Jane Campion

by Philip Matthews / 28 February, 2004
Jane Campion won her Oscar 10 years ago for The Piano's original screenplay. In the same year, for the same film, Anna Paquin won her Oscar. Campion has made three films since: The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke and In the Cut. In the latest, which opens in New Zealand next month, a lonely teacher (Meg Ryan) becomes sexually involved with a New York detective who may also be a serial killer. Campion describes this adaptation of Susanna Moore's cult erotic thriller as "a modern love story"; Campion's friend Nicole Kidman was to star until she experienced "her difficult year". The interview took place in Wellington when Campion visited from Sydney for her parents' 80th birthday party.

What was your first experience of In the Cut? I didn't think about adapting it at all, I just read it and thought, God. Wow. I felt like I had read a truly modern novel, which was an interesting blend of pulp detective noir with very modern stuff. The film came out of a conversation with Nicole, who was looking for something edgy to work on and was complaining about the blandness of world cinema.

This is before Moulin Rouge and those more interesting Kidman parts? Yes, it was. I think she has my kind of taste, for things that I love, too - the more independent stuff. That's what gets her excited. I had recommended that she read the book, just out of interest, and then she found out the rights were available and she was like, 'Can we get them now or they'll go? And maybe we don't have to make it ourselves, we can just produce it?' That was a lovely idea to me, something I could jump at, rather than directing it myself. Then I met Susanna Moore, who is an incredibly seductive character, and I started to feel more attracted to doing it. Initially, I was bothered by the noir stuff - it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I don't read or watch detective thrillers, so it was a strange choice for me. But I found, talking to Susanna and getting involved, it became quite intriguing - not so much the thriller aspect of the story, but the modern romance aspect. I changed it, blended it and made it more mine. It felt like it was something I could do. Detective thrillers are a genre that gives us dark subjects. You can talk about fear.

As in The Piano, there is this idea of a woman in a sexual relationship that seems both liberating and dangerous. Sex is one of the main drives in our life. We're engineered such that your sex drive can put you out of your comfort zone and take you somewhere else, places that you wouldn't have gone. It might be dangerous, but otherwise you would be dead - like the idea of putting an institution around something and making it safe. The way to live life is to keep pushing those edges forward. This is a story about a sexually explosive relationship that comes out of a dead life.

That sex and nudity makes it an out-of-character job for Meg Ryan, then. Meg took this on as an actor playing a character. We were in a trusting environment. It's about art and sharing stories, about all our lives. It's all the same story, really. The problem is that we've got a cultural situation in America that is, for me, really weird. That puritan front that they have and then there's the back - the biggest porn industry in the world. So the American cut is quite tame, compared to what we're seeing.

It had to be cut for the US market? You can't advertise a film with an NC17 rating because of the Christian pressure groups. They will lobby and withdraw all their advertising from the newspaper. The American rating now means that a child can go with parents. I wouldn't take my child, even to that cut! It's a film for adults that love cinema, really.

It's reminiscent of a lot of dark films from the 70s - Taxi Driver, Klute, Looking for Mr Goodbar - which were also adult-oriented. I loved those films and it's because of those films that I was up for making this film. I'm not doing this to win a popularity contest. I would be disappointed! I'm doing it because I think it's good to have a lot of variety in the discussion. I think it's great when there are adult discussions going on, along with everything else.

Although there's quite graphic violence in the book, there's actually no onscreen violence in the movie. No knives. I don't know whether I put too much blood in, though - I didn't know what I was doing, I'd never done anything like this before. But when you're on set, you don't know how much is too much. It all comes out of a jar or a tube. You become like the detectives, you don't emotionally react to it. Is that red enough? Is that dry enough? It becomes quite comical.

But the mood is violent. The mood is threatening. On purpose, because the point of noir stories is that they are ways of processing fear. It is a role of art in our lives to process difficult and dark imaginings. It's lovely to see inspiring or uplifting things as well, but most of us have had sad experiences, too, and it's great to see something that touches that.

Do you see your films as personal, even eccentric? I think that they are. The most important long-term relationship in my life has been my relationship to my work. I've really lived that and I've done it because it's been so rewarding. That's where I've felt the most freedom. It's only now that I've realised that that's what has happened, that's why I'm so compulsive and so interested in doing it.

It's been an escape from life? Exactly. When I've felt things are too much, or overwhelming, these stories are a freedom. It's why I've had the energy to do it. It hasn't always been so personal - I guess I responded to the Janet Frame trilogy [An Angel at My Table] because I had a New Zealand childhood and I loved Owls Do Cry, and maybe because of my own shyness. But a lot of times I would be guided by my subconscious.

I don't mind anybody knowing about that. I don't care. I don't think there are any secrets, finally. The big secret - what is it? We're all humans, we feel fear. This is my way of sharing myself. We all look for that, for ways of sharing ourselves.

You've said that Fellini's La Strada was "a genius film" that steered you towards becoming a film-maker. Who do you rate who's currently working?

I think Tarantino is a genius. I love everything he's ever done. Kill Bill is a hard film to understand in some ways, but his wit and his irony and his film language - he's found new ways of being ironic. He's so far ahead of everyone else that they don't even know how outstanding he is. I feel frustrated that he isn't getting the feedback that he ought to be getting.

Sofia Coppola is really extraordinary. And what Peter Jackson's done with the trilogy - no one else could have done it. It's quite giving of him, he's really serving Tolkien. He's just become masterful and I'm really moved by that. I also loved the success of Whale Rider - it's such a good story.

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