humanity in dark times?'.
The film is writer-director Jennifer Kent's highly anticipated follow up to 'The Babadook' (2014) which premiered to critical acclaim at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. "I was fortunate to be offered a lot of projects after Sundance, some of them very good films," said Kent. But 'The Nightingale' was the story I really wanted to tell."
Writer-director Jennifer Kent set this film in colonial Australia in Van Diemen's Land which is now called Tasmania. The Australian island state is situated off the far south east coast of the mainland and is nicknamed the Apple Island due to its shape. A fledgling British penal colony was established in Tasmania in 1803 following on from the Sydney penal colony established on the mainland about fifteen years earlier.
Setting the film in 1825 Tasmania wasn't an intellectual choice to make a period film, but something that emerged from writer-director Jennifer Kent wanting to remove the story from the present day, and in doing so allowing its universal themes to take precedence.
"I've always had a fascination with Tasmania," writer-director Jennifer Kent observed. It was considered the most brutal of the Australian colonies, known as 'hell on earth' through the western world at the time. Repeat offenders were sent there; the rapists, murderers, hardened criminals. And severe punishments were devised for them to strike fear in the hearts of those back in Britain, to deter them from crime. Women on the other hand who'd often committed minor crimes were sent to Tasmania to even the gender balance. They were outnumbered eight to one. You can imagine what kind of an environment that would set up for women. It was not a good place or time for them. And in terms of the Aboriginal invasion, what happened in Tasmania is often considered the worst attempted annihilation by the British of the Aboriginal people and everything they hold dear."
The first producer on board for the film was producer Kristina Ceyton. She had previously produced director Jennifer Kent's 'The Babadook' (2014). The pair applied for final development support from Screen Australia, and also received the inaugural 'Gender Matters: Better Deals' funding, which is part of a suite of initiatives that address the gender imbalance within the Australian screen industry. "It was an incredible privilege that we received the first Gender Matters support," said Ceyton. "Screen Australia have been pivotal in supporting female filmmakers - producers, writers, directors and other creatives - as well as supporting female stories."
The film is set during a period known as 'The Black War', when the land in Tasmania was not safe to travel, nor easy to navigate, with huge tracks of rugged wilderness. Writer-director Jennifer Kent would pair Clare (Aisling Franciosi) with the character of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a young Aboriginal man who acts as her tracker, or guide.
Jim Everett, Aboriginal Consultant to the production, said: "Besides the massacres and taking land away that happened, similar to anywhere else in Australia where Aboriginal people were invaded and colonized, kids were taken away from families and put in Tasmanian orphanages. When they were old enough, they'd be used as cheap labour on farms. It wasn't uncommon for Aboriginal people to be working in all sorts of jobs, and a lot of Aboriginal people in Tasmania today are here because they survived by mingling in with white fellas, right across the state."
Even though the film is set two hundred years ago, writer-director Jennifer Kent's determination was that she would not follow the standard conventions of a 'well behaved period film'. "All the concerns about violence - towards women, towards indigenous people, towards nature, the repercussions of colonization - they're very much in our mentality and in the way we live now", observed Kent, "but by placing something in the past, you can give people a distance from it, so they can see it without feeling like they're being attacked. Everything that's real and deep about this film is relevant now. Completely."
At the end of 2017, with the script in a good place and casting underway, producer Kristina Ceyton and writer-director Jennifer Kent approached highly-regarded Australian born producer Bruna Papandrea and her producing partner at Made Up Stories, Steve Hutensky, to join them as producers on the film.
The picture is the first film that producer Bruna Papandrea has made in Australia in seventeen years. In terms of her first production in Australia after a long hiatus, for Papandrea, 'The Nightingale' was the perfect film because it united many aspects of where she saw her own filmmaking, and the global need to encourage female-led and female-centered stories. "My business is focused on putting women at the centre of storytelling," she said, "so for me 'The Nightingale' was like striking gold. There was an amazing woman at the center of the story, an amazing woman directing and writing in Jennifer Kent, and an incredibly skilled producer in Kristina Ceyton."
Bruna Papandrea, one of the film's producers, said: "I had been a big fan of Jennifer Kent's, and like the rest of Hollywood, I had been following her career. Someone introduced us, and I'd had a couple of lunches with her, and when Kristina and Jennifer were in LA casting, they asked me to get involved. I read the script and was totally floored by it. As dark as some of the subject matter is, I was so deeply moved by it, and it felt very international in terms of the theme of where violence leads, and very relevant, more than ever, for contemporary audiences."
Of producer Bruna Papandrea, producer Kristina Ceyton stated: "Bruna is a real force", and added,"I could see that we were aligned in the way that we approach filmmaking in general, but specifically for 'The Nightingale', the mutual desire to protect the vision, to help Jennifer tell the story in the way that she needed to tell it was crucial. We knew it would be a very hard film to make, and to be able to have allies in Bruna and in Steve Hutensky was incredible."
For producer Steve Hutensky, it was all about the magic combination of the script, and writer-director Jennifer Kent. "As I read , I was transported; the rest of the world fell away," he said. "I was totally engaged by it, from start to finish. To have that combination of a brilliant script and a really inspiring filmmaker; to be a part of that was something that Bruna and I could never pass up."
Continuing on from her meticulous approach to researching and writing the script, writer-director Jennifer Kent applied the same dedication and detail to casting and creating, with her actors, the characters of 'The Nightingale'. "I've never met a director who cared more about performance", stated producer Bruna Papandrea. "She had ten weeks' rehearsal with Aisling Franciosi, which is almost unheard of. She understands what it is to elicit a performance and gives the actors the time, resources and the environment to do that. It's a gift, and that's just who she is."
Producer Steve Hutensky said of the film's cast: "They're all exceptional actors, but all brought their game to a whole new level through [director] Jennifer [Kent]. She knows exactly what she wants, every nuance, and keeps at it until she gets the performance that she knows resonates correctly with the entire story."
"What I love about [writer-director] Jennifer [Kent] is that she is a true artist who really uses the medium to an optimum, and who has a very strong concept of storytelling," said producer Kristina Ceyton. "Everything she does comes down to what's important for every beat in the film. She has an incredible talent to bring amazing performances out of her actors; she pushes them very hard in the best way possible. She feels for the characters deeply, and that is what drives the story."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The film features potentially triggering acts of sexual violence. It also contains violence towards Tasmanian Aboriginal people and children. The reasons for this were, according to the film's production notes, "to show an authentic and honest representation of Tasmanian history during colonisation".