Jane Campion on Bright Star

The acclaimed director discusses her career and her new film about Keats.

by Kate Carter

Jane Campion, the award-winning director of The Piano, has a new film out this year. Based on the last few years in the life of the poet John Keats, Bright Star features a strong central performance from Ben Wishaw, with Abbie Cornish as Fanny, the girl next door who changed his view of the world. It has already received a Palme d'Or nomination in Cannes. While visiting London, Campion told journalists how she found herself here.

"I've done what I wanted to do with my life," the director explains, referring only in part to her career in film. "I had a child - I wanted to be a parent. I was indolent. I had a terror of poetry, but I read the Keats biography and the story of Fanny." She confesses that she didn't initially think of it as suitable material for a film. "I don't like biopics - I prefer to look at how moments happen in a natural way." But her pregnancy moved her to think about tenderness, which moved her and gave her the sense of trust she needed to experiment with something different.

"When I was young, I felt that I was poised on the edge of a cliff and could jump off and fly," she explains. "Now I have no wings left, but I still find things accidentally so exciting, so energetic. It made sense to do this." She has, she says, always been interested in words and myths, and in the places where they intersect with the everyday. "Even as a child I loved going into friends' homes and seeing how other families were. How they had dinner, how they sat at the table, what they ate for dessert. I was fascinated by that and I still am."

She talks about her experiences with painting and learning new languages, and the frustration which accompanied encountering her own limits. "I had to learn to withstand being bad. I knew that I was thinking to much and had to get beyond thinking, to build up being instinctive."

The upshot of this was the production of three short films and three years in film school, where she struggled to find her own identity and came to feel that the best students risked being crushed by the system. It was important to her to speak, as a filmmaker, from a female perspective, and to explore different kinds of strong female characters. "In Sweetie I found a wild female character, the savage woman we all suppress. I wrote about her as mad, or at least unconventional. But being alive is mad. We're all faking sanity all day long. If we can't be something we fake it, and we grow up and try to become the same. I feel at home amongst mad people. 'Let's behave' scares me."

Describing Bright Star as "a meditation on how thought and imagination work," she speaks of the dangers of anxiety and depression, the indisputably negative side of madness. "Good work only comes out of relaxed minds. Keats was a great philosopher. He knew that as an artist you have to trust the subconscious - it will oblige."

Yet despite this, she argues that filmmakers need to be practical and organised. When working on The Piano, for instance, she had to deal with a beach often rendered unusable by the tide, and filming in the bush meant being "eaten alive by animals" as well as causing problems with transport. She was delighted that Harvey Keitel was willing to work with her, still feeling inexperienced at the time. "I'd heard scary stories about big actors, but he seemed sweet and passionate about his role." She was particularly concerned about her child star, Anna Paquin, being careful to bring her on set fully rested and not use up her energy before shooting began. Her hard work paid off - Paquin won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.

Campion is still the only woman to have won the Palme d'Or - twice. Did she ever expect to be so successful?

"I had no idea," she admits, keen to praise the rest of her crew. "I had a terrific second assistant on The Piano."

With In The Cut, a serial killer thriller starring Meg Ryan and based on the cult novel by Susanna Moore, she made a move away from the historical dramas with which she had become associated and onto something she calls "hysterical drama". Was that deliberate?

"I love Susanna Moore," she says. "She writes about normal female sexuality and lust. I was trying to be in her world. It's about a woman with deep suppressed and internalised desires. Meg Ryan was an American sweetheart. Casting her in that role was deeply disturbing. The financiers thought it would be unwatchable and said it would be better if she died, but I love the way the novel ends. I want people to live - like in The Piano."

Filmmaking is an expensive form of storytelling, Campion acknowledges, and her strongest piece of advice for those trying to get into the industry is that if they want to be more radical then they have to figure out how to use less money.

"The process of filmmaking is organic," she says. "You have to keep confidence in a mad situation. There's a lot of terror. Pre-production is the most terrifying. On day one of the shoot you should have the whole film in your head. That makes me feel so burdened. Will I know what to say? Will I notice if something is wrong? But as the shoot happens, the anxiety goes down."

You can see Bright Star in cinemas in the UK from November 6.

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