Jane Campion Is Taking Cinema to the Darkest Human Places

Jane Campion believes in rigorous preparation.When directing a film, she works sometimes for years to ready the environment — and herself. Before she began shooting her new feature, “The Power of the Dog,” she returned again and again to the mountain range in New Zealand she had chosen as a location, checking what the light was like at different times of day, in different weather, across seasons. She went to visit the ranches in Montana where Thomas Savage, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, grew up. She sent Benedict Cumberbatch — who stars as Phil, a vicious, hypermasculine rancher — to Montana as well, to learn roping, riding, horseshoeing, whittling, banjo and bull-calf castration.

But in rehearsals, her approach tends to be more oblique. For “The Power of the Dog,” she gathered the actors for a few weeks to hike, improvise and do exercises. They ate together, cooked together or just sat in rooms, in character, not talking. She asked Cumberbatch to write a letter as Phil to Phil’s dead lover, Bronco Henry. Then she had him write back as Bronco Henry. She asked Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, who play brothers, to waltz together, to help them learn intimately how the other’s body smelled, felt and moved, visceral qualities that boys who’ve grown up together would know.

Campion also tried something new: She went to see a Jungian dream analyst out of Los Angeles, hoping to more deeply connect with Phil’s psychology, and she suggested Cumberbatch do the same. Campion normally doesn’t dream much, but soon she began having the same nightmare over and over. She was riding a black horse, beautiful and skittish, down a steep, narrow pathway along the face of a cliff. As they went farther down the trail, she realized that the path was vanishing into nothing, that the horse’s hooves would inevitably hit an angle too sheer to support their weight. We’ve got to back up, she thought. But the horse, too frightened and not yet trusting her, wouldn’t listen. It pressed forward, toward the vanishing point.

Oh, this is certain death, she thought, and she woke up.

“Of course Jane Campion’s dreams are so rich in imagery,” Cumberbatch joked on the phone. “Sexual, fantastical, spiritual, just exploding orchids of blood. Whereas I’m dreaming that I can’t quite climb the tree.”

Campion was more self-effacing. “Your dreams are inscrutable to yourself for a good reason,” she told me when we met in New York. “They’re keeping secrets from the mind, you know?” We were walking west in Central Park on one of those glowing days in late September that look like the set of some movie — not a Campion movie, maybe a Nora Ephron.

Campion tends to seek eye contact, and she is quick to ask fourth-date questions. (During our walk, she asked whether I liked being married, really wanting to know. She is divorced and a bit skeptical of the institution.) She laughs raucously and frequently, and she inserts impish comments into every conversation in her clipped New Zealand accent. She has the drape of fine, silver hair you might associate with a mystic, but everything else about her — the square, chunky black glasses and understated, monochromatic outfits — indicates, aesthetically speaking, what she is: the most decorated female filmmaker alive, an auteur in the lineage of Luis Buñuel, François Truffaut and Pedro Almodóvar.

Campion’s work is both ethereal and brutal. This is a woman who conceived of a television show that deals with incest and pedophilia but set it in the most transcendently beautiful place in the world. For another movie, she wrote a scene in which poor, sweet Meg Ryan cradles her sister’s decapitated head.

Despite the grim realities faced by her characters, her films often resemble allegories or myths — or, actually, dreams. They are so densely layered with visual metaphor, so flush with archetypes and symbols, that they operate like their own semiotic systems. A cat is never just a cat. There is often someone missing or just out of sight. The action sometimes seems to proceed according to dream logic, both bewildering and inevitable. The films are radiant and even psychedelic in their detail, so intense in their gaze — at the back of a neck, the twitch of a curtain, the color of water — that they seem transmitted directly from the subconscious or directly into the subconscious. They come back to you at odd times, like a puzzle your mind keeps trying to solve.

Campion is probably best known for “The Piano,” from 1993, for which she was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the second female director to be nominated for an Academy Award; the film also won her the Oscar for best original screenplay. She started writing it when she was 31 or 32, an ode to Emily Brontë, a longtime hero. (She told me she admired Brontë’s “fierce independence” and her ability to create “a character like Heathcliff out of her imagination, with no experience of men whatsoever personally.”) In the film, Holly Hunter plays Ada, a mute Scottish woman who communicates her emotional life by playing her piano. Ada arrives in New Zealand with her young daughter to marry a man she has never met. Her husband takes her to live in a forest and sells her piano. When he learns that she has fallen in love with the piano’s new owner, he cuts off one of her fingers so she can never play again.

