A version of this story about Jane Campion first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
It has been nearly three decades since Jane Campion was nominated for an Oscar, an extraordinary span of time that evaporates instantly when the writer-director starts to talk about why she was drawn to the story of tortured masculinity in “The Power of the Dog” — and whether she was the right person to tell it.
Ultimately, she said, she felt “emboldened” by the #MeToo movement to take on the project that she admitted was “not a woman’s story.” And now she has Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, along with four of her main actors — an impressive tribute to the impact the film has had.
“The Power of the Dog” has enjoyed near-universal praise, save for a recent jolt of vitriol from actor Sam Elliot, who took issue with “this woman from down there” making a film set in the American West. Over the weekend at the Directors Guild Awards, Campion (who is from New Zealand) shrugged off his comments (“I’m sorry, he was being a little bit of a B-I-T-C-H,” she told Variety) before winning the DGA Best Director prize.
I spoke with Campion a few days before all that, and our conversation was a kind of capstone for me. As a young reporter, I interviewed her at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, when the deep emotion of “The Piano” took the Croisette by storm, before sweeping Campion to prominence on the global stage, leading to a rare Best Director nomination and a Best Original Screenplay win at the Oscars. Now she has made history by becoming the first woman ever to be nominated twice as Best Director, even if it took 28 years.
How do these historic Oscar nominations feel, after having not made a film for 12 years and not having this recognition for even longer?
It feels great. I’ve spent 26 years without winning major awards. To come back like this, I feel gratitude. It’s a rare occurrence when a film hits a nerve. You make something you believe in yourself. And then it hits a nerve.
Did it surprise you?
I am surprised and thrilled. I’m not totally surprised — I loved the material. The book was a hidden gem (that) never got the attention it deserved. Reading the book, I went, “My God, this is a great story by someone who lived in the West and has a different sense of mythology about it.”
Why were you even reading a book from 1967?
My dad’s second wife, Judith, tossed me the book — she has great taste. I read it straight away. I wasn’t looking for material, but it got under my skin. It’s not a woman’s story, but it had great depth, many levels. I kept thinking of tennis shoes, paper flowers. I felt the call.
It seems so different from your past choices, and in a way, it flips the script on Hollywood’s usual pattern: the male gaze at a male story, certainly in a Western.
I asked myself that question: What would Savage feel about my doing an adaptation? Would he want a big, beefy, ranchy guy as director? I thought we could get along. I could bridge the gaps, go to Montana, talk to (Western writer) Annie Proulx and align myself with that. I’m also from a theatrical family and a farming family. I had a horse; we had cattle. I did understand something about the animals. I wasn’t afraid.
You’ve said that this film was impacted by the #MeToo movement. How so?
It’s emboldened a lot of us female artists. I feel emotional gratitude to the women who shared their stories. It changed the cultural environment in which we live. A Berlin Wall has come down for us. It’s no longer acceptable to exclude women — it’s not a way we want to move forward. That’s a feeling from men in our community as well as women.
For a long time, you were very much in the minority as a female director.
It was lonely. It’s so much better now. It wasn’t lonely while you’re doing the work. The work is protective; I felt like I was good at it. What was lonely was when you release the work and all the journalists were male. You didn’t feel you were going to get a fair hearing in some ways for what you’ve done.
(Pause) I don’t like to whinge. I’m damn pleased things have changed. There were times there were so few women — we were not winning much. People said, “We could have a Best Women’s Film (category).” You say “No. We don’t need a category of our own. We can compete. We’re good storytellers. We’re good with actors. We can do the whole thing.”
How have you reacted to the discussion around masculinity as it is treated in “Power of the Dog”?
I realized it was a story about masculinity written by a man who was unique in the West as a gay man on a ranch with a homophobic uncle. He knew the territory. It’s a subversive look at this — his take was subversive. It’s a profile of Phil Burbank, who is a charismatic but tyrannical and bullying man. And (Savage) unpeeled that onion slowly, beautifully, (to show) how vulnerable and afraid and lonely he was but what harm he caused others.
How did you come to work with Benedict Cumberbatch?
It required someone hungry for that adventure. Benedict was. I’m a fan of his. I feel like Ben and I have a friendship that enabled us to get the best out of the role. He let me in. He likes to be inclusive, to discuss things. It takes some courage to play a role of that kind.
What I do like about this story is it changes the dialogue — who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy? The complexity of human nature. When you’ve been around in the world for a little bit, (you learn) there’s a way to be dominating, to be subjugating — you don’t want them. There are other ways to be together that are a lot kinder.
What about Kirsten Dunst?
Kirsten is someone whose work I’ve loved since “The Virgin Suicides.” I just think she had the most haunting presence in that film. “Melancholia” was an incredible performance. Initially, Lizzie (Elisabeth) Moss and I were going to work together on it but we couldn’t make the schedule work. Kirsten was the next person, and she was riveting. In the scene where she’s placing clothes on a clothesline, worried about her son, nothing’s happening but you’re totally riveted.
The character of Rose is underrepresented (in the novel). I did what I could to see things more from her point of view. And Kirsten had done her homework. She had all sorts of techniques, substitutions she liked to use to give things more power. She might in her mind say that she has a secret between her and her son. It’s helpful (to think) that he might have killed his father, even if it’s not part of the story. She’s clever about how to play drunk, using the technique of spinning and trying to walk. Or if she was nervous in the scene where she has to play the piano, she’d hold ice in her hands beforehand.
I wanted to tell you that when you were in Cannes (in 1993), I was pregnant and you were pregnant as well. I know that tragically you lost that baby. We’d been warned as journalists not to pressure you because of concerns over your pregnancy. I did something afterward I never do, which is to write you a letter pleading with you not to give up on either film or being a mother because both were so important to the world. I don’t know if that letter ever reached you.
A lot of people did write to me. It was hard to respond. I was actually broken.
I’m so sorry that happened.
In a whole life, it was an amazing experience to be so broken and so sad. However, I didn’t give up. I had a baby girl. She’s not a baby anymore, she’s 27 and making a film. Of course, I’ll never forget Jasper and be so grateful to him. But you also think: Women take hits. Some women even die from childbirth. Two in every 100 babies don’t survive it. I had that 2 in 100th baby. It brings you right into the heart of suffering. I feel like it was spiritual and something I’m grateful for.
Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.