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‘Top of the Lake’ is a storytelling tapestry, says Jane Campion

By Showmax 2 May 2018
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Photo by See Saw Films

Top of the Lake was a really exciting experiment, said acclaimed film director Jane Campion. “We didn't know how it would go down; we did what we wanted.” By KEVIN KRIEDEMANN

“TV is where you can take more risks” – Oscar-winner Jane Campion on Top of  the Lake

Jane Campion was the second woman ever nominated for the Oscar for Best Director, for The Piano in 1994. She lost to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List, but won for Best Original Screenplay. She’s also the first – and only – woman to win the top prize at Cannes, also for The Piano.

But arguably her most ambitious project is Top of The Lake, her acclaimed TV series about Detective Robin Griffin (starring Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men).

“I gravitate towards the place where I feel freedom as a creator,” says Campion. “TV is the place where you can take more risks. With movies, the first thing they ask is, ‘Can we get an audience?’ They need reassurance that it will be worth it – and it is difficult to give that. The thing with Top of the Lake was that it was a really exciting experiment. We didn’t know how it would go down; we did what we wanted.”

It was an experiment that succeeded spectacularly, winning Best Actress at the Golden Globes, Best Cinematography at the Emmys, and Best Miniseries at Monte Carlo, among many other accolades.

‘Solving a crime is about returning disorder to order’

Season two, now streaming only on Showmax in South Africa, finds Robin recently returned to Sydney and trying to rebuild her life. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer, until Robin discovers that “China Girl” didn’t die alone.

“We have this psychic draw towards murder stories,” says Campion. “Murder is the worst thing anyone can do. How could someone murder someone? What would lead them to do that? Solving a crime is about returning disorder to order.”

‘Once you’ve had a child, you have a whole new sense of danger in the world’

Top of the Lake: China Girl is more than just a whodunnit though; it’s an exploration of parenting in all its forms, from pregnancy and birthing a child to adoption and surrogacy.

“We wanted to make something that felt like a novel, about things that we think about now in our lives, which is basically worrying about our children,” says Campion. “Once you’ve had a child you have a whole new sense of danger in the world. If anything happened to your kid it would be the most devastating thing possible. You are vulnerable in a whole new way. We thought, yes, okay, let’s look at that: parenting.”

Robin looks to the investigation to restore herself, but her problems are personal. She desperately wants to find the daughter she gave up at birth, yet dreads revealing the truth of her conception. But her search to discover the identity of “China Girl” will take her into the city’s darkest recesses and closer than she could have imagined to the secrets of her own heart.

“The wonderful thing about crime mysteries is that you’re dealing with characters who are not perfect themselves,” says Campion. “They’re entering the mystery, the unknown, and they’re trying with everything they’ve got to find out what happened. They always come up against their own limitations – the things that they haven’t really worked out about themselves.”

‘I hate to see my daughter suffering, even in a story’

Robin’s daughter, Mary, is played by Campion’s own daughter, Alice Englert (a three-time Teen Choice nominee for Beautiful Creatures). “I wrote the part for Alice. She’s worked with many other people before doing this project, so she’s certainly earned the right to it,” says Campion.

To put it politely, Alice has a complicated relationship with her adopted mother, Julia, played by 2018 Golden Globe winner Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies).

Campion delegated many of Alice’s harder scenes to co-director Ariel Kleiman, who’d won awards at Sundance and Cannes for his short film Deeper Than Yesterday. “He was brilliant with Alice; I don’t know if I could’ve handled it so well if I had to do it all, just her and me. I hate to see my daughter suffering, even in a story!”

‘Everybody should care about the vulnerable in our lives, in our worlds’

Robin’s investigation leads her to the world of prostitution and illegal surrogacy. Frighteningly, she discovers Mary has links to this world through her mercurial boyfriend Puss, played by Berlin Film Festival Shooting Star winner David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Royal Affair).

“As a woman I think one of the things that bothers me most is the exploitation of poor women from different cultures like Asia,” says Campion. “It’s generally women who are in impoverished financial situations that have to use their body that way. And that feels pretty painful to me. I think everybody should care about the vulnerable in our lives, in our worlds.”

‘I find everything funny, but I also cry a lot’

Campion describes Top of the Lake: China Girl as “a tapestry. I enjoy interweaving the threads in storytelling. I find everything funny, but I also cry a lot.” She sees the miniseries as a love story, rather than a straight police procedural. “As human beings, we’re all looking for love. That’s completely natural. When you allow yourself to really know someone, you can’t help but love them, but it takes time to really know someone. I can’t give too much away, but we listen to that need for love in our characters.“
‘It’s teeth-gnashing and infuriating that still so few films are funded where the directors are women’

A 2017 report by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism surveyed 1100 films made in the last 11 years and found that women directed just four percent. As The Guardian pointed out, this “equates to 22 male directors hired for every woman.”

Campion beat those odds; she’s directed seven, winning over 50 international awards, but is aware that she’s the exception that proves the rule. “It’s teeth-gnashing and infuriating that still so few films are funded where the directors are women. The system is against them. It’s not that there’s anything inferior about women; women can do anything. When Kathryn Bigelow made The Hurt Locker, it was a great war film. There are female doctors, lawyers, politicians, and world statesman. I can’t figure out why there aren’t more in the film business.”

‘I yearn for more imaginative energy going into how women see the world’

She’s been outspoken on the need for change, even calling on Cannes to appoint an all-women jury last year. “Not that I think the women would say, ‘Oh, we’d better choose a woman winner,’ but that everyone at the festival would have to think about how women think. For once, they might be just thinking, ‘Well, what would women think of this?’ and choose subjects that women will relate to. I yearn for more imaginative energy going into how women see the world,” she told ScreenDaily.

But Campion feels her work is more important than her words. “It’s not my thing to be didactic and say, ‘Give girls a go.’ Just doing good work is a strong way of encouraging other female directors.”

Watch the trailer for Top of the Lake: China Girl:

She says there is a growing sisterhood in the industry. “I always make a point of writing to my female director friends to say, ‘I loved your film. Well done.’ Sofia Coppola and I are friends. I love that. Andrea Arnold and I said that maybe it was time to open the Wonder Woman Film School!”

She’s hopeful that “change is in the air… There is new, female-orientated work out there, which is very courageous and interesting.”

‘I’m not really thinking, “I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman.” I just feel like a human’

But she’s wary of being defined and discussed only in terms of her gender. “I’m not really thinking, ‘I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman.’ I just feel like a human. Sometimes I feel like a woman and sometimes like a man! I think I improvise male parts pretty well when we are writing.” DM

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