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Jane Campion's Workshops #3 – My Notes

WARNING. As you know if you read Jane Campion's Workshops #1, I went to her workshop day at Wellington's Circa Theatre as an eager, attentive eight year old, as a terrible note-taker with an unreliable memory and as a writer who sometimes directs and produces films. I was there to learn and I learned heaps. But this is NOT an authoritative account of the day. Nor of Jane Campion's views on anything. It's a chat over a cuppa, with you other practitioners who visit here regularly, in case there's something useful for you. An extended tweet feed that partially covers three sessions of about ninety minutes each: Starting Out; Writing & Directing Film; Performance. If you perceive a gap in what follows, just insert (Laughter) or (Thought).  Because there was lots of laughter, lots of thoughtful moments. And when I laugh or think or feel I don't take notes. Tomorrow, with much gratitude, I'll post comments from others who were there, whose perceptions were different and possibly more coherent. Then, in a while, maybe a final post about my question and Jane's response. Many thanks to Melissa Dopp who read a draft, suggested some changes and supplied some info from her own notes (but the awkwardness etc is entirely mine – this was much harder than I expected it would be).


Jane asked us each to bring a question to the first two sessions and to learn a poem by heart for the third. I had them ready. But it took me so long to find some out-in-the-world clothes that I missed breakfast. Put an apple and banana in my wonderful new bag (thank you, Cushla P!). Added my Moleskine diary and Clever Kiwi Company Activity Book. Pencils. Etcetera. The questions and a copy of my poem (to revise at lunchtime, that memory again...).

Strode around the waterfront to Circa Theatre, met Melissa Dopp (who'd come all the way from America!), joined the queue to get in, met a mate who likes to sit near the aisle, waved to other mates. And settled in, sharing my question with my neighbour and reading hers.

Circa Theatre (photo Melissa Dopp)
I struggle to find the right words for the atmosphere: low-key, unpretentious, 'being with', but more. Circa Theatre's a little theatre-by-the-sea with room for 240 in the audience but somehow, even with that many, it felt familial. A summer holiday-at-the-bach-playing-Scrabble feel, with some participants in their school uniforms. Or one of those New Zealand events when we bring a carefully prepared dish, 'something to share' or 'a plate' (today the questions, the poem), or a song. There was no camera or audio recording equipment, no projector, no screen (yay for a day without bullet points) no whiteboard, no workshop bag or handouts (yay again).

Jane stood onstage, within the set for Circa's current production.

While we waited for the room to fill, I ate my banana. A volunteer from the audience came past, holding out a narrow-brimmed black hat with a bright white lining; we dropped our questions into it. Her father's hat, Jane said, reminding us all of the reason for the workshops. This is what she'd said in the invitation:
My father, Richard Campion, was passionate about theatre, about performance, about creativity, about people having a go. He was a wondrously generous man who breathed warmth and belief into my fledgling hopes of making film and television. In his memory and honour, I am offering three free workshops...
And we watched two more volunteers move two matching red chairs on to the set, perhaps more comfortable than the chairs already there.

I didn't count for gender this time. I wasn't there for that. It felt like five women for every two men at each workshop, but as you know those gender perceptions are unreliable. The youngest person there was about ten and perhaps the oldest was New Zealand's grande dame of theatre, Dame Kate Harcourt, at the final workshop.

And then, the pattern repeated at each session: a brief, warm welcome and introduction from The Casting Company's Tina Cleary, who remembered Richard Campion from her time at drama school. Then Jane. She too acknowledged her father and several times during the day referred to him as someone who'd go to his knees to help someone who was doing something.

Jane Campion as teacher & the questions
At the very beginning and at the subsequent sessions, Jane said 'I am not a teacher'. When I heard this for the second and third time, I laughed. Because, no surprise, Jane Campion is a superb teacher. She was going to spend the day inquiring with us, she said. And she did. Totally attentive to the people in the workshop and wonderfully responsive. Generous about sharing her own experience. (I loved hearing that when she was 14 her father came to her school to direct Euripides' play about women and war, The Trojan Women, and she played Andromache, whose child was taken from her and thrown to his death from the battlements of Troy. And that her involvement in The Trojan Women changed her psychic and head space and gave her a sense of scope and empowerment. And I loved hearing about the gaffer(?) or grip(?) on an all-women crew in the 80s who kept asking Jane why she was directing a scene in a particular way; that Jane found that all-women crew absolutely terrifying; that she loves women because they're so brilliant; and that she loves a gender-balanced crew. And that when she creates a gender-balanced crew and someone asks 'How come there are SO MANY women?' she responds: 'Do the numbers.')

But I understood why Jane repeated that she was not a teacher when at one iteration she added something like: 'I taught myself. And you can teach yourselves. So don't be lazy. If you want to learn, get out there and teach yourself. Inquire deeply.'

