There is a scene very early in Morgan Krantz's Babysitter that made me shut my eyes.
Sitting there, eyes closed, I was no longer hearing the young mother, played by Valerie Azlynn, frantically telling her ex-husband it's time to play hardball now that he's turned off the family's cable and cell phones. I was back in Virginia, barely eleven, in my bedroom hearing my mother yell at my father for a similar act of petty financial aggression. That was when I started to realize that our parents aren't always the ones who protect us from monsters, sometimes our parents are the monsters and at times, we have to protect ourselves from them anyway we know how.
In Babysitter, we meet high schooler Ray (Parenthood's Max Burkholder) who is making a similar discovery during his parent's own vicious divorce. His mother, low on funds and patience, decides to invite into their home an eighteen year old woman named Anjelika Dey (the stunning Danièle Watts of Django Unchaned) to help her with the kids as she prepares her defense in the looming divorce. Anjelika is dealing with her own parental demons, living in the shadow of her mother, famed soul-singer, Dey who died a few years prior due to presumably a drug overdose. After sharing a joint one night by the pool Anjelika and Ray enter into an ill-fated love affair that complicates Ray's relationships to everyone around him and starts us on a stunningly complex journey where race, sexuality, and parental neglect are all explored.
I spoke to Morgan this week about the film. We talked at length about how he made the personal universal, the melancholic depths of his leads, and how the singer who played Dey may have literally been a sent from God.
ScreenAnarchy: There is so much to love about this film. It feels so deeply personal, so honest, and so insightful about the ways traumas work after a divorce. What drew you to this story and this world?
Morgan Krantz: I really wanted to make something that dealt with these, you know, these certain characters I had floating in my head. I was very interested in this kind of "Young Mother" character, and yeah there were -- actually I had been working on it and there were a lot of false starts in the things leading up to it. There were characters and tonal elements from all of those, a lot of which reappeared here. I really just wanted to tell a story that was personal and it was obviously personal, just in how specific it was. I mean, I love...my favorite stories from people are ones that are, you know, like someone on a crazy two day road trip and they find themselves waking up in a park or something, you know? The specificity of a personal story just felt like a good place to start.
Eventually I'm interested in maybe telling bigger stories, but I really wanted to get it into my system-- what it felt like to tell something that was kind of close to me, in a way. I wanted to know what it's like to have that much specificity of authorial knowledge to work with, you know what I mean?
Yeah. Speaking of that specificity, I know very little about your biography, but coming to this film as a child of divorce myself I felt very much moved by the portrayal of the sadism of divorce. How like, in a divorce setting we see our parents become monsters in a way. That's why the symbol of the werewolf worked so well. I really liked how you used this to upend the trope of the wine-sipping California divorcee and brought in a lot of real pain for the character of the mother. What was it like for you and the actress who played the mother [Valerie Azlynn] exploring your choices in the characterization?
Well, you know, we had influences obviously. Gena Rowlands in all of her Cassevettes films was a big influence, as well as Julianne Moore in a lot of roles. But I thought it was really important to be careful with the characterization of that character because it could come off, like, there is that dimension -- that side of her does exist that maybe she is this gold digging woman. But I really don't think anybody is any one thing, you know? It was really important to bring out the fact she wasn't really in control. She was a woman who was under a lot of pressure and dealing with a lot her own shit. She sees as herself as a victim, you know?
And I think when people see themselves as a victim that's when they act in ways that are sort of selfish and inconsiderate, you know? They are just on the defense. They aren't really seeing the people around them, suddenly everybody is an enemy, everybody is a commodity. I was very interested in the concept of the mother/son bond becoming something that--it's supposed be the strongest bond--for that to be reduced to something as trivial as how much money she's going to have in her life. I also really like what that does for the child because it gives him this sort of unearned power, you know?
He suddenly, like, kinda can get away with whatever he wants. Which is like a terrible slash wonderful situation for a teenager to be in. So, I was very interested in that dynamic. I just think money entering into any relationship can always create something weird.
Completely. Something that was really palpable in that regard was Daniele Watt's relationship with the family in general. Your understanding of the ways that racism permeates through our "post-racial" world was so insightful and I welcomed the conversation you sort of introduced. Can talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, I mean, ultimately I wasn't trying to make any big statements about race or anything. But I suppose, if I am trying to depict anything about race and racism it's the way that I do see it in LA, which is covert. It's subtle, it's so covert that the person who's guilty of the prejudice may not even be aware of it. Obviously, it's a big conversation and I think that it's interesting but I didn't want to necessarily start the racial conversation with the film. It was always more about the character. I felt like at a certain point, like when the grandparents come, and she's made to essentially wear the classic "help" outfit. I felt like that decision was definitely aware of the racial aspect of it, but mostly though I felt like it was important to do that from a moral ledger.
If you look at the morality of all the characters, she has done some things leading up to that that were manipulative and sneaky and we're not really sure how to feel about it at that point. I felt like it was important for her to suffer, you know, ultimately on a dramatic level and I felt like that was a nice, realistic way for her to suffer that also brings out the fact that there may be this kind of racism bubbling up underneath. But what I think the racism does and the inclusion of the racial elements as subtle as they are it really brings out the love and the sort of magnetism that exists between the babysitter and the boy.
