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Jane Campion’s Emotional Landscapes

The iconic New Zealand director talks about her award-winning career film career, working in and watching prestige TV, dealing with failure, the Nicole Kidman renaissance, and her new show, ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

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“Over time, I have realized that it’s quite simple: Just keep going until I can’t,” Jane Campion says over a mid-morning plate of blueberry pancakes, reflecting on her long, varied, and intractably independent career as a filmmaker.

“Until there’s no financing or money or nobody want me to do anything. There’s always the next one—until I go tits up in a ditch.” At that, one of the many colorful phrases that dot our conversation, she lets out an uproarious cackle.

We are eating breakfast in the second-floor restaurant of the Tribeca hotel where Campion, 63, is staying while in town for a career retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The night before she’d also presided over the U.S. premiere of her acclaimed series Top of the Lake: China Girl. She’s jet-lagged and underslept, but pancakes and a cappuccino are lifting her spirits. (As is the memory of meeting Patti Smith at the premiere the night before: “A complete heroine. What a beautiful creature. I didn’t care about anything else, I just wanted to go talk to Patti!”) Campion wears a quietly stylish long-sleeved black frock and black-framed glasses. Her signature long, silvery hair is pulled into a bun, exposing small gold hoops that jangle when she laughs—which is often. Over the course of our conversation, she is bitingly candid about the industry that has, at various points, heralded and criticized her unapologetically feminine point of view. Her experiences at the Cannes Film Festival alone indicate the roller coaster ride that’s been her decades-spanning career: She’s been awarded the Palme d’Or twice (once in the short film category and once for her singular 1993 feature film The Piano; she is still, in the latter category, the only female director ever to win the prize), and her 1989 film Sweetie was booed so vehemently that she spent much of that year’s festival crying in bed.

These days, though, she thinks her reputation is on an upswing. “The atmosphere has changed again,” she tells me, with a sort of bemused detachment about the whims of public opinion. “I really feel like I’ve reached this new sort of Granny level. Don’t be really rude to Granny, you know?” She laughs; her earrings dance. “The system is like, this is respect for your longevity in the industry. I feel that.”

This is largely due to Top of the Lake, which many critics (and more importantly, Campion herself) believe to be some of her strongest work to date. The show debuted in 2013, and although it’s already aired early this year on the BBC Two, American viewers will finally get to see the six-part second season this week on SundanceTV. (Each episode will also be streaming on Hulu the day after its premiere.) Set in Queenstown, New Zealand (and making gorgeous use of its wild landscapes), the first season of TOTL followed troubled detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) as she searched for a pregnant 12-year-old girl who’d gone missing and processed the aftermath of her own traumatizing sexual assault. It might not sound like a crowd-pleaser on paper, but it was something of a cult smash: Moss won a Golden Globe for her performance, and SundanceTV says it drew the highest ratings in the channel’s history among adults 18–49.

“The people that loved it loved it,” Campion says, still sounding pleasantly surprised. “And you know, it’s kind of out there. And to be able to write so openly into the heart of whatever thing you want to and to have an audience keen to listen, it’s such a great privilege.”

When Campion released TOTL in 2013, she was among the first in a wave of high-profile filmmakers to turn her attention to what we used to call “the small screen.” The second season will premiere in a moment—from David Lynch’s much-discussed Twin Peaks: The Return to the Coen Brothers’ recent deal with Netflix—where that sort of career move is almost de rigueur. But Campion has been at the forefront of the so-called prestige-TV revolution for much longer than many people realize. In 1990 (the same year that Lynch’s first season of Twin Peaks premiered), Campion directed the three-part series An Angel at My Table, a lyrical story about the life of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. Though it initially aired in sequential episodes, it’s now usually screened as a single “feature” and largely considered one of her greatest achievements.

Campion is enlivened by the sudden TV renaissance. “There’s an intelligent audience for television [right now] that is robust,” she says, “who do not get spooked easily and who enjoy this stuff. They can take it. And they’re smart.”

Relocated to the more metropolitan backdrop of Sydney, Top of the Lake: China Girl features a plotline centered around a brothel, a rather unsparing look at commercial surrogacy, and some high-profile additions to the supporting cast, including Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie and Campion’s longtime friend Nicole Kidman. “She’s unafraid to [play] this ridiculous woman,” she says admiringly of Kidman, who also starred in Campion’s 1996 adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady. “Sort of bossy, dominating, entitled—you know, an old-fashioned glamour-pot feminist with a fire in her eye.” (When I ask her how she’s observed Kidman grow as an actor over the years, Campion deadpans, “Well, she’s always been tall.”) Campion’s sensibility—which casts an unflinching gaze at, among other things, the physical realities of pregnancy, female eroticism, and postcolonial racial dynamics—has, in the past, had a tendency to ruffle some feathers. And China Girl is, in many ways, even more provocative than its well-received predecessor.

