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Top of the Lake: China Girl

Production Story

Academy Award® winning writer and director Jane Campion returns to the small screen with the much anticipated new instalment of the Top of the Lake

Academy Award® winning writer and director Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, Bright Star) returns to the small screen with the much anticipated new instalment of the Top of the Lake, in a new setting and featuring a cast of leading international screen actors, including Elisabeth Moss reprising her lead role.

Moving the location from the remote mountains of New Zealand’s South Island to the bustle of Sydney, Australia with its fusion of urban and beach cultures, Top of the Lake: China Girl brings back Golden Globe® winning actress Elisabeth Moss (Truth, Mad Men, The West Wing) in the lead role of formidable police detective Robin Griffin. She is joined by Academy Award® winner Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies, Lion, The Hours, Moulin Rouge!) and Gwendoline Christie (Game Of Thrones, Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell), David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), and Ewen Leslie (The Daughter) take key roles under the seasoned direction of Jane Campion and director Ariel Kleiman (Partisan). Campion and longtime collaborator Gerard Lee again co-wrote the new six-episode story.

Top of the Lake: China Girl is produced by See-Saw Films for BBC Two in co-production with SundanceTV in the U.S., BBC First and Foxtel in Australia, and in association with Hulu in the U.S., ARTE in France and BBC Worldwide. Returning executive producers are Academy Award® winners Emile Sherman and Iain Canning (The King’s Speech, Shame) of See-Saw Films, Jamie Laurenson also of See-Saw Films (Love, Nina) returns along with Campion, and the producers are Philippa Campbell (No. 2, Rain) of Escapade Pictures and Libby Sharpe (Producer - Jewboy).

In 2013, Top Of The Lake won the Emmy® for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie, as well as the 2014 Golden Globe® for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television for Moss. Top of the Lake also received recognition at the 2014 BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics Choice Television Awards, PGA Awards, among many others.

Top of the Lake: China Girl is a crime mystery story that finds Detective Robin Griffin recently returned to Sydney and trying to rebuild her life. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer, until Robin discovers ‘China Girl’ didn’t die alone. Robin looks to the investigation to restore herself, but her problems are personal. Haunted by a daughter given up at birth, Robin desperately wants to find her, yet dreads revealing the truth of her conception. But her search to discover ‘China Girl’s’ identity will take her into the city’s darkest recesses and closer than she could have imagined to the secrets of her own heart. 

The combination of a new location and the dynamics of her relationships in this new story push Robin into new terrain as she follows unexpected leads and digs deeper within herself to solve this new, darkly disturbing case and uncover the identity of ‘China Girl’. Her assigned police partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) is an unwanted and yet unexpectedly forceful catalyst in pushing Robin to face her darkest demons, while the connection with her daughter Mary (Alice Englert) is wrought with complexities as the girl’s enigmatic older boyfriend Puss (David Dencik) is a provocateur with links to the ‘China Girl’ mystery. Mary’s adoptive parents Julia (Nicole Kidman) and Pyke (Ewen Leslie) bring their own human dramas into Robin’s world, as she maps a road through a much longed-for connection with her daughter.

Top of the Lake is a crime mystery story and the wonderful thing about crime mysteries is that you're dealing with characters who are not perfect themselves,” says Campion.

“They're entering the mystery, the unknown, and they're trying with everything they've got to find out what happened. And they always come across or come up against their own limitations - the things that they haven't really worked out about themselves.”

As Elisabeth Moss says, when talking about what drew her back to work with Campion, “I asked Jane to challenge me and to make Robin more messed up and in a darker place. I wanted Robin to really be ‘on her knees’ this time. And Jane did it in a way that I could never have thought of.”

Transferring a drama series that was so intrinsically identified with its geography to a new place, re-opening the lead character’s deep wounds and rubbing an ocean of salt into them, is just the beginning of the bold approach that writer/director Jane Campion, co-writer Gerard Lee and director Ariel Kleiman took to putting Top of the Lake: China Girl into production.

“The thing with Top of the Lake was that it was a really exciting experiment,” says Campion. “We didn't know how it would go down, we did what we wanted. The thought of making a second series was a bit devastating to begin with ‘cause it's just such a lot of work. So you really need to create an appetite or in some way be dealing with material that is fascinating to you, or really bites into your own life in a substantial way. The idea of doing another series in New Zealand didn't appeal to me. I wanted a new environment and I thought of Sydney because that's where detective Robin Griffin came from. I actually just thought - what about we treat it like a new book? With the same detective, further on in life and a completely different story.”

