Jane Campion Screen Talk

Posted by Lou. The time is 12.50pm here in London, UK.

I was going to email Bel some points from the Jane Campion film festival Screen Talk I had the pleasure of attending the other night, but may as well put them here in case anyone else is interested. It is a mix of thoughts and observations from me, and some second-hand anecdotes from her. I didn't take notes so treat my paraphrasing as being very loose! The person asking the questions was Sandra Hebron, the film festival's Artistic Director. This is a list in no particular order as I recall things:

  • Jane is incredibly engaging, lively and down-to-earth (in that very Kiwi way!) - she's the exact person you'd want to be put next to at a formal dinner. You can tell that she is able to find humour and depth in everything. I want to be her best friend.
  • She is very humble and has a lot of grace towards her colleagues - constantly mentioning collaborators and sharing the praise that was given to her work. This was particularly interesting as it is in total opposition to the manner of Werner Herzog, another great filmmaker I saw speak recently. Whilst he positions himself as the sole driving force and the genius of his own work (in a way that does manage to be endearing rather than entirely arrogant), she positions herself as someone who is just doing something she finds interesting with a lot of other people who help make the finished product good. This is super particularly interesting as, whilst I think they are both cinematic geniuses of a kind, hers is actually the more polished and flawless work - hers retains that perspective of films being something you make for an audience; whereas his have that feeling of being something he has made for himself, and if you happen to like it then that's just an incidental bonus.
  • Sandra asked about something she read in the media, wherein Jane had spoken about a young guy who is on set every day sitting beside her operating the video playback, who - at the grand age of 18 or 19 - would give her "tips" to make the film better ("move the camera more", "don't you need some sex?", etc). Sandra seemed to be quite taken aback by this behaviour - as if it somehow insulted or undermined Jane's role as Director. But Jane obviously finds these guys (who she says are always like this on any film) hilarious, as of course to her they're an over-enthusiastic guy acting like 18- and 19-year-old film guys do and don't have any of her experience or knowledge. This, to me, embodies her under-stated confidence: you know that she knows that she is completely in control. She doesn't need to prance around acting like the king of the world, because she is the king of the world. And she had the grace to say that occasionally these tips are actually useful.
  • She went on to tell a story about how this guy was gotten back in a way as he was seeing one girl and text-flirting with another and getting input from all the other assistants on set about how to juggle the two girls, and one day was showing a draft text he'd written to one girl to an assistant who just hit "send" instead of helping him with the wording. This is obviously an entirely tangental, unrelated, flippant and banal anecdote from on-set and I love that - I love that she pays that much attention to the people around her and that she finds everybody interesting including the lowest of assistants. Sandra didn't seem so amused by it.
  • Someone asked a question about the difference in the ending of her film In The Cut versus the ending of the same-named novel upon which it is based. She openly stated that actually the only reason she changed the ending was because the financiers told her she couldn't make it with the book's ending. This prompted someone else to ask for tips on how to deal with funders who are pressuring you to change your artistic vision. Her response was something like: "Well, films need to make the money back. That's economics. Or perhaps that's me being a New Zealander!" (we are a thrifty sort). Having worked for a major funding body, I loved her response as it is the truth: if you're asking someone/an entity to put major investment into your film, you need to listen to what they have to say. There is no obligation owed by The World to filmmakers to give them millions to make their vision as they and only they want it. The money talks. (This is why only paying money to see films that you want to see more of is so important!!) I also, of course, loved that she clearly positioned herself as a New Zealander, as all-too-often she is called an Australian. Anyone who grows up in New Zealand and moves away in their 20s is a New Zealander, no matter where they live or where they work.
  • Sandra asked what about the story of Keats and Brawne had prompted her to get back into feature filmmaking and she told the most gorgeous story about being in a field and having a horse come up and develop a curiosity for what was in her rucksack, and sort of nudge it open with its nose. She said that she thought it was beautifully tender, and it made her want to make a film about tenderness.
  • They showed a 5-minute clip from The Piano - a film that I haven't seen for far too many years - and I found it more engaging and moving and beautiful than most filmmakers can hope to achieve in an entire career.
  • Sandra asked Jane about the fact that many of her protagonists are quite wild and insane, and whether to Jane they are normal or if she is consciously writing insane characters. Jane laughed a lot at this one, and to explain it properly I have to specify: Sandra seemed very much like one of those perfectly groomed, well-spoken people who are (to people like me) perhaps - how shall we say it - a little controlled. So Jane's response is along the lines of "aren't we all just pretending to be sane?" - a sentiment most of us can relate to. But it seemed that Sandra couldn't. And Jane went on to say that anyone who doesn't seem a little bit wild or insane is just trying to look good, and Sandra sort of laughed and disputed it a bit, and Jane reiterated the point, and there was this moment where I think a lot of us realised that perhaps it was hitting a nerve, and it was rather hilarious.
  • During the clips, as they were seated in front of the screen, Jane just threw herself onto the floor to watch them from down there out of sight, so Sandra had to follow suit, and that was also rather amusing as you could tell it wasn't an organic thing for her to do but an entirely natural thing to Jane.
  • Okay, so, as you may be picking up, there was this brilliant juxtaposition between the two women which often served to emphasise Jane's points and add a layer of hilarity, but also at times held the conversation back as Sandra would paraphrase what Jane was saying but not quite get it right. (This isn't a criticism of Sandra - I think she came off very well, just entirely different in personality.)
  • Another anecdote I loved was mentioning that a specific moment in Bright Star - a moment that will give you butterflies and may cause swooning - was improvised by Ben Whishaw. (Ben was in the audience - just quietly sitting there for no-one to notice, obviously having enough esteem and respect for his director to be interested in listening to her speak for 90 minutes about filmmaking.) This is another example of her always giving credit to others.
  • She spoke about how in film school her teachers were largely negative towards her work, but that she took this positively: it can mean that they think your work is worth pulling apart and specifically critiquing, and it is a great primer for being in the industry and being able to maintain confidence and vision in the face of negative pressure.
  • And on the subject of critiquing, she told how learning first of all to critique something totally handicaps your ability to then do the something because your first instinct will be to critique yourself. This hits a nerve for me as I find it difficult to write now as I spent two years critiquing other people's writing: all I can see is the faults.
  • I really desperately wanted to ask a question about how she formed the screenplay in relation to Keats' own words - whether she had particular extracts she weaved her writing around, or whether she wove his words in as she went, or if they were the cherry on the top that were added once she had her story in place. My interest stems from Bright Star being such a great example of the organic blending of two artists' work (the filmmaker and the subject) that leaves neither dominating or dictating to the other. Alas, given the chance to directly question my idol, I went all shy. But maybe one day I'll find myself sat next to her at a dinner...

