Can’t wait till cable’s titillating Sunday primetime? Run out of things to stream on Netflix? Not if you haven’t torn through BBC miniseries Top of the Lake yet. And don’t get turned off by the news that it’s about a detective pushed to her breaking point in investigating a mysterious crime that tears a small, rural community apart—I made it exactly one episode into The Killing before ditching that borefest, so this show must have done something right.
In a world full of Law and Orders and CSIs, the story of a pregnant twelve-year-old’s disappearance and the female detective obsessed with finding her isn’t a particularly shocking premise. What is surprising about Top of the Lake, a seven-part miniseries that premiered on Sundance Channel on Sunday evening, is the woman behind the project: Jane Campion, who is best known for films like The Piano, for which she received an Oscar for Best Screenplay and a nomination for Best Director. Campion, who co-wrote the series with longtime collaborator Gerald Lee, brings the mystical vibes of her native New Zealand to the West, and along for the ride are American actors Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter.
I spoke with Campion over the phone recently about her process as a director and how working in an unfamiliar medium allowed her room to explore a longer, full story.
What drew you to the medium of television to tell a story rather than a feature film?
It’s pretty simple: time and space. I think the current situation… I wanted to tell a story that would take about six hours, and I wanted the space to develop those characters and have longer scenes. The novel is probably my favorite form [of storytelling], and the idea of a six-hours series is as close to a novel as I can imagine. I also think there’s a lot of freedom right now in telling stories on television; we were commissioned by BBC 2, whose charter is to work with filmmakers and take risks and be adventurous. They kind of said to me, “Do it if you want and make it as long as you like!” So I told my writing partner [Gerald Lee], “We better do something wild!”
I know you’ve worked in television before at the beginning of your career. Did you worry, after dedicating your work to feature films, about returning to this format? Was it an easy transition?
I certainly felt more relaxed. I knew that what we were going to do, if we did our best, would be pretty good television, and I say that knowing that the bar is very high for TV these days. The most difficult thing for me, really, was the schedule. We had to do ninety minutes in about four and a half weeks, so it was very fast going. I’m used to taking twice as long. [Laughs] But my crew definitely helped me move along. We were just, like, running the whole time. I didn’t have time to chat with the crew; we worked together for several weeks and I have no idea what was going on in their lives!
Was it the same amount of time you’d usually spend on a two-hour film project, only with a seven-hour series?
What was interesting to me is that we were pretty divided and working on different parts. My co-director, Garth Davis, was there doing his episodes, which gave me some time off. Even though there was a fast schedule, we still had time to take breaks. What really puts me off doing television in general is the horrible schedules and the fact that you can’t produce anything interesting in that time because you’re trying not to fall over. I think that’s the problem with most TV—shooting is so fast, that’s the standard.
The strange thing with television is that there’s a very broad idea that a series creator wants to pursue, but a story can go all over the place in such a collaborative environment. Was having a second director working with you a challenge?
It was a bit scary! [Laughs]
To put your story in someone else’s hands like that?
Yes. But the thing with Garth is that he’s a very enthusiastic, great director. I learned a few lessons from him. I’d watch him and think, “Oh, that’s awesome!” He loved the material, and that made me feel great, and he also said in such plain terms, “I’ll do anything you want. Tell me how to divide the work up and I’ll do anything you tell me.” There was no ego. I did want to look after him, as well; he hadn’t done much drama. But I do think he’s one of the best commercial directors in Australia. He’s got a great personality and sensibility. He is also a fantastic photographer—we gave him a lot of landscape work because no one can do it better. To answer your question more directly, I was a bit nervous about how he might handle the more complicated tones of the piece. But we workshopped quite a bit and I was comfortable that he wouldn’t make it too broad and keep it very real.
The setting became its own character in a way. In American culture, there’s not much of an awareness for New Zealand beyond The Lord of the Rings, in which it’s more of a stand-in for a more fantastical world. Did you want to bring an awareness for New Zealand to a wider audience, to see it existing as the way you see it?
In a way, yes. I thought Peter Jackson did a great job with those films. I certainly love the wilderness and that area of the world—it’s sort of the end of the earth. I’m very affected by it, the atmosphere of being there. I think a lot of the crew even felt a culture shock when they got back to the rest of the world. I’ve been to Iceland, too, and there’s a similar feeling there. It’s quite a similar culture.
It reminded me a little bit of the Pacific Northwest, even with a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe to it. I thought it was an interesting place to set the series since it sets a tone even for the characters’ personalities, as well.
They’re people on the edge: people who like to run the world themselves. They’re outsiders. It’s also the mentality of grasping for a paradise. Everyone is very sensitive to the beauty of the place, no matter how raw or rough it is.
After working on a larger narrative like this, do you plan on doing more longer projects? Do you want to balance this sort of work with shorter, feature-length films?
