A talk with Jane Campion: ‘TOP OF THE LAKE’, Cannes, female filmmakers and Harvey Keitel


“If you are a female director I wouldn’t wait! […] put all your energy in to do an amazing piece of work.” Jane Campion is in Cannes to share her vast line of experiences as a filmmaker. Without question, we are in the first row to listen to her stories.


Lars von Trier, Gus van Sant, Martin Scorsese and well lately, Steven Soderbergh: what have all these famous men in common? Right, they have, or are about to turn to TV production. With TOP OF THE LAKE Jane Campion is one of the few female directors who is also making the film to TV transition. The television drama miniseries is co-produced by BBC Two in the UK, UKTV in Australia/NZ and Sundance Channel in the US. Campion has indeed travelled a long successful filmmaker path: she was the first woman to win the Short Film Palme d’Or with PEEL in 1986 and as we all know, the first female filmmaker in history to receive the Palme d’Or with the luxurious THE PIANO in 1993. She is also the second of four women ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. To be the head of the Cinéfondation jury and Short Film sections at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is only a logical step in her career.

As part of a rare opportunity at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, the “Talk with Jane Campion” introduced this admirable filmmaker to an eager audience. Here, in the reverent old Théâtre Croisette, Campion talks: Why she decided to do a series and not a next feature, how successes in her past have and have not affected her future and what it means to be a female director in the film business today. Her open and honest nature is a refreshing contrast with the often stark Festival de Cannes’ world. See for yourself:

Jane Campion Talk2 © Jana Dietze

Launching production of her series TOP OF THE LAKE

“After BRIGHT STAR I started to develop ideas for a novel. For me, novels have always been my favorite form of stories; where the tale unravels over several chapters. When I was in the UK I had a meeting with Ben Stevenson from the BBC. He was very charming. He was like, ‘Oh that is so exciting, I love that and I really want to see that. You should write it down and let’s go from there.’

For me it was there I wanted to do a modern story and I was also inspired by the television I was seeing coming from America because it felt more capsule and free than film.”

Working together with writer Gerard Lee and director Garth Davis

“I probably couldn’t have done TOP OF THE LAKE without Gerard Lee. We were partners – once lovers, a long time ago – it’s beautiful when you know someone so well that you feel like you can be very honest with each other without hurting each others feelings. It really helped us come through it and in the same time there is this sense not to be so alone. In many ways it was one of my favorite experiences.

Garth Davis is just a beautiful human who fell in love with the material and he was so clever as a director. He is like Australia’s top commercial director. I think his work is brilliant. I mean, I felt like I was learning from him. I was excited to see what he did with the writing but I couldn’t have ever imagined.”

Being the first and only woman to win the Palm d’Or

“It is incredibly boring that is still like this! We need Abraham Lincoln to say, ‘Half of the films in the world must be directed by women’. If you are a female director I wouldn’t wait! I think the best advice I would give you is just put all your energy into an amazing piece of work. Because woman can make obviously as good films as guys – Kathryn Bigelow has shown quite clearly that even taking topics like action movies and war films that women can make the best films in the world. So ladies, make your movies!

I think for the women what’s quite difficult coming to festivals like Cannes as a filmmaker is they hear all the time, ‘Oh you are a woman director’. I mean how many guys get, ‘Oh you are a male director. How is this for you?’ It would be really lovely when people only just say, ‘Oh, your are a director. Congratulations on your film…'”

Connecting with the people without cultural division

“In a way my culture is also connected to Europe and I have a little trouble with nationalities anywhere and don’t take that seriously. If you want to, you can connect to almost everybody. I am very good friends with many Indian people. I have something like an Indian family from my yoga teacher. I mean it is a very small world for a human being; we are all the same specie.

I think that’s why a festival like Cannes is so interesting, because you seeing amazing films from so many different countries of the world which is difficult to see normally and it really is an awakening.”

Doing a lot of short films before her first feature SWEETIE

“When I was at the Sydney Film Festival, which was a wonderful festival, I remember seeing the shorts at the beginning of the features and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god one day I can make one of those’. ‘Shorts’ you know, a little animated film or whatever. ‘That would be heaven – that would leave me satisfied’. So, I started to think to dream about a short that could get into the festival.

At film school I had a year where I tried to find a way to get more work in film and more experience and there was no way. I started to realize how important it was to have these short films. They were a kind of capital. This was my only opportunity to get out in the world.

I wasn’t confident that I could do it very well, but I wanted to try really hard to see what I could do. Because the film school is very conservative, they hated what I was doing most of the time. It was a great surprise to me when my short films were screened and people went crazy for them.”

Working with actor Harvey Keitel

“I was like every young filmmaker terrified of actors. When I came to do THE PIANO, I really knew I needed characters who can really work with their role. Holly [Hunter] was really influential for me, but Harvey [Keitel] was really scary. In this time there were stories that he was quite aggressive and directors didn’t like him. I got my husband to pretend to be Harvey so I could practice directing him. (laughs)

But, I had a very beautiful telephone conversation with Harvey before I gave him the role. I asked him, ‘Harvey you have so much experience and I have none. How is it going to work? I am supposed to be your director and you know more then I do.’ And he said, ‘Jane, we will work this out. You let me just show you what I wanna do and after that I promise you, I will do anything you ask.’

We stuck on this deal. He really showed me how to run a rehearsal. He was giving me, ‘the master class’. It was a very interesting experience for me – and Holly too.”

To “Talk with Jane Campion” was to talk with a wise woman who has remained somehow unaffected by major success and the hype that surrounds it. This casual, honest and open style of programming at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was really, for us, an asset to the 66th edition that we would certainly like to see more of. It is through Campion’s practice rehearsals with her husband in preparation for the next day’s shooting with Keitel that we find solace in our position, no matter where we are in our creative path.

Jane Campion ©Jana Dietze


My rating: Cannes Film Festival 2013

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Jana Dietze

Jana Dietze is the Head of Communications at FFL. Her editorial background includes positions as Editor of N24 News channel and Editor of Fulmidas Media Agency. Her film experience is grounded in studying Film Science, Georg-August University, Göttingen. Reach her at jana(at)filmfestivallife.com

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