"The first season was about the wilderness outside, the second season is about the wilderness within... " hmv.com talks to the cast and creator of Top of the Lake: China Girl
When Top of the Lake first landed on our screens in 2013, the series was something of a fresh take on the familiar detective drama genre. Written by Palme d'Or-winning writer-director Jane Campion, the show infused the story of a detective's search for a missing girl with strong female characters and explored ideas about feminism, abuse and identity.
Four years on, a second series arrives on DVD next week and this time the action takes place in Sydney, Australia, following the mystery of a young asian girl whose body is found in a suitcase washed up on the city's famous Bondi Beach.
Elisabeth Moss reprises her role as Detective Robin Griffin, alongside a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie, The Last Panthers' David Dencik and Campion's daughter, Alice Englert.
before the series aired we sat down with Jane Campion, her co-writer Gerard Lee and director Ariel Kleiman, as well as the show's stars Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie, David Dencik and Alice Englert to talk about the new series...
So what made you want to come back and do a second series? The first one was such a hit, was there a danger of 'difficult second album' syndrome? Did you feel any pressure?
Jane Campion: “Well, I've got this funny part of my brain that doesn't experience stress until it's too late, I'm so excited and so enthusiastic when I decide to do something that I don't even remember the possibility that it could all fail really badly. I really got that with my daughter and me, it wasn't until we'd finished this series that I actually realised she'd done a really good job. If she hadn't it would have been really horrible! And I did actually have a moment where I was like “oh, thank God”. Do you get like that, Ari? Director blindness?”
Ariel Kleiman: “Oh, totally. I'm so excited by what it could be. I couldn't get out of bed otherwise!”
JC: “There are so many things that you could worry about or that could go wrong, I mean sometimes that gets the better of me. I sometimes think about people in the cast dying. Like 'we've almost finished, what if someone dies and we have to shoot the whole thing again?' I know I shouldn't, but you just really can't go there, you just have to be positive.”
The New Zealand setting in the first series was such a big part of the show, why did you decide to move the story to Sydney and what did you want to do different this time?
Gerard Lee: “We wanted a new story, we didn't want to look like we were milking an old formula.”
JC: “It wasn't just that we didn't want to look like it, we just wanted to be inspired by a new situation. We both live in Sydney, so we know it really well.”
GL: “It's a beautiful convenience.”
JC: “The quality of life, the way people live there, there's a dark side and a sort of gorgeous side of Sydney with the beaches like Bondi, that was interesting to us. Bondi Beach is a sort of interesting place because a lot of people gravitate there, you want to go there but then you realise it's quite sad. It's this place of dreams, but it's a bit of a dead-end spot actually.”
AK: “It's a kind of worn out place in some ways, you know? It can be beautiful and fresh, but it's also a tourist trap.”
If you had to define the theme of this second season, what would it be?
Elisabeth Moss: “I'll steal from Jane something that she wrote at the very beginning before we started shooting, which is that the first season was about the wilderness outside, and the second season is about the wilderness within. Because it's set in a city this time, it has this claustrophobic quality, it's much more interior, there's a feeling of being trapped; trapped in buildings, in rooms and in situations in life. For me it's also about relationships, whereas I think the first one was very clearly about the search for this girl. This one is also kind of about a search for a girl, but for Robin I think it's kind of a search for her herself, more than anything else.”
Gwendoline Christie: “Just to add to that, my feeling is that there is an overriding theme of what it is to be a mother. I know that sounds incredibly general, but I feel that the series investigates so many different forms of that, and in ways that we're not really used to seeing on a TV show.”
David Dencik: “Yeah, that is a strong theme I think, motherhood and the urge to reproduce, and the lengths people go to in order to do that, in many different ways. All six episodes deal with this issue, it's something that they all have in common. Also the idea of heritage, where you come from and how to deal with that.”
Alice Englert: “Absolutely. Maybe the first one dealt with personal happiness, whereas this one is about the search and the need for fulfilment of some kind.”
DD: “Yeah, the need to create a family. I think actually Jane encompasses all the different ways you can have a family, because these are very modern times and families can look very different than they used to.”
AE: “I think there's also a recurring theme in Top of the Lake about paradise. I think that Sydney represents the easy living lifestyle in the way that America used to, so I think it explores that and the kind of uneasiness in that culture. It was nice to able to work in Sydney, which is my home city, and look at it in that way.”
GL: “Underneath that theme of motherhood is another theme that Jane and I are interested is the connection between people, what constitutes a connection and what it means to feel or experience it together. So having this character of a daughter who is adopted was an opportunity to explore that a little bit, there's this genetic connection but you don't really know them you're trying to find out who the other person is. That's a happy part of the story.”
JC: “I sort of see this one as a bit of a love story, or a story about love. I think we're all looking for love, really. As humans that's just natural, and in this story we've let that be present much more than in the previous one. I can't give too much away without spoiling it, but we really listened to that need for love in our characters this time and I think that's the reason why Robin is hurting so much.”
How does the crime story element of the show fit in with the themes you're talking about?
EM: “Well, it's so much about ownership, of your body, of your life and what you want your life to be, what kind of a parent you want to be. The series does address a group of women who are not given the opportunity to make that choice, over their bodies and over their lives, so I suppose that's the parallel.”
GC: “I also think that what's so brilliant about the way the story is told is that we have so many dense issues involved in this story, it gives rise to so many questions – which I think is really the mark of great work, when you're left questioning the ideas it has brought up long after you've seen it – but it's hugely entertaining. It whips along with the story and all the reasons that we love a crime thriller is that it's thrilling, it's exciting and we want to work out the mystery. So it's the strength of that noir-esque narrative coupled with these really mind-exploding issues about humanity that makes it such a special piece of work I think.”