“The Piano” offers a blueprint to Campion’s creative preoccupations: the feminine confronting the masculine in exchanges marked by both violence and desire; the use of landscape to evoke psychological states; mothers and daughters; family units struggling with feelings of love, alienation and betrayal. Her films — and her one foray into prestige television, “Top of the Lake” — have in common a series of traumatized heroines in confrontation with terror, desire and the sublime. Domestic spaces are full of intimacy and danger; sex blows life wide open in starshine or devastation; the threat of violence glimmers around the edges of daily life, irradiating it.

Campion’s work is both ethereal and brutal. Credit…Ruven Afanador for The New York Times

While there are consistent themes running through Campion’s work, she seems resistant to repeating herself. She works only when she wants to, on the stories she wants to tell, in precisely the way she wants to tell them. After “The Piano,” Campion made the sexual, somewhat campy “Holy Smoke!” before moving on to an experimental, psychological adaptation of Henry James’s “The Portrait of a Lady.” Her next two films after that were “In the Cut,” a gory, erotic thriller about a woman who starts sleeping with a cop she begins to suspect is serially murdering and dismembering women, and “Bright Star,” a film about Fanny Brawne and John Keats that is pure Romanticism.

“The Power of the Dog” is another departure: an American Western, set in the 1920s. The Western is an unexpected choice for Campion. Not because it’s an archetypally masculine film genre — Campion has often been the lone woman in male-dominated spaces — but because it’s her first feature in which the protagonist is the violent figure, as opposed to the violated. Much has been made of the fact that it’s also her first project centered on a male leading actor. (She waved this off. “They obviously haven’t met Benedict,” she joked.)

Like many of Campion’s films, “The Power of the Dog” dramatizes a clash between the masculine and the feminine — Phil’s own sense of manliness is bound up with emotional remoteness and animosity toward softness. He is a classic American cowboy, skulking around in enormous sheepskin chaps, though he lacks the instinct for chivalry that’s sometimes a hallmark of that type. He hates and terrorizes Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst), the sensitive woman his brother has married and brought to live in their shared home, as well as her son, an excruciatingly willowy, delicate teenager whose walk alone is an affront to the ranch hands. The film is full of inversions and queerness — Phil, it turns out, is a sensualist and attracted to men, and the boy, it turns out, has more violence in him than we think.

Campion read Savage’s “The Power of the Dog,” which was published in 1967, for fun, not thinking initially of adapting it for film, but the story stayed with her. “I couldn’t stop thinking about the themes in the book,” she told Sofia Coppola onstage at the New York Film Festival this year. She was also impressed with the opening scene, in which a rancher castrates a bull. “I just went, Oh, my God. OK, so we’re neutering masculinity. That’s pretty interesting, right off.”

Even Campion’s softest works have a touch of, as she once described it, “what was nasty, what isn’t spoken about in life.” In the director’s commentary for her first feature-length film, “Sweetie,” she describes an urge that has shaped her oeuvre, one that is on display in new ways in “The Power of the Dog.” She wanted to make work, she said, about what “has always been on those margins of what’s acceptable … what we as wild creatures really are, as distinct from what society wants us to buy into.”

When she writes, she often sits on the great island of her bed and does nothing else. One reason she liked the Jungian dream work, she said, is that the analyst’s language matched some of her own philosophy. “She says it’s like throwing chum out, seeing what surfaces,” she said. This is what writing feels like for her. “It’s an amazing moment when you realize there’s a channel. In my case it was just like sitting down for four hours. That was it. Something comes to you. You write. You don’t read, you don’t use the phone, you don’t do anything else, because then the psyche starts to trust the time.”

“So many writers have an aversion to just sitting down and waiting,” I said.

Campion nodded and then paused. “I think it makes them afraid.”

When she is not working, Campion divides her time between Australia and New Zealand. She likes walking, especially walking tours, as well as the Brontës, the short stories of Lucia Berlin and YouTube, where she has spent more time than she wants to specify. She drafts by hand into large, cheap notebooks. Anything more expensive, anything “fancy,” makes her nervous.

She makes all her notes on paper, which she then stacks into piles and saves. She likes to draw and storyboard while she’s thinking through a scene — she studied painting at art school, in her 20s, before switching to filmmaking. “I just draw little expressions on their faces, or just the feeling of the work. I’m thinking about the feeling while I’m drawing.” All directors have a way of “bringing the work inside,” she said. She takes the drawings to set as references for the director of photography.

She picked up her habits of careful preparation after overworking herself so aggressively on one of her first short films that she landed in intensive care. She had been staying up all night to prepare for the next day’s shoot, working long days and existing in a more or less constant state of stress. She got bronchitis, which worsened the asthma she has had since childhood, “and then I just couldn’t breathe.” It took most of a year to fully recover.

