The Burden of Dreams: A Reality Check From My Hero Jane Campion

There’s no place like New York for a good old-fashioned cry. But sometimes, it makes you work for it. Recently, a chance radio broadcast took me three trains cross-borough to meet my hero, into a night that left me sobbing in my best shoes at the center of Manhattan’s cultural mecca.

Earlier that afternoon, an interview on Leonard Lopate brought my attention to Jane Campion’s upcoming career retrospective at Lincoln Center. I emailed my editor for a ticket immediately. If you’re not familiar with Campion, she’s essentially a filmmaking rock star. More notable than her glass ceiling-shattering awards record, is Campion’s lifetime of proudly wearing the scarlet letter W, for Woman. She has lifted up other women and loved them, examined them, and told their stories — not sexy, abridged, male-appeasing facsimiles — but true, fiercely honest stories. It’s understandable, though frustrating, that many other female directors have not done the same; and rather felt forced to abandon femininity in the pursuit of assimilating to a male-dominated industry. To an aspiring “female filmmaker” like myself (because the term filmmaker alone still denotes masculinity), she is a lighthouse in a very bleak ocean.

As she sat on stage at the Walter Reade theater in all her black turtle necked, silver haired elegance, I felt my inner fangirl kick in. The conversation was everything I’d hoped. She and the moderator started with Top of the Lake and then toured her career all the way back to pre-art school. I don’t know if it’s something inherent, or something one builds up over a well-lived life, but Campion’s energy is enchanting. She laughs easily and makes fun of herself, all while dropping the breadcrumbs that form a path into her brilliant mind. “I didn’t know what a wide shot was when I started,” she laughed, “as far as I was concerned, if it was in the frame and lit, we were winning.”

Her charisma had the whole room enchanted. She was easy with questions and toyed with the poor moderator mischievously. However, for a brief moment when asked about driving impulse, it almost seemed as if she didn’t understand. For the first time all night she paused, deliberately seeking the best answer. At last she shrugged as though she didn’t have one. Whatever it is she does, she just can’t help doing it. “It’s the burden of dreams,” she said, referencing the title of a Les Blank documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

It’s the burden of dreams. I turned the phrase over in my head. The way she said it gave such dimension to the phrase. Perhaps we’d all be happier without our dreams. Those electric impulses that torture us as we’re falling asleep, that drive us to new cities and out of stable relationships. You can blame dreams for many a gray hair on a parent’s head. They push us forward into unknown territory, sometimes writhing with resistance, but always glad we went along. Dreams are a burden most of us would not know how to live without.

Bright Star (2009)

There’s a wildness to New York City, and to the film industry in particular. Each of us, one in 8.5 million, letting a crazed and unimaginable dream drive us through endless sweaty days. All reason would say move out, slow down, relax. But we cannot, and will not. In one utterance, she had laid out all the struggles of creativity.

Amongst all her ease and grace, Campion dropped hints of her obsessiveness, too. She talked about a curiosity with people, watching them, noticing their habits. She talked about the energy of true ambition — spending countless hours hanging up 8mm film in her underwear. As she spoke, I identified so fully with the qualities that she expressed, joyfully and without shame; ones that I had previously felt awkward and sheepish about in myself. And somewhere along the way, I became possessed with the idea that if only we could meet, she would see me for who I am, and something magical would happen.

My mind went to tales of old Hollywood mentorships, Corman, Disney, Kazan. And in particular, I thought of Jennifer Kent, the director of 2014’s The Babadook, who famously wrote a letter to Lars von Trier before she’d directed anything, that was somehow so convincing, he invited her to work on the set of his next film.

The Piano (1993)

I spent the rest of the talk working up the courage to approach her. But as it came to a close, I started to doubt my uniqueness. Fan after fan approached for their own 30 seconds with Campion. Each one hoping to be seen as I did, to somehow communicate in those few moments just how profoundly her work had touched their souls, and that they too had something to offer this world. In keeping with her on-stage presence, Campion was elegant with her fans, granting four signatures to one and numerous hugs and hand squeezes to all. Every fan left with a small breadcrumb, a tiny piece of her mind just for them.

