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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Jane Campion on Power of the Dog

As I've been writing this column in various forms over the last two years, I have interviewed just shy of 75 women and asked most of them to name a filmmaker who has inspired them. There is one name that has been cited more than any other: Jane Campion. It's not just her trailblazing achievements at the Cannes Film Festival (where she was the first woman to win the Palme d'Or, albeit in a tie) and the Oscars (where she became the first woman to ever be nominated for Best Director twice, and, with her win last year, one of only three to share that honor) that have made her so influential. It is her unflinching vision; her creative risk-taking; her unwavering commitment to telling the stories of complex women through the language of cinema. She brings all of this into sharp focus with her most recent film "The Power of the Dog," a revisionist western adapted from the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst.

Over the last few decades, Campion's work has reverberated throughout the medium, inspiring countless women to pursue filmmaking, and also influencing the art of the craft regardless of gender. In this era of her career, she has embraced her place as a trailblazer, while also looking towards ways in which she can give back to a new generation of filmmakers who are equally committed to a singular persistence of personal vision. 

For this month's Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Campion over the phone about her Oscar-winning film's recent Blu-ray release through the Criterion Collection, the power and allure of emotional violence, collaborating with cinematographer Ari Wegner, and her insights into the hurdles for women in the film industry, past and present. 

You've said your stepmother gave you Thomas Savage's book and you said it haunted you. Why do you think it lingered in the back of your brain for so long?

I just finished "Top of the Lake: China Girl" and everybody else was talking about what they were doing next and I didn't have anything to do next. But I loved [The Power of the Dog] and hadn't read a book that I felt so powerfully about in I don't know how long. I found myself reading novels and not bothering to finish them. But this one just got more compelling as I got toward the end of it. I started to think maybe I'll try to get the rights to this book and maybe I'll be a producer and get one of the co-directors from the show to direct it like Garth Davis or Ariel Kleiman. Someone had to go through all that effort, but maybe I could write it. 

So it went on like that and then finally I asked my agent if the rights were available and she came back saying, no, they're not available and I sat with that. Then I came back to her and said, well, who's got someone who's got them? I was wondering if they have a director already. She got a hold of Roger Frappier, who did have the rights. He said they were very close to signing off on it with another director. Then I asked him if he'd be at Cannes because I was going to Cannes with the TV series. So I asked if he wanted to meet up anyways. 

We met up at Cannes, even though I knew I probably wouldn't get the rights, and we just had a fan rave together about the book and why we both loved it so much. And at the end of that, I said to him that I was really happy for him that he's got such a beautiful property and it was nice to meet him. But then he said, well, it could be yours too. I was really surprised. This had never happened to me before. I've never managed to convince anybody of anything just by using words. 

They were working out something with the contract that he didn't like and so it really was suddenly available to me. He liked that I was available and I could write and direct it. So I realized then that if I wanted to be part of the project I would have to direct it as well. I just got swept up. Then I asked if Tanya Seghatchian, who had produced "Bright Star" and who I had been looking for a project we could do together, could be involved. He said yes. So that's how it began. It was quite fast. Many films take quite a long time to get written and directors sign on, but this all happened within a couple of years.

What I really found fascinating about "The Power of the Dog" in terms of your filmography is how it fits in with the way many of your films delve wonderfully into the power of emotional violence, both to inflict it and to have it inflicted upon you. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what draws you to stories about emotional violence.

That's sort of maybe a mystery for me. Maybe I wouldn't bother doing it if I knew. I'm not a big fan of outright violence. I find it hard to watch. I know it's popular with people. I really find it hard to understand why. But I am, I'm really intrigued by I guess the powerplay between people. It's both seductive and aggressive.

And with Rose, I know in the book, she's a much smaller character. In your adaptation process, you really found something wonderful in that character and in working with Kirsten Dunst on it. Could you talk a bit about sort of how you knew that character needed to be brought further into the story?

I think that character in the book actually was one of the few characters that felt like a concept or cliche, unlike the rest of the book. I felt like that was at least something I could contribute, especially when someone like Kirsten makes it painfully real. I think it was also fun to do it. A lot of women at that time were shut up and marginalized. But I think that character's life story was particularly true. I think it was great to see her, even with the use of alcohol, coming out and challenging Phil back. He really started something that couldn't be controlled with the son's love for his mother and his determination to protect her. 

That's one of the things I really love about the book, the way things find their way back in. Thomas Savage wrote a really great piece in that sense. Structurally it's very tight and interesting. Very often when you're playing with plots or storylines, it feels like a house of cards. Like you have to be really careful not to shift anything too much, or the whole thing's gonna just collapse. But this book was like the opposite. The more you dug into it, the more it revealed.

