Jane Campion: Interviews

Virginia Wright Wexman,
Jane Campion: Interviews.
University Press of Mississippi, 1999
ISBN 1 57806 082 6 US$45.00 (cloth)
ISBN 1 57806 083 4 US$18.00 (paper)
(Review copy supplied by University Press of Mississippi)
Uploaded 12 November 1999 | 1802 words

There is no doubt but that a collection of interviews with Jane Campion will find an audience. I am sure of this because of the number and nature of hits I found when I unsuspectingly did a search on her name on the Web a while ago. It is mildly surprising that such a collection has been published by University Press of Mississippi, but this volume is one among many indications that the University Press of Mississippi has targeted expansion beyond the regional market that has previously been its strength. Jane Campion: Interviews is part of a Conversations with Filmmakers Series that thus far also includes volumes on Godard and Scorsese.

Virginia Wright Wexman has provided an interesting introduction, one that suggests both the strengths and the weaknesses of her anthology. She concludes with a thank you to Gerry Peary, “who collected a great deal of material on Campion including copies of all of the Australian interviews,” which Wexman says “would otherwise have been unavailable” to her (xx). There are thirty seven interviews here: four from Cinema Papers (published in Melbourne), thirteen from miscellaneous Australian newspapers, four from Positif (all involving Michel Ciment), two from miscellaneous other publications in France, eight from miscellaneous newspapers and magazines in the United States, one from a U.S. website, two from miscellaneous newspapers in England, and three from miscellaneous publications in Germany.

I know of at least one interview available as early as 1992 in an anthology on New Zealand cinema, and I find it hard to believe that others don’t exist from elsewhere in the world. Yet, as Wexman notes, at the time of this volume’s preparation Campion had only five feature films to her credit. (To Wexman’s credit, she is counting Campion’s first telefeature, Two Friends (Aust, 1986), along with An Angel at My Table (NZ, 1990) Sweetie (Aust, 1989)The Piano (Aust/NZ, 1993), and The Portrait of a Lady (UK/USA,1996).) According to Wexman, Campion has also been reluctant to give interviews, saying that, unlike actors, directors don’t need “to promote their image” (ix).

This is not to say that Campion cannot be seen – indeed, that she does not see herself – as an auteur. In fact, much that is of interest in this collection pertains to Campion as an auteur, particularly as a female auteur. After Sweetie, Campion told Carrie Rickey (in The Philadelphia Inquirer) that she thinks “women are more supportive of women” (52) and that “to deny women directors, as I suspect is happening in the States, is to deny the feminine vision” (53). It’s easy enough, via the index entry on “women directors,” to find this sort of typical statement from Campion. There’s a whole other absent index entry that the obsessively attentive reader can create for herself on Campion’s relation to auteurism, ranging from the general reference to films that express “an individual view” (14-15) to the explanation that the early Cannes festival success she experienced with her short films inspired Campion specifically to act confidently on her own intuition and “experiment with my own style” when filming Sweetie (20). Furthermore, one reason she gives for After Hours (Aust, 1984) being her least favorite film is that she “felt a conflict between the project and my artistic conscience” (35).

One relatively consistent observation about Campion’s films is their unusual look; part of the reason she’s thought of as an auteur is that she has an identifiable visual signature. Comparing An Angel at my Table with Sweetie, Lynden Barber (in The Sydney Morning Herald) writes that “it’s still instantly recognisable as Campion–economical, feminine and full of shots that set the eyes whirring” (59), much as critics were to say of The Piano. To some extent, Campion has been able to achieve this identifiable signature because she has basically had complete artistic control over all of her films, starting with her student shorts through to her features. That she appreciates her good fortune is clear from her repeated acknowledgements (pp. 49, 93, 147, 165, for example, referring to SweetieThe Piano, and The Portrait of a Lady).

Yet Campion the auteur is also known and recognized for her work with interesting collaborators, especially her cinematographers (principally Sally Bongers and Stuart Dryburgh); the composer Michael Nyman; such writers as Gerard Lee, Helen Garner, and Laura Jones; her regular editor, Veronika Haussler Jenet; her friend and often her producer Jan Chapman; her husband, Colin Englert; and her family, especially Anna Campion, with whom she has cowritten her current film, Holy Smoke (USA, 1999). The actors with whom she works often say outrageously positive things about the environment she creates for them, perhaps most famously Harvey Keitel’s reference to her as a “goddess” (150). My favorite remark of this kind comes from Sam Neill, who is quoted in a Canadian review of The Piano as saying that he “would have played the third Maori from the left for Jane.” This is, in its way, a wonderful testimony and yet an indicator of one of the difficulties usually unacknowledged about The Piano and pretty much absent from Wexman’s collection in general.

