Thirty years after An Angel at My Table brought Janet Frame's autobiographies to the cinema in Jane Campion's acclaimed adaptation, Russell Baillie reveals the creation of a Kiwi classic.
Thirty years ago, Janet Frame went to the movies. At the time, she was living not in the Maniototo but in the Manawatū – in Palmerston North, having shifted from Shannon after spending much of the 1980s in Levin.
There, one night, she went to see An Angel at My Table at the city's Regent on Broadway. On that night, sitting in an audience where few would have realised the renowned author lived 15 minutes away, Frame found watching her early life flash before her eyes affecting.
"I found it more moving in the theatrical version," she told this writer that year. "I suppose it's because the audience is there reacting to it. Also, I was surprised at the attention in the theatre. When I go to films now, people behave as though they are in their living rooms. They talk and rustle. But there was no talk or rustle."
Looking back now, Jane Campion has complicated feelings about An Angel at My Table, the movie of Frame's autobiographical trilogy she initiated in her late twenties and made in her early thirties.
"Somehow it's not about film-making," she tells the Listener. "It's about the sharing of Janet, and in a way the film-making sits beneath the storytelling. It doesn't draw any attention to itself and it just allows Janet's humanity to come forward. Janet's autobiographies were flipping amazing for their honesty and truth. I think that's why it's so beloved.
Angel wasn't Campion's first feature, arriving a year after her debut, Sweetie. And in her career it sits in the long shadow of her third, The Piano. "I don't think it's a great film."
Fittingly for a film about Frame, it was a film that had to overcome its own shyness. Created as a three-part TV mini-series with each episode matching Frame's trilogy – To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City – it became a cinema release for the wider world only after Campion and producer Bridget Ikin fought against the idea.
After an emotionally bruising experience at Cannes the previous year with the reaction to Sweetie, Campion hadn't wanted to put herself at the mercy of festival audiences or critics again.
Eventually, after months of arguments, she caved in to the persuasive efforts of New Zealand Film Commission marketing man Lindsay Shelton, who, having taken the series to international festival selectors and film distributors, kept being told it was too good for telly.
"I just gave in," says Campion, laughing. "What do I know about what people like?"
It wasn't just Palmy where An Angel at My Table caught on with audiences. It was the toast of major festivals in Sydney (where it won the audience prize), Venice (the second-place Silver Lion), Toronto (the Critics' Award), New York (a standing ovation) and Berlin.
In New Zealand, the film went on general cinema release in October 1990, a month after Venice, and was seen by 100,000 people. It would be released in more than 30 countries. In one Paris arthouse, it ran for two years.
Here, arguably, it changed how New Zealand saw Frame. In a way, it prepared the ground for Michael King's 2000 biography, Wrestling with the Angel. It was also a boon for Frame's publishers around the world where her books appeared in a multitude of new translations.
It was the film that was the making of Campion as it was for Ikin.
For drama school graduate Kerry Fox, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, art director Grant Major, screen composer Don McGlashan and others, it was a first feature and career springboard.
How we made An Angel at My Table
Jane Campion read To the Is-land in 1982 while a film student in Sydney. Her mother, Edith, sent her a copy. She'd loved Frame's books since reading Owls Do Cry as a teenager. She cried. She had an idea.
Back in New Zealand for Christmas, she asked her Levin-based godmother, Marga Gordon, a friend of Frame, to arrange an introduction, and visited the writer in Levin.
Campion: Going to Janet in the first place, I was so nervous. I could barely speak. Janet also was nervous. We were two nervous, loving and ironic women together. One towards the end of her career and the other near her beginning. The first step was so hard, the meeting incredibly awkward, but I did it.
I was really aware that I was still just a film-school student and hadn't finished even any of my short films at that point. But I wanted to say that I loved it and I could see that it would be fantastic to perhaps do it as a mini-series.
Janet suggested I wait until I had read the next two volumes of her autobiography, due out in 1983 and 1984. In the meantime, she would not sell them to anyone else.
In the new year, Campion visited producer Bridget Ikin on the set of Vincent Ward's Vigil in Taranaki, suggesting they team up. They wrote a letter to Frame and her literary agent, Tim Curnow, who in later correspondence with his client described the pair as "a couple of dreamers".
Bridget Ikin: We spent quite a while drafting a suitable letter to Janet. Bear in mind that we considered ourselves nobodies – and we were.
Janet and her agent agreed to let us have an option on the three books. We sensed that our "independent" approach appealed to her more than, say, someone with a more experienced but conventional background in television. More than anything, Janet valued people who took creative risks in their life, as she certainly did in hers.
Ikin and Campion approached Australian screenwriter Laura Jones, whom Campion had met at film school. It took Jones a year to write several drafts of the screenplay.
Laura Jones: When Jane first talked to me about the possibility of adapting Janet Frame's autobiography, only the first volume had been published. She put it down on my kitchen table, and for a moment I thought it read 'Island" until she corrected me – "Is-land" – and the possibilities clicked into place for me, I was in Janet Frame-land.
