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Toronto 2009: Jane Campion on Oscars, Abbie Cornish, and why there aren't more women behind the camera

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Jane Campion, we’ve missed you! campion-wishaw2_l

It’s been six long years since the director of The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, and Angel at My Table (right, with actor Ben Wishaw) has made a feature, and even longer since her name has popped up as a contender in the Oscar race. (She won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1994 for The Piano and remains one of just three women to be nominated for Best Director.) But the New Zealand-born filmmaker is back in top creative form with Bright Star, a lyrical film about the passionate and ultimately tragic romance of poet John Keats and his great love, Fanny Brawne. The movie is in theaters this Friday.

I had the honor of talking with Campion during the Toronto film festival, where Bright Star enjoyed a loving reception. Here are some highlights.

On why she’s been absent from feature filmmaking since 2003’s In the Cut

“I did decide to take a sabbatical of four years at least. I have a daughter who was 9 at the time, and I was just watching her, thinking, ‘I’m not around enough.’ Filmmaking is so consuming. When you’re directing, it takes everything you’ve got — plus more! And I wanted to spend time with her. I didn’t even know if I was going to want to continue making movies. I thought maybe I’d done what I needed to do. But the break was really refreshing for me and I feel I’ve come back with a lot more clarity.”

On casting Australian actress Abbie Cornish to play a 19th century English woman, Fanny Brawne

“I was aware of Abbie’s work and I thought she was incredible. But I did think, ‘Hang on. This is an English story, we’ve got to have an English girl.’ But when Abbie focuses on something, it’s powerful. And she had read the script and I remember her saying to me it’s like it was alive. She could feel it breathing. She’s quite poetic herself and is an independent thinking person who sees the world and takes it in for herself. You need that quality for Fanny Brawne because she has to be a kind of love rebel. She needed to be independent and strong and girlish and a little crazy and vivacious without being irritating — and also have the depth to go through the tragedy at the end. Which was amazing, watching her. It’s just completely heartbreaking.”

On why there aren’t more women directing movies in Hollywood.

“Well, it’s about time [the Academy] gave one of them the best director! I’ve thought about it and I’ve thought about it and this is the best way I can explain it. I think we have to come to accept that this is a man’s world. Every anecdotal piece of evidence leads us to think about that and see it that way, especially in the arts. I’m not moaning or complaining, cause I love being a woman. But it’s a bit like Father Christmas. When you grow up, it’s all equal-equal, girls and boys. You go to film school — still equal number of boys and girls, and the girls do very well. But as soon as they graduate, it’s like, ‘Okay, and by the way, Father Christmas doesn’t exist! [laughs] That equality you enjoyed? It’s over — it’s over.’ It’s not even spoken, but that’s what you come to realize because you hit the boys’ club. And it’s impenetrable.

“I don’t know how I get to do what I do. What I focus on is my love for my projects — I just love them and do them and find that as an empowerment. And I think the strange misstep of it all is, in terms of an audience, women are so passionate about what they love and men [i.e. studio execs and the guys making the big decisions in Hollywood] don’t always judge very well what that might be. [laughs] So there’s half the world that is not very well served by the entertainment industry. And whenever people like Nora Ephron, who seems to have a finger on that pulse, come through and deliver a really female film, or Mamma Mia or Sex and the City — okay, they may be female fantasies, but they’re as real for women and as valid entertainment as the Marvel Comics.”

So there you have it, PopWatchers. Check out the Bright Star trailer below. If you’re as hopeless a romantic as I am, you might just feel your knees buckling at sight of such gorgeous, fearless, innocent true love. Swoon.