“I like to be reminded that we’re animals,” says Jane Campion of the scene in her new film, Holy Smoke, where a distraught, naked Kate Winslet—with piss streaming uncontrollably down her leg—confronts Harvey Keitel. “Children wet their beds when they can’t cope with trauma. It’s a fantastic expression of distress. It’s a crazy thing we have to do as human beings—to civilize ourselves and at the same time to accept our animal aspects. It’s one of the places where people often muck up.”
Miramax is opening Holy Smoke for a one-week Academy Awards qualifying run on December 3. It then disappears until the official release in mid January. Campion’s The Piano garnered nine Oscar nominations and won three, but it was the most polite film she ever made. It’s doubtful that the middlebrow Academy is going to look with similar favor on the wild, irreverent, essentially comic, but occasionally brutal Holy Smoke—despite the fact that Winslet reveals more than flesh (what Campion calls “essence”) in the best leading female performance this year.
Just after The Piano cleaned up at the Oscars in 1994, Campion pitched Harvey Weinstein the idea for a film about the power struggle between a willful, beautiful young woman (Winslet) who believes she’s found God in an Indian ashram and the middle-aged exit-counselor (Keitel) who’s hired by her bewildered family to deprogram her. Weinstein committed to financing the film on the spot. Jane asked her sister Anna to cowrite the screenplay and then rushed off to make Portrait of a Lady,which occupied the next three years of her life.
“I knew that after Portrait of a Lady, I wanted to do something contemporary again. Something that was more my own—mine and Anna’s. I’m not really fascinated by cults, but I am interested in the question of how you have a spiritual life in the ’90s and in the connections of spirituality, eroticism, and love.” The early work on the screenplay involved arguing out those issues. The two sisters took opposing sides as a way of developing the struggle between the two characters in the film. Campion usually collaborates on her screenplays (The Piano being the exception), and working with her sister had advantages. “Because I know her so well, I didn’t have to wait three weeks to say that something was full of shit. And she felt the same way.”
Born 18 months apart, the Campion sisters weren’t exactly simpatico as children. “It’s taken us a while to connect,” says Anna, the older sister. “There’s a Darwinian aspect to it. Another child comes along, and how does each get enough nurturing?” The three Campion children (there’s a brother several years younger than Jane) grew up in New Zealand in a big Victorian house quite unlike the tract houses their schoolmates lived in. Their mother was an heiress of sorts; she and her husband had a touring Shakespeare theater company.
“My mother has the muse,” says Jane. “She’s a poet and she seduced us into an intuitive way of thinking about the world. She had to work very hard with me because I’m a bit of a literalist.” She remembers being fascinated with other children’s seemingly more conventional mums. “I would interview them about recipes, and what they were making for dinner. I’m just a spy on earth,” she says, hooting with laughter. “I get caught out sometimes. People object to it.”
The spy on earth got a college degree in anthropology in New Zealand, then another degree in art school in Australia, where she started to make films. Anna became an actress, and then went to England to train as a psychotherapist. “I couldn’t reinvent myself in New Zealand,” she says. “It’s not a place where individuation is encouraged.” In the ’80s, she went back to school and got a master’s in film at the Royal College of Art. After making two short films, she wrote and directed Loaded, a feature about a bunch of twentysomethings coming apart during a wild weekend in the country. The film had its moments, but it didn’t really hang together. “It was funded by the British Film Institute and they were nervous about some of the drug stuff and I didn’t push hard enough for what I wanted to do.”
The strength to dig in your heels is what she admires in her enormously successful sister. In the course of 30 minutes, Anna compares Jane to Napoleon and Hillary on Mount Everest. “The life force in her is so strong that people are bowled over.”
And while that may be the case, it’s also true that one of the things distinguishing Jane Campion’s work is that she understands fear. Holy Smoke is as much about fear as it is about power or eroticism or spirituality. “Fear is so enormous. You spend most of your time in your twenties building up some protective surface, and then you feel its inadequacy and how it’s going to hold you back and you spend the rest of your life trying to strip it away, or else you end up living a horrible compromise which isn’t living at all,” says Jane. “What I love about Kate is that she’s fearless in a fabulously young way. I’d say, ‘There must be something that frightens you,’ and of course there is, but what she insists is that she’s not a frightened person. I was like that between 17 and 21. I felt invincible. And then I had my first experience of pain and of not being totally in control and now I live with fear.”
In Holy Smoke, Keitel’s character is fear-ridden from the get-go, but he won’t admit to it. “I had Harvey in mind from the beginning but I never thought he’d agree. I know his sensitive areas and I thought it would be too emasculating. But he knows all about that stuff and that’s why he enjoys doing it.” Campion auditioned hundreds of young actresses before she brought in Winslet, to read opposite Keitel. “Some of the girls we saw were wonderful. They loved the mind games. They had no idea what could happen—losing yourself in a power struggle with someone. I’m terrified of going down that line. But when Kate read, I knew she was the one. There’s a real balance of energy between them.”
While the sisters were in town for the New York Film Festival, Jane also did research for her next film; it’s an adaptation of Susanna Moore’s horrific first-person novel In the Cut,starring Nicole Kidman, with financing from Miramax and Universal. “I’m going to hang out with the cops and write down what they say. I’ve been going into precincts. No one’s cleaned on top of the cops’ lockers for decades. It gives you a sense of how they treat their own.” How many cop movies have there been and no one has ever thought about locker tops, let alone considered what they might mean in terms of how the law abuses its own?
Campion’s first reaction to In the Cut was that it was incredibly disturbing and that she could never touch it. But then she and Kidman worked with Moore and they decided to do something different with the material. “The novel is quite nihilistic. I guess we cleaned it up,” she says with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I honor what Susanna did, but I don’t want to leave people in such despair. Movies are different from books. They’re a dream you live with forever, and I couldn’t make people live with this.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 23, 1999