I have puzzled over why the writing of the scripts felt so easy at the time – apart from being so pleasurable. I think it was because Janet was such a trustworthy guide through her story: truthful, questing, tender, travelling right down into the darkest times, allowing us to understand how she made a writing life for herself out of this darkness. How she found a balance of light in dark, how fear accommodated fearlessness. I listened to Janet's intimate first-person voice and took my key from it.
Ikin and co-producer John Maynard approached funding the series by selling the TV rights in advance to some territories, then asking the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) to complete the budget. Also coming to the party were TVNZ, the UK's Channel Four and Australian public broadcaster the ABC.
Ikin: I well remember the struggle we had to convince the ABC that the project was worth supporting, as the response of the person we were dealing with was very negative, claiming that Janet was "not a suitable heroine for the nineties".
Campion: One of the problems about trying to get it funded, I remember, was that women who had power and could have funded it or could have participated would say things like, "Oh, come on, who wants to know about a sort of plain, fuzzy redheaded girl who has problems with her first period?" You just realise that's the tradition that you only have good-looking women in films. Or it's all about their beauty and their impact on men.
Ikin: The greatest hurdle was actually the NZFC, as they did not fund television projects. I think I eventually wore them down. It took five applications before they agreed to fund the project, making a special case for it being a project of cultural merit but one that was not expected to earn any income.
Campion and Ikin brought in casting director Di Rowan to help find the young Janets, who were played by Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson. Finding the adult Janet was more challenging.
Campion: First of all, we thought about getting somebody famous who was established as an actor. We thought about [Australian actress] Judy Davis. But the meeting didn't go very well with her when I was explaining that the thing that was interesting about Janet was actually her plainness. Judy stopped me – and I just remember her saying to me, almost angry – "What about me is plain? Just tell me what it is?" And she got more and more angry and irritated. I thought, "God, I've really blown this and what can I say?" There isn't very much plain about Judy, but I was trying to say everybody can be plain and beautiful, too. But that did not wash with her. Maybe it was my approach. I blame myself, so basically we're going to have to have an unknown actor.
Kerry Fox: When I read the audition scenes, I knew I had this character within me and within easy reach. I'd had a series of negative audition experiences, so had said to myself that if I didn't get this job I would stop acting. I tried to "embody" the character when I went to the audition. Also, I only understood about halfway through the experience that the woman with the red beret behind the camera was the director.
Campion: My heart really leapt when Kerry did her read, because she had that really delicious mixture of truth, embarrassment and hope in her performance. I totally believed her. I can see her face right now – how it used to flush pink just like Janet's would when she was shy or embarrassed.
Fox: I believe [Frame] was given a right of casting approval, but also it was right that she should meet me before we went ahead. I was keen to meet her and glean what might help in portraying her. I went with Jane to her home. Jane took a series of photos in which I am mirroring Janet's movements and expressions – some unintentionally. She was very jolly and soft. When she came to set, she was pretty quiet. We didn't speak much, but I sat with her.
The look and locations
Stuart Dryburgh: [Jane and I] had similar ideas about mood and colour. We used cold bleak blues for the hospital scenes, and then when she gets to Spain, it's bursting with bright colour. And Janet Frame's childhood in the South Island is seen through a warmly tinted lens, not that it was the rosiest childhood, but because we were shooting in the North Island and we needed to mute those lush Waikato greens to look more like the tussock country of the South Island.
Grant Major: We made the film largely in Auckland and the world we were asked to create was still quite evident in the early 1990s. We had access to the Kingseat and Carrington hospitals, which were still in good condition then and stood in well for Dunedin's Seacliff psychiatric hospital. Finding old houses in which to film was easier, too, and the props and dressing items from the middle of the century through the 1960s and 70s were far more accessible in 1990 than they are now. The production was ambitious for the money, so we had to be really careful with spending. In some instances, we needed to scrounge furniture and dressing items from friends and even the road-side inorganics for free.
Campion: We did a lot of research of Janet's South Island places where she had lived. But I found that really terrifying, because there was nothing cinematic about these houses. They were as plain and unphotographable as you could imagine. I realised there was a really distinct difference between the way Janet remembered things and the way she wrote about them that gave them so much more visibility or liveliness. So you couldn't just go and shoot in the place where she actually grew up.
Campion: Luckily we had the red wigs. Bridget knew this brilliant wig maker and they were the wigs we could afford. They really saved our bacon, I think, because you could always recognise her.
For Campion, the Angel shoot came not long after the upsetting experience of taking her polarising debut feature, Sweetie, to Cannes. The shoot eventually moved from New Zealand to the UK and Spain.
Campion: About the time I started to make it, my confidence was completely ragged after the boos and bad reviews. There were magnificent reviews, too … but it's the wounds that bleed and deplete. I didn't have a resilient bone in my body. I wanted to give up film-making, I really did, and what saved me was that we were already in pre-production on Angel. I did my crying and then focused on the job. It was simply impossible to be nervous and in dread for 12 weeks.