There is a dry, curious twinkle in her eye when she asks me, days before the show’s stateside release, “How are the Americans going to manage it?”

Jane Campion grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, the middle child of a theater director (her father Richard) and actor (her mother Edith). Theater and literature animated her youth: She was obsessed not only with Janet Frame’s work but also Emily Brontë’s evocative descriptions of moors and Henry James’s self-assured heroines. “I felt so much like [The Portrait of a Lady’s] Isabel [Archer] as a young woman,” she recalled in a 1993 New York Times Magazine profile, speaking of the book she would adapt for the screen three years later, “a sense of having extraordinary potential without knowing what the hell to do with it.”

So she stayed in school as long as she could. Campion did her undergraduate studies in anthropology, but it wasn’t until she went to London to study painting that her path began to unfold before her. “I would go to art school and draw and I couldn’t wait to get home and gossip about the intricacies of relationships and so on,” she’s said. “Then I thought, ‘Why am I not doing my work about these things?’… After that, I decided I wanted to do work about things I was thinking about and involved in, which were generally relationships and love … and sex!”

When she was 25, she was accepted into the prestigious, government-funded Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. She started making low-budget shorts that fearlessly explored sexual taboos: Tissues, her first 8mm film, was about a father accused of child molestation. In her later, more polished short, A Girl’s Own Story (1984), a brother impregnates his younger sister while they are experimenting with sex. (A 14-year-old Aussie actress named Nicole Kidman was considered for a part in that film, but had to drop out using school exams as an excuse.) Radically forthright in its exploration of adolescent female sexuality, A Girl’s Own Story screened at Cannes in 1986 alongside several of Campion’s shorts. But it was An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, a nine-minute meditation on family and discipline that she made while still in film school, which took home the Palme d’Or for best short film. After her win, Campion remembers festival president Gilles Jacob telling a chairman of the Australian Film Commission, “You must give her lots of money so she’ll be in competition with a feature film in two years.”

It took one more year than Jacob predicted, but Sweetie fulfilled that promise. Campion says she still considers her 1989 debut feature “one of my favorites of all my movies, because it was sort of made with an innocent brain, before I knew anything.” Sweetie is a surreal, colorful story of two sisters: the reserved Kay and the disruptive, mentally unstable Sweetie (played explosively by Geneviève Lemon, who’d go on to become one of Campion’s most frequent collaborators—in Top of the Lake she’s Bunny, a compulsive woman who pays men to have sex with her for exactly seven minutes). Although Sweetie has gone on to become a cult classic, Campion was dismayed to find that at Cannes, it was not received nearly as warmly as her shorts. People walked out of the press screening, and some of those who stayed did so to boo. Interviewers, she remembers, called the film “disgusting” and “filthy” to her face. “I’m just sitting there like, I’m not going to show them how upset I am,” she says.

“Many times during my career I’ve thought I’m not going to make another movie,” Campion says, not just of Sweetie but of more recent setbacks, too. “It’s too hard. I’m not made to handle this degree of rejection.”

Now, at least, she has a body of work to fall back on, but the reception of Sweetie at Cannes particularly devastated her—and almost made her abandon her career before it really began. “The only reason I went on at that point was I was already in production on An Angel at My Table,” she says, “so I had to go back and do the job. Doing a project [that] long taught me how to be a filmmaker, because I just couldn’t be nervous for that long. I had to enjoy myself on set, so I learned how.” Angel, that deeply felt adaptation of Janet Frame’s three-part autobiography, allowed her to animate the spirit of one of her longtime literary heroes. It was also the first time Jane Campion’s creativity was enlivened by the wide-open canvas of TV.

Campion has been “on holiday” for the past few months, which means she’s been catching up on shows. When I ask her what she’s enjoyed lately, she takes a sip of cappuccino and then excitedly regales me with her list.

“I saw Big Little Lies,” she says, later informing me that part of the reason Reese Witherspoon and Kidman got involved with the hit HBO series at all was because they were fans of Top of the Lake. “I loved it! It’s like the best caffe latte you’ve ever had. It’s really gorgeous, fun, beautifully shot. The Night Of, that was good. I love a lot of doc-o’s”—a charming New Zealand-ism—“like Made in America. That was phenomenal. And Lizzie’s series [The Handmaid’s Tale], I think that’s got some gravitas and balls. Oh, and The Crown! It’s fucking genius!”

