Memories of making The Piano – 25 years of Jane Campion’s wild, windswept masterpiece

Producer Jan Chapman recalls the rocky road to Oscar and Palme d’Or glory for Jane Campion’s Brontë-esque erotic drama The Piano, set in 1850s New Zealand.

Nikki Baughan

The Piano (1993)

The Piano (1993)

Over two decades ago, TV producer Jan Chapman was persuaded to leave a successful career at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), where she had made shows like Sweet and Sour (1984) and various TV movies, to focus all her attention on producing her second feature film. (The first having been Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, in 1992). This would be The Piano, which reunited Chapman with writer-director Jane Campion, who she’d worked with on 1986 TV movie 2 Friends.

“I read a short treatment [of The Piano], and I responded to it very strongly,” Chapman recalls. “There was an essence that went back to Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights in its expression of female desire. It’s ironic, because it is about male and female attraction and sexuality, but it’s also about a private insight into the female version of that. It ignited me, and I thought it was enough to ignite other people.”

Chapman immediately knew Campion’s story, about a mute woman who is sent to 1850s New Zealand with her young daughter and piano in order to marry a wealthy landowner but finds herself attracted to a plantation worker, was something special. But she says that it took some time to finance the project — and not just because, by her own admission, “we were pretty inexperienced in the world of international filmmaking at the time. I was there in my lounge room, on my own. I didn’t really know what to do, and who to see. It was a very big learning curve!”

Watch The Piano 25th anniversary trailer

In line with most new filmmakers, Chapman initially had her sights set on Hollywood. “We initially tried to finance the film through America, and we created a beautiful boxset of the script and images that were indicative of the feeling of the film and sent it to the people we thought might be interested. And we went to visit them all.”

That none of these meetings bore fruit is, in retrospect, a pivotal moment in the film’s journey. Instead, Chapman found an ally closer to home – legendary champion of cinema, the late Pierre Rissient. As a scout for the Cannes Film Festival, Rissient had brought 2 Friends to the Croisette, and believed that Campion’s work should be seen by a wider audience. Rissient advised Chapman to go and see French philanthropist Francis Bouygues, who had already financed works by Pedro Almodóvar (High Heels) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) through his production company Ciby 2000.

The Piano (1993)

The Piano (1993)

“We didn’t believe we had a chance,” laughs Chapman, “but in the end that was the way the film was financed. We suddenly had a champion who gave us incredible creative freedom. He believed in the filmmakers vision, and he believed in Jane.”

While this freedom meant that Campion and Chapman could look internationally when it came to casting, they kept the audience firmly in mind from the outset. “We started to think, ‘Why do people go and see films?’”, Chapman says. “We started to look at some of the actors that we had liked out of America; not particularly the most high echelons in the marketing sense, but people who felt like they were right for the roles.

“Ada was originally written as a very tall woman, so obviously Holly [Hunter] didn’t come to our minds immediately,” admits Chapman of the film’s central character. “But she really insisted on being seen and, when we screen tested her, she just had that quality in her face and her persona that was exactly right. So that’s the interesting thing about casting; you might have a form that you think is right in your script, but there might be something of an essence in an actor that goes beyond that.”

Jan Chapman

Jan Chapman

Alongside Holly Hunter, the film cast young newcomer Anna Paquin as Ada’s daughter Flora, Sam Neill as her betrothed Stewart and Harvey Keitel as rough-hewn local Baines. Alongside the incredible on-screen talent, the project also enticed a top-class crew who shot the film in New Zealand on a budget of just $9m. “All of the right people were there,” Chapman recalls of the experience. “It felt like we drew together people in the cast and crew who really understood and believed in the film. And Jane is a great conceptualiser, she makes incredible storyboards and is very well prepared.”

Alongside cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and production designer Andrew McAlpine, a key figure involved in creating The Piano’s singular look is costume designer Janet Patterson, who passed away in 2016. “The costumes were a seminal part of the film,” says Chapman. “The underwear created the character of Ada in many ways. And [Janet herself] was very much an image for Jane of what Ada should be. She was a very wilful and strong human being, who kept her expression of that rather private.”

The finished film premiered in competition at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a 20-minute standing ovation. Campion won the Palme d’Or (at the time of writing, she remains the only female director to have done so), and the following year the film went on to win three Academy Awards — best supporting actress for Anna Paquin, best actress for Holly Hunter and best screenplay for Campion — and was nominated for five more, including best film and best director.

Fuelled by this success, Campion and Chapman have subsequently worked together on films including Holy Smoke (1999) and Bright Star (2009), and have both been proactive in their support of female filmmakers and crews. “It was a natural thing,” says Chapman of a career that has seen her produce the likes of Shirley Barrett’s Cannes Caméra d’Or-winning Love Serenade (1996), Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Shannon Murphy’s upcoming Babyteeth. “I didn’t think ‘I’m going to find great women’, it was just the projects I was attracted to.”

The Piano (1993)

The Piano (1993)

As for The Piano, in the 25 years since its release it’s not only become a much-loved classic of modern cinema, but is regarded by many as a particularly important feminist work. Chapman credits its enduring popularity with the way in which it continues to resonate with the female experience. “The Piano is a classic story about female will and determination and, while it’s so relevant in the present climate, when we made it it was such an instinctive expression of something we saw in women that we knew,” she observes. “They had very strong wills and were determined to be themselves.

“The other thing it explores is the awakening of a feeling of sexuality and sensuality in a woman, that she doesn’t really understand,” Chapman continues. “Ada doesn’t have the advantage of magazines and social media to find expression for that. When we released the film, so many women – and also men – related to this particular expression of female sensibility. And here we are, 25 years later, and the film feels timeless. It captures people’s imagination.”

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