On one of the special features on the Criterion disc, you can see your storyboards and I love how on them you don't just have shots, but you also have moods written in text. What is your process on how you use storyboards as both the writer and the director?

I do my own drawing, so there is no storyboard artist. For me, the storyboard drawing is the time to dream and think about the scene. I try to draw it like I'm connecting to my subconscious in a way and I try to draw it for a mood, like to also remind me what else I should be thinking about having in the scene. Like if this is going to be a shadowy scene? How's it going to look? Also, it helps to think about how the weather is going to affect it. How would this play in the rain? How would this scene play in the sun? Because very often you cannot control your weather. 

I think about everything really and the drawing is a way most importantly of just making myself aware of all the details of the scene, and how it might play out, and what are the things we need to bring to it. I think everyone has a different process to try and get to know your material really deeply and fully. Some use drawing as a way of sitting and imagining, like the more you imagine it, the more psychic control you have over it when you get to do it. I don't particularly look at the storyboards before I go on set. I don't really look at them again. But later, when I see what we shot, it is incredibly often exactly like storyboards. They have a way of deeply guiding you.

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): ARI WEGNER (DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY), JANE CAMPION (DIRECTOR, PRODUCER) in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

I love the conversation on the disc with all the women who worked on the film. It was you and Ari Wegner and Tanya and Kristen discussing bringing the feminine into this story. I think something you've done really well is highlighting women throughout either history or in places you don't expect them to be. Like in "In The Cut," Meg Ryan's character really goes into places you don't expect to see a woman sort of going into, both internally and externally. I'd love to hear how you look towards representing women in your films, but also how you often work with so many women.

It seems like the '70s was when the word feminism was really strong and at university, everybody had hair under their arms. [laughs] But it seems like the '90s when that sort of shifted around and feminism was suddenly a dirty word. But for me, I couldn't understand it because the main part of feminism that was important was equality. And that so evidently wasn't happening in the film industry. I think that the really painful and hard thing was that even though there were some women working in the industry, there were not that many, and the feeling was that what women made, nobody was interested in. Even if you've got a shot, anything that a woman was thinking of saying was boring. That was hard. What the guys were up to was where it was all happening. 

And the interesting thing about today is what has really changed is that that is no longer the sentiment. I think what really freed us was definitely television. That's really where it began, women can come up with great series. Women audiences are watching those shows, but so are men. Women are great creators of content now and that prejudice against them is gone. Because people are home and they just watch whatever is actually entertaining for them. Whereas, if you're going to the cinema and it's a date film or whatever, you have to persuade the boyfriend to go to those sorts of things which can be more difficult. I certainly think that the online nature of material and content now has really helped. And of course, the #MeToo movement has really helped and just women doing great stuff.

I don't know if I really answered that question properly, but I think going back to my own story, often in the workplace I felt more comfortable with women. If I get to choose, I would probably hire a woman. Although I've also worked with a lot of men, just almost always about 50/50. I do like that split. I've worked in an all-women crew for a woman's film when I had just finished film school and that was actually not that much fun. I think there's really something to be said for mixing up the experience. At film school, there was writing for girls and guys, but it really changed a lot. After school, when you go into the world, men run the money. And that was something to be aware of. They didn't trust women in the same way with money. So I think making that bridge to actually getting budgets was harder. 

This is where Jan Chapman was really helpful. I had made some short films that were playing in front of features and she saw one and hired me. But before that, the guy who ran the television station that she was working for, who used to be the head of the film school, he went out of his way to tell her not to hire me. He had a couple of other guys that he wanted her to look at who had made short films, but that hadn't been nearly as successful as I had been with my short films. Fortunately, she didn't listen and just hired me. But that was a sort of thing we were having to get through at the time.

I was also working with Janet Patterson, who Jan had introduced me to, and she became my costume designer for many projects. I loved working with Jan. She is a thoughtful, kind, strong producer. And Tanya Seghatchian, she's amazing as well. People like Tanya and Jan lend their whole imagination to the project and really support you in a detailed way to make the whole project more fun. 

Then working with Ari Wegner, that was amazing. It felt like with "The Power of Dog" we ended up with a lot of guys on the crew, and in the film because three of the leads were men. I felt I would really like to work with a female director of photography again. I really did feel Ari deserved that because of the work that I'd already seen of her and even some shorts that are just so beautifully made. Ari is a very bold person and very story thoughtful. People can see that the quality of being story smart for a DOP is probably the most useful for keeping a film about the story, and not just getting carried away with visuals that are impressive. Ari and I spent a lot of time together figuring out as much as we could to make "The Power of Dog" something special. And I think it was, and I think that's largely very much to do with me and her getting on well together and helping each other.

