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Jane Campion has freed Meg Ryan from the cage of typecasting as America’s sweetheart, thanks to Ryan’s pursuit of the role, as Campion explains to Andrew L. Urban. And as she begins her self-imposed sabbatical after making In The Cut, Campion reveals how much she has learnt about the fakery and myth of modern romance in the course of making the film.

Jane Campion is all in white, a generous suit with a skirt, and her hair is in pony tails, with the centre parting showing the first signs of white, the rest a honey blonde. Her manner is as calm as it has always been, but now there is a deeper sense of her being comfortable with herself. She is less guarded and more confident, perhaps. We’ve met several times before, and she even remarks to me at one point, “Gosh Andrew, you’ve been there through my entire career, asking me things to try and get to know me … and I didn’t want people to know me.” She’s smiling as she says it and something in her tone suggests she has come to terms with the media since those early days.

In fact, I wasn’t there at the very beginning, when she came out film school, but we did cover those years in an interview for the AFTRS 25th anniversary book and doco a few years ago. 

And I certainly was there at Cannes in 1993. "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 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."

"to explore the falsity of modern romantic illusions"

A decade later, Campion has found an even more extreme, even more gothic and extreme story with which to explore the falsity of modern romantic illusions: In The Cut. Adapted from Susanna Moore’s novel, the film is a noirish thriller about a serial killer, but Campion developed and heightened the central romance that Moore destroys in the book with the ultimate death the Frannie character.

The film is different. A woman’s body – in parts – is found near the apartments where creative writing teacher Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) lives, which brings Detectives Rodriguez (Nick Damici) and Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) into her rather disappointed life. She has been ignoring the intense interest of would-be boyfriend, highly strung John Graham (Kevin Bacon), and begins an affair with Malloy. Frannie’s equally frustrated half sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) encourages the relationship, which is candidly sex driven. But Malloy is able to draw out of Frannie things she didn’t know about herself … On the other hand, she begins to suspect Malloy himself of being the serial killer, who strikes again – this time even closer to Frannie.

Campion says the book was too nihilistic to transfer unaltered to the screen. “The book was an inspiration, but much too dark for the film. It’s almost too much for many readers, even.” Moore worked on the adaptation with Campion, so it would be fair to assume the changes don’t destroy the essence of Moore’s work. 

Campion reveals that the process of writing the screenplay for In The Cut not only turned into a major research work, “and really quite freeing for me personally, going through the thinking and talking about it. I think it’s a great trap for us the in the West culturally – for men and women, particularly for women who seem to be more attracted to the idea of a man coming into their life and in a way completing them. This is the dream: you’ll meet your man and he’ll complete your life.

"obscured by romance,"

“It’s nurtured and invested in so heavily yet the evidence is that it doesn’t happen. Love does exist, but if it becomes obscured by romance, you can’t even see the man you’re with….you have so many projections and hopes that you put on your partner, man or woman. All you’re doing is comparing them to the actual person you can barely see beyond the projection.

“Instead of just doing the really loving thing and seeing just who they really are. So they’re always performing against the myth of romance.” This element grew as she tackled the adaptation, “when I was trying to understand what was going on with the girls.”

The girls, sisters Frannie and Pauline, come across in the film as male-dependent, which seems odd material for someone like Campion, champion of women. “Yeah, they are… well, I think we are. We are and we aren’t… the liberation that is available to us is to realise that the matching of men and women is going to happen within our own psyche; we’re going to have to find the masculine and feminine in each of us. Especially as we get older, our feminine side is more important to us, as the masculine qualities of operating in the world diminish….

“So if you take that on as your own responsibility rather than putting that on your partner to be the masculine side or feminine side, then you have a profound friendship. But in the West we commonly think that your partner is going to complete you. And that without that completion you’re half baked. I felt like that a lot too; you feel that your life is on hold until you’re being loved – and the only person who can love you satisfactorily, we are told, is a man….”

This is perhaps material that rightly belongs in her commentary on the DVD, and perhaps it will be included. So should the stories of how she cast her three lead actors. In the case of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mark Ruffalo, the fuse that lit the idea was, in both cases, a tiny accident of fate. 

Campion was in Los Angeles and invited to Holly Hunter’s birthday party. (Hunter stars in Campion’s The Piano, and they have stayed friends.) At this party, Campion runs into Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress she has always admired. The timing is right, as Campion is planning In The Cut. Contact!