“I’m a little bit like a machine,” she said, smiling. “Like, if it can be done, I will do it. I will do it as best as can be done by me. I can’t stand if I’ve got an idea how to improve something not to do it.”

Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter in “The Piano.”Credit…Everett Collection

The student film that made her sick, “Peel,” was eventually screened at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or for best short film, making Campion the first New Zealander to win that distinction. But Campion knew that if a seven-minute film wrecked her so completely, she would need a different way of working. “I thought, God, if anyone finds out I’m in the hospital trying to make a seven-minute film — it’s actually nine with credits — no one’s ever, ever going to hire me!”

So she undertook a mission to come down into her body. “I really noticed that if I got panicky or in my head about things — I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience.” She looked at me with a little grin.

“Once or twice,” I said.

She burst out laughing. “You just can’t think at all! It’s just the most horrible frightening feeling. Your mind is frozen. So, I had to learn to bring my energy down. Down into the body.” She did yoga every day for about 20 years. Now she meditates an hour most days. She knows she has to sleep full nights when shooting and have reasonable workdays. She has to be grounded and relaxed and strong. “It’s really strange having a really strong will and yet a fragile — ” She paused to look down at her arms and legs. “These bodies are fragile. And you have to learn to listen. And make friends with that.”

If as a screenwriter Campion is interested in uncovering what lies hidden from our conscious minds, as a director she is interested in presence. “If you’re watching on set and you’re in your head,” she told me, “you can’t actually feel the impact of what they’re doing, the actors. And you’re the only person who’s looking from that point of view.” She half-gestured, opening her palms outward slightly, squaring her shoulders. “You’ve got to be relaxed, like an audience would be — just relaxed and open. You’ve just got to watch and then figure, Where’s my attention? If my attention wanders, I know it didn’t work.” Without being calm, focused and in the moment with the actors performing, she can’t do what she sees as her primary job, which is to sense whether the moment feels right.

“I’ve never worked so much in parallel with the director on a project to create a character,” Cumberbatch said. “I’ve had support before, for sure, and a great deal of attention and love, but never somebody who wants to understand — and deeply understand — a character at the same time as an actor going through his process.”

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons in “The Power of the Dog.”Credit…Netflix

“You really are working on your trust relationship between you and the actors,” Campion told me. “You’re creating a situation where they feel relaxed and confident that you are with them, that you’re never going to judge them or go against. You’ll just try in every way to help.”

A result is a quality of unguardedness in the performances so acute it’s almost painful to watch. In “Bright Star,” for example, Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, as Fanny Brawne and John Keats, are so brimming with … something that they can be sitting on camera doing practically nothing and you are just about brought to tears.

Campion said that she wanted, in that film, to convey to the actors “that it’s OK to do nothing. That that’s presence, and that’s actually richer than all the pretending in the world.” She described how all the actors came to rehearsal with their pretty accents and period-piece formality. “I just felt … nothing. I felt sort of sick.” So she waited, offering no real notes, no expression, just having them do little tasks, like write a letter. “No encouragement,” she said, laughing, “because I kept wanting them to look for something else.” The actors, confused, would try again and again, getting first nervous, then frustrated, then bored. Eventually, they would give up on pleasing her, or doing much of anything, and something would happen. “I would just wait till I was interested in them, and then go, Oh! Something true is happening here. I would say: ‘I’m really interested in what you’re doing right now. Where are you right now?’ And they started to get it.”

Campion had mentioned she was fascinated by horses, and I suggested to her that the tactic she was describing with her actors — give no feedback until they do what you want, and then praise; let them slowly learn, through comfort and encouragement, what they are supposed to do — resembles the method many people use to train horses.

She shrugged. “Well, we are animals.”

A documentary about the making of “The Portrait of a Lady” shows Campion speaking softly to a frustrated, weeping Nicole Kidman as they work through an emotionally fraught scene. At one point, she takes Kidman in her arms and rocks her slightly from side to side. Elsewhere, we see her soothing Shelley Winters, who seems to be somewhere between panicking and throwing a tantrum. “Will somebody pull my socks up?” Winters complains, and Campion stoops to do it herself.

Nicole Kidman in “The Portrait of a Lady.”Credit…Alamy

In each of our conversations, Campion brought up the subject of tenderness. “Tenderness is very important to me,” she said, sort of hesitating.

“Why is that your word,” I asked, maybe the third time it came up.

“Because it is what brings me to my vulnerability, I guess. And I feel like that’s probably a hard place for me to go to, and it is the place where I feel most touched by life. I guess it’s the leading edge, you know, of my experience.”

