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‘I didn’t even know Holly Hunter could play it!’ – Jane Campion on making ‘The Piano’

Remembering Oscar night, discovering Anna Paquin and the fate of the piano

Written by
Anna Smith

It’s 25 years since the New Zealander made her masterpiece, a stormy yet restrained tale set on the windswept shores of her homeland. With ‘The Piano’ being appreciated afresh in cinemas this week, its director told us about making it.

Talk us through the inspirations for the script.
‘It’s got many inspirations. My love of “Wuthering Heights” and the nineteenth-century novel. Coming from New Zealand, and my love of that landscape. A real interest in the time Europeans first arrived and how the indigenous Maori people saw them – that clash of cultures. And my interest in a woman like Ada, who had decided not to speak any more because she had fallen out of civilised society. In the background of my mind, she had an illegitimate child and the only future that could be seen with her was to be a mail-order bride, but she was of an unwilling nature! [Laughs] I had a lot of feelings in common with her: this sense of the patriarchy that she was born into and its inability to understand her at all.’

How was the process of casting Ada?
‘Casting is always challenging and exciting and scary. Ada, in my mind, was inspired by my friend Janet Patterson, the costume designer, who died recently. She was very tall and strong as well as kind and gentle and clear in her thinking – and stubborn, you know?! It was hard for me to go from Janet to Holly, who’s five-foot-two. Holly somehow got it into her head that this part was for her. What I didn’t realise when I first met her is that she is a really, really good piano player.’

Anna Paquin was an incredible find too.
‘Our casting director, Diana Rowan, went around the country basically auditioning every child who wanted to have a go in that age group. Anna Paquin’s sister, who was about 11, wanted to, then Anna herself thought: I want to try too. I remember Diana saying, “Something pretty interesting has come up. I’m not going say anything, see if you see it too.” So I remember looking at the tapes of this little girl… Anna’s beautiful bright eyes came on and she did a scene, about the father being struck by lightning, and she completely had it. I guess she’s just born that way. She loved Holly – she just looked at Holly and said, “She’s mine.” I left them to it. Holly was like [puts on Holly Hunter drawl] “I don’t know if I get on very well with children, I don’t know how this is going to work.” But she got on super-well with Anna.’

‘‘I had a lot of feelings in common with Ada’

How was Oscar night?
‘I was pregnant at that time with Alice, and I had a weird outfit made that tried not to show it. I think I had pirate-striped pants. It was really fun. I won an Oscar for the screenplay, Anna won one and Holly won one – so we felt really lucky, especially given how unusual it is for women to have an outing at the Oscars. I think that’s going to change. I feel a sea change coming on… a wind change, or a gender change!’  

What happened to the piano itself?
‘It’s now at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It was at my house for a while, then [producer] Jan Chapman’s office; now it’s in permanent residence in Melbourne with a little story behind it. We can’t throw it out!’

‘The Piano’ is in selected London cinemas now. It’s available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download from Jul 16.

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