The daughter of Richard Campion, theatre director and co-founder of the New Zealand Players Company, and stage actress Edith Armstrong, Jane Campion was raised in the world of the dramatic arts. The acclaimed filmmaker experienced her first major cinematic moment while watching Swiss Family Robinson (1960); as a pile of onscreen logs rolled down a hill, the eight year old thought she was going to be crushed by them. It was later that her fascination with movies would be aroused; upon seeing Performance (1970), starring British rocker Mick Jagger (Freejack), Campion began her “romance with mystery.”
After graduating from Victoria University with a bachelors degree in anthropology, the Wellington-native went to Europe to pursue her artistic ambitions only to find herself in Australia studying painting at the Sydney College of Arts. While attending the academic institution, Jane Campion produced a short film called Tissues (1980) about a father who had been arrested for child molestation; the project enabled her to trade in her paint brushes for a movie camera, and enroll in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. The budding filmmaker found critical success with the short film Peel (1982), which The New York Times movie critic Ella Taylor described as being, “a lethally funny study in domestic warfare”; it was awarded the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival. Working with her college boyfriend, writer Gerald Lee, Campion created her thirteen-minute follow-up effort Passionless Moments (1983), which won Most Popular Short Film at the Sydney Film Festival.
While still a student, the New Zealander accepted a job with the Australian Women’s Film Unit in 1984. The year was a busy one for Jane Campion as she directed a series of short films: Mishaps: Seduction and Conquest, After Hours, and her thesis assignment A Girl’s Own Story; the latter would have a dramatic impact on director Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) who saw the picture while she was attending film school. “This dreamy, 16 m.m., black and white film flickered on the screen,” recalled Jenkins. “I was flabbergasted. It was so – female, so funny and strange and gorgeously atmospheric. I remember the ingredients: 1960s preadolescent girls in Catholic school uniforms, yearning sexuality, the Beatles, a dysfunctional family dinner, and a girl-group musical number with melancholy girls sitting next to electric heaters singing I Feel the Cold. It gave me permission to make personal movies.”
Reflecting on the usefulness of shooting in the abbreviated format, Campion remarked, “Short films are not inferior. I think the short gives a freedom to filmmakers. What’s appealing is that you don’t have as much responsibility for storytelling and plot. They can be more like a portrait, or a poem. The great thing is that almost everyone ends up doing something creative with them, even those directors who then go on to make quite boring films.” Television summoned Jane Campion in 1986, where she directed an episode of the drama Dancing Daze, as well as Two Friends, which was honoured by the Australian Film Institute with trophies for Best T.V. Film and Best Director.
Collaborating with her now ex-boyfriend, Campion set about making her debut feature film Sweetie (1989). “Its inspiration was the deep confusion that both Gerard Lee, who co-wrote the script with me, and I had had about why our relationship didn’t work when we were in love,” explained the director. “We battled away with it in a complete fog, not understanding why we felt like we loved each other and yet didn’t want to have sex, things like that were very confusing and disappointing.” Though she had left behind painting, Campion had not abandoned her artist background. “I was keen to create a subconscious quality to the film. It’s such a strong part of our lives, and the consensus reality that we use to communicate in cinema today completely ignores that aspect. It’s very present in people and it’s lonely not to have it recognized.”
Summarizing the story, Jane Campion stated, “Kay [Karen Colston] tries to get her life under control, and actually, her control is fake. She’s not having sex with her boyfriend anymore and the real reason is that she’s lying to him. She’s got this secret, and it makes her unable to be open and feel free.” The director clarified her answer, “The secret is about the tree that she pulled out. They compensate with the agreement, ‘Oh, what’s happening to us is that we’re in a spiritual phase.’ That’s something they can agree on and feel good about, in order to keep going on with their relationship. Then Sweetie [Geneviève Lemon] shows up…Sweetie opens the Pandora’s box. She’s both a monster and an angel for doing that, also totally irresponsible and hopeless for it. She pays a big price. In the end, she dies.”
Sweetie proved to be a disturbing film for both movie audiences and film critics; two decades later, Campion has come to terms with the extreme reactions to the picture. “I find it a pain that I have to put up with. And it’s something I used to think was so great and special. I’m just as subject as anyone to getting caught up in narratives. The stories captivate you, and you get involved in them, but they’re not real.” Not all was lost for the debut directorial effort received the Los Angeles Film Critics New Generation Award and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film.
Stepping out in the front of the camera, Jane Campion acted in a short film by her elder sister Anna entitled The Audition (1989), which also starred their mother. Though the venture did not convince Campion to change her career path, she would work with both family members again.
