THE SECRET of Jane Campion's success is simple: "I have more enthusiasm than I have fear." Modesty prevents her saying more but the Waikanae-born movie director could easily add tenacity and pluck to her strengths. And a field marshal's eye for battlefield organization, a trainspotter's obsession with minutiae and a mother hen's concern for the talent under her control. Then there's the feisty nature that is both empathetic and no-nonsense. And the artistic integrity that feeds not on Hollywood hoopla but on the primacy of the project.
Campion made her name from complex takes on difficult themes, and she is driven by getting it right rather than by the churn-it-out imperatives of box-office capitalization. Which is probably not great economic sense but it does make life a hell of a lot more interesting. It also helps explain why it has been six years between her appearances on the spruiking circuit. Just to confuse expectations even more, this time she's on the promotional trail with Bright Star. Starring Aussie actress Abbie Cornish (of Somersault and Candy fame) and English heartthrob Ben Whishaw (Perfume, Brideshead Revisited), it is an unhurried exposition of the early 19th century liaison between tubercular, poverty-stricken Romantic poet John Keats, who died a self-confessed failure at 25, and sheltered teenage seamstress Fanny Brawne, who fortuitously became his neighbour in England's then semi-rural Hertford.
For a director whose last movie featured a teacher exploring sado-masochistic sexuality via a homicide cop hunting a serial killer, it's a quite a change of pace. Not even one bodice ripped - just miles of moodiness, chaste yearnings and poetry.
We meet in a Victorian-themed room complete with walled bookcases, plush lounges and sun-streaked echoes at the top of a steepish staircase in a terrace housing the office of her long-time collaborator, producer Jan Chapman. It's just a stroll from where Campion and her daughter live in café-ridden Paddington. In real estate-conscious Sydney, it's a preferred position, and I wonder at the possible insight on Campion, being so close to home but not at home.
More directly inhibiting is the next-please policy of the film company's press gang - you have 20 minutes, the PR says with non-negotiable finality as I'm ushered into the court of Queen Jane.
There's certainly a regal edge to Campion as she sits swathed in basic black topped by a drama of silvered hair. The set up is a director's cut of discreet elegance, emphasizing miss-nothing eyes and generous gash of mouth. She majors in presence and poise, although it is not long before cinematic composure is undercut by self-deprecation and broad guffaws.
It's not true, as she told Britain's Observer newspaper, that she looks "like an albino gorilla"; it is true that she's not one of the movie industry's ace saleswomen - she gets bored with staying on message and churning out copy-friendly sound-bites. And she's chary of the personal spotlight if curiously attracted by the publicity process. Perhaps it's that directorial gene, the need to focus attention the right way. Or maybe it's the chance to run interference on misinterpretation. Either way, her ambivalence makes for contradictions: there's confidential Jane one moment, distant Jane the next; she's steely then brittle, charismatic then touchy; at times she's garrulous, then almost taciturn.
This is the woman American actor Harvey Keitel said was "a goddess, and it's difficult for a mere mortal to talk about a goddess. I fear being struck by lightning bolts." Keitel, who worked with Campion on The Piano and Holy Smoke, also called her "a warm breeze at play". She was patently a force of nature to him. As she is to other actors, who talk of her empathy and intuition, of her straight-talking and strong will.
In New Zealand terms, Campion was bred in the theatrical pink, a child of director Richard Campion and actress/author Edith Hannah. Her parents met at drama school in Wellington and later trained together at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. When she died in 2007, Edith was eulogised as "undoubtedly the pre-eminent actress of New Zealand theatre in the 1950s". This was the decade in which her parents founded the travelling New Zealand Players, and that encompassing theatricality was undoubtedly influential on what Campion calls "my unusual upbringing". And on her contrarian disposition.
Her back story is unorthodox. She has talked of being hyper-sensitive as a child, easily embarrassed but competitive. She was an ardent, adept athlete yet suffered from extreme asthma; she loved the Kapiti Coast farm her parents bought when she was 13 but hated the private high school they sent her to in Wellington; she refused point blank to learn but wangled her way into university; she wanted to be an actress but studied structural anthropology at Victoria University.
Then came art study in Venice, a stint at the Chelsea School of Arts in London and a diploma in art, with painting her major, at the Sydney College of the Arts. In her last year there she began making short films, which impelled her to enrol at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Two years after graduating in 1984, she won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for best short film.
It's an intriguing if eccentric script, and books and treatises have been written on her life, exploring the work ethic and intellectual forces that have guided her to often-controversial fame and frequent glittering prizes, including an Oscar for best screenplay for 1993's The Piano.
