New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion, whose few but impressive credits include “The Piano” (which won three Oscars including screenplay for Campion), “The Portrait of a Lady” and “An Angel at My Table,” has always liked a challenge.
She certainly found one with her latest film, “Bright Star,” the story of the passionate love affair between a then-unknown 23-year-old English poet, John Keats (Ben Whishaw), and the young woman next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), an outspoken student of fashion.
Keats’ love for Fanny inspired some of the most beautiful poems and love letters ever written, which in turn form the basis of the film’s heartbreaking story of romantic obsession and tragic early death; the quintessential Romantic poet died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821, his genius still unrecognized then by the world.
“I thought it was such a beautiful, tragic love story, and so moving,” says Campion, who was inspired to make the film after reading the acclaimed biography of Keats by Andrew Motion.
But, as she has done throughout her career, Campion soon found her own way of dealing with the material, and decided to tell the story from Fanny’s point of view.
“As a woman, you can’t help but be female-centric,” she laughs. “So whenever there’s a story to tell, your mind automatically goes toward the female protagonist, and you imagine the story from her perspective. And most times in terms of directors — 95%, really — it’s the guys who’re telling the stories.
I also thought it was a very helpful way of dealing with this story, as it contained it. We meet Keats through her eyes, and then we fall in love with him as we watch her fall in love with him, and we also watch her become poetry-educated, or curious, and we also lose Keats as she does. I was so moved by the description of Fanny at the end of the story where she was seen to walk upon Hampstead Heath, always dressed in widow’s clothes, even though she wasn’t actually married to him. She did that for three full years after his death, just walking off that grief. I was very taken by her courage and the sheer depth of her love for him.”
The director was well aware that raising financing “was going to be pretty tough,” but then she got lucky thanks to her friendship with Pathe head Francois Ivernel.
“He asked me what I was doing after ‘In the Cut,’ which wasn’t successful, so I was quite surprised he was even interested in this,” she recalls. “But even with Pathe’s backing, we all had to reduce our fees and the budget to the point where we were like, ‘Do we want to make it or not?’ And we all felt like we wanted the adventure.”
Ultimately, Campion and producer Jan Chapman, who didn’t have an American deal, raised enough money from a patchwork of backers including BBC Films, Screen Australia and Hopscotch Intl. (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “The Wrestler”).
“People in America responded very positively to the script, but they were unsure about how to bring this to an American audience,” she reports. “It made us think hard about shaping the material.”
The artistic process also made Campion, who shot the film on location in England and Rome, think hard about her career and her long-term goals.
“I’d taken four years off and was really asking myself, what do I want to do now with my life? Maybe I’ve done my film monkey. I actually considered retiring,” she admits. “I did think it was a possibility. Maybe I’d just do something else. I wanted to feel re-inspired from a place where I started, as a 25-year-old getting into film. Now I’m 50: How do I respond to the world now? It’s not the same. It’s really different. But when you’re working all the time, you don’t have time to catch up to who you are. And I had an 8-year-old daughter at the time — she’s 15 now — and I wanted to spend time with her too.”
Happily for the director, Campion re-found her mojo thanks to a commission from the United Nations for a film about climate change called “The Water Diary.”
I got to work with a lot of young kids on that, and they really inspired me with their energy,” she says. “The way I wanted to tell it was much more classical in form, and I had a chance to experiment with those ideas and thoughts, and I did at the time think of it as training wheels for ‘Bright Star,’ which is also very classical.”
Although Campion grew up in a showbiz family — “my father was a theater director, and my mother was an actress” — she says that she “never dreamed” of becoming a film director.
“In fact, I wasn’t even interested in movies growing up,” she insists. “My mother, who was very arty, used to take me to see films like ‘Belle de jour,’ but I had no big passion for cinema. I just assumed you had to be a kind of genius to make movies, and I wasn’t, so why bother? It took me a long time to find my way and gain confidence.”
Campion studied anthropology and then painting before finally settling on film. Even then, she maintains, “It was never about making movies — it was about expressing myself.”
She doesn’t seem particularly bothered by her leisurely pace — or any outside pressure to be more productive.
“I think I’m quite fast, actually, when I compare myself with other people,” she laughs. “Writing often takes a long time, and I may take a long time getting my head in the right space, but when I work, it’s quite fast. This is my eighth film, if you count ‘Two Friends,’ which I made for ABC, and each of them — except for ‘Two Friends’ — I found and chose myself and developed from the start, so it’s not like I’m being handed a script and asked, ‘Do you want to do it?’ So it takes time, and what’s really amazing to me is that I’ve never not had a film made. So I feel I’ve been really, really lucky.
“I’m not hungry to work faster. I only want to do certain things, and my satisfaction comes from doing those things well and having fun doing them.”