The detective murder mystery with the vulnerable, damaged woman at its core is a well-worn genre. Now one of Australasia’s best-known auteurs — Jane Campion — lends it her decidedly poetic bent, and brings us one of the most distinctive looking films to hit cinema screens in recent months.
In the Cut is very much in the language of a Jane Campion film, but the subject matter was a bit out of left field after what we’ve seen from you so far. After such lyrical stories as Piano and Angel at My Table, what was it that attracted you to a murder mystery?
It’s a murder mystery that’s very character driven. Really I responded to Susanna Moore’s book, which had a female protagonist at the heart of it. She was a writing teacher and of course I felt very comfortable with that, plus I really loved the detective’s aspect in the story.
I thought it was clever the way she used the genre in the background of the story and then bought it into the foreground. She’s done some incredible research. She drove around with a couple of homicide detectives in New York City for about a year, so the dialogue in the book was authentic and real and I’m always taken by that — when I feel like a writer has observed something very well. Then you find out something more than what your expectations are.
The detective story certainly isn’t new but we’ve never seen it done quite like this before — you make excellent use of the colours and camerawork. Was it more of a filmmaking labour of love than a love of the story, or was it a different, very ‘Jane Campion’ way to tell the story?
It always starts with a story and then the manner in which you do it and the world you create. That’s the contribution I make to a film. For me it was Frannie’s [Meg Ryan’s character] story, although the detective story had quite a lot of depth to it.
It was dealing with a lot of romantic mess. It’s about two women who are almost like Vietnam vets in the area of failed romances. Beautiful, intelligent women, just who things hadn’t worked out for. One of them [Jennifer Jason Leigh] was paying attention to the guy she was keen on — the doctor — and Frannie’s character had really withdrawn from life.
The character of Fran — while she was intelligent — seemed to be a bit weak and easily led because of her sense of being lost to herself. Was that your intention?
In the zone of romance and love everyone can be a bit easily led. I personally don’t consider her easily led — I think she’s quite a toughie, but she did really like something about that detective [Molloy, played by Mark Ruffalo]. I think it’s his honesty — his brutal honesty really — that she finds really refreshing about him.
Certainly more refreshing than the boyfriend she’s recently had, who’s played by Kevin Bacon, and is so confused himself and is trying any way he can to make her feel guilty and manipulate her into wanting him back.
Mark Ruffalo’s character, Molloy, has the potential to throw the audience off because he’s not a typical leading man that the heroine falls for and in fact the audience will have a hard time trusting him. Was that something you were conscious of?
I love the Molloy character and I think he’s also a character that women really love. What’s most appealing is someone who’s not trying to be something they’re not to try and win your affections and who doesn’t care what you think and feel; someone who just has a responsibility to be themselves.
When you try to win the heart of someone like that it’s always more appealing than winning the heart of someone who’s trying to make themselves something they’re not to get your attention. I’m also proud of the way the acting in our movie is very authentic and real.
Can you expand on what drew you to Frannie’s character?
I like the fact that she had such a journey in our story. At the beginning of the film she’s sad about life and kind of withdrawn, and I think everyone’s had those times in their life; when you can’t remember what the point of it all is and everything seems a bit rusty and too hard.
Her journey back into life is that she’s ambushed by her own response and sexuality. Frannie is someone who really respects honesty, like poetic honesty, and that’s something I’ve always loved about poets — that they’re always telling the truth. In a way detectives are about discovering the truth too, so they’re not so distant.
The rawness of Molloy and his truth telling really appeals to her and wakes her up but she’s also really insecure and again that’s what I think people feel like when they fall in love, especially when it’s with a stranger or someone they don’t know much about. On the one hand they’re projecting all their hopes onto the screen and on the other all their fears. I think that’s why we can feel extremely vulnerable and throw ourselves so completely into a relationship that we hope we can finally find ourselves in.
Is the issue of being that trusting with someone when you’re falling for them a parable of the detective story, when Frannie discovers Molloy might be the murderer?