She’s not a fan of all the TV she’s seen recently. “I really didn’t like Westworld,” Campion says. “It was an interesting idea, I just didn’t think the drama was good enough, the performances … it just couldn’t hold my attention.” I tell her that I also had trouble connecting emotionally with the show.

“Yeah,” she says, much less democratic about it. “Because it wasn’t very good!” Again, she bursts out laughing.

If Campion sounds like an exacting viewer, it’s because she’s always had high standards for television, even when it wasn’t fashionable. Decades earlier, she had conceived of An Angel at My Table for TV from the get-go because she “felt that this was a project that had an unreasonable length to it.” But if she was going to do it for TV, she wanted to do it artfully—which was a radical idea at the time. “People have an abominable attitude towards the television audience,” she said in a 1990 interview with Cinema Papers. “They think they’re total cretins. My argument is that every human being is really struggling with the big questions, such as, ‘Why am I here in my life?’ And while a lot of us go sleepy on it, that’s the way I want to address people.” She added, “If you only do it as ‘good enough for television,’ you can be sure that’s all you’ll get from it. I didn’t behave with An Angel at My Table like that; I was just trying to honor the books, which I love. I brought as much quality to them as I could.”

More than 20 years later, she approached Top of the Lake with a similar attitude, bringing such a panoramic, cinematic eye to the story that some were unsure how to classify it. Was it television? If it’s directed by Jane Campion, should it be exhibited and critiqued as a film? (She co-wrote the show with Gerard Lee, a collaborator since her film school days, and split directing duties in the first season with Garth Davis.) To further muddle the categorization, in January 2013, the entire, seven-hour series was screened sequentially at the Sundance Film Festival. Vulture reported that it was the first time in the festival’s history that a miniseries had been screened as a “cinematic event.” There was a lunch break and a brief intermission, during which there was an understandably long bathroom line. Campion joked gamely with the audience that their “I Made It Through Top of the Lake at Sundance” badges would be waiting for them on the way out.

Once it was accessible to a larger audience, Top of the Lake became a critical and commercial hit, setting the aforementioned ratings records for SundanceTV, and also finding a long, word-of-mouth-sparked afterlife on streaming services. Though she’d initially only thought of Season 2 as a “joke” (she and Moss riffed on Robin’s future one evening while waiting for Japanese takeout), Campion suddenly began to take the idea more seriously when she realized it would have an audience. When did she really start to think of Top of the Lake’s second season could be a reality? She answers, pragmatically, “When it was successful!”

“A nomination verifies every writer’s deeply held opinion of himself: Damn, I’m good,” Jeremey Irons said, to mild laughter, at the 1994 Academy Awards. The writer to whom he then presented the Best Original Screenplay Oscar was not a “himself” at all, but 39-year-old Jane Campion, dressed in an oversized suit jacket and black-and-white-striped trousers.

“I used to feel deeply cynical about award nights like this,” she laughed to the awkward and perhaps slightly offended silence of the Academy. “But tonight I’m really overwhelmed! In fact, I’ve been close to tears a few times.”

If American viewers hadn’t heard of The Piano heading into the night, they were certainly aware of it by the end of the ceremony. Though she lost Best Director that night to Steven Spielberg (after Lina Wertmüller, who is one of her heroes, she was only the second woman ever nominated for the award), Campion directed two cast members to acting awards. Holly Hunter won Best Actress for a searing portrayal of the mute pianist Ada, and an 11-year-old Anna Paquin stole the show when she became the second youngest person ever to win an Oscar, taking home Best Supporting Actress for her astonishingly precocious turn as Ada’s daughter.

The Piano is a work of rare tenderness, romanticism, and invention; it’s also the only of Campion’s original screenplays that she wrote entirely alone. She had the idea for the story—which follows the mute pianist through a loveless arranged marriage and an affair with a neighbor that unlocks her long-repressed sexuality—way back in film school. She didn’t rush to film it, though, because she wanted to wait until she could be given a budget that would “do justice to the scenery.”

