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Go behind the scenes on Top of the Lake: China Girl, which sees Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie join director Jane Campion and star Elisabeth Moss for the sequel to the 2013 original crime mystery.

It seems more likely that casting directors would be beating a path to Nicole Kidman’s door, as opposed to the Oscar-winning actor pitching for roles herself. But such was her desire to play a role in Top of the Lake: China Girl that she visited co-creator Jane Campion and requested a part in the show a whole year before production was due to begin.

The director was keen to accommodate Kidman, with whom she had first worked on 1996 romantic drama The Portrait of a Lady, but there was a problem: the character she had in mind was a side player.

Kidman, who admits she was a huge fan of the first season of Top of the Lake, accepted nonetheless but then Campion and Gerard Lee, the co-writer of the six-part sequel, decided to expand her character, Julia Edwards, who in the story adopted the daughter of the central character, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss).

As revealed in the 2013 original, Robin gave up her daughter Mary after being the victim of a rape at the age of 16. The set-up sees a battle of the mothers between Robin and Julia, who is having an affair with a female French teacher.

Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in the Kings Cross red light district that houses a brothel.

Hollywood star Nicole Kidman plays Julia Edwards

Speaking in the Bondi Pavilion overlooking Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Campion says of Kidman: “It’s really fun for her to play a character when she can really stretch herself emotionally and humorously. When you are tall and good-looking like she is, you can get trapped in that beauty. It was lovely to work with her again because she is so damned good, an extraordinary actor.”

Campion directed the first and fifth episodes of the drama, produced by See-Saw Films’ Libby Sharpe and Philippa Campbell for the UK’s BBC2, SundanceTV and Australia’s Foxtel and BBC First, while Ariel Kleiman handled the other four instalments. The series has already launched in the UK and down under but will debut on September 10 in the US.

The main plot follows Robin as she investigates the murder of an Asian girl whose body washes up inside a suitcase on Bondi Beach – an investigation that takes her into the city’s darkest recesses and to the secrets of her own heart. British actor Gwendoline Christie plays Constable Miranda Hilmarson, who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin.

For the role of Mary, Campion cast her daughter Alice Englert, who has an impressive list of credits including the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Channel 4’s New Worlds and the movies Ginger & Rosa and Beautiful Creatures. Campion explains: “The character is a little bit younger than she is but Alice has the depth and the experience to carry off quite a difficult role.”

However, she asked Kleiman to direct most of the scenes involving Mary. Englert suspects that’s because those were the times when she had to wear fewer clothes and her character faced difficult, complicated situations. “I viewed the first season as a fan,” says the 22-year-old actor. “The women’s camp [in season one] was huge because, prior to the making the series, the producers were nervous as they didn’t know if viewers would like it; people really liked it. It meant a lot to me to be able to feel so emotional and not feel manipulated by a drama.

“Season two is very romantic in a way. There are some great and complicated love stories and there is the true romance of human connection.”

Elisabeth Moss returns as Robin Griffin

Englert relished the chance to work with Kidman – praising her generosity, kindness and engaging presence – as well as Moss and Christie. “Lizzie [Moss] is inspiring as a leading lady,” she says. “You feel confident when she is there, and Gwendoline is such a beautiful, adorable human being.”

Campion cast Christie after receiving an email from the actor explaining that she had been a fan of the director since she saw An Angel at My Table on television when she was 12, adding that she had watched the first season of Top of the Lake four times. Christie also emphasised she is very tall, pale-skinned and has whitish hair – the very characteristics Campion needed for her character.

Christie had initially sent the email to a friend to gain her advice, asking her not to forward it to the director if she thought it made her look foolish. The friend promptly sent it to Campion nevertheless, with Christie doubtful it would result in her getting the role.

But when Christie and Campion met, the deal was sealed. “She has so much humanity, it’s like a baby elephant coming into the room,” Campion says of the actor.

