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Behind the scenes, from The Piano to The Daughter, film producer Jan Chapman is a major figure in Australian cinema.

By Benjamin Law.

Jan Chapman, producer of ’The Daughter’

Jan Chapman, second from right, with Nicole O'Donohue, Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Simon Stone.
Credit: MARK RODGERS

On the top floor of Jan Chapman’s office – an unassuming, narrow terrace house in Sydney’s Paddington – there is a piano. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s the piano. As in, the piano from Chapman’s Oscar-winning feature film, The Piano.

“We had about three of them because they had to go under the water,” Chapman says of the handmade antique that, at the start of that film, is hauled off a ship and onto the untamed shores of mid-1800s New Zealand. Chapman doesn’t play the instrument herself, but it does make for an incredible mantelpiece for her multiple awards. Above it loom the giant, framed French-language posters of her two most successful films: The Piano and Lantana. How much do accolades mean to Chapman?

“Oh, I liked being nominated for an Oscar,” she says, laughing. “I like the films to get recognition. Of course you do.”

If you don’t know Jan Chapman’s name, you most definitely know her films. Her credits as producer or executive producer read like a rollcall of the most acclaimed Australian films in a generation: The Piano (1993), Lantana (2001), Somersault (2004) and The Babadook (2014). Yet Chapman is not a household name, unlike her director peers: the director she once married, Phillip Noyce; the directors with whom she’s good friends, Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion; the director to whom she gave her first job, Campion again; or the younger directors she’s championed and produced, Cate Shortland and Simon Stone. It’s possible Jan Chapman is the most esteemed figure in Australian cinema you’ve never heard of.

 “The role of producer is very much one of the creators,” she says. “The producer is the person who makes the project happen. They’re there at the beginning. They might meet a writer or writer-director, read a book, initiate the idea, raise the money, cast with the director. You make sure the shoot comes in on time and on budget, and that everyone is happy. Then you’re there at the end making sure it goes out into the world, and involved in the marketing and the publicity.” She pauses and smiles. “It’s about making sure the whole project gets seen in the world.”

Which is to say, Jan Chapman is a boss.

 

It’s late October 2014, and at Auburn Hospital in Sydney’s western suburbs it’s the final day of shooting on Chapman’s latest production, The Daughter. The movie is theatre director Simon Stone’s film debut, and the cast includes three of the best Antipodean actors: Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Sam Neill. The Daughter is an adaptation of Simon Stone’s multi-award-winning Belvoir St Theatre production of The Wild Duck, which was itself a modern update of the Henrik Ibsen classic of the same name, in which a father, played by Ewen Leslie in the film, and a daughter, played by Odessa Young, become collateral damage when long-buried family secrets are exhumed.

In the hospital, an entire wing has been shut down so Stone can shoot the movie’s final sequence. Stone is superstitiously dressed – he has worn a similar outfit throughout the production, wary of interrupting things. In his mind, novelty and new outfits could spell new, unforeseen directions in the filmmaking process. Chapman and her co-producer, Nicole O’Donohue, remain conspicuously hands off, watching the action on the monitors rather than getting in the way of Stone and the actors. Ewen Leslie – O’Donohue’s partner in real life – protects his mournful headspace and blocks out the realities of production by listening to music through headphones. Stone compares notes with the cinematographer in hushed tones.

When the cameras start rolling, Leslie and Miranda Otto break down in the hospital corridor, sobbing. Watching Leslie crumple and Otto following suit, Chapman stares at the monitor, eyes moist.

“It gets underneath your skin and reminds you of things that have happened to you,” Chapman says later, in one of the hospital’s waiting rooms. “It’s the nature of life and death. With Simon’s play, too, I had a strong reaction: the sense that things can happen to you, but you have to keep on going. And you do keep on going. That’s the only way I know how to explain it.”

In some ways, she says, this is the best part of the production process: when the anxiety of courting and securing financing is over, and you’re safe in the knowledge the film will get made, no matter what. It was the same feeling she had in the early 1990s, getting on a plane to New Zealand to make The Piano with writer-director Jane Campion. “It was quite emotional, because I couldn’t believe we were actually going to make it. It’s a long road,” she says. “It’s really a long road.”

 

Born in Newcastle, Chapman and her family relocated to Sydney when she was three. Her father was a chief financial officer at a shipping company and her mother was a stay-at-home parent. She says that despite having to raise herself and her younger brother in the home, her mother always had time to foster a passion for literature and art.

“In fact, when I went to university and studied English, philosophy and fine arts, Mum started reading all the books,” she says. “Later, she ended up as a guide at the art gallery for many years. It was fascinating to see in my mother something that I recognised in myself: this great love of art and literature. In a different time, maybe she would have lived a different life.”