The well-received An Angel at My Table finally gave her access to just that, and enough confidence to cast actors like Hunter, Sam Neill, and most surprisingly, Hollywood tough guy Harvey Keitel. Much has been made of Campion’s penchant for writing “strong women,” but she has also given some male actors a chance to explore a masculine vulnerability that’s very rare in Hollywood scripts. “He’s a timid and attentive man,” Campion later marveled of Keitel, “far from the macho and brutal figure in his films! … [With] what was going on in his life at that time, he wanted to act in a film that spoke of the relationship between men and women, rather than a story of cops and robbers. He had not often been given the opportunity to express certain qualities of tenderness he possesses.”

The Piano’s widespread success straddled different worlds: It not only won top prizes at Cannes, but Miramax gave it a wide release in the States, where it would go on to gross $40 million domestically. In the years since The Piano, American audiences and critics became much more fickle about Campion’s work. Her follow-ups, 1996’s daringly stylish The Portrait of a Lady and 1999’s spiritual-questing satire Holy Smoke were received indifferently, and grossed only $3.7 million and $1.8 million in the U.S., respectively. But it was her 2003 erotic thriller In the Cut (starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo) that essentially ended Campion’s run with A-list Hollywood, and earned her the most scathing reviews of her career.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called the film, which follows a school teacher’s affair with a detective as they both search for a serial killer who is gruesomely murdering unmarried women, “a mess.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a rare F grade. Ty Burr, then the Boston Globe critic, remarked, “It’s been a while since a major filmmaker has made a movie this heavy with symbolism, this portentous, and this bad.”

In retrospect, this criticism seems overblown. In the Cut might not be Campion’s strongest film, but it’s oddly hypnotic, and in recent years it’s inspired quite a bit of revisionist attention, especially within feminist film-theory circles and younger audiences who are perhaps more attuned to inquiries about female sexuality. (She recently spoke at a sold-out screening of the film organized by some younger fans in the U.K.)

Campion stands by the film, but in retrospect she can identify a few of the cultural forces working against it. “Meg Ryan was America’s sweetheart,” she says, “and this was just a slap in the face, to see her in a film being a woman like this, who didn’t seem to care what people thought about her.” But there was another problem, too. “The first ring of reviewers in America are always men,” Campion says. “It’s this sort of mountain of corduroy you have to get through. And they’re not all that secure, so to see women talking about them rudely, well, it might as well be them. What are the corduroy wall going to think? However you want to describe it, there is a wall of American male reviewers that set the tone.”

I tell Campion that one of the most striking things about watching In the Cut now is how similar some of its themes are to Top of the Lake. But there was a vast difference in how American audiences reacted to those two works. She does not mince words as she tells me she believes that American critics and viewers are now more receptive to challenging work on television than they are in movies. “Somehow the cinema reviewers are a lot more pussy, I think, about content,” she says. “It’s not that I show extreme violence, it’s not my thing. But there’s a sort of feeling that a cinema experience has to be pleasant or attractive in a way that’s very off-putting for creatives.” Perhaps perceiving that these are just the kind of reviewers to accuse her of bitterness, she shrugs and laughs it off in the end. “Either In the Cut’s just not really a very good movie and got what it deserved,” she says. “Or it got mishandled and roughly dealt with.”

Still, its rocky reception had its upside: It allowed her to spend more time with her young daughter, Alice. “I was intending to take some time off,” she says. “In the Cut made it really easy, because I thought, nobody will be calling me up wanting to do anything!” And yet, in some sense, she was surprised to find that failure had made her even more popular than she was during The Piano era. “Actually, people really hate you when you’re successful,” she laughs. “So many people are not successful in the film industry and they hate the others who are, and they’re jealous and they think it’s unreasonable. So when you’re a failure, they’re much more friendly! You’re one of us now. And the ‘us’ is a lot bigger.”

Over the next few years, Campion “took some space.” She made a few short films, including the meditative The Water Diary, which was also 12-year-old Alice’s screen debut. Still, she was itching to do longer work. “I’d make short films, and everybody would go, ‘Hey, you did something! That’s great!’” she laughs. “They never review them, but basically they’re just so excited for you that you managed to make something.” Top of the Lake’s length and span make more sense when you consider the relatively dormant decade before it. Campion was making up for lost time.

One of the odd things about watching Top of the Lake: China Girl as an American is that it takes place in a country where prostitution is legal but commercial surrogacy is not. As such, the group of MRA-esque characters who meet in a café to share their recent encounters with prostitutes and update their brothel-rating blogs might strike some American viewers as cartoonish. Campion assures me, quite dispiritingly, that their stories are coming directly from her field notes, sometimes almost verbatim.