The parable is that she had to confront her own romantic demons and the fact that her father, who was sort of a professional romancer, originally romanced her mother. He’d married several times and the last marriage was the great one, but all the previous wives are sad and betrayed and the children not with their real father. What do they think about it all? On one hand Fran’s mother glorifies that romantic time in her life and on the other they all look at her and say ‘God, you’re ruined.’
The production design is very strong — the film is at once gritty and grimy and also dreamy and sensual. How hands on were you in the art and design departments?
That’s what I was really trying to achieve; a kind of poetic realism. But look, you can’t possibly make a film and take credit for it all. I don’t know what to take credit for really because I had the most incredible team or artists working with me.
My producer Laurie Parker is the most extraordinary producer, she worked with Gus Van Sant and other wonderful and peaceful filmmakers. We had quite a few people who worked on Gus’ films like Drugstore Cowboy — among them his costume designer and production designer. They’re such great collaborators and they cared so much. Laurie arranged it so 100% of our film could be shot in New York City, meaning we have the greatest set you can imagine for next to nothing.
What about the technicalities of the look?
I should mention Dion Beebe who’s my absolutely extraordinary cinematographer and recent Oscar nominee for Chicago. He’s a great artist and a great friend. The director’s role is to inspire and choose from the offerings from a lot of really gifted people. You can’t get anywhere without them and it’s really wonderful when these things mix together and you’re with a group of people who are working on a story they all love.
So you don’t have to know much about the mechanics of camerawork?
I do know quite a bit about it because I’m interested, and I also love photography. But I think all I had to know is what I think it should feel like when I’m watching it, so I’m concerned with how it’s going to impact on my story.
But as far as taste goes, I’ve got an arts school background, and that makes you interested in what stylising can do and what form and content can mean to each other. Of course the ideal is a marriage between your content, which is your storytelling, and the way that you do it, which is the form. One should enliven the other.
Nicole Kidman is still an executive producer, and she was attached to the film in the lead role. Why did she pull out?
She was a collaborator in the project all along. But with everything that happened, she was ambushed by the situation in her life [high profile divorce etc] when we were about to make this movie and I felt real compassion for her. It wasn’t appropriate to take on a role that was so emotionally challenging when she was feeling so fragile.
So what did you like about Meg Ryan as a second choice?
Nicole was never the choice just because she was a partner in the project. When you’re thinking about financing movies, you have to work with the group of actors who’ve got a certain profile so they can give you a certain set of numbers representing box office potential. So the field’s not completely open, there are maybe 15 people you like and only five who want to do it.
And the thing about Meg was that I never thought about her to do it but she’d read our script and really loved it. She loved the character of Frannie and wanted to play a character or woman close to her own sensitivity and feelings. And she wanted to come out as an actor rather than a comedy actress.
After a decade of fluffy romance like You’ve Got Mail, are you proud to show us a new side to her?
I felt really privileged to come up with her and she did give it her all. Of course, she’s made 30 films and they weren’t all When Harry Met Sally. There are a great number of dramatic roles that she’s played. She’s mostly famous for comedy, because I think comedy of the type she does is quite rare and hard to do, even though it seems to come naturally to her.
You’re not the most prolific filmmaker in the business. Do you have anything else in the works?
No I’m having a sabbatical from directing because it’s so long term and I’ve been doing it off and on for 19 years now. I just want a few years of not doing it and being a mother.
It’s been a long time between Jane Campion films already…
I know, it takes me that long to hatch one.
So what are you doing in the meantime?
I’m just living a bit of a life, but for many years I thought I had to take whatever opportunity was there because there might not be another one. Now I feel like life is just going to pass by me because I’m always planning a film or finishing one.
It’s been an extraordinary life lived through my projects and working with amazing people and I don’t regret any of it but I’ve just come to the time where I want a break. Maybe I’ll come back different — or at least refreshed, anyway.