Poetry is a drug really, it goes into your head and it sticks," says the Oscar-winning writer-director Jane Campion. If that is her drug, Campion is getting plenty of buzz from her latest project Bright Star - the story of the unlikely love affair poet John Keats had with his neighbour Fanny Brawne.
Rising talents Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw take the lead roles in the film, which started shooting on March 31 and wraps in the UK on May 31, before shooting for one day in Rome.
Campion's long-time collaborator Jan Chapman produces, this time also bringing on board a UK producer, Caroline Hewitt (Mr Bean's Holiday, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy).
The project has been a dream of Campion's for several years. "I started reading a biography of Keats and I got to the part where he met Fanny and I fell in love with their story," says Campion. "I was drawn to the pain and beauty and innocence of their love affair."
As Campion and Chapman developed the screenplay, early backers Pathe and Film Finance Corporation Australia came on board, followed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council's New Cinema Fund.
Campion - famously one of only three women ever nominated for the best director Oscar - decided to tackle Keats' story through the lesser-known eyes of Fanny. "We see how she sees Keats, from when they met until he left for Rome (where he died); that was his most pivotal time as a writer."
The story opens when 23-year-old Keats starts a secret relationship with the stylish, headstrong young girl next door. Campion drew on source material, including the pair's letters and Andrew Motion's biography of Keats.
Chapman, who also worked with Campion on The Piano and Holy Smoke, says: "The interesting thing was that Jane wanted to write the script from Fanny's point of view. Jane had to create Fanny really - she is so amazing at creating female characters."
Staying true to history
Campion says that with the script she tried to stay true to history, for instance not sexing up the physical relationship to make way for on-camera romps (her last feature, 2003's In The Cut, was notable for its explicitness). "I didn't want (their story) to be based on what we didn't know, so I didn't beef up the love affair."
Bright Star's two leads, Cornish and Whishaw, also helped clear out any stuffiness that might be expected with a story starting in 1818. "Especially with period films they can feel stuffy and you need actors to feel real," says the New Zealand-born Campion. "Abbie can make things feel so immediate. And Ben's also very real. We just connect and communicate very well."
There is also youth behind the scenes. Clearly an Oscar winner such as Campion could have her choice of technical crew, but for her DoP she selected 32-year-old Greig Fraser. And for her composer, she is using 25-year-old Mark Bradshaw.
"We're making this film about a genius who died at 25, so you've got to take a risk with young people," Campion says.
Chapman agrees the casting has also been crucial. "Abbie and Ben are quite exceptional. We feel like Ben has channelled Keats in some way," she says. "And Abbie has a lively quality to her. When we first meet Fanny Brawne she's quite superficial in a way and she grows to great gravitas."
Chapman worked as an executive producer on Cornish's breakout film Somersault in 2004, and knew the Australian actress could master an English accent. "As an official Australia-UK co-production in terms of funding, we truthfully chose actors from both countries organically," says the producer, usually based in Sydney.
Shooting in the UK was not a given because of the costs inherent in UK productions. "We (predicted) budgets set in Australia but Keats is fundamentally English," Chapman says. The erratic weather in the UK actually helped the shoot, providing both sunshine and snow.
Chapman says she was a little nervous about bringing in another producer initially, but that Caroline Hewitt quickly became a great addition to the team. Hewitt knew the team socially after producing Jane's sister Anna Campion's Loaded. "Jan is definitely the lead producer who worked creatively on the script and the casting with Jane, and then I pulled together logistics and the groundwork getting the UK crew together," Hewitt explains. "We cross over in both directions. It's worked out very well."
An early bonus was finding the Hyde House estate near Luton as the main location - a choice led by production designer Janet Patterson. "This estate has two houses on it, like in the story, plus incredible natural gardens with a bluebell field," Chapman says.
Hewitt agrees Campion's vision does not feel like typical corseted UK fare. "Jane's script is totally immediate. It's about Fanny, who is impetuous and has a flaring temper. So you're not removed emotionally by the historical nature of this. The film is unfussy - minimal but beautiful."
With a story about the man behind Ode On A Grecian Urn, his poetry is, of course, included, but Campion made sure it was in an accessible way.
"I was determined to get as much (of his poetry in) as we can," she says. "A lot of people feel alienated from poetry because they feel they don't understand it. But Keats is a great explainer of poetry and I wanted to use that in the story."
But those uncharmed by verse can be reassured: "It's not being preachy about poetry. The film is much more about the drama and the love story."
At a glance: bright star
Dir/scr: Jane Campion
Prods: Jan Chapman, Caroline Hewitt
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox
Int'l sales: Pathe Pictures International (screening a promo in Cannes)
Territories sold: UK, France (Pathe); Australia, New Zealand (Hopscotch); South Korea (Culture Makers); CIS (Paradise); Greece, Cyprus, Fyrom, Romania, Bulgaria (Audiovisual); Poland (Best); Portugal (Ecofilmes); Turkey (Tiglon); South Africa (Ster-Kinekor); Hungary (Budapest); Italy (Rai)
Backers: Pathe, Film Finance Corporation Australia, BBC Films, UK Film Council's New Cinema Fund, New South Wales Film & TV Office, Hopscotch International
DoP: Greig Fraser
Prod/cos des: Janet Patterson
Delivery: early 2009, for a potential Cannes 2009 launch.