The Influence

Watching Jane Campion’s work showed Robert Lukins that writing can be as collaborative as filmmaking. By Kate Holden.

Robert Lukins

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and Robert Lukins (below).
Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and Robert Lukins (below).
Credit: AF Archive / Alamy (above), Breeana Dunbar (below)

Robert Lukins is a Melbourne-based fiction author and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Overland, Broadsheet, Crikey, The Big Issue. His 2018 debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday, was set in the freezing English winter of 1962 in a reformatory boys’ school. His second, Loveland, will be released by Allen & Unwin next month.

He chose to speak about Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star. It starred Ben Whishaw and Australian Abbie Cornish as John Keats and Fanny Brawne and described their love affair before Keats’s premature death.

So, tell me about Bright Star and you.

Where to start? I came to the movie for Keats, but I stayed for Jane Campion. It’s not a film about the greatness of Keats; if anything, it’s a film about the youth and naivety and weaknesses of a young man. It’s equally the story of Fanny Brawne. I thought this was going to be a story about the greatness of Keats’s poetry, his rise and tragic death, but it ended up being a very small and frail story about two people. What I love so much about the film is how surprised I was by it.

The thing which is the biggest influence on me is that Campion has such a strong and unembarrassed sense of style. “Style” is a word that’s often thrown around in a derogatory way, something being described as “stylised”, but she’ll set a scene in the most stylised, posed way imaginable, then she’ll capture the scene almost as if it’s a documentary. You get all these very physical, human moments in these incredibly beautiful scenes: faces washed out by natural light, people moving in to block the shot, fabric rubbing as someone sits down. And these “Campion silences” that she allows to be filled with wind hitting a microphone shield, with birdsong, or a heel squeaking. She achieves an impossible mix of naturalism and a kind of hyperreality. That’s what blew me away.

There’s a notable scene where Fanny fills her bedroom with butterflies. The mother comes into this heavenly room and she’s really irritated.

Yes, that’s a scene that should have gone terribly wrong. It’s too beautiful, it’s too poetic, too everything; in lesser hands it would have had some cheesy, swelling orchestral music. But exactly, you get people moving in awkward ways. Abbie Cornish, one of the most famously beautiful people in the world, putting herself in awkward, human, ugly positions to capture these butterflies: this mix of beauty and reality that Campion crashes together in these scenes.

Perfect for a film about a poet, who was also a living body with freckles and underpants like everyone else.

I feel like people do watch this film and then buy a collected edition of Keats’s poetry. Campion does not read a lot of poetry and she didn’t know a lot about Keats, so she’s falling in love with this poetry as she’s making the film. About the humanity of Keats in this film, it’s the flaws of the characters. Sometimes filmmakers speak about the flaws of their characters but they’re often sneaky flaws, or cute flaws, forgivable; she gives these people genuine flaws and uses them as raw materials for the story. For me, John and Fanny in this story, the great flaw they have is their naivety. It’s a fictionalised version of love that hasn’t been corrected by adulthood yet. The key thing for me is that Campion doesn’t try to correct those flaws or force the viewer to excuse them, so even at the end of the film we’re left with an impression of two characters who are, a lot of the time, acting melodramatically, childishly – it’s a childish love – they throw their toys out of the pram about all these things.

It’s the idea that characters can be given these full, human complexities but they don’t have to be ironed out or even necessarily forgiven at the end of the story. I love that Campion trusted the audience, that we can be left with these complex characters and come to our own conclusions about them. And we don’t forgive them for that, we accept them for that. And that’s certainly something that’s influenced my writing directly.

Her sense of confidence and exploration, is that something you ever feel with your own writing?

There’s an unspoken expectation that you write a book once you’ve come to a conclusion, decided what your themes are; or you’ve had a great thought, computed it, and then you want to capture that on paper. But with me the novel is finding itself as you’re writing it. I love seeing filmmakers or writers thinking on the page. With someone like Campion, she allows such rawness in there, as if she has two characters improvising on the screen. Writing for me often feels like a performance, I’m completely improvising on the page. I’m not much of a rewriter, or a craftsperson: if it didn’t work, I’ll just do it again. I feel like a director of my work. I’ll just go, “Okay, let’s try this again. Take two! Take three! Take four!” I might write a scene 14 times. Some notes will hit and some lines will repeat themselves, in the same way two performers improvising will keep the lines that work and try something new with the other ones. I don’t know much about Campion’s process but it feels raw, as if it’s the first time those people have spoken those lines. It’s definitely a feeling I try to capture in my own work.

Are there other things you respond to in the film?

The characters have such a strong relationship with the nature around them. Even when they’re having tea in the drawing room à la Jane Austen, you can almost feel nature pulling at them through the window. Keats and Brawne are always escaping to go lay down on the earth or flowers, or we have Keats climbing to the top of a tree to float on top of the canopy: he’s in between the earth and heaven. There’s constant tension between the outside world and the organised internal world we’re much more familiar with in these period pieces. You can feel the wind bringing in some dirt.

The other thing is that although Campion is put up on a pedestal, she leans in heavily to the people around her. Particularly these period pieces rely so much on the production design and cinematography, sound design and costuming. I used to consider writing as an entirely solo pursuit, and I kept myself completely shut off: I was locking myself in the tower, writing. But now I realise writing is as much a team sport as filmmaking. My new book is genuinely a collaboration with my publisher and editors, my agent, talking with readers, and other writers. Art is so much stronger to me when it doesn’t exist purely in the brain of one human. I now feel I exist in this ecosystem of people and I think opening myself up makes the work stronger. I always think of that with a Campion film and it’s genuinely something I take influence from.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Robert Lukins".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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