I’m ready to get back to those shorts. [Laughs] In terms of directing, yes, it’s a lot of work. I don’t know how to do things at half-pace. Even a three-hour film is a lot of work, because once you’re done shooting you have to do all the post-production. But I was thinking that I would love to work with Gerald again. We had so much fun writing this, and I’d love to work on another project together, and maybe I wouldn’t direct it or would only direct one episode. I also enjoyed working with Gus, and I can see the opportunity of working with other directors quite happily. But for now I’m really thinking of taking a break. [Laughs]
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To the dismay of everyone within earshot of my desk, my excitement will not be quelled about how totally major this year’s Cannes Film Festival is going to be. In addition to new awards-contenders from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Michel Gondry (who didn’t make the list, only because I couldn’t find much on his latest film, L’epine Dans le Coeur), the sun-soaked Riviera festival will premiere Sam Raimi’s return to death and evil, as well as Jane Campion’s first major release since the Kiwi director tried, disastrously, to make Meg Ryan edgy in 2003’s In the Cut. Penelope Cruz hugs a lot of people in Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, Ang Lee takes Woodstock and Brad Pitt screams, “Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps … and I want my scalps!” Oh, and the late Heath Ledger might just get another Oscar. After the jump, the festival’s, if not the year’s, most anticipated films (with trailers).
Agora by Alejandro Amenabar. From the director of The Others and The Sea Inside comes a historical drama, starring Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella, about Hypatia of Alexandria, the Egyptian philosophy professor who fell in love with her slave. Minghella tells BlackBook, exclusively, “Rachel’s performance in the film is, objectively speaking, quite spectacular. Performances in historical films can so easily stray into frigidity, but she injects everything with warmth and modernity, which I really believe is a principle reason why the film is as accessible as it is.” Of his working relationship with Weisz, he adds, “I felt completely comfortable around her. We grew up on the same street in London, and now in New York our apartments are directly opposite one another — which is fantastic for voyeuristic reasons, but also a bizarre coincidence. Maybe it’s our shared geographic history, but I feel very at home around her.”
The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke. While it certainly would have been interesting to watch Haneke eke out another version of Funny Games, the master of torture’s latest project sounds incredible. Courtesy of IMDb: “Strange events happen at a rural school in the north of Germany during the year 1913, which seem to be ritual punishment. Does this affect the school system, and how does the school have an influence on fascism?”
Taking Woodstock by Ang Lee. Of course the director who turned Jewel into a cowgirl, Kevin Kline into a swinger, Eric Bana into a monster, and Jake Gyllenhaal into a pederast would eventually set his sights on Woodstock. Starring an incredible cast that includes Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Live Schreiber, and Jonathan Groff, audiences surely won’t be able to quit it.
Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino. Unless you’ve been living under a very large, Brangelina-proof rock, this one needs no introduction. Still, I’m going to overlook the misspelling, and bypass the backlash by moving ahead to the backlash backlash, and just the love the guts out of this movie. Tarantino and Nazis? It’s almost better than Darryl Hannah and an eye-patch.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky by Jan Kounen. Forget Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Tautou for a minute, and watch Anna Mouglalis transform into the gamine Rue Gambon icon as she navigates a relationship with composer and pianist Igor Stravinsky. And keep an eye on Mouglalis: up next, she’ll star in 2010’s Serge Gainsbourg biopic.
Drag Me to Hell by Sam Raimi. Full disclosure: I saw an unfinished version of this. And, as a huge Evil Dead fan, was excited to see what the director of Spider-Man might do with his return to full-on horror. Alison Lohman plays a banker who pisses off a geriatric gypsy, which leads to one of the best catfights ever to appear on film. That said, some of the effects felt a little amusement-park ride-y, but I’ll reserve judgment until watching the final cut.
Broken Embraces by Pedro Almodóvar. This is the return of “Penelepedro,” the unstoppable force of director Pedro Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz, who last captivated audiences with Volver in 2006. It’s got a film noir feel to it, centers on love and a car crash that leaves the protagonist blind, and features a soundtrack that includes Cat Power and Uffie. It sounds near perfect, really.
Map of the Sounds of Tokyo by Isabel Coixet. From My Life Without Me to last year’s Elegy, Coixet has proved herself a masterful storyteller, which is why we can’t wait for “a dramatic thriller that centers on a fish-market employee who doubles as a contract killer.” Tokyo stars Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi, who, in my opinion, is one of today’s most revelatory onscreen chameleons.
Bright Star by Jane Campion. Kiwi director Jane Campion is to dark drama what Amy Heckerling is to romantic teen comedy — no matter how tragically their recent films have bombed, I still get excited when their names are attached to new projects. Like this one. Starring Paul Schneider and Abbie Cornish, Bright Star chronicles the love affair between 19th-century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, before Keats’ early death. Actually, I just got sort of bored writing that, but, hey, at least it doesn’t feature Meg Ryan getting her nasty on. Plus, Campion made The Piano, so she’s more than capable of a comeback.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by Terry Gilliam. Doctor Parnassus might just be the most exciting of all of the offerings at Cannes this year. Yes, the last time Gilliam and Heath Ledger worked together, they created The Brothers Grimm, which was very much so. And yes, Gilliam’s last film, Tideland, was ugly, misanthropic, and bloated. But after Ledger’s tragic death, actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law stepped in to play the same character in various dream worlds. Plus, Tom Waits channels the devil, supermodel Lily Cole plays a damsel in distress, and Christopher Plummer transforms into the 1,000-year-old title character. Intriguing is a gross understatement.
Thirst by Park Chan-Wook. The director of Oldboy is back with a thriller about a religious man who turns into a vampire! That’s all you need. Oh, and this trailer.
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