    Edited by Lou. The time is 11.50am here in London, UK.

    I left out the best bit!!!

    Sandra spoke about how Jane's films feature strong, unconventional female protagonists and then asked her why she thinks this is so rare. Jane did the pause that says "well duh" and said "...because only 3% of directors are women" like hello Sandra. Instead of laughing and going "of course" (because, um, yeah, that's pretty much it in a nutshell) Sandra tried to push it further sort of saying "but your characters in particular", which was not a great line of questioning as, well, yeah, her characters in particular because she is one of the few women given funding to make generously budgeted art films with female protagonists (I'm sure there are hundreds - thousands - of other woman filmmakers out there with great strong female protagonists who would fucken love to make films about them if the industry wasn't so wholly sexist). But Jane went with it and further said that it seems natural to her to make films that express her experience of life as a woman. Love her.

    4 thoughts on “Jane Campion Screen Talk”

    1. Oh wow, Lou - thanks for this!

      I really feel like I was there. Except for the whole missing out thing.

      Did she talk at all about favourite actors/crew to work with? Or upcoming projects...?

    2. She always talks about Jan Chapman, her Producer (when introducing the film on Monday night she had called Jan and the film's UK producer Caroline Hewitt up introducing them both as "my friend and producer"), and when they came up in conversation she raved about Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw and also Meg Ryan.

      In terms of crew, when asked about her sound she ended up getting her composer Mark Bradshaw to put up his hand and show himself (he looked super young), and then also named her Cinematographer Greig Fraser after someone talked about the light in Bright Star being like a painting. She then highlighted that getting great people like them is how she does her job well. (imdb tells me neither have worked with her previously)

      This reminds me: she was asked about whether it was daunting having Big Famous Actors for the first time when making The Piano, and she spoke about how it was very important to her - especially with Harvey Keitel - to feel that she would be able to control them (being new to the big budget feature film game). Harvey understood and told her that he'd just give her his suggestion for the scene and if she wanted to do it her own way that would be fine, and that's what happened.