For about ten minutes, all I managed to do was hover. Special, unique me, gumptious me, not-weird-fangirl me, hovering in the corner. The plucky Lincoln Center attendant herded the crowd out of the theater and into the lobby. I followed, my stomach churning, knowing that my plan was unlikely. But I could not live with myself if I didn’t go through with it.

Finally, “Jane!” I called out. She turned to me, and I forced out the words I had spent so long preparing. “You’re my hero. Is there any way I can work on your next project? I will intern for free.” It wasn’t my most eloquent approach, nor did it convey any of the kinship I so wanted her to see, but those are the words that fell out of my mouth and I couldn’t take them back, no matter how badly I wanted to.

Sweetie (1989)

Her grace in answering is probably what surprised me the most. She smiled, and said, “There’s nothing you can learn from me. You just have to stand on your two feet and figure it out yourself.”

What a beautiful answer, you’re probably thinking, what an elegant rejection. That is not how I saw it in the moment. All I felt was shame. A deep, burning humiliation assaulted my senses. It became so clear that I was no different from the other fans, not to her at least. I felt small and stupid for wasting her time with my outrageous request.

It was such an onslaught of emotions that I succumbed to the worst thing that can happen to a person in front of their hero: I cried. Right in front of Jane Campion, I twisted my hot face and looked up at the lobby ceiling, willing the tears to retreat.

She placed a hand on my arm and said, “I know, it makes you want to cry, right? It’s not easy.”

Of course, she was right. But her small olive branch of commiseration did not stop the rush of emotion. As discretely as possible (which was not discretely at all), I removed myself from the conversation and ended up on the concrete balcony that overlooks 65th Street. Two thoughts repeated in my head. The first, a mental scolding for imagining my own uniqueness above the others. The second, a frustration at my complete lack of control over my own presentation. How in the world, I wondered, could Campion be such a perfect open book, held just so, so that only the right chapters are showing? So raw yet so attractive, her sincerity inviting, and her darkness relatable. Are these qualities ironclad? Or would they look different on someone with less success? Perhaps we wrongly tie celebrity attributes to their achievements, which in turn makes them positives and qualities to emulate. You know, like how rock stars make addiction look “cool.”

Harvey Keitel, Jane Campion, Kate Winslet

The rise of a great talent can feel so pre-written, as if what they are, they always were and will be. Is it the rose-colored glasses of retrospect? A lens through which we can all look back on a celebrity’s career and count how the pieces all fell in to? It’s that same lens that makes Tarantino’s stint at a movie store so charming. And similarly, pre-success (or, lack of success) is the uncomfortable reality that makes us sneer at any other movie store clerk who voices directorial ambition.

There was a stillness in her, as if she had made peace with every corner of her being. Whereas I, by comparison, am awkwardly running faster than my mind, stumbling over insecurities at every step. It occurred to me that the key to her wisdom might have been this very thing. Had she gotten up one day and greeted her demons with a bread basket, and together they decided to make art?

I was so steeped in my own self-pity that I hardly noticed when a woman approached me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, I thought you were crying.”

“I am.”

I relayed my saga. She had been to the same talk and was brimming with inspiration. “I’m a black woman,” she said to me, “do you think the world is giving me any breaks? You don’t see me crying. So, keep your head up. What she said was exactly right.”

She had chosen not to compare, but simply to admire and learn.

We hugged and wished each other good night. I leaned over the balcony and looked at the city passing below. Lincoln Center, the hub of so much gorgeous virtuosity. I considered how wonderful it is to have a rushing fandom for Jane Campion. How wonderful that she can be a rock star. And that Lincoln Center exists to hold up the Campion Beliebers of the world.

A Julliard student walked by with music playing from her phone. The familiar jazzy opening to Dream a Little Dream of Me filled the air as she passed, and I started to feel like maybe, just maybe, my own two feet could carry me to the train.