Campion was excited by the idea of placing Robin back in Sydney. The lake of the program’s title, a self-contained body of water, was now replaced by the vast expansiveness of the ocean, its waves lapping onto iconic Bondi Beach, and bringing with them to shore a new sinister murder mystery. A young Asian woman is washed up on the beach; she is dead and so is the foetus she is carrying. A perfect case for detective Robin Griffin, whose reputation for solving the mystery of a 12-year old pregnant girl by breaking a paedophilia ring in New Zealand has preceded her return to Sydney.

Producer Philippa Campbell views the conclusion of the first season of Top of the Lake as a possible resting place for Robin, geographically and emotionally, having closed the case and confronted the pain of her past with the prospect of lasting love. “So that's where we finish the season, but there is a question hovering in there: Is there paradise on earth? That's a really interesting question to answer and it's one of the questions that propels the story of season two. Because she's spat out of paradise at the beginning of the story and she's got to figure out what it's like to be back on Earth in a big city.”

“The success of the first series was extraordinary and beyond anything we'd imagined. I think that people just enjoyed something so original,” says executive producer Emile Sherman. He was captivated by Campion’s concept for a second season. “She needed to find, with Gerard Lee - her co-writer, the creative impetus behind the series. What story does she want to tell? It's really a series that allowed her and Gerard to explore what they're interested in, in the world today. The series becomes a vehicle for them to explore their preoccupations, and the group of characters they assemble reflect what they're interested in.”

Those preoccupations include parenthood, children, family, and the Asian sex industry in Sydney.

“We decided that we really wanted it to be about things that we think about now in our lives, which is basically worrying about our children - are they going to be alright,” explains Campion. I think once you've had a child you have a whole new sense of danger in the world. If anything happened to your kid it would be the most devastating thing possible. You are vulnerable in a whole new way, and we're aware of that. We thought, yes, okay, let's look at that. Parenting.”

Top of the Lake: China Girl explores parenting in many forms - birthing a child, adopting a child, having a child via surrogacy; all of these facets of being a parent come together in the storylines that Campion and Lee have crafted. Robin revealed in the first season that she had given up a child up for adoption after being raped as a teenager. In Top of the Lake: China Girl that child is Mary, adopted by Julia and Pyke, and rebelling as many 17 year-olds do.

“One of the ways Jane and I come up with stories is we listen to ourselves talking, and listen to what our own worries are, what our own difficulties are,” says Lee. “We've been friends for a long time so there's a no holds barred kind of thing. We noticed that we were talking about IVF reproductive technology, the can of worms that that is. We were talking about what you do with your kids when they get to a certain age where you can no longer feasibly control them.  About what happens to a relationship after children are a certain age. There's always relationship stuff. What family structure is up to now; it's changing all the time. Dysfunctional family is an old theme of ours. We listen to each other talking like that and try and move those themes into the box that the detective story is in.”

Campion explains how Robin’s story takes up this theme. “Robin comes back with a growing desire to meet the child that she had when she was a teenager and adopted. She knows the child has grown up now and is in Sydney somewhere and it becomes irresistible for her to want to find out if that child is okay. In the first season she said that she couldn’t meet the child because she was raped and she doesn't want the child to have to know that; that seems like a knowledge that would only be uncomfortable. But on the other hand now she feels like maybe she has to offer herself. Maybe it's going to be important. And it turns out that's the crucial relationship in the story and all our worlds have a way of intersecting.”

Producer Libby Sharpe says: “Robin is very focussed, she is a “super-detective”. The more she focuses on work, the more she doesn’t have to deal with her own pain, the pain of losing a child, the pain of three miscarriages and the pain of losing her fiancé. As she delves deeper into the crime, her personal life and the crime become enmeshed. 

Finding her daughter is a pivotal development for Robin on many levels and Moss’s performance in Top of the Lake: China Girl surpassed anything she had done before, according to Campion. “She has a way of working that's so mysterious to me, and beautiful. It's like she gets into subterranean rivers and I’d take her through a scene and you just think, ‘my God, the girl is singing notes that I didn't even know existed’.”

