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MAKING OF: THE PIANO (1993)

BUILDING THE PIANO
How a French construction company helped build Jane Campion’s career by financing her Palme d’Or winning The Piano, one of the seminal films of the 90s. Campion explains the keys to ANDREW L. URBAN.

"I feel a kinship between the kind of romance that Emily Bronte portrayed in Wuthering Heights and this film. Hers is not the notion of romance that we've come to use, it's very harsh and extreme, a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse; I wanted to respond to those ideas in my own century."

This is how Jane Campion (pic) introduced The Piano to the Cannes Film Festival, writing in a beautiful, limited edition booklet on the film, printed on ivory Lanagrain paper. But her exploration was free of the social constraints of Bronte's time, and thus far more sexual; "a lot more investigative of eroticism - which can add another dimension."

"We all have our fantasies of recognition" Jane Campion

In Sydney this week, she spoke at greater length of some of the decisions she made in the process of creating what some film writers at Cannes have referred to as her masterpiece. For example, writing in the influential film trade daily, Moving Pictures, at the Festival, Jan Epstein [now a contributor to Urban Cinefile, among other things] wrote: "Jane Campion has created a masterpiece of startlingly beautiful images and powerful eroticism that satisfies the deepest need of the heart as much as it thrills the eye and satisfies the soul."

Certainly, Campion was delighted that palates as sophisticated and developed as those at Cannes responded to her 'vision'; "We all have our fantasies of recognition, things you keep striving for," she says, "and the acknowledgment is fabulous in a formal sort of way, but the real satisfaction is in the little breakthroughs I make...a lot of it in the early stages, often with (producer) Jan Chapman in a little shack somewhere (working on the script) or travelling the world with NO money, trying to work out how to finance the film.

"We started in France and went around the world to the US. We'd say to each other before meetings, 'If they bring up money, let's just say we'll get back to them!' not having worked out the details." Campion is laughing at the memory of it now, the truth of it, the chaotic nature of the film business, and how ironically easy the financing became.

"It's unbelievable but they gave us 100 per cent creative control"

"It was all due to Pierre Rissient (the Cannes Festival scout who comes to Australia each year appraising and previewing films) who suggested we get in touch with Ciby 2000 - he'd read the script and was sure Ciby would love it. We didn't believe it...it's very unusual."

But Ciby 2000 did love it. Offshoot of a French construction company, Ciby 2000 was set up five years ago to develop films and film makers from all over the world. The old construction boss turned patron of the arts, Francois Bouyges who died last week (August 1, 1993) after a long illness, was at least alive to hear of the Palme d'Or success of The Piano.

"I feel very grateful to this Medici-like person," says Campion. "Ciby is a sort of showcase company, and they want to help certain independent directors...it's unbelievable but they gave us 100 per cent creative control, and 100 per cent of the money - with a generous share of the profits. It's fabulous for filmmakers."

Campion began writing The Piano (originally called The Piano Lesson, but shortened in deference to an American play of the same name doing the rounds) in 1984, well before her successes with Sweetie and An Angel at My Table.

"Originally the story was a history of the piano - and its life in New Zealand, then a lot of other characters got involved," Campion recalls. One of these was Ada (Holly Hunter), the arranged wife of Englishman Stewart (Sam Neill), who has not spoken since she was six.

"If you can't talk things out, you have to do it in other ways..."

Campion explains how she arrived at the notion of making her central character mute: "I wanted to create a strong relationship with the piano...she compromises herself so much for it, it would have to be something really big to make her do that. So I felt if she couldn't speak, the piano would mean so much more to her, it'd be her voice. And it did have useful repercussions through the movie; for example, her daughter speaks for her, which sets up a secretive communication between the two women, quite true to life...and the men feel even less able to understand them. Makes it sexier, too: if you can't talk things out, you have to do it in other ways..."

Stewart, a decent if repressed man, "who probably never had sex in his life, he's an auntie’s boy," says Campion, "becomes aroused when he spies on Ada and Baines (Harvey Keitel, playing the neighbour) in action. It's passion! Wow! It unlocks something in him..."

"It made me sick..." Sam Neill

And eventually leads to a single act of violence "miniscule by Hollywood standards," as Sam Neill puts it, "but it made me sick...".

