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Dame Jane Campion Speaks On Award Wins, Yearning For New Zealand And Grief

Dame Jane Campion talks to Susie Ferguson about the intense job of directing movies, her love of napping in the bush and losing a baby as she won international acclaim for The Piano.

Dame Jane appears at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday, 19 May.

While it is an honour to direct films, the job itself is "super stressful", Dame Jane says.

"I find that I get really bad sleep and I got a sleeping pill addiction because I wasn't sleeping enough and couldn't trust that I could sleep without them. It's been a big job getting off those pills and now I don't take any.

"There are absolute glories to it [making films] and I love it, but it is quite strange to be so mono-focused. I love that sense of bringing a wider focus to the world."

When she is not working, Dame Jane likes to go bush.

"Just hanging around in nature is probably my favourite thing to do. I don't like just marching through the bush 'cause it's a bit tiring, but also, it's just so nice to hang out somewhere. Hanging out for like three of three or four hours, maybe having a little nap. I mean, obviously choose places that don't have any sandflies. That's one of the reasons I think New Zealanders just keep walking.

"If I'm in the bush or something. I get chills, not just from the damp but from the intense beauty of it and the intense excitement of being among so many living breathing plants … It's amazing."

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Although Dame Jane considers herself to be Australasian - "I'm probably the poster girl for it" - Aotearoa is where she seems to do her best directing work.

"Partly because I left when I was 21 … I started art school in London and completed it in Sydney… I felt like it made me yearn for New Zealand and yearn for that landcape that is in my DNA."

The light in New Zealand is "a bit intense" compared to other parts of the world, Dame Jane says.

"The light in Europe seems to have more dust filtering. Here, you have so many big winds that blow all the dust out of the way and you get this really bright, intense light.

"That intense quality of light was something I really played with in [the 1990 Janet Frame biopic] An Angel at My Table. I decided to just go with it."

Dame Jane filmed Central Otago to look like rural Montana in her award-winning 2021 Western The Power of The Dog.

After falling in love with Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name, Dame Jane planned to produce a film adaption but discovered due to rights restrictions the only way she could get this made was to direct.

She says the stories that a director "passionately loves" are the ones they do the best job of telling - "because there's something really strong for you there".

The question of how Savage would feel about an Australasian telling his story was "sitting quite heavily" on Dame Jane until she did an extensive research tour of Montana, meeting his biographer and surviving family members and friends.

"I don't know, I think I did a pretty good job, a lot of research. I think he would have been pretty happy with it and that's what I care about."

Twelve years after releasing her last feature film, trailblazing director Dame Jane has emerged with revisionist western, The Power Of The Dog.

Looking back, she believes all of her film projects - dating back to 1982's Peel which won the Short Film Palme d'Or at Cannes - have been "worthwhile".

"Even if they took a few months off my life, I would still do them, because I'm really passionate about them and they are like explorations and journeys. Each and every one of them takes about three years minimum, so it's a really deep dive into the world that I'm exploring."

These days, women in cinema are doing "the best, most interesting work", Dame Jane says.

The #MeToo movement has significantly boosted the opportunties available to women in the film industry, she says, and female directors tend to make the kind of films women like to watch.

"Women don't like action movies as much as guys do. So they're looking for a more sophisticated relationship piece and women deliver."

Her 1993 film The Piano - which won Best Picture and Best Director at the 2024 Academy Awards - was distributed by Miramax, which Harvey Weinstein was co-chairperson of.

She feels lucky to not have had any negative experiences with the convicted sex offender who could occasionally be "very mean".

In the leadup to the 1994 awards season, Dame Jane was pregnant. Just one month after The Piano won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, her 11-day-old baby Jasper died.

"I was in incredible mind-numbing grief. I wasn't able to do any promotion or really enjoy anything about it. I kind of accepted that this pain was here and it was mine and I wasn't the first person to experience these things. Pain is present in the human experience.

"After something like the death of a child, you move into a cycle or circle of being where only people who know that kind of grief understand each other.

"I feel like it was a really deepening part of my life. And I don't resent it but it was a tough time. I was just lost. I had no capacity to do anything … People knew that I was having a baby and they'd say 'Where is the baby?' 'Oh, the baby? Yeah, he died'. It was just like terrible at the grocers or wherever you were."

During her brief time with Jasper, Dame Jane had "a deep experience of love".

"I honestly think that my last few days with that baby were the most romantic days of my whole life.

"[Losing a child] is a very intense human experience. You think you want everything to go right and there is a right, but actually stuff happens to you and you just end up having to open up and accept it. In the fullness of time, there's a way everything is a gift."

On the night The Piano won eight Oscars, Dame Jane was pregnant with her daughter Alice Englert, now an actor and filmmaker.

"It was an amazing gift and the happiest thing in my life but I was still feeling cautious. It was a lot to take in and in a way, it protected me perhaps from maybe getting a bloated identity or idea of myself."

No matter what awards you get, directors come in blind on every new project, Dame Jane tells students at her New Zealand filmmaking school A Wave in the Ocean.

Dame Jane believes the Netflix-funded programme is nothing less than "the best film school in the world".

"These students are paid to go so it doesn't become like, oh, you have to have rich parents that you can afford to be there. And they also get a really generous budget for their short film, which is sort of proof of their voice that they've developed over the time.

"It's been really amazing to get to be friends with these young people and watch their journeys and support them. They're all so interesting, I can't wait to see what they do."

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