Jane Campion: my Top of the Lake research involved sneaking into brothels

Director says she adopted a disguise to get access to the stories of sex workers in Sydney for second series of drama

The acclaimed director Jane Campion has revealed that her research for the new series of Top of the Lake involved sneaking into Sydney brothels in disguise in order to hear the real stories of sex workers in the city. Campion, who directed The Piano, made her move into television writing and directing with Top of the Lake in 2013, and the show is to return for a long-awaited second season at the end of July.

The crime drama will once again centre around detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, but this series will move from wild backdrop of New Zealand to Sydney, delving into the world of legalised prostitution.

Sexual tourism in Sydney from Asia has always really annoyed me because I feel its so exploitative of people who dont have the choices that we have and I felt like it should be something we should talk about or bring out, said Campion. The legalisation of brothels is not a simple issue at all. The ownership of someone elses body is something very powerful to explore.

The second season begins with the body of a young Asian girl washing up in a suitcase on Bondi beach, and explores the experience of migrant sex workers. Campion described how she and her co-director, Ariel Kleiman, had felt it was important to meet women who worked in the legal brothels of the Sydney, but that as a woman she had struggled to be let in, and so resorted to disguise.

I had to pretend to be Ariels aunt, said Campion. You cant get into a brothel as a woman without some kind of story, and I thought Id have to pretend to be a lesbian. But we got in and were walking upstairs and when they saw me they said, No, absolutely no. So we made up a very feeble story that I was his aunt and that he was confused about his sexuality and didnt know whether he was into women or not. And we said he was a virgin as well. The story got more ridiculous, but they were all very kind.

Once in a room with one of the women, Campion said she and Kleiman had used the chance to ask honest questions about procedure, rules, about the clients and about how she had ended up working in prostitution. She opened a lot up about her journey from Thailand to Sydney and the hardships of her work, added Campion. This was a full-on brothel; there were a lot of girls there and there was quite a charged atmosphere.

Since 1988, prostitution has been almost completely legalised in New South Wales, the most lenient jurisdiction in Australia, and anyone over 18 may provide sexual services in exchange for money, goods or favours, with brothels regulated by local councils. However, the number of unregulated brothels are thought to outnumber licensed properties by four to one, and a study in 2016 showed that 43% of those working in brothels had entered Australia from abroad on a student visa.

Campion said her decision to explore the world of migrant sex workers as part of the second series of Top of the Lake was not about being dogmatically against it, but illustrating its complexity and the stories of those caught up in it. I must say it does repulse me a bit, but on the other hand its the way that these girls can earn good money. And sometimes they [decide] that its worth it. Im not critiquing it these girls explained to us how they liked to make money and get themselves a better future, but once youve crossed that line, they said, you cant go back.

Campion, who was the first female director to win the Palme dOr for The Piano 20 years ago, said that despite the success of the first series of Top of the Lake, she had been hesitant to make a follow-up. However, she was eventually convinced both by her co-creators and also by Moss, who has said she was just hounding Jane for three years, just emailing and emailing with ideas constantly, desperate for the chance to play the tortured character of Robin Griffin again.

Campion won particular praise for the diverse and complex range of female characters in the first series, who she described as all my avatars. It is a trend which continues into the second series, with key roles played by Nicole Kidman and Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie, who both specifically asked Campion to cast them in the show.

Moss, who is also currently garnering praise for her nuanced portrayal of Offred in the TV adaptation of The Handmaids Tale, said: These female characters definitely felt rare, especially for someone my age. I was 28 when I did the first series and characters that are so complicated and strong and interesting are very hard to come by, especially five years ago.

She added: With this season, I made a really simple general request to Jane in that I really wanted to be challenged by it. I really wanted Robin to go to a deeper, darker place I used the words fucked up over and over It needed to be even darker and I got it.

  • Top of the Lake: China Girl is on BBC2 from Thursday 27 July at 9pm

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