JC: “To me, a crime story is a scandal and it's a motor against a story and the motor really is a search. That becomes theme in itself, and the person searching is always going to be blind to what the search is showing them about themselves, to what they don't know that they don't know. So it actually has quite a lot of depth to it, it can be seen in a very flat way but it can also have a lot of layers to it and that's what we try to work with.”
Do you think the fact that there has been a gap of a few years since the first series influenced the second one?
JC: “I think our concern was more about quality, to do something that we really loved, because we were in a position to do that, we weren't being whipped along and I think everybody understands that the only point of doing it is to make something as good as we can. That's our producer's attitude, that was BBC2's attitude and it was our attitude. We wanted to do something that was like a novel, as refined as that, so there's not just baggy extra episodes. We worked hard for that ambition and it takes a while because we're the only two writers, there's not a writing room.”
GL: “The first one was like playing music together, but with this one one we were really focussing because we had succeeded somewhat before, so we were composing more carefully.”
JC: “We also had opinions about where we hadn't done so well in the first series, some scenes that we didn't like, that we didn't want to do again. It's more the tone that's different. We went to film school together, so when we first met we realised that we had the same thing where we wanted to do things well, we found everything really funny, and also we cry a lot.”
The second season is a little bit darker than the first, but the way that Elisabeth and Gwendoline's characters interact offer some moments of light. How did you both find that dynamic between your two characters?
EM: “Yeah, it gets it a little darker. For me the relationship between Miranda and Robin is my favourite thing to play in the second series. I think it's rare that you see a female relationship like this explored in film or television, the complications of it. Two women pitted against each other, with the secrets that they're hiding and how that all falls apart, it was something that I don't think I've ever gotten to play before, so that was really interesting. Where it starts is so different from where it ends with the two of them, in a really surprising way I think.”
GC: “It's a very thorough investigation into the dynamics of a complex female relationship that is started from a place of imbalance, and then sort of wildly swings through so many different kinds of power structures and manifestations of what it is to be friends with someone, or not friends with someone, or what that relationship means. The complexities and the heat of intimacy, and how we struggle with that as human beings. But for me, the same as Lizzie, to have all of that explored through a female dynamic is a really fresh and interesting element of this TV show.”
Miranda is actually quite a tragicomic character, in a strange sort of way. Was that your intention? To inject a bit of comic relief?
GC: “What's terrifying is no, it wasn't! I don't think it's ever helpful as an actor when you view material to think 'oh, that's funny, I'll play that as funny', because really all I could feel was a deep empathy with this character, with her total lack of success, her lack of ability and personal achievement, her lack of personal capability to deal with anything in her life. I'm genuinely thrilled that that has resulted in laughter, but I think as the story evolves there will be some slightly darker moments as well.”
“I'd like to say that I've brought something to it, but also that's down to the brilliance of the writing, it really is exceptional and that's part of the reason why I love this show so much. Gerard and Jane have taken a piercing stare into the well of humanity, into what it is to be human, they really pierce into the core of that and that's the reason that it's so painful, so recognisable and so funny, because it's true.”
Jane, you've said in the past that television is so much more exciting as a medium than film, do you still feel that way?
JC: ”I think what happens for me is that I gravitate to a place where I feel you can have freedom as a writer, and I feel like television makers are taking more risks. Our commissioning editors at BBC2 were really behind us in doing whatever we wanted to do, whereas when you come up with ideas for films the first thing they think about is 'can we get an audience for this?' And suddenly you're like 'well, what does that mean? Are we supposed to be more conservative? More wild, or what?' So it does feel like in order to get an audience to go out and see a film, they need a reassurance that's it's going to be worth it, and that's difficult to give anyone, you know?”
EM: “I think there are merits to every medium, honestly, and challenges to every medium too. Theatre is incredibly challenging for me, because I get bored really easily, so the repetition is the most difficult part, having to do the same thing eight shows a week. Then again, the merit of having a live audience and getting to do something eight times a week is obviously incredibly fulfilling. Film is a great medium for telling a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end, where you know exactly where you're going and exactly what the story arc is, there's something incredibly valuable in that. As an actress I do love television because I like the opportunity to explore a character for 94 hours, or six hours or whatever it is. It's just cheating, because I get more time! I can tell more or the story of who this person is.”
Jane, you're still the only woman to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, is that something that frustrates you? Do you feel a sense of pride with people like Lynne Ramsay and Sofia Coppola winning big awards recently?
JC: “Well, Lynne Ramsay and Sofia Coppola are amazing filmmakers so I'm thrilled that their work is being recognised, and it's teeth-gnashingly infuriating that there are still so few films being funded that are directed by women. That's the main problem stopping them from winning the top awards, because if you look at the number of people in competition for those awards that were women, there really weren't that many, as usual. Maybe they're just too smart to get into the industry, I don't know! When you see Kathryn Bigelow doing Hurt Locker, a war movie and such a great film, it's obvious that women can do any sort of story. I don't know, I cannot figure it out.”
Do you think you can influence that with the kind of stories that you tell?
JC: “I don't know about the stories so much, that wouldn't really be my type of thing to do, a sort of didactic 'yeah girls, go!' I think the focus should be on just doing good work, that's the best testament I think and the best encouragement for other young women. Certainly with my friends in the industry, I do make a point of writing to them and saying 'loved your film, well done'. I just love that they all do different things too, things I wouldn't imagine. Andrea Arnold and I did actually talk about whether it's time for a Wonder Woman film school. Our last effort, you know? It'll probably just disintegrate into us trying on outfits.”
“I do feel a change in the air though, that there really is new, female-orientated work coming out that's really courageous and interesting.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl arrives in stores on Monday (September 4th) - you can find it here in our online store