"so interesting"  .. on Mark Ruffalo

As for Mark Ruffalo, Campion recalls sitting in her “dim, dark lounge” and some Oscar screeners (now controversially stopped by the Academy) would come in, and one was a tape of You Can Count On Me, in which Ruffalo stars with Laura Linney. She glanced at the name of one of the producers, Jeffrey Sharp, and confused him in her mind with the geometrist, painter Jeffrey Smart, which pricked her curiosity. “How interesting, I’ll put it on. And usually I don’t like many movies, they’re so bad, the acting is corny and it’s all hyped up and all for the sake of entertainment… but then this beautiful story came on and I couldn’t believe how relaxed and real it was. Just so brilliant…and he was so interesting as the disaffected brother. It was the most compelling and human performance of that age group that I’d seen.”

Originally, Detective Molloy was going to be older, but the older actors Campion would have sought “would have been difficult for us because they want to be the lead…” Then Campion wondered if it would work with Mark, “because he’d been typecast as a sort of difficult young man, desultry, authority-bucking figure. And of course that’s not who Mark is; he’s just an extraordinary actor, very honest speaking. When I met him I thought he’s not the person on the screen so he must be a great actor! We knew that if he could pull this part off, it’d be a great coup for him in career terms.”

But the most unexpected casting decision was surely Meg Ryan. “I’m like everybody else,” says Campion, “we’ve grown up imagining who she really is and a whole story that’s nothing to do with Meg’s reality at all. I would never have thought that Meg would be interested in the kind of work I do. My idea about her was that she’s a star in Hollywood but she’s someone you could always talk to. But in a different stratosphere.”

The script was in development and being workshopped with Sandra Seacat, the guru drama coach at The Actors Studio with whom Harvey Keitel works (another connection from The Piano). “Sandra rang up when she heard that Nicole Kidman may not play the part, and she urged me to consider Meg Ryan. She said ‘you can’t believe her work; it’s amazing and dramatic and strong and she loves this part.’”

When Seacat suggested to Campion that she ask Ryan to audition, Campion’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding! Me ask Meg Ryan to audition?” Campion immediately formed a different picture of America’s sweetheart. “I suddenly saw her as someone who wouldn’t just come in and call all the shots … I’m Meg Ryan…”

Meg Ryan pursued Campion for the role with zeal. “She kep talking about the story and who Frannie really is, and what it is to be a woman in the world, and so disappointed by romance and looking for the more substantial part of romance …I was intrigued by her interest and her insights.”

Campion still didn’t think Ryan was the character, “but then I thought, what about that old fashioned idea of acting?” Campion laughs at herself. “Maybe she could act the character!?” We laugh again; yeah, how about that! Acting!”

"to explore her own artistry" ... on Meg Ryan

Ryan came in and auditioned with Ruffalo and impressed Campion with both her openness, her humility and her enthusiasm. “She really wanted to explore her own artistry. She is very sweet, but has very sharp instincts. There’re a lot of things she knows, that she doesn’t know she knows…like a lot of really good actors.” 

And now Campion says she’s a bit embarrassed by Ryan’s enthusiastic embrace of the role and its resultant impact; “I feel a bit like a lion tamer who opened the cage and said c’mon out, you don’t have to stay in there . . . And she loved every minute of it.”

There’s no doubt that Hollywood has had to rethink their image of Meg Ryan, but that’s also true of Mark Ruffalo and Jane Campion herself - even though some critics have been half hearted in their praise. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travis says “..cop-flick cliches that work against the film's higher aspirations. The result, sadly, is a mess.”

Roger Ebert went another way: “..Meg Ryan does such an effective job of evoking her sexually hungry lonely girl that it might have been better to just follow that line and not distract her and the audience with the distraction of a crime plot that becomes transparent …” 

But The San Francisco Chronicle says “..if "In the Cut" falls short of the masterpiece Campion intended, it's unquestionably the most ambitious and important film to come along in months.”

In my own review, I say the film dares to be more emotionally layered, morally provocative, creatively challenging and rule-breaking than its genre usually dictates, and is consequently quite compelling. 

In The Cut is Campion’s last film for a while; she’s taking what she calls a sabbatical, to spend time with her 9-year old daughter (“put her in first position”) and take on mothering. I don’t want someone else doing that job for me anymore.” For how long, she doesn’t know. “It’s been 19 years I’ve been thinking about a project or doing it. It’s a great thing to be able to, and to find out who you are now.”

Published November 13, 2003

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Jane Campion - onset

... on the set of IN THE CUT

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