motherhood and 25 years of film-making
When celebrated Kiwi film-maker Jane Campion walked the red carpet at Cannes in May this year, she stole the show – but not for the right reason.
Posing for a photo with the who’s who of great film-makers to celebrate the Cannes Film Festival’s 70th year, she looked much like the others – wearing all black, with a silver head of hair, it wasn’t her appearance that made Jane so obvious, but her gender. In seven decades of the prestigious festival she is the only female filmmaker to have won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, which she was awarded in 1993 for The Piano.
“I used to feel quite proud that
I was the only woman – but now
I feel sick about it,” Jane admits to The Australian Women’s Weekly, speaking from a hotel room in London, where she is about to attend the UK premiere of the second season of her gritty thriller, Top of the Lake. Fortunately, the 63-year-old believes things are slowly changing.
“There are so many exciting things happening for women, especially in television. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies is beautifully done, amazingly acted and really watchable, and Jill Soloway and Andrea Arnold’s [TV and film] work is cutting edge. There are some exciting women doing stuff that is engaging people at the highest level and I think it is going to trickle through.”
Nicole Kidman, who Jane has known since the Aussie-born redhead was 14 years old, is front and centre in Top of the Lake: China Girl.
“Nicole was really keen to get into television and that was one of the reasons she is in our project. She came to us when we were writing and said, ‘Do you have a part for me?’ She also sensed that freedom in television and
She is so good at leading people into the corners of their parts and getting them to feel comfortable.
was looking for opportunities.”
Nicole plays Miranda, the adoptive mother of Mary, who is played by Jane’s own daughter Alice Englert.
“I was a bit worried that everyone would go, ‘Oh my God, you cast your daughter,’ but nobody did respond that way,” says Jane, who handed over some of Alice’s more challenging scenes to co-director Ariel Kleiman.
“The first episode I directed wasn’t too bad because she was just giving her mum a bit of hell, but as the story goes on things get pretty dark for her and when I was thinking about divvying up who did each episode I went, right, all the difficult ones go to Ariel. I knew I would have such a lot of emotional trouble doing retakes on stuff that was hard for her.
“Honestly, I think I’d say, ‘Yes, darling, that was good, you didn’t say the right words, but that is okay, let’s just move on,” she says, laughing at herself. “You just don’t want to go some places with your kid.”
Alice, now 22, has acted in several BBC television series and in featurelength films including In Fear, The Rehearsal and Ginger & Rosa. She also makes short films, one of which recently won an award at The St Kilda Film Festival in Australia.
Jane says she has long wanted to create a “juicy” role for Alice and the opportunity arose while planning series two of Top of the Lake when she realised the daughter Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) gave up for adoption would be in Alice’s age range. “She has had to put up with me being on sets since she was tiny and it was a nice bit of positive payback for her. I don’t know who else could have done that role actually. It is really complicated and you can relate to Alice with her big Audrey Hepburn eyes – she doesn’t just seem like an ungrateful teenager; you can feel her vulnerability.”
The mother/daughter relationship between Alice and Nicole Kidman’s characters is a fraught one. Famous for her poignant storytelling, Jane says it was important for her and her longstanding writing partner, Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake, to portray the reality of parenthood.
“Jane and I write from our difficulties because they are what inspire us,” says Gerard. “My son has just been through that age and it’s the time when your kids tell you they are a legal separate identity.”
Jane agrees: “I had the same thing from my daughter when she didn’t want to go to school any more. I said, ‘Come on Al, what are you doing, you need to get dressed, I’ll drive you down,’ and she went, ‘I am not going and you better get used to it.’ And I knew she was serious.
“She was a school refuser at about 15. We tried a few different routines – we did home schooling eventually, and she went to a school for kids who couldn’t handle normal school or were too naughty or sensitive.”
Alice didn’t want to go to university either, despite Jane insisting they had been the best years of her own life. “She is self-educated in a way. She is really well-read. Even the acting training, she just did that at home with me,” says Jane, who put aside her concerns about Alice joining the fiercely competitive and imagefocused world of acting to support her daughter’s dream.
“I would love to start an acting training school because I can see how easy it would be to get them into a good acting space – teach them simple stuff they don’t get taught.”
“Jane is fantastic at that,” says Gerard. “She is so good at leading people into the corners of their parts and getting them to feel comfortable.”
Jane and Gerard have collaborated as far back as the critically acclaimed film Sweetie in 1989, and are well versed in creating cutting edge drama together. Asked what it is like working with a co-writer so firmly focused on women’s stories, Gerard says they
There are so many exciting things happening for women, especially in television.
have a humorous relationship.
“It’s like a robust brother and sister fighting over the same teddy bear. Like, ‘No, it is mine,’ ‘No, it is mine,’ and every now and then she points to the giraffe and says, ‘You can have that one’ – that’s when I can have fun for an afternoon because mostly I am allowed to play with it on my own before going back to the teddy bear. I have quite a few thoughts myself about how women ought to be, so it’s a bit of a tussle,” he says drolly.
