Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Jane Campion

'Star' Maker

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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New Zealand-born Jane Campion, 55, is one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, generally telling tales of confused, displaced women, often in terms of sexuality. But she has always done so with a poet's touch, always aware of emotionally resonant camera angles, landscape and atmosphere. Like many of the great filmmakers, she occasionally manages to please critics and audiences with a hit like The Piano (1993), for which she won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as a nomination for Best Director. But other times, she marginalizes viewers with intense works like Holy Smoke (1999) or In the Cut (2003). Her new Bright Star, however, is unlike anything she has done before; it clearly has her poetic touch, but rather than a tale of outsiders and sexuality, it's a very simple, very pure, and very passionate love story, based on two real characters, the famous poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his true love and muse, Fanny Brawne. Though Campion used a non-fiction book -- "Keats" by Andrew Motion -- as source material, she has written an original screenplay, and not a biopic. The film has no concern for Keats' birth or his teenage years, or his first inspirations. Played by Ben Whishaw, Keats only begins to exist in Bright Star the moment Fanny (Abbie Cornish) enters his life; he's already published a book of poems, which largely sits unsold on the shelves in bookshops. They fall in love but cannot marry given Keats' lack of income and large debts, and so they spend most of the film pining for one another, buoyed by letters, poems and a single kiss.

[Note: the following questions and answers came from a round-table interview in which I was just one participant.]

Q: Most of your films have dealt with female sexuality, but this is a very chaste story.

Jane Campion: This one broke my heart when I read it. I think it's so innocent and pure. I think it's pretty clear that they didn't have sex, but that doesn't in any way diminish their love for each other. Some of the great love stories of all time are stories of unconsummated love. Looking at first love, which is complicated and misbegotten in the sense that when people fall in love they sort of merge their identities. When you're young and you do it for the first time, it seems like a great idea. "I'll lose myself in the other person; I never liked myself anyway." And it becomes a terrible situation where something goes wrong and you have to re-establish your identity without the great love affair. Painful business. I thought it was a special story. It really got me.

Q: Can you please describe how you came to establish the film's very quiet tone?

JC: I approached this in quite a classical way. I wanted to disappear and let the elements be in the front. I wasn't going to let the camera go "whish!" because it would undermine the independence of the actors. The actors were pretty free. I would say, "What do you want to do in this scene? What's going to happen?" And they would find their way. I wanted them to be themselves. The thing that was very important to me at the time was that I could believe that this is just happening, that they really were looking at someone and they didn't know what was going to happen in the next moment. Just convincing everybody that we could do it from that position, and that it would be enough and that we wouldn't have to push the drama.

I think the tone also comes from Janet Patterson's design and her costumes. She also said that -- from her research -- the 1820s was very spare. There was hardly any furniture in the room. Most period films look like antique shops. "Can we put another two vases?" I think they have an idea that old things in themselves are interesting to people. We were trying to create a world that would work. But other than that authenticity, it created some boundaries for us. To have sense that the furniture is there for a reason, rather than to look pretty. Some people think the film is beautiful, it wasn't our prime concern: "let's make a beautiful shot." In fact, if we thought that one of the shots... in one exterior shot, the daffodils were coming up and we were like, "oh no! It's too much! Mow 'em down!" It can make it look ridiculous or picturesque, which is not what we wanted at that time. We thought that if the film could feel beautiful, they would have earned it.

Q: Can you please speak of your use of static camera?

JC: I think the film that most inspired me, and made me feel confident, was Bresson's A Man Escaped, which is pretty much a static camera. I just really rejoiced. I was so relieved to experience that film as if it were there for me. I just felt that that sort of reserve, and staying back and the trust in the subject and trust in the actors, was how I wanted to do it. No amount of tracking shots will make any difference if the drama's not present. I mean, if it's an action movie, OK, but we've got lots of action movies. And I don't think that my friends or I are being well served by the majority of movies that are being made. They're not for me. I couldn't care less about Spider-Man. It's not my story. It's pretty hard to be tender in those movies, but I had plenty of space to do that. Surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of this film.

