Writers & Company

From The Piano to Bright Star, Jane Campion's films are original, sensual and daring

In this 2009 interview, the celebrated New Zealand screenwriter, producer and director spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about the power of reclaiming gender identity through cinema.

Campion's new movie, The Power of the Dog, marks her return to feature film-making after a long hiatus

Jane Campion is a New Zealand director, producer and screenwriter. (Alberto Pizzolia/AFP via Getty Images)

This interview was originally broadcast in 2009.

One of contemporary cinema's most celebrated filmmakers, New Zealander Jane Campion, creates indelible portraits of women — from her country's revered writer Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, to Ada, the mute Scotswoman played by Holly Hunter in The Piano, to Nicole Kidman's performance as Isabel Archer in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady.

Campion's latest film, The Power of the Dog, marks her highly anticipated return to filmmaking following a long hiatus. After her feature film, Bright Star, came out in 2009, Campion stepped away from making features, expressing disillusionment with the industry. 

The Power of the Dog, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. This October, she will become the first woman director to receive France's Lumiere Award, dubbed the "Nobel Prize in cinema."

In 1993, Campion became the first female director to win the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes for her breakthrough film The Piano, which also earned her an Academy Award for best screenplay. 

Campion's other notable films include Sweetie, Holy Smoke, In the Cut and Bright Star, about the relationship between the 19th century Romantic poet John Keats and his young neighbour, Fanny Brawne. She also created, co-wrote and directed the TV series Top of the Lake, starring Elizabeth Moss. 

Campion spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2009 when her film Bright Star was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here is some of what Campion had to say.

A woman's place in the world

"The idea for The Piano came from many different sources. One of the most powerful things for me was a love of the New Zealand landscape and the love of the Bronte sisters' novels. I felt a real kinship with the Bronte sisters, their moors and Wuthering Heights, which is a book I've always loved. It's a gothic romantic story, which I think The Piano is as well, but recreated on the other end of the earth with a different landscape. 

"The character of Ada is a great gothic heroine. In my story of her, she had a child out of wedlock and that made her a pariah in English society. The only hope for her was to be married off in the colonies. Her not speaking was the protest against the society she came from — a kind of not wanting to have anything to do with it, and to live in a private world of her own invention. 

The character of Ada is a great gothic heroine.

"That's a straightforward metaphor for women's place in the world. Women live in a world where the power is owned by men — and their fates and choices are decided by men.

"But at the same time, women have a mystery and a fascination which cannot be quite tamed or owned."

English poet John Keats was prominent in the second generation of Romantic poets along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Caring about Keats

"In Bright Star, Fanny Brawne and John Keats quite clearly teased each other a lot to begin with. Fanny had no interest in his poetry. She preferred trumpery novels, and she preferred Lord Byron as a poet. 

"My fantasy is that she felt for Keats' honesty — someone who speaks to you almost ruthlessly is very exciting. People get the sense of Keats, probably very unfairly, as being sort of sweet. He was not sweet. He was very straight speaking — and he hated romance. 

My fantasy is that she felt for Keats' honesty — someone who speaks to you almost ruthlessly is very exciting.

"He sometimes said he felt like laughing out loud when his friends would extol the virtues of their girlfriends, who seemed to him to have no virtues whatsoever. And then of course he fell for Fanny, very hard, and had to deal with all the illogical affections of the heart."

Poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw, left) and neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) fall in love in Jane Campion's Bright Star. (ATV Films)

The consuming monomania of art

"Art saved my life. When I first discovered filmmaking, it was a way of being free. Through the voice of my characters and the stories I told, I felt I could be wild in a way I didn't feel I could be in the world. 

"I had previously found a narrow identity for myself as a personality. In a way, my work has liberated me. I could do without it now — I don't really have to do it — but I feel it's a joy.

Art saved my life. When I first discovered filmmaking, it was a way of being free.

 

"I'm free enough now to just be, but it really did save me and give me my life as a young person."

Jane Campion's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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