Tucked into today's Sundance announcement of the high-profile doc and dramatic "Premieres" line-ups is a project from Jane Campion that stands out — and not just because Campion is one of the most prominent female directors working today.
Top of the Lake / Australia, New Zealand (Directors: Jane Campion, Garth Davis, Screenwriters: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee) — A 12-year-old girl stands chest deep in a frozen lake. She is five months pregnant, and won't say who the father is. Then she disappears. So begins a haunting mystery that consumes a community. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, Peter Mullan, David Wenham. This six-hour film will screen once during the Festival.
Six hours! That's a Cannes-style crazy running time, not typical of most feature-length fare that premieres at Sundance. Films usually come in at a practical and brisk 80 to 90 minutes to allow festivalgoers to stuff five or even six fims frantically into a day. But to call "Top of the Lake" a film is a little misleading — the project is actually a miniseries that's a co-production of the Sundance Channel, BBC Two and UKTV in Australia and New Zealand. Like Olivier Assayas' five-and-a-half-hour "Carlos," which was made for television but screened in full at Cannes in 2010 (and also went on to air on the Sundance Channel), "Top of the Lake" bridges the gap between TV and film with a highly respected auteur at its helm and ambition that goes beyond its basic description as a procedural.
The seven-part miniseries will air on the Sundance Channel in 2013 and is set in a remote, mountainous area of New Zealand, the country Campion's originally from and where she last shot her Oscar-winning 1993 film "The Piano." Elisabeth Moss plays Robin Griffin, the detective sent to investigate the disappearance of the 12-year-old girl. Peter Mullan plays the girl's father, a local drug lord, while Holly Hunter is a guru at a local women’s camp. Speaking at MIPCOM in October, Campion cited "Deadwood," "Mad Men" and "The Killing" as inspirations for this small screen venture (Campion's 1990 "An Angel at My Table" was originally produced as a miniseries, though it was re-edited and more widely released as a film). She also said that she found "more freedom" and "fewer restraints" in TV than in film these days, telling the Hollywood Reporter, "Feature filmmaking is now quite conservative. The lack of restraints, the longer story arc: It's a luxury not there generally in film."
There has been a gradual creep of television into film festivals as the worlds have blended, the small-screen's quality has improved and more frustrated filmmakers have found themselves working on TV projects in addition to ones for the big screen. In 2009, the Telluride Film Festival programmed the three films in the "Red Riding" trilogy originally made for British TV, though each had its own distinct storyline and its own director and it had a Stateside distributor in IFC Films. Three episodes of "Girls" premiered at SXSW in March of this year ahead of the show's HBO launch in April, an event that fit nicely with a festival that had previously screened creator Lena Dunham's two films "Creative Nonfiction" and "Tiny Furniture."
From a practical perspective, it's easy to see how "Top of the Lake" is going to prove maddening for Sundancers eager to see Campion's most recent work since 2009's "Bright Star" but reluctant to give up such a large chunk of time to one screening. But from a programming point of view the inclusion makes sense — like "Carlos," this is an auteurist project. It may be made with the small screen in mind, but its artistic scope looks equal to any other film at the festival. It's not an acquisition title, but then neither are some of the other "Premiere" picks.
The Sundance Channel is also bringing its first wholly owned scripted series, "Rectify," to the festival, where it'll be showcased in a private Park City screening Jan. 19 followed by a Q&A with the creators and cast. A six-part series, "Rectify" was created and written by actor-filmmaker Ray McKinnon ("Deadwood," "That Evening Sun") and produced by Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, both of "Breaking Bad."