Jane Campion had to comfort Sam Neill on “The Piano” set.
Neill wrote in his upcoming memoir “Did I Ever Tell You This?” that collaborating with Campion was one of the highlights of his career since “An Angel at My Table” was “without question for me the most important film made to that point in New Zealand.”
“Of course, I would work with Jane at the drop of a hat,” Neill penned, calling Campion a “marvelous collaborator” during the 1993 film “The Piano.” However, production proved to be especially “lonely” for Neill given his character’s relationship to the other cast members, as Neill’s Alisdair had a fraught marriage with Holly Hunter’s Ada and her young daughter, played by Anna Paquin.
“It was an uncommonly lonely job for me. Holly and I got along fine. But she was of necessity remote. I understand it,” Neill explained. “She commits to a role, and any joking around, the everyday currency I’m used to, would’ve been a distraction for her. Playing our scenes together was disturbing for me. I never knew whether it was Holly looking at Sam, or Ada looking at Stewart. The lines between life and fiction were blurred and it was not in any way comfortable.”
The “Jurassic Park” actor added, The famous scene where I drag her out into the mud and sever one of her piano-playing fingers was a big ask. Holly is small, but she is very strong. I realized on the first take that the struggle to get her out there would have to be actual. She wasn’t going without a fight…And I have to confess I’m still a little hurt that she insisted that my axe be swapped for a rubber replica. I mean, for fuck’s sake! Did she really think that I would get carried away and actually cut off her finger? I chuckle as I write this. I’m an actor, not a beast, for heaven’s sake. By take three I was absolutely exhausted, and thankfully Jane had what she needed and I didn’t have to go through the whole business of fighting Holly out into the mud and the rain machine once more, my friends.”
Neill summed up, “But it was a curiously solitary acting experience for me. Happily, Jane is a very caring director for her cast, and was always there to hug me when I was at my lowest.”
“The Piano” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, with Campion winning Best Original Screenplay, Paquin earning Best Supporting Actress, and Hunter taking home the Best Actress title. Campion later went on to made history as the third woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director for 2021’s “The Power of the Dog.”
As for Neill’s own performance, the actor said, “No one notices you much, you don’t get nominated for things. But you served. I was there in an important feminist film. I was there on the front line in an important New Zealand film. Neither of these labels does the film justice. It’s a work of art. And look, that tiny little figure in the fabric — see down there on the right — that’s me. It’s a film that will always have a place in cinema history. And I served in it.”
Neill also took a moment to comment on Campion’s role in cinema history based on her gender.
“I’m always puzzled that it seems necessary to make the point that Jane is a female director. That shouldn’t be unusual,” Neill wrote. “I don’t understand why there are more men directors than there are women. No one seems to think it’s unusual that women act, for instance. I’m going to stick my neck out and say women are better at acting than men. If women directors had parity with men, I think we’d find that they’re better at directing as well. I’ve always loved working for women, and with women. And, yes, now I say it, there is nothing like being in the scene opposite a great woman who is working with you, against you and alongside you. I always lift my game, I think.”