Campbell was deeply affected by the moment when Robin first meets with her daughter. “They meet in a very humble little café in Chinatown, and it's remarkable. It's this deep, halting, fragile, curious meeting of these two creatures. You have in this microcosm a whole thing about nature versus nurture just there in front of you. And again, that's followed through in the series in quite surprising ways. So I think that's a really powerful and really beautiful and very simple scene. I cried on set that morning. It was extraordinary.”

Julia, Mary’s adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman, could not be more different to Robin. The tussle between the mothers is mesmerising in the hands of Kidman and Moss.

Mary is played by Campion’s own daughter, Alice Englert.

While Moss’s Robin is the protagonist working through a complicated emotional and psychological landscape, Englert’s Mary is at the crux of the story. Says Campion, “I wrote the part for Alice.  She decided when she was about 13 that she would like to be an actor after I gave her the lead in a short film I did for the United Nations called The Water Diary.  She was really good in it and, as she grew up, one way that we really bonded was to work together on her auditions. I tried to teach her what I know about acting and she was pretty natural always and had really great instincts. I think she's an amazing creature, an amazing actor. So I really did want to work with her. She's worked with many other people before doing this project, so she's certainly earned the right to it.

“Many of Alice’s difficult scenes were directed by Ariel. He was brilliant with Alice and I don't know if I could've handled it so well if I had to do it all, just her and me. I hate to see my daughter suffering, even in a story!”

Emile Sherman adds: “The layers to this production run very deep. We've got a story about mothers and a daughter; Jane’s directing her own daughter, Alice, who plays Mary, the key daughter in the series. And Mary’s mother is played by Nicole, who has known Alice since she was a baby. I really had no idea how Nicole was going to interpret this character. One of the great joys of the series for me is watching Nicole’s performance. It is such a memorable character. That battle of the mothers that she has with Robin, they're both so different and they both lay claim to Mary, the daughter. Nicole creates a very controlling character: Julia’s controlling, manipulative, powerful, interesting, she's complex, and at the same time, she's the mother. And you feel for her as you feel her daughter slip away from her, so you're never put in a position where you're just allowed to dismiss her or you're allowed to just totally embrace her. Your allegiances shift all the time between her, her daughter, the father, it's a wonderful complex family.”

Libby Sharpe says:  “What is so engaging about Top of the Lake: China Girl is at the centre of the story is family. The many and varied families and the relationships within, from the upper middle class family of Pyke, Mary and Julia, the brothel family of working girls with Dang and Bootie at the helm and the mother/daughter triangle of Mary, Robin and Julia. The question of “who is the mother” is raised and is something that is emotionally highly charged. Is it the woman who carries the baby or the woman who raises her? It is both controversial and topical in this age of reproductive technology. Jane tells this story of who is the mother in a truthful, poignant and moving way without judgement.”

Added to the mothering mix is the character of Miranda, Robin’s police partner, played by the striking Gwendoline Christie, an actress Campion describes as having “humanity so moving and touching”. At six foot five and, says Campion, “a real expansion to the idea of how women ‘should’ be”, her Miranda is an emotional rollercoaster who gradually works her way into Robin’s confidence and her heart. Robin is in the process of uncovering a surrogacy business taking place behind the scenes at an inner city brothel, having worked out that the woman washed up on Bondi Beach, the ‘China Girl’, was herself a surrogate and carrying a child for a desperate couple.

And this connects to another of the major themes that Campion wanted to focus on in Top of the Lake: China Girl – the exploitation of women, particularly those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Robin’s investigation leads her to the world of prostitution and illegal surrogacy and, frighteningly, her own daughter Mary has links to this world through her mercurial boyfriend Puss.

Says Campion, “As a woman I think one of the things that bothers me most is the exploitation of poor women from different cultures like Asia. It’s generally women who are in impoverished financial situations that have to use their body that way. And that feels pretty painful to me. So sometimes, when you make these stories you get to have a pulpit where you can have your say. And for me this is one of them. I think everybody should care about the vulnerable in our lives, in our worlds.”

