Sundance Channel is making a big move into scripted dramas this year. The network, best known as a home for indie movies and unscripted programming like “Iconoclasts,” “Brick City” and “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys,” has also screened international co-productions like Olivier Assayas’ fantastic miniseries “Carlos” and the U.K.’s “Appropriate Adult.” The network’s lastest such venture is “Top of the Lake,” a seven-part miniseries written and directed by the great Jane Campion and slated to premiere on March 18. Set in rural New Zealand, “Top of the Lake” finds “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss playing Robin Griffin, assigned to investigate a missing, pregnant 12-year-old girl named Tui. Peter Mullan plays the girl’s father, a local drug dealer, while Holly Hunter is the head of a local women’s camp.
“Top of the Lake” will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in its complete 353 minute form, with Campion in attendance. Moss and Hunter were in attendance at Sundance Channel’s TCA panel, along with executive producer Iain Canning. Talking about working with Campion again, Hunter said that she and the director had stayed in touch after “The Piano,” and that “it’s an indescribable thing to work with Jane to begin with. She’s so silly. And she brings that silliness to the set and has wisdom that I think is hard won in her life. This is a director really stretching out across a canvas in the most startling, shocking, provocative way.”
Moss discussed shooting in such a remote location. “I think it’s the most comprehensive documentation of modern New Zealand that’s ever been done on such a large scale. People are so used to ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ and that beautiful representation of that country. We show a very different and more modern, much grittier, more raw side of it.
“By the end of production, you couldn’t pass a place that we hadn’t filmed in. We went everywhere. And when you’re out in the bush or on a mountainside and when you’re standing in the middle of that freezing lake, you do get to experience the landscape in a way that I think no tourist ever really could. The project really captures a side to that country and landscape that you feel when you’re there, but it’s difficult to communicate. I feel like you really feel it when you watch this.”
“Rectify,” which the network also presented, is Sundance Channel’s first wholly owned series, a six-episode drama created, written and directed by actor/filmmaker Ray McKinnon that follows Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a man released from death row after almost two decades on death row due to DNA evidence, but not acquitted. Indiewire will have an interview with McKinnon closer to the series’ premiere on April 22 — he was in attendance along with executive producer Mark Johnson, Young and co-star Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel’s sister Amantha.
Discussing whether or not the show would provide closure for the murder that landed Daniel in jail, McKinnon said that “I think a lot of times, we want order over justice or the illusion of order, and that was one of the things that intrigued me about this story. But we also want things framed. We want to find we want to have closure as human beings, and in our storytelling, we want to have closure. I’m not so sure I want to abide by those conventions. So, you know, maybe we will; maybe we won’t…” He added that the crime was not the focus. “The more interesting part of the story was not who did it, but how does a man re acclimate himself back to this world when he’s been in a box for 19 years, for more than half of his life? And how does a family reinvent themselves when this person literally or figuratively comes back from the dead?”
Young compared his character to “a baby”: “I’m entering a new world. I’m a man who fell to earth, and so that was pretty much the way in. And after that, it was an evolution.” He pointed out that “one of the first things that happens when Daniel’s released is he goes to sleep. And I think there’s a particular joy in or metaphor in that safety of sleep on release. There have been several scripts I received over the years of people who have been on death row and so forth, and it’s almost laughable when you see how this hard man is released after so many years, and he goes straight to this or does that. There was something uniquely true about what Daniel’s journey was immediately on his release.”
Spencer said that her character was “going through a bit of a rebirth as well. The creation story that we’re presenting here in ‘Rectify’ — really, so much happens, and you see her broken down and begin to evolve and really start to ask herself for the first time, ‘What is my life like separate from Daniel Holden and this case?’ That’s truly the theme for the entire show is — who are we all outside of this case, and are we separate from it, and can we possibly function without it?” “Rectify” is also headed to the Sundance Film Festival, where episodes one and two will be aired at a private screening.