‘Nicole Kidman asked for a part. Then it was fun to write a sequel’

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Top of the Lake creator Jane Campion on the new inspiration behind her hit TV series

Fans of the critically acclaimed crime drama Top of the Lake will be eagerly awaiting its return at the end of this month but writer Jane Campion admits that she never intended to make another series.

The number one reason Gerard [Lee, co-creator of the show] and I wrote a second season was because we were really encouraged by peoples responses, she says. In the first season, Gerard and I did exactly what we wanted and the fact that people embraced that and really responded to it was deeply encouraging. Of course, the challenge then was to find something that would stimulate us in the same way.

Campion surprised some critics when she turned her sights to television in 2013 with Top of the Lake, 20 years after receiving the Palme dOr for the acclaimed film The Piano. The first series, which starred Elisabeth Moss as detective Robin Griffin on the trail of a 12-year-old pregnant girl who has disappeared, thrilled audiences and reviewers alike.

The Guardians Sam Wollaston described it as hauntingly beautiful, genuinely original and fabulous and the Telegraph said it was without doubt the most original TV drama of the year so far, and possibly the best.

The new series, Top of the Lake: China Girl, ramps up the star factor Moss as Griffin returns to Sydney to reconnect with a daughter, Mary, whom she gave up for adoption and who was raised by the controlling Julia, played by Nicole Kidman. Then a suitcase containing the body of a young Asian girl washes up on Bondi beach. Griffin also gets an unwanted new partner, played by Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie. And there is an extra dash of Campion her daughter, Alice Englert, a rising star in her own right, plays the rebellious and precocious teenager Mary.

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Film director Jane Campion. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

Nicole just really wanted to be in the show she asked if there was a part for her, says Campion. And we realised she would really kill as Julia in fact, once I started imagining her as Julia then it became really fun for me to write and we expanded it, which was a good call because it really brought the themes together.

Christie also landed her part by contacting Campion. She wrote to me and said shed love to do something together. It was fascinating because of the sweetness of her letter shes very delicate and articulate and then her physicality, for me, it very viscerally challenges those boundaries of what a woman wants and who she can be. And on a really ordinary level, as a partner for Robin Griffin, her outsize emotions and her whole physical height because Lizzies quite short like theyre going to have to negotiate a very visceral gap.

This time Campion and Lee have moved the action from the small lakeside community in New Zealands South Island, which was the focus of the first series, to the bustling streets and bright lights of Sydney for a story focusing on migrant sex workers, online misogyny and the nature of motherhood.

I really liked the idea of setting it in Sydney and making it very much about women and their bodies and the sex industry, in particular the experiences of migrants within the industry, says Campion. Just what the reality of the job might be like not the way its usually presented with sex in bikinis or whatever but just the ordinariness of it, how you do it and earn money from it and keep earning money from it.

Sex work has been decriminalised in Sydney but Campion admits the choice of plotline was still controversial. I met with the Scarlet Alliance [Australias national sex workers association] and they said, Why the hell do you have to have a story about dead prostitutes its such a cliche and pathetic, and I was like, Oh OK, well it is a crime story, and they said, Yeah, I know but and explained why they hated it. So in the end we included their viewpoint in the story to get that voice across.

Englert acknowledges that portraying sex workers on screen is a complicated issue. People should be able to do what they want with their bodies and their minds, she says.

Campion agrees: There is a lot that totally pisses me off about it but there are also people working in the profession and enjoying it. I was blown away by the honesty of the women we met and their willingness to share their time and view of the world and men with us. The women who talked to us were probably the best thing about the whole project.

Did she worry about switching the action from New Zealand to Australia? Well, people did really love the atmosphere of the first series, and there was the sense that that edge of wilderness stuff was very much part of the appeal, she admits. But doing something in the same setting didnt really appeal to me. I needed a new challenge.

The action picks up four years after the harrowing events of series one with an increasingly isolated Griffin back at work, plagued by nightmares and apparently dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

I really like that the series starts out with her completely shut off and doing worse than we might expect, says Moss. The more typical thing to do would have been to come back and have her be coping OK and then take a dive and fall to her knees before coming back up but I think starting out low and then going further down is much more unique.

The first series of Top of the Lake was unflinching in its examination of misogyny and abuse, and the second continues those themes, examining the ramifications of Griffins return to the workplace.

I was really interested in the way in which shes accused of being emotionally unstable, which I dont think would happen if she was a man, says Moss. Its not just that shes a woman in a mans world or one of the only women in the office, it goes deeper than that to this other layer of misogyny and even gaslighting, which really makes her doubt who she is and what she thinks.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for fans of the series are the moments when humour and light shine through the darkness. There are some very funny scenes of social comedy and also some surprisingly sweet moments amid the pain. I think the whole season is full of romance, says Englert. The tension and sweetness of romance and people finding each other and connecting, not necessarily in a sexual way.

Top of the Lake: China Girl starts on BBC2 at the end of this month and will also be available on iPlayer. Series one is on BBC2 on Fridays at 11.05pm

CAMPION CLOSE UP

Born 30 April 1954 in Waikanae, New Zealand.

Married to Colin Englert, her second unit director on The Piano, from 1992 to 2001. Had two children, Jasper, who died after 12 days, and Alice, an actress.

Education Attended Chelsea Art College before gaining a diploma in visual arts from Sydney College of the Arts. Graduated from Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 1984.

Career Her first film, Peel, won the short film Palme dOr at the Cannes film festival in 1986. Has made 10 feature-length films, including The Piano in 1993.

Best of times The Piano won the Palme dOr in 1993 making her the first, and so far only, female director to win the award.

Worst of times The death of Jasper at 12 days old, soon after she won the Palme dOr. I was grieving the whole year, just struggling to exist.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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