Writer-di­rec­tor Jane Cam­pion re­flects on 25 years of award-win­ning erotic drama The Piano

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - Terri WHITE

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.

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