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The Art of Screenwriting: Jane Campion

Jane Campion, a prominent New Zealand filmmaker, has earned widespread recognition for her contributions, particularly as a writer and director of critically acclaimed films such as "The Piano" (1993) and "The Power of the Dog" (2021).


Her exceptional talents have been rewarded with two Academy Awards, including Best Director for the latter film, in addition to two BAFTA Awards and two Golden Globe Awards. In acknowledgment of her significant impact on the world of cinema, Campion was bestowed with the title Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DNZM) during the 2016 New Year Honours.


Campion's ability to depict resilient lead characters, often women who challenge traditional roles, has received widespread acclaim. Equally impressive are her innovative storytelling techniques, characterized by unique and captivating visual compositions, a non-linear editing style, and moments of narrative ambiguity. As writers, there is much to learn from Campion's creative approach. So, let’s dive into what we can learn from her.

Photo credit: Infobae


Don’t Be Scared


As writers, when embarking on a project, you'll inevitably face a mixture of emotions, including love and fear. Campion has stated your task is to conquer your fear to the extent that the inspiration and passion for the project outweigh it.


No matter your ability, fear is a formidable obstacle that can hold you back. It's possible that, apart from their creative endeavors, many filmmakers could benefit from introspection. The key is confronting your fears and transforming them into a wellspring of inspiration.


Momentum is Key


Part of what makes Campion such a strong writer is her ability to sow the seed of an idea in the audience's mind and guide their focus toward something that will resonate with them later. Momentum and build are vital in any film, no matter your genre or writing style.


While you shouldn’t subscribe to the rigid rules in writing, it’s worth introducing elements early on. That way, you can facilitate the development of your characters' journeys and illuminate aspects the audience can relate to later.


I recommend diving deeply into your life experiences to determine if the story or characters resonate with you and draw upon the insights gained from those experiences—writing and directing stem from a personal wellspring. You don't necessarily need to have lived through the same situations as your characters but strive to understand where they stand emotionally.


Have you ever felt fear, excitement, desire, happiness, and so on? Reflect on how you responded in those moments. Inject a sense of naturalism into your work by drawing from these genuine emotional reactions.


I recommend encouraging your friends to provide candid feedback. It may be tough to endure harsh criticism, as feedback can be relentless. However, it's also a valuable source of assistance and the primary growth means.


Nevertheless, I assure you that when your story improves, your writing develops, and your script finds an audience, all the effort will prove worthwhile. Embrace the feedback, absorb it, and let it propel you toward becoming a better creator.


Focus


I recently read an article featuring ‘The Power of the Dog’ Producer Emile Sherman and Campion’s ability to focus on the task. Sherman stated that Campion has a distinctive approach to her work, meaning she dedicates herself to one task at a time. When she engages with something, she does so with her entire being.


She avoids the feeling of having a queue of five tasks waiting for her. For example, after completing the first season of "Top of the Lake," she took a break. Later, she found inspiration for a second season and collaborated with co-writer Jared Lee. Once again, she paused to enjoy her life. During this time, her sister recommended a book, and upon reading it, she became utterly captivated.


Great Writing


As great of a filmmaker as Jane Campion is, her strength primarily lies in her writing ability. Too many filmmakers neglect the necessity of writing. Yes, the technical side of filmmaking is valuable, but none of it matters if you don’t have a great script to pair with it.


Unlike other filmmakers, Campion presents a script in a fully developed state. Her approach is akin to solving a riddle, where she views it as a complete story and meticulously arranges the pieces to achieve the desired outcome. She's adept at making subtle adjustments that, when accumulated, yield significant results.


Reflection


Campion is an expert at having a big reveal, not necessarily a twist, that causes the audience to reflect. It’s best to prompt your audience to reconsider elements they may have overlooked in your film, elements right in front of them all along.


This is the beauty of early planting story-wise; it enables you to deliver surprises to your audience. Engage viewers who are invested in unfolding your narrative by offering them rewards. Incorporating intricate layers into your storytelling makes these nuances more evident and captivating.

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