The sessions were based on our questions. Jane picked questions one-by-one at random out of the overflowing hat, or invited someone in the class to come up and pick one. But as a friend later reminded me, she also constantly scanned the faces in front of her (as she would scan her cast and crew?) and a few times asked the whole room something like 'Is anyone here working on a project at the moment and has a question?' And then chose someone whose hand shot up; my mate and I suspect she'd noticed those people sitting there bursting with their questions.

When Jane had a question in her hand, she read it out and asked 'Whose question is this?' And then, 'What's your name, darling?', as she invited the questioner to sit beside her onstage. ('Holly Hunter' claimed one bright spark as she bounced into the chair.)

And then she explored the question with the questioner. Oh! I thought once I got used to this. She's using the Socratic method – asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Using the Socratic method as it's meant to be used.

My long ago experience of this at law school was terrifying, in a huge classroom with the lecturer out front jousting, sometimes cruelly, with his – always his – far away student-of-choice, imprisoned in her or his seat among the other students. But with the questioner in a chair next to her, Jane created a safe and intimate onstage space within a bigger space, where, like her father, she 'breathed warmth and belief'. She wasn't there to be clever – although as you can imagine it's exciting to listen to her speak and to hear her ideas and about her experiences. And she wasn't there to tell a questioner what s/he had done wrongly or what s/he must do – although she mentioned that she's very bossy and she was absolutely clear about what she believes will work. She was there to listen, to help the questioner reach a greater understanding of the question and its implications. So those brief Socratic inquiries became fruitful for the questioner. And for the other workshop participants I think. Certainly for me as I watched and listened, and as one of the questioners. I loved the tender rigour of these inquiries.

My notes are copious, in spite of everything. So I've grouped together themes that ran through the three sessions.

In Starting Out – the first session, for people who'd not made more than three shorts – Jane emphasised the importance of how we begin, as starting out filmmakers. She said that she felt that we'd come to the workshops for one reason: we wanted to make films, because films have a powerful effect. And she urged us to strive for uniqueness. To use commonsense. It's brilliant to be guided by films we really like. But it's absolutely vital to find a way to add unique value.

Until Jane was in her mid-twenties, she said, she was 'absent from the world', expecting to get married, and expecting that the best she could hope for was to support a brilliant husband. But then she went to film school, determined to try her hardest to find what she had to offer that was unique, her essence (see below); and if it turned out she didn't have much, at least she'd know. It was a scary and exciting exploration, exercising all her muscles and learning, failing and succeeding, sometimes at the bottom of the barrel. She was often anti-social. Sometimes people at film school didn't like her work, but that was what she had to give.

And to illustrate how 'beginning' works for others who teach themselves and search for their uniqueness, Jane read to us about Keith Richards' early days with the Rolling Stones, from his Life:
The band was very fragile. All we want to do is be the best blues band in London... Every waking hour of every waking day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how these blues were made. You collapsed on the floor with a guitar in your hands... We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues. It was terribly shining shields and everything like that. And monastic, intense study, for me at least. Everything from when you woke up to when you went to sleep was dedicated to learning, listening and trying to find some money – a division of labor. The ideal thing was, right, we’ve got enough to live on, few bob in case of emergencies. We didn’t have any other interests in the world except how to keep the electricity going and how to nick a few things out of the supermarket for food. Women were really third on that list. Electricity, food and then, hey, you got lucky. We needed to work together, we needed to rehearse, we needed to listen to music, we needed to do what we wanted to do. It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Walters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every moment taken away from it was a sin.
Don't be in too big a hurry to enter the industry, Jane said (one of her few references to 'the industry' – now THAT was refreshing). Arrive fully formed. And that requires Rolling Stones-type commitment (see also the clips I found by chance, below, from Lou Reed on Andy Warhol and work and from Andrei Tarkovsky).

Jane gave her Peel as an example.  No-one at film school, including her teachers, liked Peel in its messy 14 (?) minute version that she liked/likes(?) better than the final cut. She couldn't understand why they didn't like it. So she spent a year working out what was in the way of viewers seeing what was fresh and good. A year making changes. Someone asked 'Why don't you get rid of all the bad shots?' So she did. She reduced and reduced. Distilled. Reshot some little bits. Worked away to get something that worked for others, so they could share what she wanted them to share. Down to 9 minutes. Some people who saw it again asked if it was the same film. And then it won the Short Film Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1986.