An Angel at My Table (1990) was originally conceived as a three-part television miniseries; however, it became a feature film divided into three chapters, each representing a different stage in the life of New Zealand novelist Janet Frame. The source material was the autobiography written by the enigmatic author. “I loved the book. I’ve been wanting to do this ever since I was in film school,” revealed the director. “No one knew anything about her life. It was a mystery because she was quite reclusive. Then this autobiography came out and suddenly this completely mythological person seemed like the most ordinary, honest, sympathetic, completely vulnerable, little round, tubby red-fuzzy-haired person you could imagine. She saw herself as a poetic being and yet didn’t look that way. She discussed the struggle with herself and the time in the mental hospital in a way that was so accessible and charming.” Not only was she was enthralled with the revelations, Campion also came to realize something else. “It’s the story of her life but it could have been my life. It allows you to re-experience your own childhood and all those awful adolescent memories and to laugh about them for a change instead of having them all locked away.”
Each chapter featured a different actress portraying Janet Frame. Karen Fergusson played the child; Alexia Keogh, the adolescent; and Kerry Fox (Country Life), the adult. Cast in the role of a teacher is Jane Campion’s mother Edith. The filmmaker’s sophomore effort would garner international acclaim; the picture won the Grand Special Jury Prize and the OCIC Award at the Venice Film Festival as well as the Toronto International Film Festival Critics Award, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film.
Composing an original screenplay, Campion was inspired by Emily Brontë’s literary classic Wuthering Heights, and the native inhabitants of her island homeland. “I left New Zealand when I was twenty-one, and came back ten years later. It was a strong period for the Māori culture and Māori language, and a certain reevaluation of their rights in New Zealand. For me it was frightening to see that I had a story where I had to find out things for myself. There were Māori roles and I had to work with a Māori adviser to get the story as authentic as possible.” Physically reconstructing New Zealand one hundred fifty years ago was not the objective of the filmmaker. “It was meant [to be] more like an emotional scenery. I imagined a bush the way Europeans of that period experienced it. I think the bush has many different qualities, sometimes it’s fabulous, nice and friendly, and other times suffocating and frightening. With different light the forest has adventural qualities. I wished to use the forest as a passionate scenery, which plays its own role in the story.”
Dedicated to Campion’s mother, The Piano was released in 1993; Holly Hunter (The Firm) plays a mute Scotswoman who is sold into a marriage with a New Zealand frontiersman portrayed by Sam Neill (Evil Angels). Cast as Hunter’s speechless daughter is Anna Paquin (X-Men), while Harvey Keitel (Bugsy) appears as a retired sailor who offers a place of refuge for the treasured musical instrument in return for sexual favours from her mother. “Choosing a cast is one of the most difficult jobs as a director. And it is also the most interesting because the decisions have to be made at a point when you know least about the movie…I received help from the cast too, and I believe that all you have to do is keep your eyes and ears open, then the right actor or actress will tell you what to do.” As for selecting established foreign actors for two of the key roles, Jane Campion stated, “Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel both come from America but they’ve haven’t become part of the American system. They are used to working in independent productions and with alternative filmmakers like me. There are many reasons why Holly does an excellent job. Ada is not an easy role, and she makes it look effortless. Holly uses intelligence and pragmatism as is necessary to solve the role of Ada. Holly works a lot with her acting. She also developed the unlikely sign language between Ada and Flora [Paquin]. She is a complete work addict.”
Much care went into selecting the pivotal stage prop which causes things to spiral out-of-control. “The piano was chosen by the designer Andrew McAlpine. I queried it at first, because I imagined a tall piano and I found it hard to think of this table as a piano. But at the same moment as I saw it, I loved it.” On how she went about constructing the finale of the tragic tale, Campion replied, “I decided to try following the character’s psychology, and find a poetic or lyrical conclusion, rather than the original ending with a classic settlement. I did not want the film to end violently.”
The Piano became a worldwide critical phenomenon. The Australian Film Institute lauded the movie with eleven awards including Best Actor (Harvey Keitel), Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. Hollywood was equally receptive as Jane Campion became the second woman in Oscar history to be nominated for Best Director; the film won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin), and Best Original Screenplay. In Britain, The Piano was awarded at the BAFTAS with Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design. At the Cannes Film Festival, the picture shared the top prize with Farewell My Concubine (1993).
Fourteen years later at the same event, Campion experienced an unsettling revelation. “When I saw only one woman on the stage full of Palme d’Or winners at the 60th anniversary of the Cannes, I felt shocked at this physical representation of how few women proportionally are directors, let alone award winners, even now. It seemed that we hadn’t really progressed very far at all.”
For her follow-up effort, Jane Campion had second thoughts about casting an American-born actress on the verge of achieving Hollywood A-list stardom.
Continue to part two.
Read Jane Campion's Top 9 Criterion films, or watch the trailer for her latest feature Bright Star.
Watch the short film A Girl's Own Story, courtesy of Dailymotion:
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.