Bright Star and women in film

We have two problems when it comes to representations of women in film: not enough films which treat women as subject not object, and not enough women making films. It’s not a hard and fast rule that the two are related: one of my favourite films that Jan Chapman has produced is Lantana, a thoroughly intelligent film with three dimensional female characters directed and written by men.

Still, here in the UK only 6% of film directors and 12% of screenwriters are women, according to Birds Eye View. A San Diago State University’s Center for Study of Women in TV and Film study found that the picture is not so different in Hollywood. Only 9% of directors are women, 12% of screenwriters and 17% of editors. Producers appear to be slightly more representative – women make up 23% of all producers and 16% of executive producers – as well as 44% of production supervisors.

We are also in a situation where the stories we see told at the cinema turn the focus constantly on men, with female characters mostly acting as adjuncts, plot devices to demonstrate something about the male lead or eye candy.

I couldn’t, therefore, pass up the opportunity of speaking to Australian film producer Jan Chapman, given her long – and successful – career in the film industry. Chapman often works with one of the world’s highest-profile directors who happens to be female, Jane Campion (right) of The Piano and Holy Smoke among other films (Interestingly, in Chapman’s early career this included working with the Sydney Co-Op and women’s film collectives, according to an interview with Senses of Cinema a few years ago.)

In Australia, she suggests, the picture may not be quite so bad. For a start, girls and women have a series of role models, to show that the job of director is being done (and very successfully) by women. Chapman names Gillian Armstrong, as one example (she directed the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda and Charlotte Gray). Actually, both Campion and Chapman are also examples of women who have amply demonstrated to young girls who might consider a career in film-making that it’s possible to be a woman director or producer, and a very successful one at that.

All the women directors I have worked with have children and do both. Personally, I think combining both makes you a richer human being and someone more aware of the potential in stories

Also, she suggests, the Australian film industry is not like Hollywood. Chapman stresses that she’s worked on films as an independent producer, “not part of the studio system. I think that makes a difference.”

All is not completely perfect however – even though, she says, in film school there’s usually an even number of women and men, somehow this equality doesn’t last. The situation is better than in the UK (at the time we spoke, she told me of 22 feature films in Australian cinemas, five were directed by women; not equal representation but still pretty good at a time when a film directed by or about a woman can’t succeed or fail on its own terms, without prompting a discussion of whether women directors/films about women in general are “box office poison”).

Chapman does not agree, though, with the often-expressed speculation this happens because women find it too difficult to combine film-making with having children. “I produced The Piano, when my son was six months old,” she notes. “I wanted to make that film for a number of years as well as have a child and they both came to fruition at the same time.”

This is a common experience. “All the women directors I have worked with have children and do both. Personally, I think combining both makes you a richer human being and someone more aware of the potential in stories.”

It’s also about – not just making the films, but getting them out there in the right way. “You need to find the right distributors for films,” she says, “people who are interested in good films, good characters.”

When we spoke, Chapman and Campion’s latest film was just about to hit UK cinemas: Bright Star is a love story about Fanny Brawne’s (Abbie Cornish) relationship with one of the nation’s favourite poets, John Keats (Ben Whisaw). The secret love affair developed when 23-year-old Keats moved in next door to Fanny, in Hampstead, in North London, with his friend Brown (Paul Schneider).

The story is told entirely through Fanny’s eyes – we only see what she sees, as she first meets, then slowly falls in love with Keats, up until his death. Campion said she deliberately kept Fanny’s perspective throughout – to the point where she decided not to show on screen key moments, such as Keats’ death in Italy – where he’d been sent by his friends in an attempt to treat his TB. Instead, we the audience experience all this through Fanny, at home in Hampstead.

In the director’s notes, Campion writes: “The storytelling’s restraint mimics Fanny’s own life restraint, the passive waiting fate of any young woman of her time: the life amongst the family, her obsession with sewing, the restrictions on her activities and her chaperoned outings. Against all these restraints, her determined passion for John Keats … seem[s] all the more remarkable.”

She said: “It is Bright Star’s ambition to sensitise the audience, to light the lamp.” I think the film succeeds in this ambition; it is a poetic, beautiful film (I was certainly crying by the end).

Nature conspired with us to make the whole experience of the film be as varied in tone as what we wanted it to be

Bright Star may not pass the Bechdel test. But it’s interesting from a feminist perspective in other ways. The choice to tell the story of one of the most famous male poets through Fanny’s eyes is in some ways a reversal of the usual dynamic of poets idealising their female muses, turning them into concepts rather than sketching their characters.

Fanny is interesting in her own right, not just as a foil for Keats. (Campion has said: “Writing Fanny was difficult as I don’t think of myself as witty. My daughter Alice who is 13, however, is very passionate and quick speaking, so whenever I got to a point when I thought ‘what would Fanny do about this?’, I thought what would Alice do about it, and that really helped me out. She was a kind of muse for me.”)

Incidentally, the real Fanny Brawne has been a controversial historical figure. Her romance with Keats only came out years after she died, aged 65, she was mercilessly attacked by critics. (Although Brawne’s ‘reputation’ has improved in recent years.)

Given that the action takes place almost entirely in the house where Keats and Brawne met – the weather and seasons frame the story. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of Chapman’s best experiences was “the way nature conspired with us to make the whole experience of the film be as varied in tone as what we wanted it to be. The seasons were a very big part of the film.”

If this clashes with countless heroic stories of the physical difficulties of film-making, then Chapman isn’t too idealistic about it. “Battling time was always a difficulty – we only had eight weeks, a very short time,” she says. It was possible to make the film in this time-frame partly because the two UK houses where most of the shooting took place were so close to each other on the Hyde House estate in Bedfordshire.

Other difficult moments included shooting a beautiful scene where Fanny has filled her bedroom with butterflies. This proved difficult to execute – butterflies, after all, don’t live long, even if they’re not on a film set under hot lights. And another scene in which Keats reclines on the very top of a blossoming tree was also technically difficult. Luckily, “Ben was quite agile and very good at climbing trees.”

“The most challenging [thing] about the whole film was raising finance,” Chapman adds. In the end, Chapman says, it took a combination of six investors from the UK and Australia to finance the film.

Even though it was a Jane Campion film, it was also a film about a poet. The film is bookended with – and filled with – poems – when I saw the film, it was one of the few times I’ve seen the majority of the audience hold out until the credits finish rolling; the other times all involved rumours of extra scenes. In Bright Star, though, the audience (of film critics no less) seemed pinned to their seats as we heard a reading of one of Keats’ poems.

So what next? Chapman’s latest project is Griff the Invisible; Jan is working as executive producer, helping director and writer Leon Ford get his first film made. “I have a son of course, who is now 18. I’m interested in the way he lives in his imagination, so I guess that’s what attracted me to that film.”

She adds: “It’s got a great female young producer… Nicole O’Donohue.”