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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”