Troubled Waters: Jane Campion on Top of the Lake

It’s mid-December and Jane Campion is three days away from finishing post-production on the final episode of TV series Top of the Lake. We’re sitting in See-Saw Films’ Paddington office and she’s looking at her phone reading a message from leading lady Elisabeth Moss. She’s pleased and Moss is ecstatic. “‘Jane, you can have whatever you want… you can have my first-born child. I just watched the first two episodes: I’m completely blown away, I’m speechless.’”

It’s a ringing endorsement from the American actor whose casting nearly turned the New Zealand-set production on its head before a single frame was even shot. Moss plays Robin Griffin, a straight-talking detective called into investigate the mysterious disappearance of a pregnant twelve year-old in Top of the Lake, Campion’s six-part crime mystery involving lashings of murder, drugs and sex.

For the director, Moss’ initial audition was little more than an “experiment” following a long list of Antipodeans. “She very quietly made it riveting and everybody felt she could make it work. There was a lot of discussion about accents as per usual but I’ve always had good luck with accents and confidence about them and knowing someone’s got a good ear they can get there.”

The casting of her enigmatic “Mona Lisa” may have cost the production the support of the ABC but was central to the artistic vision that underpins Campion’s first foray into television in more than 20 years. (Her 1990 film An Angel at my Table – about New Zealand novelist Janet Frame – was originally filmed as a three-hour TV miniseries special before being reedited for the big screen.)

Her unique work has consistently focused on the lives of women who reside outside of mainstream society in films such as The Piano, Bright Star, In The Cut and Holy Smoke! Campion herself is one of just four women to be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards (she won for best screenplay) and the first to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival for The Piano in the early-90s.

It was Campion’s unique style that BBC controller of drama, Ben Stephenson, first wanted to bring to television screens. His directions were simple: “We want you to be completely yourself – as creative, as dangerous, as out there, as on-the-edge as you can be,” according to Campion. “So that’s a very different invitation than what you normally get: ‘Make it popular’.”

By Campion’s side was co-writer Gerard Lee, who she first worked with on her debut feature film Sweetie in the late-80s. “I wasn’t sure how serious Jane was because you know [laughs] I’m just a nobody. I was sort of living on this island off Brisbane with a lot of very strange folk and I’d kind of almost forgotten about being a writer. I was being a dad and stuff like that.”

Campion describes Lee as one of the great storytellers like US author David Sedaris. “There was an ease to it and I thought if Gerard would do this with me we could do it – I didn’t want to do it by myself. And I couldn’t really imagine doing it with anyone else.”

Directing duties were also shared, this time with newcomer Garth Davis – a new experience for Campion.

“You have to find the person that is correctly positioned. People like David Michôd [Animal Kingdom] and Justin Kurzel [Snowtown], well, they’d really created their vision and they needed to go on and make their second features and do other stuff and, even though we could have given them a lot of experience directing – which everybody appreciates – they want to do their own thing. Garth had done amazing commercials and short films but for some particular reason he really identified with the material: the women’s camp, and understood the humour and the tenderness as well as the darkness…”

Davis, who has directed several TV commercials including the award-winning Toohey’s Nocturnal Migration, also took the production into some more controversial territory: actors killing sheep (Lee says the sheep were going to be killed regardless). “That’s a pretty new experience for urban actors and they did it – it wouldn’t be something I’d suggest,” Campion says. “I’d be a bit timid to do something so radical but Garth’s quite radical. It’s a ‘guy thing’ I think too.”

Aside from Moss, Top of the Lake drew an impressive cast including Holly Hunter (her first collaboration with Campion since her Academy Award-winning performance in The Piano), BAFTA-nominee Peter Mullan (War Horse), AFI Award-winning actor David Wenham (300), Thomas M Wright (Balibo), Genevieve Lemon (Sweetie), theatre actress Robyn Nevin, Robyn Malcolm (Rake), Jay Ryan (Offspring), Kip Chapman (The Cult) and Madeleine Sami (Super City). Just who kills the sheep is yet to be revealed.

While the pace was more gruelling than a feature – an 18-week shooting schedule – Campion says she relished the freedom. Top of the Lake is part of a growing trend of complex drama being brought to the small screen rather than cinemas: TV series such as Deadwood, Mad Men and The Killing. Campion cites 2004 crime-thriller documentary The Staircase as a particular inspiration for Top of the Lake.

“Its length is six-hours and I felt like it really held me. That’s what we’re trying to do: it’s not like an episodic thing so much as a story which grows and grows… we want to give people that accelerated need to know what’s going to happen.”

The crossover – bringing cinematic storytelling to a TV drama – was recognised by the Sundance Film Festival, which screened the series in one six-hour session. It was the first time the prestigious festival included a scripted long-form series in its line-up. “It’s like being force fed a whole novel in a day and all you have to do is sit there and look at it,” Lee says.

Moss clearly needs no such forcing. Campion continues to read the message from her leading lady: “‘I was on the edge of my seat – I couldn’t breathe. I was grinning like a fool at the end of episode two knowing what was coming… I have to see the rest. Jane, it looks like we did it didn’t we – we made something really good, didn’t we.’”

This article first appeared in IF Magazine issue #151