“It is interesting how Gerard has internalised ideas about women and I have about men as well,” Jane adds. “When we come to acting it out, I enjoy playing the really bad guy – it’s really therapeutic!”
“It’s good to go to the other side for a bit,” Gerard agrees. “As recreation I have written this long story where there is only one woman in town and everyone else is a bloke trying to put each other in a headlock – it’s kind of a reaction to it!”
Jokes aside, it’s clearly a winning pairing – Cannes came to them this year and requested to show Top of the Lake: China Girl in its entirety. It was so well received, they had to give it a new screening time to accommodate the number of people who wanted to see it. It’s worth noting the only other television series shown at Cannes this year was David Lynch’s eagerlyawaited third season of Twin Peaks.
While season one of Top of the
Lake was set in the remote lakeside settlement of Glenorchy in Otago, where its eerie setting captured audiences around the world, the sixpart series two has moved across the Tasman to Sydney.
“It was really fun to do those first six hours in that particular part of New Zealand and share that with the world, and I think in general the world just loved it,” says Jane. “But there is another kind of beauty and intrigue about Sydney too – it’s a big city with an ocean fringe, which is a wilderness as well. It has a darker inner life and is also an Asian city, which many people don’t credit.”
Jane says despite her love for the Australian capital, where she has lived part-time for 20 years, Glenorchy is home too. “I live there half the time – or in my imagination I do. I have two homes there, one is a guest house.”
“The other one is hidden away – you couldn’t find it in a month of Sundays,” says Gerard.
“I love it there,” Jane continues.
“It makes me feel like no matter what happens I am happy in this neck of the woods. You can relax deeply there.
I have been going there for 20 years. Alice loves it too; the other house I’ve built is for her.”
In Top of the Lake: China Girl, Detective Robin Griffin once again faces a sea of misogyny within the police force and is fighting to find the killer of another vulnerable woman. But despite having the same lead character, the second series is a standalone offering with brand new themes emerging.
“We wanted to tell a new story,” says Gerard. “After series one, we said we wouldn’t do another series, we wouldn’t sell out and make a franchise of it. We’ve stuck to that – this is just a new story with the same detective. We don’t want to give too much away but there is a strong theme of motherhood and the different ways that is played out.”
The series, which will debut here in August on UKTV, dives deep into Sydney’s underbelly and into the sex industry and raises questions about the control women have over their own bodies. “Mostly it is a very deeply maternal theme and is about women and reproductive rights – a journey that is so deep and important for women,” says Jane. “In the world, that is not very explored because guys don’t think it is a very sexy subject, a bit like women’s version of going to war. Guys don’t like it because it is when women don’t want to have sex with them any more.”
Jane, who found getting pregnant difficult, and whose son Jasper died at just 12 days old, shortly after
The Piano won at Cannes, says the theme is deeply familiar to her. “I was someone who had a lot of trouble getting pregnant and it is such a tough, sad time – it is about love and loss.”
The boundary-pushing director says television is the perfect medium for thought-provoking storytelling. “The audience for television is a lot more risk taking, they are pretty smart and discerning. I think you are more comfortable in your own home seeing material that is wilder because you can turn the sound down, you can stop halfway through.”
Elisabeth Moss, who is also the lead in the haunting new television series The Handmaid’s Tale (screening on Lightbox), requested that her part in China Girl be even more challenging than in the first series.
“She wanted to have challenges that would keep her really interested,” says Jane. “She said: ‘I want you to make it really difficult for me,’ and I remember Gerard and I saying, ‘Jesus, what do we have to do to her? Should we get her kidnapped, get a limb taken off – what should we do?’
“I am so amazed by her. She has these wonderful deep notes. I just adore watching her – I’ve seen it so many times and when I feel those deep rivers rising in her, it makes me emotional.”
It’s clear that Jane will continue to write challenging roles for women and to tell their stories and is keenly supportive of giving other women a leg up. When Sofia Coppola won the award for best director at Cannes this year, she thanked Jane Campion for “being a role model and supporting women film-makers”.
Asked how to get more women’s stories on screens, Jane doesn’t miss a beat.
“If you are really serious about changing the quota of women acting and directing, wherever there is public money – taxpayers’ money – they should distribute it equally, like 50 per cent to women.
Just like that! Pay women and men equally. Then I think you will find after five years of that reorientation, women will get the confidence that it is really happening in this area.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Jane and her co-writer Gerard Lee. With Nicole Kidman at Cannes this year. The film-maker and her actress daughter, Top of the Lake star Alice Englert. OPPOSITE: Jane and crew at work.
OPPOSITE: A Top of the Lake line-up at Cannes this year, from left: Nicole Kidman, Elisabeth Moss, Jane Campion and English actress Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), who plays Detective Robin Griffin’s crime-solving partner.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Jane and a young Anna Paquin at work on the 1993 film The Piano. Kissing her Best Screenplay Academy Award for The Piano. Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie and (bottom) Nicole Kidman in Top of the Lake: China Girl.