Jane Campion's Bright Star is a gorgeous, beautiful romance, a story of love between the legendary John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Co-starring Kerry Fox and Paul Schneider, Bright Star is a sumptuous period piece that doesn't feel like a costume drama. It is a timeless love story brought to life by an amazing screenplay by the writer and director of The Piano. She sat down with us recently to discuss the film.
MovieRetriever: When I was doing research, the first post on the IMDB message board struck me. It was "Is Jane a feminist filmmaker?" How would you answer that user?
JANE CAMPION: (Long pause.) That's a loaded comment, isn't it? In the sense that I'm led by doctrine, no. When I look at this film, I think you can see that I'm interested in seeing it from Fanny's point of view. And there's the sense that it's simply because I'm a woman and there aren't a lot of women out there making movies. So it seems unusual to see things from their own sex's point of view. In fact, it's pretty common. (Laughs.). If fifty percent of directors were women, then fifty percent of the material we received in the world would be more even. But it's kind of sad that it's unusual.
MovieRetriever: Why is it that way? Why is it such a boy's club?
CAMPION: Interestingly, it's probably to do with the money. In our countries – Australia, New Zealand – all finance comes from the government. As a friend of mine said, "Feminism has no natural predators in Australia and New Zealand." It took the place by storm. The early feminists in the film industry insisted on equal representation. You're ALL paying taxes and you want an equal share of the money. That was a real concern early on. The fact is that we're all being shortchanged by not seeing as much from a female point of view.
MovieRetriever: Do you think it's gotten better since you started?
CAMPION: No. That's a misconception. These situations are far more conservative than you realize. It's very, very entrenched. In the women as well.
MovieRetriever: Women holding themselves back?
CAMPION: Ideas about what's attractive between women. This idea that men should be dominant and women should be submissive leads to very different ideas of themselves in the world. The director is a dominant position. It's a relationship and women really value relationships. I'm guessing. More diversity would be really great. Guys can be really sensitive too. It's nothing like that. It's something else. I don't think women own sensitivity.
MovieRetriever: Let's talk about Bright Star. There's a credit that reads an Original Screenplay but credits a biography as a main source. How much does it stick to the already-published information?
CAMPION: I was very informed by it. That and deciding to imaginatively explore it from Fanny's point of view, for which there isn't much information. Basically, I've strayed right off there. I'm doing my own "Ballad of Fanny and Keats." There are so many ways to get involved in the Keats story and this was the one that I thought was the broadest. The one that I thought I wanted to tell in two hours. It had a lot of detail ... the detail came from stuff we do know about the timeline for Keats, what was happening. We have such a lot of it because Keats' brother George saved these long letters from him. He talked about when he met [Fanny].
MovieRetriever: It starts with an interest in Keats and trying to find a story to tell about him? Where's the origin?
CAMPION: Reading the biography and not knowing much about him and feeling him come to life. Wading through some of the earlier analysis and coming across this love story. The letters are really what she read. I was very moved by it. Of course, the outcome and the innocence and purity.
MovieRetriever: I love the innocence and purity. There's a beautiful moment after their first kiss when they play a child's game, a variation on Mother May I.
CAMPION: They just made that up. They're incredibly special actors. Wait, I guess that was my idea. I was driving through the streets and saw some school kids playing and thought that would be a great way to come back from wherever they were after that kiss.
MovieRetriever: Let's talk about Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw. How did you choose them?
CAMPION: Through the audition process. I knew both of them beforehand and they were both very taken by the story. Abbie felt that the story really got into her and came to her. The way they approached the auditions was very passionate and compelling. Ben was well-known. Abbie had done Somersault [and] Candy. We were all aware of her being a strong young talent. I was looking for an English person but she had this streak of independence, this in-touchness with her own intuition that was powerful. I really loved that. And Ben, I had heard that he had done this amazing Hamlet when he was quite young. I didn't see it but I felt hopeful because one of the qualities I needed in Keats was someone you could imagine had written those poems – the intelligence and sensitivity.
MovieRetriever: What about Paul Schneider?
CAMPION: I think he's fabulous. I saw him in All the Real Girls. I noticed him and thought, "God, he's unusual. He's intimate. He's sensitive." And then I was a judge on the Venice jury and saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Amazing. All the performances were amazing. And he was SO different. I thought he could do character in a really subtle way. I rang Paul up and spoke to him and asked if he would do an audition and he said that he still had the ticket stub from The Piano in his wallet that he carried around because it was the reason he went to art school. He did a rough Scottish accent in his audition but I loved the way that he talked about it and it was for me a lot more aggressively connecting with his role and what he might do with it than a lot of the English actors [I saw].
MovieRetriever: You've got actors from all over the world.
CAMPION: One English, one American, one Australian.
MovieRetriever: Did you worry about bringing them all into a believable space?
CAMPION: Of course you do. I guess my job is to bring clarity and direction. And hire a very good voice coach.
MovieRetriever: Did you have a long rehearsal process?
CAMPION: Three weeks, which is actually unusual and long. And we had a very good voice coach. It sort of worked in a way that it helped them to make it feel natural. Certainly, the accents weren't there to begin with. Once you start, it's got to happen.
MovieRetriever: How much research do you encourage? Did Ben go and read everything Keats wrote?
CAMPION: Ben had the biggest challenge. Abbie did some sewing, Paul did some reading, but, for Ben, it was intimidating with Keats' output being so enormous. He read the biography. We got various people who we thought were good interpreters of Keats' work and had Ben meet with them to discuss. I recommended some ideas of ways to do things and had a friend who I think had a juicy way of interpreting the period and ways that I would make available to him, but, even still, it was really scary. We said, "Look, you've just got to give him your love. It's the best you can do."
MovieRetriever: Do you worry about the film not finding a large audience?
CAMPION: I can't concern myself. We have to try. Diversity in the world is attractive to me. You have to be a soldier for it. You can't go, "Oh well, I guess I'll do Batman." I mean, you could. But, I think if you love and respond to something then people will too if they get the opportunity. This is not a very difficult film. It's an accessible film. We've proved that in Cannes. It has a very wide response. You just have to have access to your emotions and you can enjoy this movie. It's incredibly accessible. My daughter, friends, people who know nothing about Keats – they just love it. It's a very emotional story. Just come and it will be fine.
MovieRetriever: That's a good tagline – Just come and it will be fine.
CAMPION: More than fine. Thrilling. (Laughs.)