In March 2010 I attended Jane Campion's master-class at AFTRS (Made possible by the Australian Director's Guild).

Martin Simpson and Jane Campion

The master-class was an informal affair where Jane drew a few questions out of a bag as a stepping off point for a wide ranging discussion of the hard working world of film, touching on all aspects of life, creativity, fear and bravery, despair and ecstasy. She was so open and honest about her feelings and her ways of working. She inspired us all.


As story tellers, we tell a lie to tell the truth.

Audiences feel, and the human heart recognises emotional truth when it sees it. This is not to say audiences can't be manipulated. It's to say the director has a duty to be honest with her/himself, and to tell the truth as he/she sees it.

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

In the writing, the analysis of story, in the rehearsal, preparation is essential. Jane usually rehearses for three weeks before shooting. This is to allow the discovery of character and the settling in of the actors relationships and approaches. This time allows for the actors to let their character's emotions become real (if only in miniature).

Some difficult scenes are only briefly visited at this time, to see the actors' basic emotional responses to the material. Passive actors may need to be set 'homework' at this time. Of course actors are encouraged by direction such as "That's the right area", "That's the right direction", and not told they've nailed it or got it right, as this tends to paralyse them. (No one can repeat exactly what they have just done.) On set Jane shoots the rehearsal, as good things may occur early and you wouldn't want to lose them.

She suggested that big actors - Stars - are often not challenged or supported well. They need attention and support as much as the less experienced players.

Before shooting, Jane writes a brief note to self about what to concentrate on, what inspired her to make the picture. This is to give a spine to her approach to the film, so that the choices she makes at the beginning are stuck to throughout shooting. On BRIGHT STAR, her note was 'Don't try to control'. She wanted to get out of the way of the story and to let it happen. Part of this approach was to not move the camera much, to let the action play out in a wide frame, so audiences could choose where to look on the screen, and to let the actors feel their way into the characters.

Thus her directorial task was only to decide whether each actor was 'IN THE SHOT', meaning that audiences can feel if an emotional response by an actor is real, or if the actor is THINKING. If Jane detected such 'thinking', she would make adjustments to the actor's performance, and keep going at the scene, until generally the actors were worn down by the process enough to let go of thinking, and just BE IN THE SHOT.

One of the questions that Jane pulled from the bag asked, "What can I do about feeling that I'm not good enough, that I may fail?" When Jane asked those among us who had felt that way to stand up, everybody in the room stood. The point is that an artistic life is full of fear of failure, and that what's important is not whether you're good enough or not, but whether you've prepared well enough and are ready to work hard enough. Put your efforts into the process, not the outcome.

Jane famously said at the Cannes Film Festival last year that women directors had to 'put on their coats of armour' and learn to cope with heavy handed criticism. Don't take it personally, she admonished. What is being criticised is a film, not a person.

Much other ground was covered in this wonderful afternoon, from yoga as a meditation, how to cope as a working mother, how to sort out what is story, character analysis and braiding, and many points beyond, but I became so engrossed and involved in the discussion that my notes just petered out.

I will leave you with my thoughts of what an insightful, unpretentious and quietly authoritative woman Jane is, and what a privilege it was to gain some insights into her philosophy and working methods.