Executive producer, Iain Canning says: “Being able to work with Jane again and watch her explore and expand different aspects of Robin’s story was a richly rewarding creative experience. As always Jane has brought together a team of artists to help craft a story that touches on many social issues that affect many of us today – adoption, surrogacy, parenting, exploitation of women are just some of the themes the show explores.  Jane has the ability to delve into the soul of her characters and we are all the richer for her unique and affecting ability to tell timely stories about the world we live in.” Sydney’s many facets – its beaches and ocean cliffs, its class distinctions, its cultural mix – is central to Campion’s and Lee’s vision for Top of the Lake: China Girl.

“Sydney is our city,” says Lee. “We're both from somewhere else but we both live in and really love Sydney. We have the time across the six episodes to really get a sense of the city and make it one of the characters in the story. And we also wanted to focus on Asian Sydney, which is a much bigger reality than you ever see depicted, so our plot goes across Asian locations, Asian restaurants, Asian food, Asian characters.”

And in the midst of this, an Asian woman’s body washes up on Bondi Beach. “Bondi is really a symbol of Sydney life,” says Campion. “It puts all the classes up against each other. Bondi is a bit of a mixer, everybody’s there and it's also a dream place. People go to Bondi because they think it’s paradise. It's our biggest beach, and it's a beautiful ocean beach, so it's got all that power of the sea.” The finale of the story takes place on that beach. “We just figured intuitively on a finale on the beach somehow; the water is such a big part of our story,” Jane adds.

For director Ariel Kleiman, the finale was the opportunity to tackle a big action scene.  “Even though this season is digging so deep into the human psyche, it is still a crime story and is still a police story,” he says.  “Shooting the finale on Bondi Beach was a real joy for me, seeing that beach come to life full of a kind of danger and mystery was a big job not just for me but the whole team.

Sydney – from its dark underbelly to its glorious coastal fringes – is captured magnificently on the screen by DOP Germain McMicking.  Emile Sherman says: “It was great to have a different eye on the second series. We wanted to take it out of the world of the first series and Germain is an incredible cinematographer. He brings an elegance to the world, and an eye that allows you to see Sydney, really in a way that we haven't seen before, it's not your classic view of Sydney. He has brought such a beautiful, distinctive look.”

Kleiman came to Sydney for the project from his home in Melbourne. “Jane and I spent a lot of time together and she showed me her favourite parts of Sydney, including areas that inspired certain scenes. One of the most exciting things about the series for me was having the chance to build it from the ground up with Jane; we had the opportunity to find all the locations from scratch. The landscape and the environment of Top of the Lake is a big part of the series, and we really wanted to imbue season two in a very Sydney tone,” Ariel says.

“Sydney is a big modern city, full of secrets, full of hedonism. It's the perfect kind of modern setting for what is a really modern story. It's the ocean that plays this massive, psychic connection between all our characters. Jane and I talked about it being the womb of the series. It's full of pureness, it's full of freedom. It is the psychic bond that holds our story together. In a way, it is this season’s wilderness.”

While many international filmmakers were considered as second director for the series, Emile Sherman says that the creative team kept coming back to Australia and Ariel Kleiman, whose first feature Partisan was an impressive debut.  Sherman says, “He not just understood, he loved and reveled in the scripts and the tone of the scripts. He got it in his bones. He comes from a Russian Jewish background; the normality of the crazy is something that he well and truly appreciates. He can sit in that world and feel the truthfulness of those characters. He's got an incredible eye, he's a very visual director, and he's great working with actors. It was a bit of a punt in many ways because he'd done one feature, and no television and a lot of his work had been concerned more with men while this is a female driven series.”

Kleiman says, “I think my films have a strong sense of surrealism and absurdism flowing through them, but at the heart of them they all have raw and really human performances, really grounded performances. I think that's what Jane saw in my work. This was the first time I'd ever directed someone else’s material so for me it was just wanting to dive right in and try soak up as much of Jane’s thoughts and inspiration for the series.

“What struck me about the scripts when I first read them was how thematically dense and rich the story was. It was so modern, yet so timeless. I felt like I was reading a great Russian novel. It was so vibrant and so surprising.”

Philippa Campbell, who also produced Top of the Lake, says viewers will once again in this new series be treated to Jane Campion’s particularly distinctive vision as both writer and director. “Jane’s an adventurer. She is a great experimenter. I think at this stage in her career where she has made extraordinary work and is continuing to make extraordinary work, the level of courage, and the level of risk taking, and her qualities as a creative leader, are amazing.

By BBC New Zealand