What Campion was trying to investigate was the 19th century colonial world of her native country, New Zealand, and how most white people like Ada and Stewart were completely unprepared for the power of sexual passion; by contrast, the Maoris, who play an important role in The Piano, speak freely of penises and vaginas and use sexual symbols in everyday communication.

Stewart's incomprehension of Ada is displayed at the very beginning; they land on the shores of their new homeland and disembark from a long journey, their belongings dragged painfully from boat to beach to homestead. Except the piano. On Stewart's orders, it is left in its crate on the beach, much to Ada's anxiety.

When neighbour Baines offers Ada a deal for fetching the piano in return for lessons - with subtle implication of something else - Ada's sense of propriety gives way to her attachment to the piano.

As she slowly, slowly entangles herself in a sensuous web with Baines, her untapped emotions erupt, but the affair ignites all of them, and Baines falls painfully in love with her - and out of lust. Stewart is startled out of his composure, and by the end of the film Ada is sufficiently changed to toy with the notion of Stewart becoming her sex slave - in a sort of muted, 19th century fashion.

"I felt it was a crucial time for me" Jane Campion

As Campion says, she could have cast unknown actors in the roles. "There are lots of superb people around...But I felt it was a crucial time for me...I could either work small, or work in a way to be challenged, with actors of the experience and caliber of Sam and Holly and Harvey. They are all very committed actors, and they bring unique strengths..."

Asked to comment on accusations made by a New Zealander that The Piano was somehow the result of plagiarism, Campion smiles sarcastically. "Yeah, the guy hadn't even seen the film. It's a beat up. You can't make a film like this infringing copyright...He was involved in an early draft of a thing called The River. Friends of mine own the copyright. Look, it's so inaccurate (the claim) it's not worth commenting on."

Campion speaks now about how "sensible" her progress as a film maker seems to have been, although unplanned. "I started with a seven minute film, but it seemed big to me. Than I did a half hour, then 70 minutes, and then you realise you can do a feature."

"Directing is a very hard job" Jane Campion

And although she thoroughly enjoyed making the film, it was tough. "I loved it actually, more than I had before...it used to terrify me. Now it's a big high. But directing is a very hard job. It's a long time commitment, an intense six months of my life. That's a long time to be so intense about something that all your relationships fade into the background."

But there is no sign of Campion settling into some different line of work, with at least two new films to make one after the other (Portrait of a Lady, and Holy Smoke, both adaptations from novels).

"Without doubt I'll make a film less successful (than The Piano) but that's all right with me, as long as it's satisfying to make. I just hope I don't get addicted to the salary level."

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THE PIANO

FIRST REPORTED: 3/8/93

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WHAT’S IN A NATIONALITY?
The Piano has been happily claimed as an Australian film. And as a New Zealand film. (The French have thankfully resisted the temptation, even though it was paid for by French francs.) So what nationality is it? Does it matter?

Of course it does: it matters to Australia’s sense of pride: ther’s kudos and glory involved. It matters that it was presented at Cannes as an Australian film, especially when it won the Palme d’Or.

And of course it matters in the gathering of Australian Film Institute Awards, which it did.

Director Jane Campion is a New Zealander; the film is set and shot in New Zealand, photographed by a New Zealander, and stars a New Zealander (Sam Neill) – and a couple of Americans.

However, Jane Campion did study at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and is based in Sydney. (That’s another reason it matters: this sort of success helps justify the cost of the film school and demonstrate its.) The producer is Australian, as is the writer and editor, and it was developed in Australia. Post production was completed in Australia. The composer is English and the finance French.

Voila! Non?

Interestingly, the AFI ruled Baz Luhrmann’s striking vision of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet ineligible as an Australian film, yet it had more key crew and creative Australian elements, with the finance coming from the US: Luhrmann, of course, is Australian, and Shakespeare aside, the writing credits are officially Australian. The cinematographer is also Australian, and all its other elements match The Piano for Australian-ness…
Andrew L. Urban

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10/9/98: The Making Of … is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films - such as this one - that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.

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We have already published Making of features for the following films:
ANGEL BABY
BLACK ROBE
BLOOD OATH
CAPPUCCINO
HERCULES RETURNS
MURIEL'S WEDDING
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT
STRICTLY BALLROOM
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