Englert has an interesting perspective on why her mother has shifted her focus to TV drama after a lengthy career directing features including The Piano, Bright Star, Holy Smoke and In the Cut. “She found doing the press for films so difficult and she wanted the opportunity to tell a story like a novel and to have freedom in doing that,” she explains. “TV is giving people that freedom.”

Campion, Moss and Emile Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films who executive produces with Campion, first discussed the idea of a sequel to Top of the Lake when they dined in a Japanese restaurant during filming of the first season in Queenstown, New Zealand.

“We started talking about a lot of what-ifs, like what if they moved to Thailand?” Campion recalls. “It’s such hard work that you don’t want to do it to yourself again, but I started to think [of a follow-up]. We did not know the show would be as successful as it has been. There seemed to be an appetite for a boutique, event-type series like that, so that was really encouraging.

Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie (right) joins the cast as Miranda Hilmarson

“There are a lot of people who are not going out to see films but they are enjoying more challenging television or wanting smart television. Every now and again a film will break through, but that’s so rare for mid-budget or low-budget features. It’s more relaxing doing TV series.”

After Top of the Lake screened to critical acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin festivals and was nominated for seven primetime Emmys (it won the gong for Outstanding Cinematography) and for Bafta, Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild of America awards, financing the sequel proved relatively easy.

BBC2, SundanceTV, BBC First and Foxtel were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development. SundanceTV brought in Hulu to replace Netflix, which had the second-window rights to the original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.

As happened with the first season, Lucy Richer, senior BBC commissioning editor for drama, and Sundance reps met with the creative team before production started for a week-long brainstorming session, reviewing the scripts and discussing ways to improve them.

Sherman says: “What allows shows like these to be made is to have broadcasters that want to be involved in something that gets the highest level of publicity and awards focus, rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people. That different focus results in different sorts of shows being made.

“The series was always intended as a one-season show. But we all fell in love with the characters and started thinking, ‘What next for them? Is there a future?’ Some ideas were thrown around at the end of making the first season. We all went back to our lives, but we kept needling Jane slowly but surely over the years, and getting Jane and Gerard [Lee, co-writer] together to see if creative sparks would fly and stories would emerge.

“Philippa [Campbell] spent some time with them in Jane’s hut in New Zealand and thankfully they engaged. It all comes from the creative centre. This series is the tableau that allows Jane and Gerard to paint and really explore what they find fascinating about contemporary society.”

Top of the Lake creator Jane Campion pictured during filming

Moss is currently one of TV’s hottest talents, having starred in AMC’s Mad Men and, most recently, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she has been nominated for an Emmy. But she had to be convinced that the sequel would be even more challenging than the original, observing: “When Jane asked me to do this season, I said, ‘Yes, but it has to be more challenging than the first’ – otherwise why do it and why watch it? I told Jane, ‘Go deeper, go darker.’ I wanted Robin to be really fucked up. Everything is ratcheted up from 10 to 100.

“It was slightly less scary than the first season but this one is so much more challenging for Robin and for me, material-wise and emotionally. This is a classic example of expecting the audience to be intelligent and not dumbing something down for them, as well as allowing the show to have its own tone and mood, which are unlike anything else.

“That bloomed fully in the first season and the audience loved it. In season two it goes deeper into that tone and those directions. It’s that Jane Campion thing where it’s dark and creepy but also grossly hilarious at times.”

Campion told Christie she had written the role of Miranda for her, but Moss doubted she would be available. Moss only discovered Christie had signed on after they met by chance in London one month before production was due to start. At the time, both felt too awkward to ask each other if she was on board, so Moss emailed Campion, who confirmed they would work together.

In a clear case of mutual admiration, Moss says of her co-star: “She is a spectacular actress. She is so great for the role and I knew she would bring something that nobody else could. It’s been an eye-opening, illuminating and inspiring performance that I have had the pleasure of watching for the past four-and-a-half months.”

Christie said of her first experience of working in Australia: “We have moved out of traditional comfort zones to get the best out of each other and to achieve something a little less ordinary.”