“Tenderness” is not the first word I think of when I consider Campion’s work. I cannot shake the image of the title character in her first feature, “Sweetie,” shoving porcelain horse figurines into her mouth and chewing them until blood spills out of her smile. But after a while, the tenderness starts to emerge. It’s a bit like the experience of looking for a long time at a portrait and then realizing, as you look, that the reason the portrait makes you feel so much is the way the painter worked with the negative space, the shadows, the things you don’t immediately know you’re looking at. Tenderness may not be the first thing you see in a Campion film, but it is fundamentally what she’s painting with.

This is especially true in “The Power of the Dog,” where tenderness and brutality amplify each other painfully. There’s the castration, the cruelty, the extremity of suffering, but there’s also the gentle way a teenage boy’s hands shape the paper flowers he likes to make; Dunst’s trembling lip and the soft way she dances with her husband in the sunset on the day of their marriage; the nakedly sensual, gentle scene of Phil lying in the tall grass, communing with a lost lover by trailing the dead man’s scarf so that it caresses his face and body; the way he begins to make room for the boy whose paper flowers he mocked. Where there is tenderness, something is unguarded. Tenderness invites a moment of suspense: Care or real hurt can happen next. Campion’s gift is showing the chaotic mix of wounding and care in human activity, and how the terrifying moment of being opened to both possibilities is an experience of the sublime.

One of the eerier achievements of “The Power of the Dog” is how precisely it captures the way the fear of violence can seep throughout a house, and a life. Phil terrorizes Rose without being anywhere near her. Strains of his banjo floating down the stairs mock her as she plays the piano. His gaze, judgment, even the smell of him seems to be everywhere.

Campion didn’t realize the depth of her personal connection to the material until late in the process — “a lot later,” she said, “until I remembered about some stuff in my own childhood.” When she and her sister, Anna, were young, and their brother was a newborn, their parents hired a nanny, “a really disturbed woman,” who abused and terrorized them. On one occasion, she whipped Jane until there were welts on her back. At first, both girls kept silent about how they were treated. “It was like this secret world, this secret dark world that was parallel to life. She was with us from when I was about 5 until 10 or 11. And there was just no getting away from it.”

She paused a moment before continuing. “We were really little, and it was a lot to carry when you’re really little. But it did make me think, That’s how I understand the terror of Phil. I would always know where she was in the house.”

I asked if she or her sister ever told her parents about the abuse.

“Yes, we did.” She has a vivid memory of standing with her sister outside her parents’ room, getting ready to go in and tell them about the nanny. She balked at the last minute. “I just can’t bear that they may not do anything about it. I couldn’t live with that. I could live with — you know …” She swallowed. “But I couldn’t bear that they would be told and then they wouldn’t act. I don’t know, I was probably 6 at the time. I feel really bad now that I didn’t support her, but that was the reason.” Anna went in alone and came out a few minutes later, shaking her head.

They lived with the nanny for another five or so years, until she died. Anna and Jane refused to go to her funeral. Over the years, they tried to convince their parents what it had been like for them, and they were never quite believed.

Campion describes her parents as loving but fundamentally absent during her childhood. The Campions were an important couple in New Zealand theater. They became founders of the first professional touring company in the country, the New Zealand Players, shortly before Jane was born. Richard Campion was a director, and Edith was one of the great New Zealand actresses of her generation. In 1959, she was awarded the M.B.E. for her theatrical work. But it was a troubled household — Richard was engaged in a series of affairs, and Edith suffered from depression, which led her to multiple suicide attempts and several stays in institutions throughout her adult life.

Edith appeared in an early film of Campion’s, “An Angel at My Table.” (More than two decades later, Campion’s daughter, Alice, had a lead role in “Top of the Lake.”) Campion remembers her mother as delicate, sensitive and witty. When her children were young, she turned to writing, eventually publishing a collection of short stories and a novella. She encouraged Campion’s creative pursuits, but she was also moody and remote. When Campion was little and visited friends’ houses, she would interview the mothers, trying to get a sense of their schedules, their habits, what they did. What were mothers like?

Campion told me about the day that her mother took her out of school for a dentist appointment. “We didn’t do very many things by ourselves together, so I was very excited to show her where I hung my coat.” After the dentist, they had a picnic in a park, and Campion could sense that her mother’s mind was elsewhere. “I tried to do all sorts of amazing things — somersaults and handstands, to entertain her, to get her attention — but she still looked off into the distance. It probably was depression. I remember she had an egg on her lap, and it just … rolled off.”

