Writer-director Jane Campion reflects on 25 years of award-winning erotic drama The Piano
Jane Campion hits the right notes.
THE PIANO HAD all the hallmarks of a fever dream. A virtuoso drama from a thirtysomething female filmmaker who had only made two fairly modest features before. The setting: 19th-century New Zealand. The story: a mute mother (Holly Hunter as Ada) and her young, precocious daughter (Anna Paquin as Flora) in a fight against patriarchy during a time of arranged marriage and intense sexual repression. The Piano won the Palme d’or and three Oscars and made Jane Campion one of the most significant female directors overnight. Twenty-five years later, Campion revisits the film that changed everything, professionally and personally.
What inspired you to write The Piano?
I was obsessed by George Eliot and the Brontë sisters — particularly Emily Brontë. So many women were grateful for her wild spirit that spoke to us of a kind of fury and female we had inside ourselves. Of not being seen and understood for the whole people we were; only being seen through the lens of how men would prefer to see you.
So did you start with the character of Ada?
Well, the idea was a love triangle. And actually, it was more than a triangle because it was Ada, the piano, her husband and Baines. And it was them discovering their sexuality, because it’s so repressed in this land. I always felt there’s a real power when people first discover the draw of sexuality. It’s a wonderful feeling of your body talking to you in ways you just didn’t know it could.
How long until you had a finished screenplay?
I started off and had a five-page outline. I really felt that I could do the story, but didn’t feel I could do it right then. I needed to grow and get more experience as a director. So I did Sweetie and Angel At My Table first.
When did producer Jan Chapman come on board?
Very early on — I showed her the outline. She’s an extraordinary person; she’s actually fearless. And yet extremely feminine. And she knows how to... well, I would never, ever have tried to play on guys’ egos to get them to do anything for me. She was quite happy to do that. I really love her desperately because she knows how to take the ride with you. She really enters into the whole dream and drama.
What about finding Holly Hunter? In your screenplay Ada was tall and dark.
She was. Janet Patterson was the costume designer and a very dear friend — she died a couple years ago, which just crushed us — but Janet was one of the most beautiful looking women I’ve ever seen, and also really strong. The most beautiful face, 5’ 10” tall, and I always thought, “She’s my model for Ada.” And then I heard from Holly’s agent and I went, “Oh, she’s a wonderful actor but you know, 5’ 2-something. Her agent was very persistent — Holly read the voiceover and handed me a tape saying, “This is my piano playing. I’ve been playing for a number of years.”
It was immediately obvious that she communicated with the eyes. And if you weren’t going to be speaking, you needed that. And even though she may not be conventionally the most beautiful of the women we met, her particular kind of beauty really drew you to watch her. And also she is a very fucking badass woman.
How did your collaboration with Michael Nyman work on the score? He’s said that you essentially locked him in a hotel room and wouldn’t let him out until he finished.
As if I would. As if I could! [Laughs]
But you definitely pushed him in a different direction to what he’d done before.
I think I did. Michael’s just completely the easiest person to get on with on the
planet and a genius, but doesn’t act like that. I didn’t want to disrupt him, but the one thing I did — and what he’s probably referring to — is when he said, “I’m going to get some Scottish music and old tunes and work from there. What do you think?” I thought, “That sounds fantastic!” And then said, “Can you not do it like you do with Peter Greenaway’s music with those strong chords?” And he went, “But that’s me. That’s what I do!” And I said, “Well, do you think you could be you another way?”
The visual palette did so much heavy-lifting. Was it a similar approach with DP Stuart Dryburgh? Yeah. Well, Stu and I had worked together on Angel At My Table — and previous to that, he’d not done any drama. When I looked at his commercials, I thought that he had real style. I thought I’d take the risk. You mentioned Janet — costume and specifically underwear is so key to the storytelling.
I loved all of that. Janet pointed out to me that the underwear they wore wasn’t actually joined up under the crotch. So that’s kind of sexy as well. So many layers and underneath all of that they’re completely bare.
And how it plays into the articulation of desire — there’s the famous scene with just a square of flesh showing.
I believe desire and sexuality is all about attention. And very focused attention. And the quality of their attention. Harvey [Keitel] is really good at that.
Can you talk about casting the men?
I was forensically trying to work out which men might want to do a project like mine because what great or interesting actors would possibly work with me? [Laughs] U
Because actually it can be hard to get male actors that you really want to do projects like this and not lead.
And to make themselves vulnerable, presumably.
