Day 50: Top of the Lake premiere

Day 50: Top of the Lake premieres

Day 50: Top of the Lake premieres

February 19, 2013: Top of the Lake premiere.

Today marks the end, of sorts, of a story I’ve been following for the past eight months – a new television mini-series called Top of the Lake. Co-written and co-directed (but otherwise largely driven) by Jane Campion of The Piano fame, I don’t recall the last time a story has challenged me so much professionally and philosophically.

At first I thought it was because of how long I’ve been following the story, but I realised very quickly that can’t be true: I’ve followed the development and production of countless video games for much longer. No, this was different. And I realised it’s different because of my style of writing – I’d like to believe that my style is to capture the truth and the flavour of my subject. The problem is, Jane Campion is very much a hero to feminists, and feminism isn’t a subject that I can speak on with any great confidence.

It may have something to do with the countless hours I spent in university having my head bitten off for being a “typical rationalist male” by born-again feminists, who outnumbered the men in the class three-to-one. There’s that, and I’ll also have to admit having fallen asleep in the cinema during Portrait of a Lady.

I had the good fortune of being able to spend a solid day on the set of Top of the Lake, being able to mingle with the cast and crew, interviewing stars like Elisabeth Moss and David Wenham, as well as Campion herself. There’s even a scene in the second episode that I can point out to you where I was standing off-frame, watching it being shot.

And then there was the location itself – Paradise, a short drive from Queenstown, New Zealand. I took hundreds of photos that day and, during the few hours of free time I had to explore, hundreds more of the surrounding area. The mountains, the forests, the back alleys, the shops, the nightclubs… there’s a unique and unmistakeable look about the place, and there’s much of it that I recognise from films like The Lord of the Rings and more recently The Hobbit. But in today’s premiere of the first two episodes of Top of the Lake, I felt as though I could personally give you a tour of every location used in every scene. It’s odd knowing the show so intimately.

In the end, I came away from Queenstown with more than four hours of interview material, which amounted to over 15,000 words of transcription, which I then had to sit on for six months (due to the usual non-disclosure clauses) before distilling into a 1,200 word story.

Which wasn’t easy. But the six-month wait did give me the opportunity to eventually wrap my head around Campion’s way of thinking. Where some women see a champion for the feminist cause, I see a woman who gleefully and fearlessly pursues her personal and creative interests; a woman who is unbound by convention and makes absolutely no apologies for it. And I can see why that would be appealing to women (and even men) because it’s what I’d want for my daughter.

All I’ve really proven to myself here is that men and women seek different things – a statement of the blindingly obvious – and ultimately I still don’t understand Campion. And while I can usually size up a product quickly and have a pretty good nose for whether it’ll do well in the market, there was no way I could fathom what to expect from the show. I had to put my faith in her vision.

And now that I’ve seen the first two episodes, I’m glad to say that my faith has been rewarded; that somehow, in spite of my reservations and doubt, whatever I wrote did indeed capture the truth and flavour of the show.

Top of the Lake is a wonderful show. On paper, it’s marketed as a dark, off-beat crime drama. But when you start watching it, the transition from reality into the television world is quite jarring. It runs at its own methodical pace, revealing layers of texture in an order that only makes sense if you let yourself fall into line with the beat of its drum. Yes, it does have a feminist bent, but I found myself pondering the slightly more disturbing aspects about what it says about the ‘male’ condition.

I’ll be watching the rest of it when it premieres in March.

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