In some ways, she has suffered from having a career driven less by ambition than by authenticity. Her films are reflections of what captures her imagination rather than mainstream-savvy manipulations, and where critics look for coherence and continuity in her work, she is driven more by vision and a singular focus. That helps to explain her limited output - seven feature films in nearly a quarter-century - and why her releases have veered from Cineplex saturation to art-house selective, from rapturous applause to rabid critical maulings.
One recurrent pattern, though, is the literary genesis of her work. The fourth-form English curriculum introduced her to Owls Do Cry. To her surprise, the anti-learning Campion loved Janet Frame's novel. That love led (eventually) to An Angel at My Table, the film a distillation based on a script by Laura Jones of Frame's expansive autobiography. Among the influences for The Piano was Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (and probably Jane Mander's The Story of a New Zealand River), while Portrait of a Lady was another Laura Jones script of the Henry James' novel. In the Cut was an adaptation of American novelist Susanna Moore's subversive murder mystery. And Bright Star has been created from the poetry and letters of Keats.
Campion was more than a bit surprised to find herself so taken with the Keats-Fanny affair. "It was their love story that affected me first," she says of reading Andrew Motion's 1997 biography Keats. "I thought it was overwhelming - Romeo and Juliet, with beauty and pain and a strange innocence. It just brought me to my knees."
It also made her seek out Keats' letters, "and when I read them, they were so amazing that I found myself sobbing. I was devastated to discover he'd destroyed Fanny's letters to him, but his letters to her - well, every young person should have a set of those letters, to see the way he thinks and the depth of his inquiry into mind and heart."
Then there were the poems. "I'd always had a fear of poetry," she says, "because I didn't understand it but that has been cured by Keats - now I love poetry and I'm not afraid of it. His poetry was about his life, what he was going through. But I understood a lot more from his letters he was just so ahead of his time."
Take negative capability as an example, she says, "that concept he talks about where someone has the capacity to stand in doubt and mystery without grasping after fact or reason - it explained much to me about the way I work, staying in the mystery, not intellectualising. I do think you have to develop those muscles for most art, and certainly to appreciate poetry - it's something that lives in that mystery, it's not going to be resolved.''
Staying in the mystery was definitely the direction when work started on Bright Star. As with The Piano, she was also the writer so she had her own visual take before the shoot began. She wanted to keep the story as historically accurate as possible, fashioning her script as a kind of Keatsian narrative, the ballad of Fanny and John. But when the company assembled, it was far from promising. "It's always scary when you start out,'' she says, "and you're not sure it'll be ok, and you wonder if you'll ever think of the right thing to say to help the actors. But this was particularly scary, and the first dress rehearsals were not good at all. And I was thinking oooaaaaaah! It's not an adrenalin rush, it's more a sense of 'Oh my God!' "
What tends to happen, however, "is that I develop in my inner mind a scene or a vision of what it needs to be but I don't know the way there as we rehearse, if someone does something that's right, I recognise it instantly and say 'Let's move in that direction'. All I know is I'm paying attention - that's a very subtle process, there's no word for it."
But surely she's the chief string-puller? "I think you come in with an energy that helps the actors discover the drama. They have to find their own pathways to their characters. You just have to say 'that works' when it does. I'm sensitive to atmosphere, and I empathise with what they are trying to do. If you tell them 'do that', you limit them straightaway if it was something you could just dial up and have delivered, it wouldn't be worth doing, would it? It's a subtle art."
And the unsubtle realities of financiers worrying about budget overruns, and the inconvenience of weather delays, and the interaction of egos and anxieties on set? "Stress does nothing for anybody so you just have to develop the capacity to ignore it. For me, it's more that I'm so excited to grapple with the issues and the problems that bring something together I'm just thrilled to be involved in the process with smart people, to be on this journey of discovery with them, to see the bravery of the actors as they create their characters and take such huge risks. I get to see things I can't imagine."
She thinks for a minute before leaning forward. The energy you bring, she says, "comes in showing that you're not just doing the average thing, that you care about it, that you can develop it together. Not doing the average thing is important - I wouldn't bother if that is all we were trying to do."
Fanny Brawne is another in the Campion pantheon of strong-minded women who defy convention. "I just find them so much more interesting than the women who get swamped by it,'' she says. "It's the road less travelled thing."
So her heroines tend to be adventurers intent on self-discovery and self-control, if with varying success. They also inhabit worlds distinguished by Campion's intrigue with the seethe and variation of female sexuality: she interrogates desire, is unafraid of passion and perversity, seems at times to delight in darkness and is happy to explore eccentricity and emotional excess. Yet if her women are rebels without pause, there are sometimes obscured by clods.