Everyone becomes a beginner, with every new project. Stories start with an energy, which may be more important than the story itself, Jane told us. Often the necessary deep inquiry begins with a feeling, a mystery that leads us forward, or unresolved haunting images that go beyond facts and information (this is as useful for docos as for drama). Jane sometimes doesn't know what she's doing but does it because it feels right to her. Anything that interests her can work. Anything that interests us can work.  It's necessary to bring an immense amount of thinking to whatever draws us into an inquiry, to think of ourselves as the Rolling Stones, to stay in a deep and inquiring space, to play with the information, wherever it comes from.

Ideas are like delicate forest creatures that can be scared away, Jane said. Little bambis. Don't share the ideas until they have strong legs. Because if they're frightened away we have nothing left.

Useful Tips Re Process
Use techniques and exercises that help tune and sharpen our capacity to see and receive the world.

Learn a poem by heart every week to help understand how to reduce to an essence. A poem can punch a little hole in our subconsciousness.

Read lots of plays.

Cultivate negative capability (more on this here, from Sophie Mayer; and further illuminated for me in this very fine Jeanette Winterson interview with Jane Campion)

There's a sacred quality around making – it's a self-reflexive act – reflecting truths about being human back to ourselves.

Jane is 'a rock' for her material. It's a gift and she's not responsible for it but she is responsible to it. It is sacred (yes, she repeated this). Develop the psychic strength to build it through very very careful preparation. She does as much work as she can imagine to do.

Make a commitment to get our work as good as possible, she told us. When we can't think of anything else to do or go too far and have to take a step back, watch the whole thing, not one minute at a time.

Criticism is normal. It's always hard to take but is a really important part of learning. The most important thing is to engage in problem-solving – doing what comes next. (Jane remembers criticism of Sweetie that was very upsetting. Fortunately she was in pre-production on Angel At My Table, or she might have given up. Have a cry and then get going, she advises – she cried through The Hunchback of Notre Dame after the Sweetie criticism.)

When you receive criticism, someone's experience of the piece ('I didn't engage with it'; 'I didn't believe this character') is not as helpful as their response. Take the power back. Ask 'Where did you lose interest?' 'Where did you get confused?' And you don't need a reader to provide a fix for you. The scene the reader identifies as problematic may not be the one that we need to fix. It may be the one before (etc).

Jane likes it when she feels she can do something to the work: how can I fix that? To stay in one place is always harder than going right or left. She is always working and won't fall out of love with that, but sometimes does fall out of love with ideas.

Endless cycles of evaluation can be exhausting. If a few people you trust give you honest feedback, trust them. Note: there are always reservations.

The fruits of experience in the industry can be quite bitter – success, self-doubt and disappointment are sometimes more complex and sticky than at the beginning.

Cultivate resilience. This reminded me of Jane's statement a while back: 'women must put on their coats of armor and get going'. And just yesterday I read and loved what New Zealand/Mexican director Dana Rotberg said about resilience:
As film makers we develop a dual and paradoxical type of skin. On one side, it is thin and soft, with enough transparency to let our hearts be seen by others. And on the other, it has to be tough and resilient, so we can survive the vulnerability that comes with such an intense and profound exposure.
I liked the collaboration question, although I'd already learned a lot from watching Clare Young's film From The Bottom of The Lake, and from what Jane said in an interview when asked 'How did you and Gerard Lee work together?'
It was a complete muddle. We are absolutely amazed that we actually got it done. I think everyone is who meets us.

Say we had three weeks to write an episode, we’d spend the first week whining about life, this and that, and then we’d say, put time limits on it and say OK, 10 minutes for your whinge and 10 minutes for mine.

It is a good creative process because it’s completely honest – you just empty out. And we would discuss where to go for lunch and have a nap and then gasp and go 'Two weeks to go! Oh God! OK!' and divide it all up.

We’d write for a while and we would read to each other and we’d hope to come up with something. We were brutally honest, without ever hurting each other’s feelings. A lot of time in writing is spent wondering if you’re hopeless.

Fortunately we loved what each other did best so it made it a very good relationship. I think Gerard has got such an unusual turn of mind, he sees things so uniquely.

He would often not know what was good about what he had written. He’d be like 'This is awful' and I’d be like 'But this part is great!' He’d go 'Really?!' It was like getting stuff out of the bin.

I was his champion in a way, more than he was of himself. I’m quite good on overall shape. I’ve got a good mind for structure.
Some of Jane's response to the workshop collaboration question referred to similar things. But she also stated that collaborators have to to be more interested in the inquiry than in their egos and that trust is very important when working out what's funny, what's important, what's bullshit. It's good to be clear about strengths, including whether one person is bossy and likes to take responsibility, one is funnier, one is better with structure and order. Lots of playing is good. She and Gerard would quite often play the characters as they developed them, and swap characters. They'd also write in stream of consciousness as the character and that's exhilarating, very very easy to do and can be adapted to become character description.