“Those disgusting dudes, they were researched,” she tells me. “Brothels are legal in Australia, and so these guys have created sites where they review them, in graphic detail. It’s beyond the imagination, how dehumanizing. It’s disgusting and hilarious to me. They want to make sure they and their buddies get their 80 bucks worth, or whatever.”

Another aspect that might be lost on some American viewers is the connection between Asian and Australian culture. (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia are all relatively close to the continent.) “One of the reasons I wanted to do the story [was] because I really did want to know what was going on in the sex work world in Sydney,” she tells me. “Especially in Asian brothels. And the idealization of the Asian girl is so big in the Australian male psyche. It’s such a myth, so unreal. They’re tough ladies! Not so submissive.”

Campion and her crew talked to many Asian sex workers in Sydney while she was writing. She says the experience made her believe that sex work should be legal in other countries, too. “It’s the best way to protect the women,” she says. “I know there are some debates out, but that’s what the working girls [in Australia] say is overwhelmingly best for them. A lot of them like their jobs! People say to them, ‘You’re selling your body.’ And they say, ‘I’m not selling my body, I’m selling a sex service.’”

More than anything, though, China Girl is a meditation on motherhood. It follows Moss’s Robin Griffin back to her precinct in Sydney, where she is searching not only for the killer of a murdered prostitute but also the daughter she gave up for adoption after she was gang-raped as a teenager. That daughter turns out to be Mary, a lively, strong-willed 17-year-old played by none other than Campion’s own daughter, Alice Englert. (If only all nepotism were this fruitful: Englert is genuinely terrific, the breakout star of the season.)

Nicole Kidman—and a slightly ridiculous set of fake teeth—also steals scenes as Mary’s adoptive mother, a second-wave feminist academic who studied under Germaine Greer and is living through a somewhat comically played mid-life crisis, having left her husband for a woman. Campion calls the actress “Nic”; they’ve been friends and collaborators for decades, and the filmmaker is visibly delighted that Kidman is currently having something of a renaissance herself. “She’s in a high spot in her life, I think,” Campion says, “in the ways she’s opened up herself and tuned her instrument. She really does have that humility and courage, and her longevity in the industry is for those reasons.”

This past May, at Cannes, debates about the eroding differences between television and movies reached a fever pitch. Audiences booed Netflix-funded films like Okja; jury members clashed over whether works made for television should even be eligible for top prizes. “I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen,” jury member Pedro Almodóvar declared, provoking controversy. Jane Campion seemed years beyond these arguments. All six hours of Top of the Lake: China Girl was screened at Cannes out of competition but to a clamoring and packed house. “Is it a movie? Is it a TV show?” IndieWire’s critic mused in a five-star review from the festival. “Whatever you call it, Jane Campion’s latest is as beautiful and soul-stirring as anything you’ll see this year.”

Even though Top of the Lake: China Girl will air over three consecutive nights, Campion herself is an advocate of the binge watch. Part of the reason she’s promoting the series is to cajole exhibitors to host six-hour screenings. “I think that’s one of the most amazing ways to see it, in a group. One long day.” She describes the scene at the Cannes screening to me as “absolutely a scrum.” It was shown in one of the smaller theaters, so there were long lines of people trying to get in. “Then what happened was that when people had to go to the toilet, other people just came and grabbed their seats,” she recalls with delight. “They couldn’t get back in!” When the audience began to get hungry, Campion’s crew went out and bought big bags of Mars bars that they then passed around. “The place was just like 300 teenagers going crazy,” she says.

Campion’s next project is rumored to be a feature-length adaptation of Rachel Kushner’s acclaimed novel The Flamethrowers, but she doesn’t want to talk at all about future work while she’s still on holiday. As she continues to promote what will probably be her most widely seen work since The Piano, she’s enjoying herself. Campion has worked long enough to know that public opinion doesn’t always align so well with her private enthusiasms. Success has never made her tailor her vision to the masses, though, and it’s unlikely she’ll change course now. She recalls the gestation of 2009’s Bright Star, the gorgeous John Keats/Fanny Brawne biopic that got her back on her feet after In the Cut. “It was like, ‘Fuck, I’ve fallen in love with… poetry. People hate poetry. But, I had to do it.”

She takes another sip of cappuccino. Caffeine can only do so much; luckily there are more ethereal powers sustaining her. “In terms of maintaining a career,” Campion says, “what I’m driven and inspired to do is all about love. It’s all about falling for stories that feel like they can stimulate parts of me that I have within myself. And that’s pretty exciting. It gives me energy.”

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