I think so, too. Harvey actually really enjoys that shock, being vulnerable. He really had a sense for it. I think, where he was in his life… He’d just broken up with his wife and was pretty cut up. I met him in Los Angeles — and I’m a New Zealand person and we don’t show emotions — and we were at the table with Harvey and he was actually crying. And I remember him saying to us, “I want to do your project but I don’t know if you want me.” I had actors to see, that I’d arranged to talk to, but I just remember feeling, “Oh my God, here’s Harvey saying he wants to do it.” But then when I was meeting actors in New York, I called one of them Harvey and I went, “That’s a sign.”
For them too, probably!
Yeah. I rang Harvey and said, “I would really like you to play this part, but you’re so experienced and I’m a young director, so how are we going to work together because I still want to be in charge of the vision?” And he said, “What about you let me show you my ideas and give me my opportunity and then if you’ve got some other idea outside of that, I promise I’ll give it every effort.” And he was honourable to that.
How did you find Anna Paquin?
It’s such a demanding role for a young actor. Anna came in with her sister — the tapes came back and Diana [Rowan, casting agent] said, “There’s someone I think is really special. I’m not going to tell you who it is, just watch.” I was like, “Great,” because I had been thinking that I was going to have to change the script and make it easier. I didn’t know if any of the girls were going to be able to do a Scottish accent and [handle] these complicated ideas and all of the fabulating that the character of Flora did. But here was this tiny little girl, so beautiful-looking, such strong focus, telling this story and it was perfect. Just like that. I didn’t direct her at all.
What do you remember about Cannes? The Cannes thing is better in retrospect [laughs]. It’s so complicated and full on. If something’s too emotionally charged, I tend to switch off. So I certainly did then and just sort of walked through it. Plus, I was heavily pregnant at the time and I had the tragedy of losing that baby shortly afterwards. The baby was born, Jasper, and he only lived shorter than a day so it was, naturally, the best and worst time of my life. I was also 40, so I wasn’t thinking I’d ever be able to have another baby. So it was terrible to me. Just making a film and having a baby that dies, it’s just two extraordinarily different things. I would have given anything to have that baby and not the film, you know? At the time or any time. Here
I am as a woman really up against it — it’s so difficult, with our biological clocks
and the different things we want to have in our lives, both family and work. Now I’d say it was a really, really difficult, painful thing but I do feel like it changed me, and in the best possible way. I feel like after I had that experience, I understood suffering, I really did. It makes you part of a very special side of humanity, those people who really understand what pain is. It’s something I hold very dear to me now. I was so lucky, in that six months later I was pregnant and had my daughter Alice. I realised after I came out of the fog of being completely devastated by grief, that my life had changed, as a filmmaker. Winning the Palme d’or was a game changer, then winning the three Oscars, also extraordinary. Twenty-five years on, the film must hold a complex set of emotions for you. Yes. Recently, for the 25th anniversary release, I was shocked to see a film I barely remembered. It still had some surprising strength and freshness. It was the things I took for granted at the time — telling the story from a female point of view, which was so amazing but is so rare. Especially from an eroticised female point of view on the subject of female desire.
Coercion is a major part of relationships in the film — how does that theme play out in 2018?
I don’t think you can bring 2018 standards to 1850, you know? I think it’s more of an exploration of desire from a female point of view in that context.
And Ada getting to a place where she can express that desire?
Yes, I mean, that’s quite modern. And because there are still so few people telling stories from a female point of view, it did make me think, “God, we really do see the world from a patriarchal point of view.” That at least The Piano doesn’t do that. I think that’s the context that’s interesting for it in 2018 — that it really confronts the patriarchy with itself.
On the ending — you once said you regretted not letting Ada drown… Yeah, I don’t know now. Having looked at it again, I feel like I’m pleased she’s alive.
Why did you decide to end it that way? She had that stubbornness that was so powerful, I think she’d die for it, really. But I wanted her to get to a place where she was almost dead and then be like, “I can let this go. I don’t have to be defined by not speaking. I can change it. I’d rather have life.”
the piano Is out now on dvd, blu-ray and download
Clockwise from main: Ada (Holly Hunter), her piano and daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) arrive on the shores of their new home in New Zealand; Ada watches her daughter in a play alongside new husband Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill); Director Jane Campion on location with Anna Paquin; Maori sympathiser George Baines (Harvey Keitel).
A key moment: Baines gets intimate with Ada.
Clockwise from top left:A grumpy Flora watches her mother Ada prepare for her wedding photograph; Baines makes his desires known to Ada while she plays; And discovers a hole in Ada’s stockings; Ada’s new metal finger, made for her by Baines, enables her to continue playing; Ada’s husband Stewart makes himself respectable.