The Game of Thrones star, who also plays Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, enjoyed the opportunity to work on a contemporary, real-world story, noting: “The show gives us a very interesting perception of the realities of human behaviour and a very piercing and profound look at what it is to be human in all of its strangeness and banality.

“Jane’s work is so much about reality. Something they achieved so brilliantly in season one was dealing with the extraordinary in terms of subject matter, drama and relationships, but in a way that felt so real. That was magical to me and that’s what I wanted to explore.”

Both Moss and Christie were full of praise for Kleiman, who makes his TV debut after directing several shorts and the 2015 feature Partisan, a bleak thriller that starred Vincent Cassel and Jeremy Chabriel.

“What he might lack in experience he makes up for in vision, passion, his precision of what he wants and his willingness to communicate with you and for you to take it in turns of where you push it,” Christie says. “Also, he shares a similar kind of sense of humour to Jane, which is why this relationship works in terms of directing styles.”

On the differences between the original Top of the Lake and the sequel, Sherman says: “It has the same DNA underneath, with a different expression. The second season is more internal, a really sophisticated character and relationship story with a great crime story pulled through it. Having a new cinematographer in Germain McMicking gives it a distinctive feel, elegance and a lit quality that is different to the first season.”

Lee and Campion first met at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 1980s, going on to co-write her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Lee likens their relationship to that between brother and sister.

Campion clearly enjoyed filming at the beach, Sydney’s nightclubs, red-light district Kings Cross and other locations in the Eastern suburbs. Pointing to the Pacific Ocean, she says: “Forget the lake, we’ve got a whole ocean here.”

Asked if she and Lee have left the door open for a third edition, Campion is unequivocal: “We have.”

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Back to the Lake

The biggest hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wasn’t a film at all. Now, ahead of the show’s television debut, Top of the Lake: China Girl producer Emile Sherman tells DQ about reuniting with writer Jane Campion.

Emile Sherman and Jane Campion were pretty confident they had a winner in the sequel to Top of the Lake when they got the thumbs up at the first screening for its commissioning broadcasters, which include the BBC, SundanceTV and Foxtel.

But it wasn’t until Top of the Lake: China Girl had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim, alongside the first two hours of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series for Showtime, that they knew for sure.

Emile Sherman

“It was a gamble because Cannes is that prestige-level festival and as a TV series you are an outsider to all those films,” says Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films, which co-executive produced the six-hour miniseries with Campion.

“We just didn’t know how it was going to be received. It is always incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking to launch your baby into the world. We felt Cannes was a wonderful opportunity and platform to position the TV series as the highest quality and to differentiate it from so many of the TV series around the world.”

Typifying the rave reviews, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the sequel co-scripted by Campion and Gerard Lee “bristles with the same kind of sexual, psychological and sociopolitical frankness that the original served up, but with a different feel based on the often grungy urban Sydney settings.”

Variety’s Brett Lang hailed a twisty mystery that will keep audiences guessing until the final credits roll, another knockout turn by Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin and stellar work from Nicole Kidman as a mother dealing with a volatile teenage daughter.

Campion directed episodes one and five and, in his TV debut, Aussie Ariel Kleiman directed the other four. The producers hired Kleiman after being impressed with his short films and his first feature, Partisan.

Sherman describes deciding on the co-director as the show’s biggest creative choice, involving a search for likely prospects in Australia, the US, the UK and parts of Europe.

Elisabeth Moss returns as Detective Robin Griffin

“We needed a director who respected and understood the tone of the series. It is slightly heightened in some ways but for Jane it is not heightened because that is how she views the world. Ariel understands that and he also brings out the humour in the story; he has that Australian/European sense of the absurd but always grounding everything in the truth.”

Sherman was keen to do a follow-up while the first season was shooting in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2012. But Campion decided she would only revisit Top of the Lake if she and Lee could come up with a compelling idea. That emerged from brainstorming sessions at the director’s holiday home in New Zealand, also attended by producer Philippa Campbell.