As Leonie Pihama notes, apart from bell hooks, almost no critics commented on the debatable representation of Maori in The Piano. For Campion, The Piano was an opportunity to explore her heritage as a New Zealander whose ancestors probably resembled people such as Ada and Stewart. Her research in archival collections in her hometown of Wellington, the capital of Aotearoa New Zealand, led her to use the Maori characters’ dress, for example, as a metaphor for the colonizing process (and it is fascinating to follow Campion’s comments on metaphor as her career progresses). She worked hard to get the cooperation of Waihoroi Shortland as a cultural advisor, and many of the Maori involved in her cast and crew thought well of her. Yet, as someone who hasn’t lived in Aotearoa New Zealand basically since she finished her first undergraduate degree, she has missed a period of great change in this country, and that works both for and against her (See my discussion of this point in Harriet Margolis: 1999).

On the one hand, for her to say that “the tendency of certain Maori is to have a heroic vision of their past and that was not what I intended to show” (103) is legitimate, for she is speaking here as an auteur wishing to defend her right to tell her own story. Yet Campion tells her French and Australian interviewers that “in [the Maori] community, sexuality is totally out in the open, people talk continuously about their genitals” (104) and that she was using this openness as a contrast to highlight the repression of her three main protagonists (148). There is simultaneously the historical moment at issue here, when European contact alters Maori custom, with increasingly different views of how to understand that moment, and there is the contemporary diversity of Maori living in Aotearoa New Zealand. Campion uses the present tense to refer to Maori of the past and of the present. There is, in other words, a lack of sensitivity to cultural nuances that seems unexpected in someone who trained originally as an anthropologist.

The worst thing that I can say about this collection of interviews as a whole is that that same sort of lack of sensitivity to cultural nuances delicately permeates this volume. It originates in a U.S. perspective that misses much of what is interesting about Campion as the phenomenon that she is. To start with some small points, as Wexman herself notes, translating back into English from French or German sometimes leads to awkwardnesses, or even what seems to be a mistake, as when the Women’s Film Unit (which produced After Hours) also gets called Women Production Unity in the same paragraph (35). Whose mistakes are they when we are told that, “After studying painting and anthropology in New Zealand, Campion crossed the Tasmania to attend the Australian Film School” (55, from an English interview that appeared in The Guardian )? Campion studied anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington; she studied painting in England, Italy, and Australia; it’s the Tasman Sea that one crosses to get from Aotearoa New Zealand to Australia (something locally obvious that I, as an American, cautiously double checked before weighing in to this sort of territorial aspect of identity); and, despite various name changes, the film school that Campion criticizes so heavily in her early interviews was not officially known simply as the Australian Film School, certainly not when she was a student. Also, as Wexman notes, because these interviews are reprinted uncut, a certain amount of repetition occurs; however, as Wexman also notes, this can be seen as a strength in that it shows Campion’s and the reviewers’ preoccupations.

One point that underlies publication of these interviews is that Campion is a director who merits attention and an especial reason for this is that she is, as a successful female director – a successful female auteur, relatively unique. Yet, without in any way shortchanging her importance as an international figure, Campion can be seen to be less unique when she is put into her local context. She is an Antipodean director and she belongs to a tradition of filmmaking by Antipodean men and women. Her very existence as a director is made possible, more or less directly, by a conscious decision on the part of the Australian government in the 1970s to develop a local film industry to bolster a local sense of national identity. She follows in a path cut, on the one hand, by Peter Weir and, on the other, by Gillian Armstrong, but her work also needs to be seen in the context of other filmmakers from Aotearoa New Zealand, whether they are Maori men and women such as Barry Barclay and Merata Mita, or Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders of European background) such as Gaylene Preston, or other ex-patriates such as Vincent Ward, Roger Donaldson, and Geoff Murphy.

Increasingly, books and articles are being written about these filmmakers and the body of work that they have produced. Particularly relevant here is the anthology on cinema in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Dennis and Bieringa and the slim but substantial volume on Antipodean women filmmakers by Robson and Zalcock. Now difficult to obtain, Don’t Shoot Darling also provides important insight into the environment in which contemporary Australian women filmmakers have emerged. On its own, Jane Campion: Interviews definitely has its points of interest; taken in context with other relevant publications, its value is that much greater.


Annette Blonski et al, “Don’t Shoot Darling!”: A History of Independent Women’s Filmmaking in Australia (Richmond: Greenhouse publishing, 1987)
Harriet Margolis, “A strange heritage : from colonization to transformation” In Jane Campion’sThe Piano, ed. Harriet Margolis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Leonie Pihama, “Ebony and ivory: constructions of Maori in The Piano” in Jane Campion’s The piano, ed. Harriet Margolis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Harriet Margolis

About the Author

Harriet Margolis

About the Author

Harriet Margolis

Harriet Margolis has published on New Zealand cinema, feminist film, the Jane Austen adaptations, and women’s romance novels, among other subjects. An editorial board member for Screening the Past, she has edited an anthology on The Piano for Cambridge University Press (2000), co-edited one on the Lord of the Rings phenomenon for Manchester University Press (2008), and is currently co-editing with Alexis Krasilovsky an anthology of interviews with international camerawomen.View all posts by Harriet Margolis →