Fox: It's strange what sticks in my memory. I remember being ill at one stage, vomiting, pale, unstable – but Jane driving on through and making me perform. I was a bit of a fish out of water. At work, I was focused and single-minded, trying to remain open and adventurous and trusting. There were certainly occasions when it became overwhelming – the intensity, the fear of the character's circumstances, the emotions expelled or withheld.
Campion: I remember well the first day of filming. It was the scene with the opening and eating of all the display chocolate boxes in Janet's aunt's living room. I felt energised and excited and I could feel the unique world of Janet's youth coming together from everyone's efforts. Another special day for me was my mother playing Janet's English teacher and performing some verses from a Tennyson poem. I saw her power as an actor, her rare quality of razor-sharp focus. I'll never forget seeing her in action, appreciating the rarity of her qualities.
Fox: In Spain, I was exhausted and starving, and Jane was in a foul mood. But I tried sardines for the first time. All was new. It was my first time in Europe – the land and sky were so extraordinary. Unfortunately, the production had not considered my make-up artist essential – so I had to prep the wig each day and do my own makeup – which included "ageing". It was extremely stressful and the extra hours quite hellish. The action in Spain was fun, though. I stayed on in the UK after filming. But I was a mess. My nature had been impacted by that character – I felt pretty insecure.
Campion: We had no permissions to film. The idea was to wing it, and if someone called the police, by the time they arrived we would have moved on. Our crew was small, just nine of us. It was so stressful. Tempers were fraying. I remember [during a swimming scene] an octopus clinging to the leg of our camera assistant.
Fox: It opened doors for me throughout the world. I've never since needed to "prove" I can act. It also set the standard for me for performance, integrity, work ethic, collaboration and a belief in the importance and impact of drama and performance on individual audience members and their own developments and struggles.
Major: In some ways it was a game-changer for me. I recognised that it's not the size of the show, the star power or the visual bells and whistles that a production has but the quality of storytelling and depth of characters that make a good film.
Ikin: Angel was the turning point. It gave me a great deal more confidence in my creative capacity to take on and successfully deliver large-scale projects. Also that our creative instinct in realising a project considered uncommercial by some had actually become very successful in cinemas all over the world, which offered a measure of freedom to me that I hadn't had before. I look back now with a kind of awe that we had the chutzpah to do it. It takes my breath away when I see what we pulled off, with such emotional intensity and honesty.
Campion: Well, Sydney and Venice festivals were career-changers and they really made me feel like, "Oh, you know what? Maybe you should keep going." Afterwards, even though I hadn't met Janet very often, who she was to me was still working on my life. It was still unrolling, because she's a true artist, she's a true original. She's someone who lived her life outside convention. Meeting her, I realised she was one of the first free women I'd ever met. Despite the shyness, despite everything, she lived a great life.
An Angel at My Table is available to stream via ondemand.nzfilm.co.nz
On that score
For Don McGlashan, writing the music for An Angel at My Table was an artistic leap.
An Angel at My Table was the first feature-film score for songwriter Don McGlashan, who would bring the classically trained side of his talents to many movies and TV shows in the following decades.
He'd had some earlier experience of fitting music to pictures on the films he made in The Front Lawn, and he had been part of a team scoring 1980s cop show Mortimer's Patch. The prospect of scoring a Jane Campion film about Janet Frame, though, was an artistic leap. One he was happy to make.
"I'd been in From Scratch and Blam Blam Blam and just had six years of intense collaboration with Harry Sinclair in The Front Lawn. I thought it was completely normal to be allowed to work on strong pieces of art all the time and argue about that art all the time with really good artists.
"Despite being in awe of Jane, I argued with her a fair bit, which is kind of embarrassing to recall.
"She was very patient, but I remember her saying at one point: 'Look, Don, that's very interesting, but right now, my bad idea is more important than your good idea.'"
Some of the music had Janet Frame herself as inspiration. The film-makers had recorded the writer singing childhood songs, which were mentioned in the autobiographies.
Campion and McGlashan decided that one, the Scottish folk song Duncan Gray, should become the main theme. He opted for that most popular instrument of the woodwind family.
"It took me a while to find the right setting for it. Raggedy school recorders seemed to catch some of the young Janet's naivety and optimism."
His favourite musical moment, though, is the scene where Frame leaves Seacliff Hospital for the last time.
"It's a brilliant Otago day, and the music is a 7/8 ostinato piece with David Guerin on piano, Scott Terzaghi on cello and me filling in the gaps with an early version of the modern sampling keyboard … I like the way that cello and piano version sits with Janet's new beginning, as the hospital recedes in the car's rear window."
He still has the diagram of the film's emotional time-line, which Campion drew for him to guide the music: "She had drawn two parallel, horizontal fields for 'positive' and 'negative' feelings and a complex, jagged pencil line that dived from one to the other as the film progressed, like a seismograph read-out."
But Campion warned him his music shouldn't tell people what to feel.
"I thought that making the audience feel stuff was exactly what the music was supposed to do. But in our meetings, I nodded as if I understood. Once she had rejected a lot of my first efforts, I started to get the picture – and I think, or hope, that I learnt her aesthetic on the job."