According to native Jane Campion, New Zealand’s primary export is “morality”; some noble (No Nukes), some pedestrian (“Everybody is a boy scout or a policeman.”) But with the critical success of first Vincent Ward’s The Navigator and now Campion’s Sweetie, that might change from sheep and ethics to new directors.
Born into a theatrical family, the middle of three kids, Campion grew up in Wellington, New Zealand studying anthropology and traveling extensively before settling in Australia to attend art and film schools in Sydney. In ’86, when a program of her three shorts: Peel, Passionless Moments, Girl’s Own Story and telemovie, Two Friends was shown in Cannes; she won the Palme D’Or for Peel as best short film.
Though the down-to-earth Ms. Campion found Cannes “a very weird place with a whole heap of weird people,” she was back this year with her first feature, which received raves. Compared visually to films by David Lynch, Sweetie tells the story of an eccentric and malfunctioning family as seen through the eyes of the eldest daughter, Kay, whose own relationship with her boyfriend is falling apart.
“I’m a great diversionary person,” said the 34-year-old director explaining her free-spirited writing collaborations, “and can spend four hours discussing boyfriends, love, sex, make-up, and hairdos before doing an hour’s work.” Sadly, we only had an hour.
Lynn Geller How long are you here for?
Jane Campion I’m here ‘til Saturday. I’m on my way back from Europe where we did the last week of shooting on a three-hour TV miniseries special, an adaption of an autobiography of a New Zealand novelist named Janet Frame. I loved the book. I’ve been wanting to do this ever since I was in film school.
LG What was it about her that attracted you?
JC Her writing was very poetic and sometimes had this uncanny brilliant inspiration to it. In New Zealand there was a mythology around her because everybody knew she had spent some time in a mental hospital.
LG And what was her life like?
JC No one knew anything about her life. It was a mystery because she was quite reclusive. Then this autobiography came out and suddenly this completely mythological person seemed like the most ordinary, honest, sympathetic, completely vulnerable, little round, tubby red-fuzzy-haired person you could imagine. She saw herself as a poetic being and yet didn’t look that way. She discussed that struggle with herself and the time in the mental hospital in a way that was so accessible and charming. And though her writing is often associated with being difficult and complicated—this biography is not at all. It’s the story of her life but it could have been my life. It allows you to re-experience your own childhood and all those awful adolescent memories and to laugh about them for a change instead of having them all locked away.
LG And what was the inspiration for your film Sweetie?
JC Its inspiration was the deep confusion, that both Gerard Lee, who co-wrote the script with me, and I had had about why our relationship didn’t work when we were in love. We battled away with it in a complete fog, not understanding why we felt like we loved each other and yet didn’t want to have sex, things like that were very confusing and disappointing.
LG Was this someone you were with for a long time?
JC I met him at film school and we were together for about three or four years. He’s a writer, you see, and we did a film together called Passionless Moments. It was my idea to approach him about it knowing the material was shared. If you live with a writer there’s the feeling that it belongs to both of you.
LG That’s so amazing—to be with an ex-boyfriend and then to be able to review your relationship in a fictional forum.
JC Yeah, it could be incredibly pretentious, as well. I’ve made a constant effort to make best friends with my ex-boyfriends—but you do have to make the effort to get over that first wounded area.
LG I’m friendly with most of my old boyfriends. The only time it’s a problem is when you have a new boyfriend, he’s usually a bit suspicious about all the old boyfriends hanging around.
JC Yes, my new one doesn’t like having to get to know them all. He’s not interested in being part of the stable, as he puts it.
LG The relationship was the original central theme, what about the dysfunctional family?
JC The dysfunctional family was always in the original story but it blossomed. We just allowed ourselves to follow it to where we thought the hate was—as it turned up for us.
LG There’s a mythic quality to the imagery in Sweetie, like the tree imagery. I was wondering if that’s intentional.
JC It is intentional. I was keen to create a subconscious quality to the film. It’s such a strong part of our lives and the consensus reality that we use to communicate in cinema today completely ignores that aspect. It’s very present in people and it’s lonely not to have it recognized.
LG Recently I’ve been wondering what the difference is between being lonely and not being lonely. I decided that it really is about being able to communicate something and have somebody else understand what you’re saying. To express something from deep within you and have somebody else not judge it or just go “Oh, yeah,” but truly respond.
JC I think we’re very frightened to reveal ourselves, especially those inner parts, an image of yourself underneath. The thing I’m protecting is kind of an ugly, weird, Hunchback of Notre Dame…that I feel is in me. So you’re protecting the failing you have that you don’t want anyone to see, because they’re going to hate you for it when they know what you’re like underneath. I’m the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
LG Well, it’s certainly not evident. The character Sweetie, in the film is an example of someone who’s completely externalized that side of herself. She doesn’t bother to censor it.