I'm glad you started talking about the romance because I did feel like I saw an inevitability to it as well. You presented us with two incredibly dynamic and traumatized individuals and showed us all the ways they tried to hide from their traumas. As an audience member you feel so much for both of them. What did you want the audience to walk away from the film feeling?
I always wanted them to walk away with, uh, I mean to me the movie is very humorous, so I wanted there to be this kind of nostalgic feeling throughout the film, which I think we did with props and some of the music. I mean, it's a movie about kids for adults really, so I kind of wanted to-- and you know young males can really hook into Ray's plight.
I think I really wanted people to walk away with a sweetness and nostalgia, a bit. I mean the movie is about this 14 year old but the movie never asks you to go inside his head. You're just asked to watch him and all these characters actually, and you kind of know a little more about why they are doing the things they are doing than they do. Which I think is the way we reflect on our past. When we look at our childhood we think, "oh yeah when I was a teenager I did this and that and that was probably conned to the things that were going on in my home life!" But we don't see it at the time. So I don't know.
I listened to a lot of like, sad music, you know while i was writing it, even though I thought it was very funny. I wanted it to be emotional.
Yeah definitely, I enjoyed the movie so much and had a smile on my face for most of it. Especially in all your scenes set in the high school, which had some of the most realistic dialogue I've seen amongst teens in a while. But I did think you cast two absolutely phenomenal performers who have these wells of melancholy that they can pull from so easily, who sort of hypnotize you. What was casting like? What were you looking for in the babysitter and the boy?
Yeah, to start with the boy...we read probably 75 kids for the role, and weirdly it boiled down to 2 kids--very different-- it was Max and then this other actor who was great but more comedic. And I was doing my research on them, trying to make my decision which was nerve-wracking, and while researching these kids I realized that both of these kids had my exact birthday.
What? Are you serious? What's your sign by the way?
Yeah I still I don't know what it means, but I took it as a sign. We're all Scorpios, and so is Daniele. Daniele is super into astrology. I'm like, I dabble like everybody but I'm not super knowledgeable. Anyway, that was just like a weird moment and ultimately it was between these two excellent actors, but why I went with Max was that he played everything super straight. He was very committed to being inside his character's head, as opposed to a performer who is a little more aware of the comedy and is looking at it more directorially. I didn't want any of the actors to see it, particularly the mother, because there is a lot of stuff that is kind of funny or fucked up, but no one in life is trying to funny or trying to be fucked up or mean. They are all struggling, you know?
So it was important that the boy character particularly was committed to his point of view, and really blocking out any judgement of the character. So that's why I went with Max because he's just really honest. He's also really young but like hyper-intelligent.
And with Daniele, honestly it was super lucky. I don't think there was anybody else who could have played the role. I mean she's just very perfect for it. I found out about Daniele before I was done writing the script. She still auditioned and did chemistry reads with Max and stuff, but yeah it was just super obvious that she was the one. I think she-- the main thing that I needed from the character, so many things, but I needed her to be very sweet and welcoming on the surface with maybe this dark edge to her that wouldn't feel like it was out of nowhere.
She has a very witch-y quality which made so much sense once you see that she's a Wiccan.
Yeah, she does. She's very supernatural as a person, even when you hang out with her she has a very strong energy. I keep saying, I don't think anybody else might be down with this comparison, but I really feel like she's a female Klaus Kinski. Her acting style really reminds me of Klaus Kinski, she just really brings the stakes for everything. Which is really important. It easily could have become this very muted, low-key performance, you know what I mean? But she's very--she can really go there. I also think that when you're younger you crave drama, unlike when you're older and try to avoid drama. But when you're young you're looking for emotional experiences. Also voice is very important to me, and I just love her voice. Her kind of husky, raspy voice. I like that a lot.
She definitely has the voice of someone you would want to seduce you as a child.
Speaking of voice, in the film Dey becomes such an entity even though you only ever hear her music, you never see her. Where did that music come from? Who was your Dey?
It's a great story actually. My composer, Josh Grondin, who made the score for the film made all those songs as well. I think he did an amazing job. What's funny with the singer is that we actually went through like two or three singers, just people we knew within six degrees, and I kept being like "No, no, it's just not it" and we were really hard up and this wasn't that long ago. This was like six weeks ago, if that. And we were really hard up to find this singer to lay down this track, who could do this, because it requires two types of vocal performances.
One song is like this belting`song and then there is this other one which is really lowkey kind of brooding ballad. So what actually ended up happening is that it's like Saturday night and we are having this crisis because we have to like send the film to South By and my producer, my composer, and I are sitting there banging our head against the wall. I have to go into sound mix all day the following day and so they are like, "Alright". So they decided to basically put on their suits early Sunday morning and go down to Crenshaw or West Adams and basically go to Sunday service and basically find a gospel singer.
(laughing) Yeah! So they did. They went down, they went to a few Sunday services. They were definitely the only white dudes in the bunch and they found this amazing singer named Toni Scrubbs. Who came in that night and recorded a track that was just like world's above anything we had recorded before. She probably did a handful of takes on each song and then we were done. Like that.
That is such a good story. That makes me so happy.
Believe me, I know. It was definitely a lucky trip. A Godsend if you will.