Main content

Top Of The Lake: Jane Campion on her crime mystery

Jane Campion


Tagged with:

Jane Campion is an Academy award-winning writer and director whose work includes films such as The Piano and Bright Star. She spoke to the BBC TV blog about her new six-part drama for BBC Two, Top Of The Lake.

There is a strong sense of place and a mystical quality to the series. How important was it to you that it was filmed in the South Island of New Zealand?
It was emotionally important for me as I’ve got a hut in that area. It was really influenced by that particular landscape and the concepts of paradise.

There really is a place called Paradise near there that’s amusingly not labelled and so everybody drives up and down and can’t find it (laughs).

Tui (Jacqueline Joe) is interviewed by Robin (Elisabeth Moss)

The people who bought Paradise had lots of tragic stories to tell about it. Like they’d found themselves at the other end of the world in a perfect, beautiful place and then everything started going wrong.

It’s really interesting, people looking for heaven on earth.

I’d actually stayed on Paradise for a while when I was writing other projects. They have huts without electricity and you have to work by candlelight.

I loved the whole romance of that, the quietness – your ears would ring because there was no other noise. Or the trees would be sighing or scraping against each other – really scary but I did love it.

I think the story having a mystical element in it is mine and my co-writer Gerard Lee’s understanding of life. And even though it’s a crime mystery story, the real mystery is the greater mystery, of what we’re all doing here, how it all works and will we ever know? (laughs)

How did you and Gerard work together?
It was a complete muddle. We are absolutely amazed that we actually got it done. I think everyone is who meets us.

Say we had three weeks to write an episode, we’d spend the first week whining about life, this and that, and then we’d say, put time limits on it and say OK, 10 minutes for your whinge and 10 minutes for mine.

It is a good creative process because it’s completely honest – you just empty out. And we would discuss where to go for lunch and have a nap and then gasp and go “Two weeks to go! Oh God! OK!” and divide it all up.

We’d write for a while and we would read to each other and we’d hope to come up with something. We were brutally honest, without ever hurting each other’s feelings. A lot of time in writing is spent wondering if you’re hopeless.

Fortunately we loved what each other did best so it made it a very good relationship. I think Gerard has got such an unusual turn of mind, he sees things so uniquely.

He would often not know what was good about what he had written. He’d be like “This is awful” and I’d be like “But this part is great!” He’d go “Really?!” It was like getting stuff out of the bin.

I was his champion in a way, more than he was of himself. I’m quite good on overall shape. I’ve got a good mind for structure.

“Everything you think you are you’re not.” GJ (Holly Hunter) has strong words for Robin in episode six

What were the pleasures of working on the series?
I’d never had anybody else directing my writing, or mine and Gerard’s writing, so I was a little nervous about how I might behave. I thought I might be sort of horrible.

But I found my co-director Garth Davis always surprised me with his interpretations, they were deeper and better and more interesting than I’d maybe thought of myself so it was a great joy.

Elisabeth Moss said in an interview “I was like how are they going to think that I’m strong and tough and can be a detective? But luckily, as I said, Jane has an incredible ability to change your mind and be open and look for what tells the story the best.” Is that how you saw it too?
I think belief is very powerful in this area if you just let go of who you are and what you can be. You can change and your horizons broaden.

We discussed physical aspects, Elisabeth can run. And the dart throwing - we got her a dartboard and she genuinely skilled up on that.

And it’s so beautiful but when an actor is in their power, they take on other strengths. And when she was focusing on that dart and dartboard she knew she could do it. And she did it.

You said you wanted someone to show you who Robin was in the casting.
Yes, I should know shouldn’t I, who could do it? I’ve found many, many times like with Holly Hunter and the character of Ada in The Piano, I had imagined a six foot woman.

Holly is five foot two so it was completely the opposite. It’s always fascinating, it’s like someone comes forward to claim it.

There is a beautiful environment for the drama and the human behaviour seems to corrupt and sully it. Why did you want to explore the themes of abuse?

For me that’s really interesting. You can never actually sully that environment because the mountains will still be there when everything else is over. For me it has an everlasting quality.

It’s a bit what people might say the witness mind is like, you know? That no matter what junk you put in your head and thoughts you have, that beautiful open witness mind is always there as a prism.

Inside your head sometimes you’re aware there’s an agent’s quality to the way you see things. I think human beings are pretty mad… having been one for a while. (laughs) And also beautiful.

We’re telling a crime mystery story – hard to do that without some villainous behaviour. That’s the attraction, the crime mystery story houses the worst of us.

The detective is usually representing some stand for good, some stand for protection. In this story we came up with the worst circumstances, a child of 12 being pregnant: a horror.

And we know it happens. So let’s keep our eyes open and tell these stories.

Tui reveals her secret to GJ (Holly Hunter) at the women's camp

What was your inspiration for the women’s camp?
Well I’ve never actually seen one like that. I wanted to explore the idea of women gathering together like the place I was living in and they were like refugees from life.

Like broken soldiers of love, who go over their stories and their love wounds. The world’s not very interested in them any more so they’re like ghosts.

I thought it would be really good to focus on the people that the world finds least interesting. There’s a certain freedom in falling out of the world’s concerns, you know? I’m quite bored with the world’s interest in sexiness and that stuff.

I created the GJ character as homage to UG Krishnamurti, a real human being I knew as a friend who died not long ago. He was probably the only free person I’ve ever met. He wasn’t a guru and he wouldn’t teach but he was obviously living differently. It really opened my eyes.

It’s always interesting with guru figures when they’re not part of the normal world. They’re cult leaders, they’re heretics, they’re evil… They’re the opposite. They are actual inspiration.

Is there a sequence or scene in the finished series which is really meaningful to you?
About three in episode six! One I was thinking of was when Robin comes back to the women’s camp, as GJ had foreseen, on her knees.

GJ starts to claim to the women that they never listen, that they can’t listen, that all they can hear is their own crazy thoughts.

It was always the scene I had an ambition to pull everything together – like why she’s there in the story. What wisdom does she have if any? Is she crazy or not? Or is her craziness a kind of sanity?

And that’s what I was hoping for, that the women we see at the beginning come to be the healing force. We’re there to give a story with a fairy tale, folk tale point to it.

All the scenes at the end were challenging to get the drama right when the serpent of paradise shows his teeth.

Robin has so much feeling for Tui, she seems more the family protector than Tui’s half-brother Johnno is.
More than all three brothers. Johnno’s not there when Tui’s growing up and he doesn’t have much relationship with her. I really can’t imagine how they could get so far without worrying about her more (laughs).

But they seem to be convinced that she has the skills… her dad seems to think she’s sulking somewhere.

I think Matt Mitcham’s character does love Tui – you see him going up to her room or imagining he can hear her. He’s haunted by it. His love’s not really very adult, or not fatherly enough or responsible enough.

He’s hopeless really but he’s not without love.

Jane Campion is the co-writer and co-director of Top Of The Lake.

Top Of The Lake starts on Saturday, 13 July at 9.10pm on BBC Two. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

More on Top Of The Lake
The Guardian TV & Radio Blog: Top Of The Lake episode-by-episode
The Independent: Top of the Lake: Jane Campion's new scandal melodrama starring the extraordinary Elisabeth Moss 
The Guardian: Elisabeth Moss: 'How I found my inner tough guy' 

After Ellen: Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss on their “Top of the Lake” women 
BBC News: Lake drama vies for Killing acclaim
BBC Media Centre: Read Q&As with the cast and find out more about the production

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Tagged with:

More Posts


Supermarket Secrets: Feeding a nation


Alive: Rankin Faces Death