JC That’s true, actually.
LG She purposely throws that in your face. Did you intend her as a provocateur?
JC Yeah, definitely. What Kay tries to do is get her life under control and actually, her control is fake. She’s not having sex with her boyfriend anymore and the real reason is that she’s lying to him. She’s got this secret, and it makes her unable to be open and feel free.
LG What secret?
JC The secret about the tree that she’s pulled out. They compensate with the agreement, “Oh, what’s happened to us is that we’re in a spiritual phase.” That’s something they can agree to and feel good about, in order to keep going on with their relationship. Then Sweetie shows up. She’s so sexual and relaxed about it that it’s obvious that that’s not the case. Louis is still keen to have sex and Sweetie opens the Pandora’s box. She’s both a monster and an angel for doing that, also totally irresponsible and hopeless for it. She pays a big price. In the end, she dies.
LG In dysfunctional families everybody goes along with the system and pretends that nothing is happening. I love the scene when the boyfriend just falls off the chair, ODs, and the father doesn’t acknowledge that anything is happening. It’s classic.
JC Gordon, the character, is amazingly unconscious and sentimental. When he says, “I just want everyone to be together again…”
LG Yeah, no self-awareness whatsoever.
JC A total baby, totally sentimental. You can understand why he’s like that and why people want that, in general. For me, he’s the villain of the piece because he is so unconscious. If there’s one thing people can do, it’s grow up.
LG I agree totally. Because of his blindness the whole family is in pain and he absolutely won’t acknowledge that or take any responsibility.
JC He can’t cope with any unpleasant feelings. I’m very interested in the nature of sentimentality. It’s a very American thing, too, isn’t it?
LG I’ll say. Nostalgia and sentimentality have practically destroyed our country.
JC Sentimentality is so powerful and dangerous because it touches people’s emotions without any reason, without any consciousness.
LG It’s also very superficial because you have to be pretty oblivious to reality.
JC To me, if there’s any morality in the world it’s that each person has to take responsibility for humanity. And without people being humane or understanding, the most appalling things can happen and have happened.
LG You used a gospel group for the themes in Sweetie…
JC Cafe at the Gate of Salvation. I love that group. I’ve watched them grow. When I first went to hear them they weren’t so hot. They were just learning. But by the time I made the film they were just fantastic. I wanted to use singing because I like a cappella and I wanted to make the soundtrack entirely out of human sounds. I wanted to see how far we could go, like even doors closing and other sound effects, but we just didn’t have time to do it. I had wanted the whole thing to be a total human-scape.
LG I loved the mother going to the outback and working with all those cowboys. It was not only hilarious, but brave. What inspired that idea?
JC I don’t mind Gerard and I revealing our sources it’s just a bit…it was based on something.
LG But had you ever been in that area before you shot there?
JC I hadn’t. It was the mythological view of someone who lives in Sydney thinking about the outback from looking at paintings like Drysdale, dreaming of getting away—not incredibly accurate. But that wasn’t the intention. It was like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because there were seven cowboys. It was a totally curative situation.
LG She did seem to be healed.
JC Yeah, and the true story was like that, too.
LG It was? It worked.
JC It did work, yeah.
LG Do you write your scripts by yourself or do you usually collaborate?
JC This next one is written by myself. I prefer collaboration because it’s not so neurotic-making. You can check things through and laugh. The other person can help you feel better when things go badly. When Gerard and I did it we’d just take whole days out. One day we worried ourselves for the entire day about whether we had AIDS or not. We spent a whole day thinking about what our chances are. But then the next day we decided we didn’t and went on with the script.
LG So you have your next project planned. Have you written the script?
JC I have. I’ve done a first draft.
LG Did you say fifth draft?
JC First. I don’t like a lot of drafts. So, one more project and then I’d like to retire for at least three or four or five years.
JC Yeah, and do something else for a while and wait until I have something I really want to say again.
LG Most people feel like they have to capitalize on the moment.
JC I do feel like I have to and that’s why I’m doing these three things. It’s quite hard work. I just keep focusing on the opportunity. It’s a fantastic opportunity to grow and learn. That’s all I’m doing. I’m just a nun to my career at the moment. It’s beautiful because you know you’re learning even though you can’t quite catch up with it. But then I’d just like to take some time out for life. What is life if you don’t have a perspective on how you’re living it? It’s just a big mess, really.
—Lynn Geller is a New York writer and a music supervisor on documentaries and features.