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Jane Campion on books, writing and building a new life in Wellington

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When Jane Campion was a girl and started reading, she suddenly got the sensation when dusk fell of wanting to get into bed and having that last half hour dedicated to books.

Read this story in te reo Māori and English here. / Pānuitia tēnei i te reo Māori me te reo Pākehā ki konei.

“I remember just feeling this inner world for the first time,” Campion said in an interview, ahead of her speaking at a fundraising event for Wellington’s Katherine Mansfield House &​ Garden.

“I was so outer-organized – play, play, play. It was like, ‘oh my God, you can make up stories in your head’,” Campion said of reading. “[It’s] complicated and amazing [and] came to be a really interesting space for me. And obviously, it’s where creativity lives.”

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Off the back of her recent win at this year’s Academy Awards for best director for The Power of the Dog, Campion is back living in the capital, having spent the last year consolidating a new life. She’s been overseeing the rebuild of a little 1940s house on a cliff at Pukerua Bay at the southern end of the Kāpiti Coast – “I call it headquarters” – and says she’s been “chilling” and having fun, including getting deeper into martial arts.

While Campion owns a “humble” home and guesthouse in Glenorchy near Queenstown, which she calls her heartland, she says she loves Wellington for its environment, arts and people’s profound appreciation for material.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern mentioned director Jane Campion after her historic win at the 2022 Academy Awards. (Broadcast March 2022).

Part of her being back has been spent setting up a local pop-up film intensive called A Wave in the Ocean – Campion wanted to give back and was working on something to do with it when she answers my phone call. The intensive starts on November 21, and will see 10 emerging film director-writers spend almost a year peer-to-peer learning and attending a series of laboratories in Wellington. All participants receive a stipend.

Campion has been enjoying the fresh company, and of meeting with the likes of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. “That’s what I love about film productions – you all do something interesting and helpful. Particularly with this project, it’s a mixture of the people who are starting out and people who are going to be advisers.”

More urgently, she will speak to an audience at the Marsden Auditorium at Karori’s Samuel Marsden Collegiate School on November 1 about Mansfield – she is a vice-patron for the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden in Thorndon, and was approached a few years ago about being a guest speaker at its annual fundraiser event. Last year Karen Walker gave the talk.

A photo from 1913 of Mansfield, considered one of the most influential authors of the modernist movement.

Phil Reid/Stuff

A photo from 1913 of Mansfield, considered one of the most influential authors of the modernist movement.

Campion loves Mansfield and feels connected to her because she used to live in Hobson St in Thorndon, just around the corner from Mansfield’s now heritage-listed house. “It was sort of beautiful to play so many games in her memorial area,” Campion said.

Like Mansfield, Campion loved the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, and said she viewed Mansfield as a life mentor and a sincere artist who led a “brave, bold, mysterious and fated” life. Mansfield was born in 1888 in Wellington and is considered one of the most influential authors of the modernist movement.

The pair’s Wellington childhoods were both formative to their careers. Mansfield found her New Zealand home difficult between her family, conservatism of the time, and a desire to go overseas, Campion said.

“In many ways, I’m the same – I really found my stride in Australia. But my heart belongs to New Zealand.

“It may not just be a Kiwi [thing]it may just be like, home is difficult for people.

The talk will raise funds for the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden in Thorndon, Wellington.

Rosa Woods/Stuff

The talk will raise funds for the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden in Thorndon, Wellington.

“It’s really nice to leave. I mean, everybody from New Zealand has their overseas experience and then, while they’re away they discover who they are … They have a sense of freedom which you don’t have when you know the rules of behavior so extremely in your own town.

“But then I think acceptance in your own town, from your own people, is more important than anything. Because they’re all mums and dads. They’re all people you always wanted to impress. And they usually remain unimpressable​.”

Ahead of her talk Campion has been examining and photographing the books she actually reads – “not what I wish I was reading”, and books that have meant a great deal to her through her life. She said reading and having a relationship with authors was a very intimate thing.

A lot of her influences were from reading, and she’s adapted many books for the screen: An Angel at My Table, The Portrait of a Lady, Bright Star and The Power of the Dog. Her original screenplays include The Piano, Holy Smoke! and The Top of the Lake.

“What’s really interesting about that is [writing is] the part of filmmaking or storytelling or series-making that’s actually really cheap: you can do it on your computer, I like to work longhand on pads. … It doesn’t cost anything, and it’s the thing most people struggle with.”