Jane Campion
Photo by Nicolas Guerin

Jane Campion: “It has to go beyond”

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Short Profile

Name: Elizabeth Jane Campion
DOB: 30 April 1954
Place of birth: Wellington, New Zealand
Occupation: Film director

Ms. Campion, in today’s film industry, is it more essential than ever for films to have a specific voice?

Within the film industry, I think so, yes. Film has to have a really clear voice to get the attention it needs to have a life. It’s no secret that films are struggling to get audiences and something everyone can see, the Marvel type of cinema is the most dominant one. And the art cinema which I love, that saved my life, is now struggling. So I think if you want to make a film with a big life — and I did want that — you need to choose a very particular story. And I mean you can’t really help what you fall in love with! I had fallen in love before with “Bright Star,” nobody loves poetry, but you have to accept sometimes that your love takes you down deserted paths.

What makes you fall in love with a story?

For The Power of the Dog,I fell in love with the book and it haunted me. It really stayed with me. I didn’t read it with the ambition of making the film. I read a lot, so I just read it for the sheer joy. I was so interested in how it was haunting me, how I couldn’t stop thinking about the themes of the book, of the narrative. First of all, you enjoy the narrative and then the themes keep coming back to you. I thought to myself that this kind of story would make a really beautiful feature because it’s got power. And so there was some calculation but most of it was the love affair. You need an enormous amount of inspiration and energy to make a feature. And I really felt that the richness of the story was infinite.

“A faithful adaptation is not enough, it has to have that inspiration of love. It has to go beyond it.”

The Power of the Dog isn’t the first time you’ve adapted a novel into a film. How do you experience that transformation as a filmmaker?

What is so interesting is that when you really love something, you are standing on its shoulders after you have read it. So it’s not enough to just do it in a loyal way what they already did, you have to add something now. Okay, you go up here and you can see a little bit beyond or a little bit different than what Thomas Savage did... I’m not saying the additions we made to the story are better than the book. It’s just that some scenes in the book are so great because they are from the interior position of the head — but we couldn’t really do that, so sometimes we had to make things up. So I think you have to trust yourself and add your own vision. A faithful adaptation is not enough, it has to have that inspiration of love. It has to go beyond it.

How is it to bring a book’s characters to life on screen?

I knew that this story had such a great lead character that it would give the opportunity for some great performances as well. I think Benedict [Cumberbatch], who played the lead character Phil Burbank, took on the challenge of an extraordinary exciting character, but very different. And he is a very bold man, Ben, very experimental, very playful, he loves a challenge.

This film is a departure from your usual scope — normally female characters are at the forefront for you.

I have been in this industry for a very long time and there’s a lot of exclusion, I think, for women! I think the #MeToo movement has really changed that, and I think television has changed too. Women are very dominant on television, and women are choosing what they watch on television. And I think that’s been really helpful as well and I’m really excited to see how many brave new women there are out there exploring their voices and their point of view. But I just didn’t even think about it, I just realized, “Oh, so now I can fall in love with a story with a complicated guy.” And I think in a way, it’s hard to know the decisions you make or the reasons behind them and sometimes it’s posthumously that you figure it out. And I think when I think about The Piano, which was a really strange portrait of that Aida woman, in a way this is a kind of bookend to that — this time it’s a guy.

“I think it was a challenge to make sure that her journey was understood, to show that she was tormented.”

So it wasn’t so much that in the past, you couldn’t tell the story of a man; you just actively did not want to.

Well, it didn’t happen for me that I fell in love with a story about a man! I also didn’t want to, because there were really just too many men in the business and so few women voices. And I love women. And I think most men do too, fortunately. (Laughs) But maybe there is a difference in the experiences of growing up as a woman… Although to me, gender is not really a bigger issue as sensitivity.

Was it difficult to balance between the many representations of masculinity with the one woman in the film?

We were also working in a period of time when a woman’s capacity to express themselves is quite limited in a way and discreet, even for a simple conventional woman like Rose, who is just really quite gentle and kind. So I think it was a challenge to make sure that her journey was understood, to show that she was tormented. And I think what was one of the interesting things about men like Phil Burbank… Nobody likes them! Nobody likes alpha men really, not even other alphas. They make life pretty horrible for everyone. They don’t live long lives because they always fight other people and die an early death. But at the same time, they are what we all have to handle. They are a power that we have to contend with in the world.

Apparently you encouraged Benedict Cumberbatch, who starred as Phil Burbank, to remain in character and try method acting for the first time ever.

Well, I want the best environment for my actors to deliver their best work. And the set can be a very chummy sort of place, and his character was so particular and so unpleasant and cruel; I didn’t want to have to have him be chummy with everybody, and then in a very short time and trying to find that other spot. And for him it’s actually not so natural, he’s a very friendly person. So to start off with in rehearsal, I got him in practice just to say no to everybody, just being rude actually. He was never allowed to say yes or please or any of the politenesses that he was addicted to! So I think he felt sad to feel the freedom of that, because there is a freedom in Phil’s authentic cruelty. I think it was a really good choice.