BBC2 in the UK, US cable channel SundanceTV and BBC First/Foxtel in Australia were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development, with BBC Worldwide again distributing. SundanceTV then brought in Hulu, which will start streaming the show the day after its Sundance premiere, replacing Netflix, which had the second window to the 2013 original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.

“Broadcasters want to be involved in shows that get the highest level of publicity and awards focus rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people,” Sherman says.

Movie star Nicole Kidman also plays a key role

The plot follows Moss’s Griffin as she returns to Sydney and tries to rebuild her life after the events of season one. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer – until she discovers “China Girl” didn’t die alone.

Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie (pictured top alongside Moss) plays Miranda, a fellow cop who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin. Kidman plays Julia Edwards, who adopted Griffin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert), whom she gave up at birth after being the victim of a gang rape when she was 15, as chronicled in the first season. Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in Kings Cross that houses a brothel.

Sherman rates the length of the shoot (16 weeks), the number of takes, the cinematography, the lighting and design as comparable to the highest levels of the movies he’s worked on.

Campion adds: “The attraction for Gerard and me was to make something entertaining and enjoyable, which is also the way we see the world and the things that scare us and the things we find moving. It’s about our lives, parenting, reproduction, IVF, kids, being mothers and fathers…”

Lee interjects: “And we’re passing it off as a detective story so people will watch it.”

Would Sherman like to do a third chapter? “I would, but I am being patient,” he says. “Jane always toys with a range of ideas and, at a certain point, she and Gerard decide if there is something they are really excited about telling.”

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Indies bet heavily on book rights

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

In previous columns and features, DQ has explored the difficulty producers face in securing the services of top screenwriters.

One way of addressing this problem is to control the rights to strong source material. If you secure an option on a great novel, it’s an easier way of hooking a decent writer than going to them with an unproven idea.

Indie producer Bad Wolf, for example, was able to secure the services of the sought-after Jack Thorne by waving Philip Pullman’s fantasy epic His Dark Materials under his nose. And The Ink Factory reeled in David Farr by inviting him to make his mark on John Le Carré’s 1993 espionage novel The Night Manager.

Perhaps this is why we’re suddenly seeing so many book-rights deals bubbling to the surface. Last week, we referenced a couple of new examples in this column. And this week indie producer Dancing Ledge Productions has signed a deal with publisher HarperCollins for the TV rights to novels by Alistair Maclean, the legendary writer of books such as Guns of Navarone.

At the same time, the company announced that Tony Marchant (The Secret Agent) had come on board to adapt the first novel, San Andreas; a thriller set on board a torpedoed Second World War hospital ship as it attempts to make its way back across the North Atlantic to Scotland while a saboteur picks off crew members.

San Andreas
San Andreas is being adapted by Dancing Ledge Productions

Laurence Bowen, CEO of Dancing Ledge Productions, said: “We are lucky to be living and working in a golden age of television drama with a huge demand internationally for high-end adaptations and TV events that can be channel-defining. I doubt there are many bookshelves in the UK that don’t have at least one Alistair Maclean thriller, so the opportunity to work with HarperCollins to adapt a number of them for screen is incredibly exciting. If you then add a writer with the talent of Tony Marchant to the mix, we have a wonderful marriage of nail-biting action and emotional complexity.”

Under the terms of the arrangement, each novel will be structured as a four or six-part event miniseries that will build on Maclean’s trademark skill of creating thrilling adventure that appeals to hardcore fans and new audiences alike.

Katie Fulford, special projects director at HarperCollins Publishers, added: “Maclean is one of our most treasured authors. We’re committed to ensuring our heritage brands continue to grow and that we constantly seek new ways to tell these classic stories.”

Other new book-option deals along similar lines include Sid Gentle Films’ acquisition of the rights to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s acclaimed book series The Cazalet Chronicles, which is set between the 1930s and the 1950s and tells the story of three generations of the Cazalet family.

Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014
Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014

Explaining why she picked up the five Cazalet novels, Sid Gentle’s Sally Woodward Gentle said: “Elizabeth Jane Howard is an extraordinary writer, a highly skilled storyteller of understatement and deceptive simplicity. The novels are totally addictive with the ability to floor you with their turn of events. They are set in the middle of the 20th century but the themes of love, loss, repression, sex and family ties are shot through with 21st century resonance.”

Woodward Gentle has already proved that the books-as-bait model can work with SS-GB, a series for the BBC that is just coming to market. Based on Len Deighton’s novel, it has been adapted by James Bond writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis.

One of the indies we talked about in last week’s column was Buccaneer, which joined forces with author Rose Tremain. And Buccaneer is back in the news this week following a deal with Trainspotting creator Irvine Welsh to bring his novel Crime to TV.

This setup is slightly different from some of the other examples because it comes with a screenwriter attached, Welsh’s longtime collaborator Dean Cavanagh. Where it resembles the other deals, however, is in the way that strong source material can help producers build a talent package that interests broadcasters.

Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh

In this case, for example, actor Dougray Scott has come on board to star in and executive produce the six-part project: “When I read Irvine Welsh for the first time I knew I was in the company of a unique and utterly brilliant voice. After finishing the novel Crime, I knew it was a story that I just had to help bring to the screen.”

There’s another book-based story of interest this week. BBC2 in the UK has just announced that it is adapting Ian McGuire’s Man Booker-longlisted whaling novel The North Water in partnership with See-Saw Films. In this case, Andrew Haigh has come on board to turn the story into a six-part mystery/survival drama.

The North Water tells the story of a disgraced former army surgeon who signs on as a ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. On board, he meets Henry Drax, an amoral harpooner. Hoping to escape his past, the doctor instead finds himself trapped on board with a murderous psychopath.

Haigh’s involvement is an example of the new fluidity that exists in the TV business. Until now, he has been best known as a movie screenwriter – first with Weekend and then with 45 Years, which enjoyed a lot of positive feedback on the festival circuit in 2015/2016.

So the combination of a strong core story, a proven production team (See-Saw’s TV credits include Top of the Lake) and an emerging filmwriting talent was enough to attract BBC2, thus circumventing the issue of chasing overworked TV A-Listers.

Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh

Elsewhere, DQ’s parent publication C21 reports this week that TV2 Denmark, Nordisk Film Production, NDF Germany and distributor Dynamic Television have greenlit a crime drama based on the Dan Sommerdahl crime novel franchise by Anna Grue (books again!). For this project, The Bridge’s co-creator Nikolaj Scherfig has been signed up to act as head writer.

Described as a family-oriented take on the Nordic noir genre, the series centres on a detective who solves murder cases in a coastal town. It goes into production in summer 2017.

Dynamic Television VP of coproductions and acquisitions Jan Bennemann said there’s “huge demand right now for Scandinavian crime drama with a blue-sky procedural element. Dan Sommerdahl expands upon this with a very likeable main character and an overall lighter tone, making it an ideal fit for a wider audience.”

Seven books out of a planned 12-part franchise have so far been published, and the agreement with the author includes expanding the property and its characters – raising the prospect of a long-running franchise.

Nikolaj Scherfig
Nikolaj Scherfig

Scherfig’s comments underline the way the right project can lure in-demand writers. He said Dan Sommerdahl is the first in a line of projects that offered to him with “something different to the classic Scandic noir genre: a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities, understanding how modernity and social development affect provincial life.”

Away from the world of book rights, other interesting stories this week include the news that US network NBC has picked up the rights to adapt a time-travel crime drama from Argentina’s Telefe. The original 2011 series was called Un Año Para Recordar (A Year to Remember). It tells the story of a female detective who goes back in time after accidentally killing her husband.

The writer/producer signed up to oversee the adaptation is Michael Foley, whose most recent credit is the ABC/Shondaland series How To Get Away With Murder. Prior to that, Foley was involved in productions such as Revenge and Unforgettable.

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