On top of all the grueling work that went into playing the lead role in Jane Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Lake,” Elisabeth Moss also had to break out some serious office supplies.
“Jane had me draw up a diagram with all these different colored pens,” she said excitedly, “So I would know exactly where we were in the story. We shot completely out of sequence so there would be something in Episode 5 that you were supposed to know when you played a particular scene. That was an incredibly helpful thing and I got completely into it.”
“Top of the Lake,” which premieres Monday on the Sundance Channel, blends the mystery-laden atmosphere of “The Killing” and “Twin Peaks” with the stunning backdrop of rural New Zealand. Mind you, this isn’t the New Zealand of Mordor and orc-battling trees – it’s a chasm of police corruption, spirit-laden mountain ranges and a transfixing, narrow lake that runs 1,600 feet deep. The show centers on a young female detective, Robin Griffin (Moss), who is searching for a preteen girl who has disappeared in Milford Sound.
As the mystery unfolds, it remains the heartbeat of the show, but just as vital is the mosaic of relationships among the many disparate characters, which include Holly Hunter’s quasi-cult leader CJ and Peter Mullan’s deeply evil yet strangely moving crimelord Matt Mitcham.
Many members of the cast and crew reunited, along with network brass, for the marathon premiere of the entire miniseries at January’s Sundance Film Festival. It also played in full at the Berlin Film Festival. Moss and Hunter were paired together during many interviews on the festival circuit and displayed an easy, sisterly rapport – or, in fairness, more like cool aunt and high-achieving niece.
“This piece is six hours so we had a real feeling of spreading and stretching out,” Hunter said. “You really get to explore the characters in the way you don’t in a feature film.” With an abrupt turn of her head toward Moss, reminiscent of Edwina from “Raising Arizona,” she asked, “You really felt the stretch-out, didn’t you?” Moss smiled and nodded.
That notion of stretching out also could apply to festival audiences, who got the rare chance to binge-view on the big screen. They greeted the miniseries with oohs and ahhs and sustained, standing ovations – “CSI” this was clearly not. Along with the pedigree of Campion, who was reuniting with Hunter for the first time since “The Piano,” the miniseries also features cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, known for the Oscar-nominated “Animal Kingdom.” Executive producer Emile Sherman’s film credits with partner Iain Canning include “The King’s Speech” and “Shame.” Campion’s co-writer Gerard Lee also wrote her early Australian feature “Sweetie,” a Criterion Collection title that has a lot of fans.
Hunter compared the premiere experience to theater happenings from her days as an emerging New York actor in the 1980s attending productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby” or the nine-hour “Mahamarada” directed by Peter Brook. “This feels to me like the same sense of excitement, a real extension of the experience,” she said.
The blurring of film and television keeps increasing in today’s Netflix-enhanced marketplace, but many great directors over the decades, from Bergman to Kieslowski to Michael Winterbottom, have made work for television that has ended up in theatres and sometimes vice versa. Jane Campion’s last television project, “An Angel at My Table,” was produced by a New Zealand network before a two-hour cut of it became the toast of the 1990 Venice Film Festival en route to an international theatrical release.
“As we were making it, we really wanted it to become a six-hour film,” Moss said. “It was so cool to see people stay with that. We could feel them really want to take that ride.”
Dade Hayes is executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.