At university, Chapman got involved with the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative, which began life as an illegal outfit above Bob Gould’s bookshop in the city, before expanding into a cinema on St Peters Lane in Darlinghurst. It was 1970 and the Gorton government had just announced the establishment of the Australian Film Development Corporation – the nation’s first film funding body – and Chapman remembers the period as intoxicating and exciting, peppered with political activism and marching.

It was at the co-op that Chapman met filmmakers such as Phillip Noyce, Albie Thoms, Sandra Levy, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong. Chapman briefly married Noyce in 1971 – she was 21, and they remain friends – and with his encouragement started directing. One of her first films was a documentary called I Happened to be a Girl – as she describes it, “portraits of four women and their aspirations about life”.

Though she clearly had passion for filmmaking, Chapman eventually concluded she wasn’t necessarily committed to only directing. “Once I started making films, I met people pretty quickly – like Phil [Noyce] and Jane Campion – who clearly had an extremely original vision, who could instinctively create concepts visually,” she says. “I didn’t have that gift. I never even wanted to have it. I wanted to be around it though.”

After the co-op years, Chapman got a job at the ABC as a researcher with the then Young People’s Department. She quickly ascended the ranks. By the end of her time at the broadcaster, she was a producer in the drama department in an era where TV programs were still made in-house. It was during this time she developed a script with Helen Garner called Two Friends.

“Helen Garner was someone whose writing I found completely revelatory in its ability to go from the personal to the quite profound.” Her only challenge was pairing Garner’s prose with a director who was up to the task. She immediately thought of Jane Campion, and effectively gave Campion her first proper job.

Later, Campion would become one of the prime reasons Chapman would leave the ABC. “Jane had shown me the treatment for The Piano,” she says, “which was the most exciting thing I ever read.”

For Chapman, though, leaving the security of a senior job at the ABC was like stepping off the edge of a reef. “It was like going from a very supportive environment, where you had offices, and you had staff, to sitting in your lounge room and wondering how on earth you were going to get the money to make a film.

“But The Piano was the kind of thing where you thought you’d just die if you couldn’t make it,” she adds. “The treatment was eight pages long or something, but it was all there: the structure of using those piano lessons to explore Ada’s awakening sexuality. It was brilliant, tingly. You could just see what an extraordinary story it was going to be.”

On The Piano’s release, critics were unanimous: it was one of the best films of 1993. If Schindler’s List hadn’t also come out that year, it most likely would have won Best Picture at the Oscars, for which Jan Chapman Productions was shortlisted alongside Universal, Warner Bros and Merchant Ivory. Campion became the first female director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the second woman in history to be nominated for the Best Director at the Academy Awards. The stars – Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin – took out both actress Oscars and Campion won for Best Original Screenplay.

Needless to say, that post-ABC period of financial uncertainty did not last long. Chapman used the proceeds from The Piano to buy the office where she now sits, the piano resting behind her sofa. She shares the space with two other producers, including her co-producer on The Daughter, Nicole O’Donohue.

 

In the months leading up to The Daughter’s general release in Australia, Chapman has attended screenings of the film in Venice, London and Toronto, where it received a standing ovation.

At home, Australian cinema was having a green year, with the success of films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker, Holding the Man and Paper Planes. But the industry is still troubled by the ongoing lack of female creatives – especially directors – holding key roles.

On the first point, Chapman hopes The Daughter is part of a boom in Australian films, though she acknowledges it can always be a challenge for smaller films to find audiences. On the second point, Chapman notes the film industry’s gender disparity doesn’t seem to have been as problematic when it comes to film producers.

“There are such strong female producers in Australia. Even when I was first starting, there was Margaret Fink and Pat Lovell, now there is Rosemary Blight and Liz [Watts] and others. Maybe it’s about their ability to multitask. You are involved in financing, you are the one who has the responsibility. That was something I think I realised and went, ‘Right, actually, I am completely responsible legally.’ Maybe it’s something about liking to … I don’t really want to say the word ‘nurture’, but it is that, in a way – to facilitate relationships, that kind of thing.”

Now, with dozens of TV shows and films in her back catalogue, she sees there are recurring themes in her choices – the complexity of heterosexual relationships; the focus on passionate women and their desires – but says she mainly reacts on gut when it comes to projects. “I don’t know how it works, really, and I do feel for all the people who send you things you can’t take on. You just respond to some ideas. It’s also personalities. If you don’t think you’re going to get along with the person, enjoy them, learn from them and grow together – trust each other – there’s no point.”

It’s how she hopes audiences engage with her films, too, even if they’re as heartbreaking as The Daughter. How does she want audiences to leave the cinema after watching it? She says, simply, “With their hearts open.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Primary producer". Subscribe here.

Benjamin Law
is a freelance writer and author of The Family Law and Gaysia.

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