Q: Can you please talk about the relationship between Keats and his benefactor Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider)?

JC: Kind of a love triangle, isn't it? Not just a sexual love triangle. I think Brown is attracted to anyone in a skirt and is going to be irritated by Fanny not paying him attention. But a more sensible reading of it was that Brown loved Keats. Before they met Brown was pursuing his hopes as a poet and they weren't amounting to terribly much, and when he met Keats, the friendship was very strong, and they adored each other, and Brown realized quickly that he wasn't going to realize his ambitions, but that Keats was a genius. He did have the talent. In a way, he loved him for it. He thought, "at least I'm close to the guy who's going to do it." And Brown places himself historically at the right place at the right time. And he was critical of Fanny, and he was terrified that Keats would marry Fanny and that would be the end of him.

Q: What made you think of Paul Schneider?

JC: It's crazy that I thought of him, isn't it? I saw All the Real Girls, and he was interesting in it. He seemed alive and intelligent and not like an actor. Then I was on the jury in Venice when The Assassination of Jesse James came through. And I went, "that's him!" The whole cast was amazing.

Q: Is there a spiritual aspect to the film?

JC: One of the reasons I loved it was that apart from the story being really powerful, there was another sense that elevated it, and it was that Keats, as young as he was, and the sad way that it ended, he, at 25, had already done with I feel you need to do with a life here on earth. He was aware of consciousness and he valued it.

Q: How did you choose "Bright Star" of all Keats' poems?

JC: It took me a while to understand it, but I was attracted to that poem without really knowing what it was. A friend pointed out to me that there's a big "but" in it that changes everything. He's yearning for the steadfastness of a star, but what he doesn't like is that it's lonely and far away and distant. He goes on to say "no." He's saying that the inner life is wanting these things that are unreconcilable, like to be so close that you can feel one's breath, but I never want it to change. And that's the whole agony of living.

Q: The kissing scene in the reeds is just breathtaking.

JC: You know we had to build that? The art department had to build the bridge-y passage-y thing. What I loved about it was the sort of whispery, going somewhere. The way the reeds whisper, and they're not talking, and there's tension, a gentle awareness of each other. They know they're going somewhere and they're going to try and kiss. Maybe. We're walking away from here, and we both know it. And you don't know until it's done.

The first kiss in any relationship is seminal. That's the moment you can't return from. It's the seal. Anything that comes after that is matter of fact. It's the first drop of rain. Consummation is... I think we all know how that goes.

Q: It must have been difficult to make a film about a writer with so many letters and poems and choosing how to present them cinematically.

JC: Ooh. It was really hard for me. I'm not a scholar. I did go to university, but what I did was, we had permission for the Andrew Motion book, and after I did that, I didn't read others because that would be a problem for us anyway. I read all his letters. I didn't even read all the poems. I read through the poems. Then I worked out a storyline, and worked out the parts that I would invent and wanted to invent. What freed me was: this is my ballad. I'm never going to tell the story. He's never going to be Keats. But I decided to keep their timeline. Obviously I'm going to miss stuff, but I'm also not going to put it out of order, and I'm not going to beef it up and I'm not going to give them a love scene. Sometimes I overstepped that and gave myself license, like with the butterfly farm in the bedroom. No one ever said anything about that.

Q: I don't recall there being much of a score.

JC: It starts off like a duet, a young man and a young woman's voice. They're singing a version of the Mozart piece that is played in the middle. There are some other pieces that Mark did. He's only about 23 himself. He's really young, but he's good at feeling the right sort of tone for the music. One of our agreements was that we're not going to put any music on the kissing or any of that stuff. We don't need people to feel any more than they're feeling.

July 30, 2009

Partial Jane Campion Filmography:
Peel (1982) [short]
Passionless Moments (1983) [short]
A Girl's Own Story (1984) [short]
Two Friends (1986)
Sweetie (1989)
An Angel at My Table (1990)
The Piano (1993)
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Holy Smoke! (1999)
In the Cut (2003)
Bright Star (2009)

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