There was a time when Campion was so bewildered and persuaded by her mother’s despair that she told her she would understand if she wanted to die. “It really scared me to be close to her complete lack of hope,” she told an interviewer in 1995. At university, she decided to study structural anthropology, examining the ways humans use myth and social structures to resolve the fundamental oppositions of existence: life and death, light and darkness.

Campion said that feeling vulnerable is harder for her than for most people: “I associate it with fear.”

“You’re so averse to feeling vulnerable,” I said, “but tenderness is the core of your work!”

“Well, if it didn’t have much meaning for me, it wouldn’t matter,” she said. “It’s got power. And really, my attention decides: What do I pay attention to in the world? Can you fake that, really? Can you really fake attention? Attention is love.”

In October, I met Campion in Paris. She had just come from the New York Film Festival and then the Lumière film festival in Lyon, where she received the Prix Lumière. (In September, she also won the Silver Lion at Venice, one of the top honors a filmmaker can achieve.) We exchanged emails as she arrived in Paris. How was Lyon? I asked. “Lyon was a mosh pit where I became very briefly a rock star!” she wrote. There were a huge number of women at the festival, many of whom came, it seemed, because they wanted to see a female filmmaker awarded the Prix Lumière for the first time.

Our plan was to have a long lunch and then go to the Picasso Museum. (I had wanted to watch YouTube together; she demurred.) As we got settled at our table, I asked her how she was dealing with the outpouring of emotion from women who seem so invested in successes, and she threw up her hands. “Defense and denial,” she joked. “I’m a New Zealander; we don’t do this sort of stuff. It’s something you can go to jail for, thinking too much of yourself.” She shot me a smile. “I mean, I try to listen to them. To some extent they’re giving their testimony.” She has spent a long time being one of the only women at the forefront of her field, a mantle she took up with ambivalence. (A second female director, Julia Ducournau, finally received the Palme d’Or this year.) Once, after “The Piano” came out, a woman working in a pharmacy approached Campion and told her, in a quivering voice, that seeing the film was the most amazing experience of her life.

“And I was, like, quipping,” Campion said. “And then I just saw how I hadn’t received it, and how shattered she looked for not being heard with respect. And I learned something from her, that she really needed me to hear it in a better way than I was doing.”

It has gotten easier over the years to feel comfortable with what her work means to the world. She pulled up an email from one of her own heroes, Annie Proulx, who wrote an afterword to a 2001 edition of Savage’s novel. After Campion visited Proulx during her research for “The Power of the Dog,” the two kept up their correspondence. “The 60s and 70s can be pretty good years,” Proulx wrote. “One is still agile, nothing major crouched on the bedposts at night; and one’s sense of judgment and understanding is probably at maximum power. You ‘get’ most situations with a depth and understanding unknown to the more youthful. But some of the gilt wears off in the 80s and you tend to see the hard rusted iron under the fancy metals.”

Jane Campion, right, on the set of “The Power of Dog” in New Zealand.Credit…Netflix

Campion, still in her 60s, is in the former state — feeling very much at the height of her powers. She doesn’t know if she’ll make another film, but for the first time in a while she feels energized and inspired to keep working. She is starting a film school in New Zealand, where filmmakers will study for free under her and a few other friends. (Onstage at the New York Film Festival, Sofia Coppola volunteered to teach as well.)

After lunch, we zipped around the Picasso Museum for half an hour while she waited for a friend and his week-old baby, whom she was eager to meet. The museum was collaborating on a joint exhibit with the nearby Rodin Museum, so there were sculptures from various parts of Rodin’s career. We stood together for a bit in front of “The Thinker.”

“There’s definitely a brutish quality to the muscularity, isn’t there,” she said quietly after a minute.

I agreed. “Doesn’t it look like his head is kind of too small for his body?”

“Like a kind of Neanderthal,” she said.


“Poor guy. Seems puzzled, like he can’t figure it out.” She chuckled. “It’s actually quite moving.”

She had been showing me photos of a few of the marble Rodin sculptures she admired, and she pulled me over to look at a few similar pieces on display nearby. She preferred them to the big bronze casts. They were of children’s faces, or women, emerging from the stone with a hazy, dreamlike quality. These pieces were so different from Rodin’s more famous sculptures of men, in which every muscle and vein was articulated. It was incredible, she thought, taking more pictures, how you could get that kind of softness out of marble.

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection “Thin Places.” She last wrote about the scholar and theorist of domestic labor Silvia Federici. Ruven Afanador is a Colombian-born photographer in New York known for his black-and-white portraits with a focus on contrasts. His most recent exhibition was at the National Museum of Colombia in Bogotá this year.

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