Jane loves them (of course) and because I treasure them too, this was beautiful to hear. For her, actors are the centre of a shoot. To make the shoot the best it can be, get the crew together, say 'Hello everybody. I want this set to be a very actor-sensitive set so they can do their best work. If they don't feel love coming towards them they're going to shrink up a bit.' They're doing this amazing thing and being very vulnerable. That takes courage. 

As a director, Jane is there to serve the actors: 'We have to look after them'. Always stand beside them. Actors always have to fail, so stand with them when they are finding their way. The magic that comes is what we can't imagine, because we don't know what they're going to do.

Rehearsals. Jane asks for three-week rehearsals, would love six months. Play, laugh, have fun (again). If we don't do something unique in the preparation, no chance of getting something unique at the other end. Dramaturgs are useful. Everything that deepens the work helps, but it's important to remember that however much is underneath each scene, however many layers, only one thing happens in each scene.

Believe that actors know what they need. Be sensitive and clever and once shooting build up energy using the first few takes to scope out the performance. All actors have areas where they are not so strong (just like writers and directors). Extremely experienced actors are very subtle, do not need you to throw them around.

Young actors Jane's worked with, like Anna Paquin and Jaqueline Joe have a capacity to enter, to feel, can't be 'untrue'. The director just has to look after their energy, play with it, feel it. Once they're engaged there is no possibility of failure.

Pay a lot of attention. Train the ear to know when an actor is 'out', not emotionally engaged, not in the drama. Being 'out' is often very subtle. Maybe there's some self-consciousness. Maybe they haven't got there yet. Jane knows when they're 'in' because she's riveted. When it doesn't work, just say 'Let's do it again.'

Verbs help actors much more than suggestions like 'Just like that again, but a bit more intensely' (etc).

(I enjoyed watching Jane working with actors in From The Bottom of The Lake, because it illustrated some of this.)

There were some gender-related questions and comments. One example was a question about staying true to your vision and trusting yourself when surrounded by much more experienced people, often male. Jane responded to this with a story from her own early experience, when she needed an edit to apply for funding. The male editor she relied on, who sent her off to watch one of his films while he edited her work, had absolutely no feeling for her material. She didn't get the funding; the experience taught her that she didn’t lead when she should have. This is also where she talked about being a rock for her material and being responsible to it and being very very carefully prepared.

Jane also made those comments about mixed gender crews. But for me, the workshop's most gendered thing was simply Jane's presence. Here was a woman with enormous skills and experience in a field that matters to me, taking us all seriously – women and men. Sharing what she knew in a way that I could trust.

And there was a lovely moment in the final workshop, after several people, including some women, had shared their poems-off-by-heart, all by and about men. Just as I sighed to myself about this, Jane spoke up about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her poem The Romance of the Swan's Nest. I was so relieved. Needed that. Wondered whether Jane too was suddenly hungry for a woman-written poem, about a woman or girl. (Later, two women shared poems they'd written themselves. And a boy, the final participant, had a poem by Emily Dickinson.)

This is connected to negative capability and was, I believe, an important element of the 'inquiry' Jane Campion encouraged us to make.  I distrust 'essence' and 'essentialism', so I tend to blank out as soon as I hear 'essence'. Insert (Resistance) here. But fortunately, when Jane spoke about The Romance of the Swan's Nest, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and essence, Melissa Dopp took some good notes. They helped me reconsider essence, as has the Jeanette Winterson interview. Here are Melissa's notes, slightly edited:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s purpose was to get to the essence of herself, to understand what it was, to embody it and share it [the same kind of question Jane asked herself way back in her twenties and I imagine still asks]. And that’s our purpose as well. Browning was thrilled to receive feedback because she had to do her job as a poet and ask, 'What is it I know? What essence can I be?' Jane said, 'It’s a subtle mystery to work out. It's complicated… maybe it has to be. Be patient. Look for hints and signs. It could take a whole lifetime to work it out. I trust my mind, I trust my body. The body is not a liar. Take risks. No more waiting. Try something. If we fail, that's a good lesson. Crisis, doubt and disappointment can bring a renaissance.'
OK. Ending there. With mystery. Complication. Patience. The body. Risk. Renaissance.

And the Emily Dickinson poem.

'Hope' is the thing with feathers - (314)

'Hope' is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

At the end of the third session, Kate Harcourt, down in middle of the front row, got to her feet. And then the rest of us. A standing ovation. Breathing 'warmth and belief' right back at Jane Campion. And through her back to Richard Campion. From our hearts.


I've added both Lou Reed/ Laurie Anderson clips (talking with Charlie Rose), but mostly for Andy Warhol's views on work, at around 4 minutes in the second clip–


  1. Melissa (@reellives)November 27, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    Thank you for posting about the Jane Campion Experience! I really appreciate it!

    1. You're very welcome! Was lovely to have you in NZ!


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