Bright Star was brilliantly reviewed on the film fest circuit from Cannes to Toronto. But some critics praise its undeniable visual style and directorial panache (the film won a special cinematography prize from the National Board of Review) but find the 19th-century period drama lacking in deep emotion.
I don’t understand how anyone could not find moving the tragic, painful love story of 23-year-old poet John Keats and his 18-year-old North London neighbor Fanny Brawne, well-played by Brit Ben Whishaw and Australian actress Abbie Cornish. It does seem that more women respond to the film’s intimate, subtle pleasures than men.
A respected film director on the global stage, New Zealander Campion, 55, is the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or in the 62-year history of the Cannes Film Festival (for The Pianoin 1993). One of only three women directors nominated for the directing Oscar, Campion, like Sofia Coppola a decade later, accepted the gold statue for her screenplay instead.
For Bright Star, Campion relied on Keats’s “extraordinary” love letters to Brawne. “It’s first love,” she told me in Cannes. “They don’t have any restraint, because they’re just discovering themselves and their love at the same time.”
Campion’s first feature since the 2003 erotic thriller In the Cut (starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo), Bright Star is partly inspired by the director’s teen daughter Ella. Campion has long credited the Australian government’s insistence on equality for women in its film industry—which doesn’t have Hollywood’s big-studio old boys’ network—for giving women directors a boost. Campion and I sat down for another interview this fall, where she candidly assesses the challenges facing an international film director today.
1. Pathe financed this film, as well as your last, In the Cut?
Harvey Weinstein didn’t like the direction that story was going, my view of honing the book. Fortunately, he released us without any burdens at that time. [French critic] Pierre Rissient said that this new company Pathe would like to take up the project. There was no gap, it was the first film they did. The Queen and Million Dollar Baby were their first big commercial successes.
2. Where did In the Cut play best? How did you feel when audiences rejected it?
It did quite well in italy and was critically well-received in Australia. I said, ‘Well, this really didn’t work,’ and it felt really bad. I was ashamed, because you feel bad for anybody that might lose money from something. But then, I loved the people I worked with and what I did. When you do stuff where you compromise yourself–that’s more hurtful. While the film failed, I didn’t feel I failed. Everybody really liked me as failure (laugh). People get sick of you being successful all the time, it was really good for my life, people were more friendly.
3. Do you think moviegoers have problems with female intimacy?
These are facts as they’ve been revealed, especially in America. The [Susanna Moore] book was always pretty challenging. I remember thinking I could never make a film of this book, it’s too out there. And then Nicole [Kidman] said to me, ‘Oh, read anything you like lately?’ I said, ‘This is amazing and strong.’
‘This is what we should be doing!’ She was waving the baton. ‘You’ll direct it.’ Then her life dissolved. She felt vulnerable, there was not so much baton-waving going on, and I still had the project. I didn’t realize how, for some people in the world, it was so challenging. I loved the film and a good many people do too.
A message I’ve been telling myself: the cinema is very conservative, and unless you have a story that satisfies you, that is within the unchallenging zone, but you love it, you can’t do it as cinema. Otherwise, you better go do it for television, which is more daring now. I guess that Che could have been on TV as well. You don’t want to go around losing money. We all know it’s an expensive business, therefore you have to figure out a way to attract audiences to the stories you want to tell.
4. How did you feel as the only woman director participating in Cannes’ short-film round-up, Chacun Son Cinema?
If you don’t go away, somehow the circumstances change and—you prevail (laugh). It’s no great claim to fame, but you just don’t move away, and you keep going and that prevailing is powerful. Eventually they go, ‘uh, she’s still here. Can’t get rid of her.’ I think I made good movies. I’ve never made a crap film, which is unusual. A lot of people make crap films.
I have to fall in love with the story or the subject and get to the equation that I need: more enthusiasm than fear. When I fell across the [Keats/Brawne] story it resonated with what I was feeling at the time, after four years off. Delicacy, tenderness, these things meant something to me. The story totally moved me, I was a wreck after I read it. Something about their purity and their innocence, the way that love was so confusing, so full of missteps and attachment. Everything they were experiencing they were doing in the best possible way. And suffering.
5. Because first love is so intense?
You don’t know what you’re doing. And everything is guiding you and misguiding you. They lost their identity and became locked with each other, which is what every psychotherapist would say, ‘don’t do’ (laugh). They didn’t know any better. When you first fall in love it’s so thrilling, you can’t wait to throw yourself away and make this new wonderful twosome. The way they were wrenched apart is tragic, they were so brave. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it.
6. How did you go about writing this? How did you tune into Keats and Brawne?
Research took a long time. One of the checkpoints for me, was ‘can I write Keats voice, his dialogue? Can I do Fanny?’ She was supposed to be very witty. There was a fantastic description of her in one of the letters Keats writes to his brother, it was hilarious and naughty. He’s adorable. You realize the guy is taken with her. I had to believe I could write a few scenes so I tried to do it, saw what my subconscious was doing. Could it be light and playful in the way it needed to be? It came quite easily. My daughter was helpful.
There are so many Keats letters, if you have a good ear for speech. I feel a lot of Keats in me, and Brawne as well. I can get very philosophical and ask the questions Keats was asking as a young guy. What are we here for? What’s a soul? What’s it all about? What is thinking about, imagination? How is art created and what are the rules? Are there rules? How do the rules go with your heart? How does a person and the rules connect together? The questions and his response to them were to me very exciting. Also he’s very cheeky and fun and irreverent, gossipy in a sweet way. That was his fertile year.
7. Did Keats write his greatest poems after he contracted tuberculosis?
When he knew he was dying he couldn’t write anymore. When he started to fall in love, he was well. His friend Charles Brown [Paul Schneider] was helping to finance him. Keats has this three-month period where his spirt was free to write, he was feeling great when he wrote his Odes. His ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ was written not only in the spring, when the plum blossoms were really happening. England in the spring is ridiculously gorgeous. It was like the gods were with us.
8. How closely did you try to recreate the way it actually was?
What we did was follow the pathway, it’s so magical. It took a while to figure out the history with the timeline. I didn’t want to write a romantic drama, but a character story within the parameters of what happened. Not, ‘how can I make this the most extraordinary?’ I really didn’t do that. There were a couple of pieces of license. I doubt if they really were sleeping wall-to-wall.
9. The hands-on-the-wall image says everything.
They really were in the same house, in the same zone. It’s an expression of their physical closeness. You find images that are real. The guidelines are: Is this image concocted, or is it working in the story? You have to deal with the physical world, not the one in your head. You’re a fool if you don’t open your arms wide to all the leads you hadn’t imagined that the actors bring that aren’t written. You edit out the stuff that does not work for the story. I didn’t know we were sitting on a daffodil field. It came up. The other problem is to be careful that it’s not TOO pretty. We were mowing down daffodils.
10. Why did you pick American Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl), an unexpected choice to play Brown, and such a young crew?
He’s like Jack Nicholson, so original in his instincts. What comes to him comes from outer space. He’s such a nice guy. He’s brave too, when you call him up out of the blue to play a Scottish guy.
I had the opportunity during my time off to make the short film The Water Diary with my daughter and her friend. We worked with new young people, d.p. Greig Fraser, who is 30 and composer Mark Bradshaw, 23. I wanted them for Bright Star because it focuses on a guy who at 23 was writing some of the most beautiful and intense poetry ever written. It gives you reasons to trust that younger people can do amazing things. I was actually rewarded by that faith. It was fun having a lot of different age groups, young actors interacting together, it was good for them. Young people don’t talk that much, it ‘s tense for them. They get more stressed out than my generation. I was expected to be the wise person at the tiller.