You've really worked in this industry through I think a large transition in terms of the way it treats women making films presently and women who made films in the past. I'd love to hear your thoughts on if you think we've hit a watershed finally, or if you still feel like there are some hurdles that maybe we don't even know are still there. 

I don't want to be too Pollyanna about it, but I do think the #MeToo movement was a bit like the Berlin Wall coming down, although it was never as bad as that was. I don't know if it will ever be 50/50. Because a lot of women have split priorities; wanting to have families, and wanting a personal life that is fulfilling. They have that expectation or dream more than men. But audiences are 50/50 they do like female-focused stuff, which is a really big new thing. I think it's more big news than women making stuff. It's always about the money. It's always about, Who's going to pay for this? Well, now people are prepared to pay for it because they know that women are on it and women will watch it and women buy it. It's those economics of who pays for stuff has really altered.

Like, when I began, Gillian Armstrong had made "My Brilliant Career" and she was the only woman on the platform. At that point, it seemed like, oh, women just don't do this at all. Now, it's clear that they do do it. But even talking to women now they still say it's really hard. I think it's a change not to be taken lightly and it's something we need to keep.

I think more women being empowered in the area is the most important thing. Women doing great material is the big thing. It's the only way. You can't just dictate for it to happen. It has to be a situation where women can do great stuff. I think that's the truth. It doesn't really matter if we're women or men. We're the creators and we don't want to be by adding all the time a "woman director." You don't say "male director." That is also part of that equity. That you don't get to distinguish by your gender. Every time you make something, it's just by the quality of the work. 

I think that's definitely because there isn't parity and it helps to point out gender in order to see the low percentage who are hired. I actually interviewed Gillian Armstrong last week for a book I'm working on, and she spoke about how in Australia they're trying to address the hiring practices there. Women will go to film school 50/50, but then they don't get hired 50/50. 

You spoke to her? How amazing! 

Yeah. It's been great talking to both of you in such a short period of time because you're both some of my favorite directors. Her story reminded me of when you introduced "The Piano" at the Academy Museum last year and you mentioned that you were maybe starting a school to help mentor more women. Is that still happening?

Yeah. It's happening now. We're six weeks into it. It's been fantastic, actually. And it's a great gift from Netflix to me and to the students. Netflix asked me what I wanted to do next and I said what I really want to do is to give back the kind of unique advantage that I received when I was young and starting up. Because at the time in Australia, when I went to film school, it was the period of enlightenment or the Gough Whitlam years when education was free. Not only free but you were paid to go to school. And you were given budgets, and therefore it wasn't just for the wealthy few. It was really a lot more democratic. I really yearn for that time in the world. That, I think, is the way the world should be. That's what we should all work for, a sort of capitalist socialism. So it just occurred to me that I could do it on a very small scale myself. 

The film school is called A Wave In The Ocean, and it's a pop-up. We don't know if there'll be another one, but this is happening. We've got 14 students altogether. Ten doing a longer program and four doing more of an advanced support program to get their long-form projects done. I'm working on it with Philippa Campbell, who's the producer from "Top of the Lake." It's structured learning tasks and briefs for the first year, and then the second year they'll make a fully funded short with $100,000 each. We've got some great students. I feel like I'm just sharing practices with them because obviously, I don't know how to teach. I'm working it out. 

Mostly, you learn through having the opportunity to try to do things, so that's what I focused on. But it's been absolutely fabulous to create a program that I think is really wholesome and exciting. They did yoga for two days at the beginning of it, because the thing about working in the film industry is that you really have to have some practices that can sustain you mentally, for mental health and physical health as well. I've done yoga for 20 years, and now I'm doing a kind of Qigong practice. I'm quite a nervous person, as many creative people are, and it really grounds me and helps me to be happy in life.

Will the shorts be available somewhere once they're completed?

I guess we'll have to see. Netflix has the first right to them, so maybe they'll get a program together. But that won't be happening until 2024. I do feel like all of them have the capacity to have full careers. 

I would love to hear if there are any women who are making films currently that you think readers may not have heard of or should know more about.

Well, there's one seated in the room with me right now. It's my daughter, Alice Englert.

She has a film at Sundance, right? That's very exciting.

She has always, always written all her life and she's made a couple of shorts as well. Jennifer Connelly's the star, and she's also really good. It's called "Bad Behaviour."

"The Power of the Dog" is available now on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Click here to order your copy

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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