Jane Campion returns to her roots
It may be short on hobbits, wizards and orcs, but Jane Campion's new venture into television promises to be just as powerful an advertisement for New Zealand's picture-postcard glories as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Top of the Lake, a six-part detective series that screened as a special event at the Berlin Film Festival, is set against the monumental Southern Alps, glittering lakes and lush grasslands of the bottom end of the Land of the Long White Cloud. Yes, people seem to keep disappearing in mysterious circumstances, but you can't beat Middle Earth for a spectacular camping spot.
The series is a co-production between UKTV in Australia, the BBC and the Sundance Channel in the US. For Campion, who wrote the series with Gerard Lee and shared direction with Australian director Garth Davis, the fact that it was television made no difference; what attracted her was the long form.
''All the people working on this were filmmakers, so we don't have an idea of bringing the bar down lower to make television,'' says Campion, who was in Berlin to present her work. ''Most features, if they're lucky, get sold to television anyway, so I have a very pragmatic view of it.''
A detective story is another departure for the director of such films as Portrait of a Lady but, she says, ''you've got to have a motor somewhere. The mystery manoeuvres and clues were a struggle for us, but we persisted.''
In other respects, Top of the Lake represents a return to her roots. It is the first piece of work she has made in her native New Zealand since The Piano (1993). Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for her performance as the mute Ada in that film, plays a pivotal role in this series as an unwilling guru to a group of disaffected women who have decamped to the wilderness.
Hunter says she was particularly struck by the contrast between the North Island where The Piano was filmed and the South.
''The bush is very close in the North Island and has a sense of entanglement,'' she says. ''The South Island felt disorienting because the scale is so grand, so out of proportion to humanity - far grander than anything that we are - which can force people to put their problems and conflicts into perspective. It was a very liberating landscape.''
Campion co-wrote the series with Gerard Lee, with whom she wrote her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. They are both intrigued, they say, by the kind of community that gathers at the end of a road.
''People say, 'I've got to get away from life and calm down','' says Lee. ''But they've gone to a place where other people are fed up with life or can't handle life, so they really can't handle each other. It's a worse situation in a way.''
''But also it's a really reasonable dream,'' Campion says, jumping in. ''Who doesn't want to get out of their life some time and go somewhere apparently more peaceful, where nature is beautiful? I keep feeling that pull: I want to live in the bush and be a hermit. That's one of my dreams.''
The problem, of course, is that ''wherever you go, the bullshit travels with you, often in a much more compromising way''.
Top of the Lake clearly invites comparisons to the Danish small-screen hit The Killing. Like that series, it features a capable but secretly damaged female detective, played by Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss.
''Elisabeth asked if she could audition and we went 'unlikely, you know, but all right, if she wants to','' says Campion. ''And she just knocked us out with her work. I wish she were here now, because she's so gracious and adorable and speaks so well about the whole experience.''
Moss's character Robin is apparently calm in the face of calamity, a surface that is soon ruffled.
''The basic idea is that people are attracted to material in the world and in life where they have issues and often don't even know why,'' Campion explains. ''And they get drawn in before they even know they're in danger.''
What they wanted to do, says Lee, is use the mystery form to open up other issues rather than deal out cliches about the dangers lurking around every corner.
''A CSI issue would be that there are a lot of rapists out there, so don't go into the street,'' says Lee.
''That's not a very interesting issue to me, because the number of rapists out there is a very low proportion of the male population. Whereas the search for a meaningful existence or an experience with some subtlety to it, or some transcendent quality, is much more universal. And that's what we're trying to get into our story.''
Sydney Morning Herald