In Bright Star, Fanny Brawne is more ostensibly conventional and practical, but her rebellion "is the love rebellion - in that she was strong, she reminds me a bit of the Bronte sisters. What she felt and what her heart responded to was her only truth." This is the more meritorious, Campion says, because Fanny's life otherwise was made up of small acts and large limitations. So much of it was spent waiting around, sewing and mending. Patience was the prime virtue, and Fanny's only creative outlet was her needlework. That's a painstaking craft, Campion asides, and she worked herself into understanding that mentality by learning to embroider.
Such attention to detail is one of her strengths. Another is in delivering scenes of astounding clarity and originality, lush setups wrapped in careful observation. Bright Star is no exception, and in some ways the visuals steal the movie. It delivers a relaxed unravelling of interiors that are cloying, clustered cells for the women captive there. Out in the world, Campion's camera roves over landscapes pulsing with light and mists and mellow fruitfulness. Keats said he wanted a life of sensations, not thoughts, she says, "and I was trying to photograph sensations".
Given they were so young - Fanny was 18 when she fell in love with Keats - the odds on their romance surviving were probably slim. Not in Campion's mind. "I think they would have got married, totally,'' she asserts. "I think he loved her and she loved him, it's all I can see in the letters even Fanny's mother had recognised the inevitability of their love.''
There's no record or indication their relationship was consumated, and in one of his last letters to his confidant and patron Charles Brown (who later emigrated to New Plymouth and died there), Keats regrets he hadn't had her while he was still well enough. Yet despite the chasteness of their so socially constrained lives, Campion's movie emphasises how consuming was their love affair. In a dimly-lit bedroom, the fully-clothed lovers take turns to recite stanzas of Keats' ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci - and such is the sense of passion that The New York Times labelled it "one of the hottest sex scenes in recent cinema".
"I HAVE every intention of going back to New Zealand to live,'' Campion declares as our time runs out. "And soon. I want to work there, it's where I want to end up, to live and die there." Preferably with the latter a significant time after the former, she laughs. But the earliest possibility of return is three or four years away, after daughter Alice finishes school. In the meantime, "I go there a lot, I have a place near Queenstown to which I return every holiday."
When her commitments to In the Cut finished in 2003, she took four years off filmmaking. She wanted to concentrate on being a mother, she said at the time, and to see who she would be without work. She's also told the story of how she took time out to tramp off with Throreau-esque intention of becoming a hermit in a hut deep in the Fiordland National Park. The birdlife and landscapes appealed but the lack of electricity and running water didn't - in less than a week she was back among the mod cons.
That misfire, if it was one rather than anti-hero anecdote, has not diminished the lure of life in New Zealand's wilderness. "I still want to try to live there," she says. "I crave that outlook of mountains and hills." Her two-room hut near Lake Wakatipu is without phone or net connections, and "every time I'm there, for all the time I'm there, I feel fabulous, free and less structured."
Independence, in fact, is a recurring motif in what appears to be a time of transition. At 54, much of what previously drove her is becoming less important, Campion says. She is looking back far less than she is looking forward, and while she is happy to remain in Sydney as Alice enters senior high school, in herself she admits to increasing introspection, and an appreciation that time has become important. "You get to this stage in your life and you see things happening to people around you, your contemporaries, physical breakdown and even death, and you realize it's not always your choice, you know? I can't imagine wanting to be running around this much in, say, 15 years time."
Beyond that, she feels on a different plateau philosophically and psychologically. It has been nearly a decade since her divorce from fellow filmmaker Colin Englert, with whom she remains close friends, but she has eschewed all relationships of the emotional kind. The falling out of love with romance, she told a Sydney journalist, is relatively recent: "Around my 50s, I finally felt free there's definitely the genius of menopause, the word itself says it all. I love men, I have so many great male friends, intimate friends - I'm just not interested any more in the relationship thing."
As if on cue, the PR comes in to give the "out of here" wind-up. There's time for one last question. How come New Zealand is so over-represented among the world's filmmaking talent? Campion smiles "When you look at us, we're weirdly liberated," she says. "New Zealand is a place where pictures can come from nowhere everyone in New Zealand understands they're at the bottom of the world and it's a jumping off kind of place, you have to have a bit of dare.
"New Zealanders are not weighed down by what has been done before. That's true of Australia as well, but I think New Zealand has a bit of an advantage. It's why we have Peter Jackson and Niki Caro, for instance. But it's not just filmmakers, it's the musicians and writers and the boat-builders
"I think it all stems from that very simple thought: I can have a go. That's very liberating." It's what she thought, she says with QED finality. "I can have a go. And I did."
This article appeared first in The New Zealand Listener. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2010
Murray Waldren's latest book The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins) is available from all good book stores, including: Gleebooks Shearers Bookshop Readings Better Read Than Dead Dymocks Angus & Robertson Borders The Co-op Bookshop Australian Online Bookstore Booktopia Seekbooks The Nile The Book Abyss
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