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Jane Campion – Bright Star

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Jane Campion
Jane Campion

After a four-year hiatus, award-winning director-writer Jane Campion returns to top form with Bright Star, a film about 19th century Romantic poet John Keats and his inspiring two-year love affair with Fanny Brawne before his death at the age of 25. Campion, who won an Oscar for her screenplay for The Piano in 1994, which she also directed, lends her usual deft touch to this tender, tragic and visually stunning film.

The film stars accomplished young actors Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abby Cornish as Fanny. It also features an impressive ensemble of production keys who help Campion realize a passion project that transcends the usual clichés of biopic and period costume drama. Making his international cinema debut is Australian director of photography Greig Fraser, who is also the cinematographer on another recent release, The Boys are Back. Janet Patterson, a long-time Campion collaborator, is the production designer and also did the costumes. Alexandre de Franceschi, ASE, encores as an editor for Campion. And young composer Mark Bradshaw did the innovative score.

Campion, who lives in Australia, was recently in Los Angeles where she talked about the making of Bright Star with Below the Line.

Ben Whishaw as John Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Bright Star
Ben Whishaw as John Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Bright Star

Below the Line: There have been many movies about musicians, like Amadeus about Mozart. But films about poets are quite scarce. How did you to decide to do a movie about John Keats?

Jane Campion: I’ve wanted to do this film for several years, ever since I read a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion. At the point where Keats meets Fanny and falls in love, I was riveted by their tender and tragic story. They were so young and it was so brief, like a true-life version of Romeo and Juliet. Fanny showed me a way into the movie. I’m not really a fan of straight biopics, and was looking for a different approach, which wound up seeing their brief relationship through the eyes of Fanny, who is not very well known.

BTL: Keats is known as the most romantic of the Romantic poets. But instead of making the most romantic of films, you took a more restrained and realistic approach.

Director Jane Campion on the set of BRIGHT STAR
Director Jane Campion on the set of Bright Star

Campion: I was conscious of remaining modest and true to the spirit of these two extraordinary young people, and I tried to tell their story with a lot of intimacy and simplicity, though there is a lot of sensuality as well. That same restraint was reflected in Greig’s cinematography, which didn’t involve a lot of camera movement, but emphasized careful framing and attention to detail that complemented Janet’s production design.

BTL: You and Greig had worked previously on a short film, The Water Diary, for a United Nations project, but Bright Star was your first major collaboration?

Campion: Yes, the short film was helpful in doing something with training wheels, which then led to Bright Star.

BTL: You’ve worked with a number of up-and-coming cinematographers in the past who have gone on to great success and prominence, like Stuart Dryburgh and Dion Beebe. Is Greig your latest find?

Campion: I don’t want to boast about him as my discovery, but Greig is amazing and I hope he remains a bit of a secret so he doesn’t get stolen by other directors and become too expensive for me to hire. Greig is a beautiful man who thinks like a camera—that’s what is unique about him. He studied still photography growing up, and he has a lot of poetry in his camera work. He’s also tireless. He goes out on his own to find unique locations or get unusual shots that then get incorporated into the film.

BTL: You mainly shot on location?

Campion: Yes we shot over a nine-week period during the spring of 2008 in the English countryside, about an hour-and-a-half north of London, and one day in Rome. We had done a lot of research, but there’s not much of that 1820s’ period left in England. There was also the question of what would be best for our modest budget. But we made quite a miraculous find—an estate property near Luton in Bedfordshire that had seven houses on it and some other structures and was surrounded by beautiful gardens. It served our needs perfectly. The great thing about shooting on location is that you can see nature changing through the seasons and you can anticipate things like the bluebell walk and the leaves coming out on the trees and the explosion of a field of daffodils.

We wanted a place where we had the ability to change things a lot. And the interiors to the houses were pretty much free for Janet to dress. I wanted the gentleness and sensitivity of the period to come through. What I love about the Regency period is the natural simplicity of the furniture, which carries into the interiors of rooms.

BTL: There are many striking dresses that Fanny wears, which she has made herself, because she is her own seamstress.

Campion: Yes, sewing becomes a central part of the plot. The first shot in the film is an extreme close-up of her wielding a needle and thread. That becomes a kind of metaphor for the movie, the way it’s stitched together. The wardrobe that Janet designed for Fanny also communicates her artistic flair and her self-confidence.

BTL: Could you discuss the editing process? This is the second film you’ve worked on with Alexandre de Franceschi.

Campion: He’s a great man with a big heart and he really loved the script. And I valued the comments he made because he’s very insightful. He edits in Australia, where he lives, and he assembled a rough first cut of three hours while we were shooting which had to be edited down to half that length. During the final editing process I was with him throughout. Sometimes we would just sit and meditate for a while on how to proceed. The editor-director collaboration is critical.

BTL: Your composer Mark Bradshaw is only 25 and this is the first full-length feature he has scored. How did you connect?

Campion: Mark worked on my short film, The Water Diary, which also included Greig as the cinematographer, and he totally understood what I wanted. He’s bold and he listens. Sometimes the problem with composers is that they have their own ideas and don’t want to hear what you are thinking. For Bright Star Mark came up with a unique period sound for a small string ensemble that sounds raw and natural for that time. He also is one of the performers in the small group choir towards the end of the film.

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