Big-time film directors are crossing over to small-screen projects with increasing regularity, and now you can count Jane Campion among them. Her seven-part series, Top of the Lake, premieres tonight on the Sundance Channel after debuting at Sundance to rave reviews. The series stars Elisabeth Moss as a police detective investigating the impregnation and eventual disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in rural New Zealand. There are scandals, secrets, and red herrings to be had, but the beautiful cinematography and terrific array of characters make this more than just a straight-up crime thriller. On one end, you have a volatile, gun-toting patriarch (played by a ferocious Peter Mullan); on the other end, you have a shipping-crate camp of freewheeling women led by a spiritual sage (Holly Hunter). It all makes for riveting, unusual television. We spoke to Campion about directing TV, wanting to cast Anna Paquin, and getting guff for casting Moss, an American, instead.
I hear you’re in India right now?
That’s right, Jaipur.
Are you there for work or pleasure?
I’m not here for work. I’m here to do nothing. I’m just reading a bit.
Do you go there often to relax?
No, not really. I’ve got a friendship, quite an important one, with a family here. I was a disciple of their mother; she taught yoga, and she sort of was an extraordinary woman. She’s dead now, but her family and I are still very close, so I usually go around once a year. We all drive each other crazy, but I also really love them.
Do you travel around?
I don’t go anywhere. I try not to leave the house. I find India quite challenging. Enough of India in this house for me. Yesterday we were doing some yoga on the roof and the monkeys came and pinched our fruit. [Laughs.] They were medium-size monkeys, but there was still a lot of hysterical screaming. I feel they could be dangerous, but I’m not from here, of course.
I just finished watching the first three episodes. How did the idea of the show first come to you?
Before I even made Bright Star, I had the idea I’d like to do a crime mystery story set in that part of the world with the themes of paradise. I think the dreams that we have in our life are probably more substantial than reality, like the hope for love or a soul mate. I would say that the dream of paradise, a place on Earth where things are simpler and somehow you’re away from all the complications of life, is also a very enduring dream that is so powerful for the whole world. To me, our story really looks at the power of these dreams and for the people who are the casualties of the dreams.
Why did television seem like the appropriate format instead of film?
It goes back to being influenced by some very early brave television makers, like David Milch of Deadwood. I remember seeing that show and going, “Oh my God, they are making this on television?” It made me reassess my view of what was possible anywhere. It felt like they were able to be braver and have a dialogue with the audience which was a lot more vigorous in a way than with film, where it feels like you have to pander to the audience a bit more to get them out of their houses. There’s all these people sitting at home with their beautiful flat-screens already waiting for something exciting to happen. I thought I could have a place there. I could try, anyway.
I heard Elisabeth Moss had to do a bit of persuading initially to get the role. How did she reach out to you, and what made you decide to cast her?
I think she’s being very modest. I think she reached out through her agent, but then she did a fabulously successful audition, which was very quiet. She does a very Elisabeth Moss thing, which is she’s able to show strength and vulnerability at once, and also mystery. You find yourself really riveted to her. She made our material work, which was like, Phew. Plus, she’s beautiful, but that’s not the only thing. She’s beautiful but real.
Do you think there was anything in Peggy Olson that informed her character here?
Not really. I think she’s great as Peggy. I think what probably is great for her and for me is that she can do something very different.
Did a part of you feel you should hire a more local actor from New Zealand or Australia?
Yeah, I really did think that. I thought that’s what would happen. But people like Toni Collette were a little bit old, and we couldn’t make her story work with Peter Mullan. And there were other people the right age who didn’t have the experience to make our material work. Sometimes I’d be quite positive about somebody and I couldn’t get the rest of the team onboard. It’s a big job for all of us, so I didn’t want to drag my producers into a project if they’re not feeling strong about the lead character. The idea was that we should all feel good about it. I was quite keen on Anna Paquin, but she couldn’t do it for reasons that we now know — she’s had twins.
Did the local film industry give you any problems for not casting someone local?
The ABC, who was one of our financiers, they pulled out. But it was our view that this is part of our creative responsibility to choose the best cast for the role, and we weren’t gonna change. We just changed our financier. We could understand where they were coming from. But on the other hand, modern Australian actors work in America, as you know. A great deal of them, and we didn’t think that was sufficient reason not to cast Elisabeth.
How much time did Elisabeth have to work on her accent? And since her character grew up in New Zealand then moved to Sydney as a teenager, is her accent supposed to be a New Zealand accent?
I guess it’s similar to mine. It’s a crossover. We worked with a wonderful woman who coached her and was always very positive. She said a great ear will get there. I’ve only had really good experiences with people working in accents. I believed in the process, and it’s a very delicate process. Not many actors are going that way. Most people know how to do an American accent, but not very many people are approached about how to do an Australian accent. So it’s a less-trod path, but I think as long as you make the actor feel very confident and you don’t put unwelcome focus on it as a problem — because you know what the psyche is like. You just start to panic.
What was it like working with Holly again? How much have you guys kept in touch since The Piano?
We had kept in touch since The Piano. When you have such a successful movie as we two did, and we weren’t expecting that, it’s very bonding. Like, “We were successful together!” But more than that we had such an interesting time doing The Piano together. You wouldn’t believe we understood anything about acting, the way we talk. It’s more like party planners. We just get excited. We try things out.
Her character, GJ, has hair that’s similar to yours. Was her hair inspired by your hair?
No, it wasn’t really. But maybe my hair’s inspired by hers now. I often think about myself as looking like a wizard.
That was a wig, I’m assuming?
That was a wig. I just always imagined her with bum-length, long silver hair. She loved it.
How did you come up with the idea for her character and these retreats?
I didn’t really come up with it. She’s inspired by a gentleman who I really did know called not GJ but UG. His surname is Krishnamurti. You can find him on YouTube. I met him in Sydney and visited him a couple times in Switzerland, where he had an apartment. He struck me as the most unusual human I’d ever met, and I still to this day think that. I felt like in some ways this story is an homage to him. It’s hard to know how to describe this, but he has woken from the dreams. He lives in reality. To understand that you have to be a little bit interested in, I don’t know, spiritual thinking. Which is the basic idea that everybody is asleep and what you have to do is wake up. I just felt that he was the most free person I’d ever met who didn’t want something from you. Most people at the very least want your approval or something.
One of the things I love about the show is how it captures subtle power plays between men and women. Do you think these sorts of power plays happen all the time?
I think so. I mean, something that the story allows us is to give a polarizing look at the way men and women [engage] in an extreme situation. I’m pretty interested in that. And the women’s camp where they’re broken down — they’ve no longer got any hope of fitting into the world, so they’re kind of outspoken. They’re broken and outspoken. They’ve fallen off the social edge of the world. Their story doesn’t have a part for them to play, which is the unfuckables. They kind of know it, and it’s sad, but it’s also liberating.
What are you working on next?