Inside Jane Campion's New Sundance Thriller "Top of the Lake"

Parisa Taghizadeh/See-Saw Films

Jane Campion is missing.

The Oscar-nominated director of such films as The Piano and Bright Star is in Los Angeles for a quick stop before the Sundance Film Festival, where her seven-part mystery drama, Top of the Lake, will be screened in its entirety over one day. We're scheduled to meet for a drink at the Polo Lounge in the historic Beverly Hills Hotel, but Campion has vanished from the hotel, and publicists can't locate her.

Considering the subject matter of her gripping Sundance Channel limited series—a missing girl and the effort to locate her by a dogged female detective running from her own past—Campion's disappearance seems almost too fitting. When the 58-year-old auteur does turn up, along with co-creator Gerard Lee, she's full of heartfelt apologies, her unexpectedly cheerful nature creating an instant intimacy. We settle into a booth in a corner of the restaurant and order a round of gin and tonics, chatting as though we've been friends for years.

Top of the Lake, which begins March 18, revolves around the disappearance of Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a pregnant 12-year-old girl, in a remote area of New Zealand and the detective (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss) tasked with locating her and unmasking the man who impregnated her. It begins with Tui walking into a frigid lake, only to be found by a concerned teacher. After the authorities and her father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a bloodthirsty local crime lord, discover that her odd behavior is due to the fact that she is pregnant, Tui vanishes. Moss's Detective Robin Griffin, a local girl who escaped from Laketop to Sydney years ago, returns to care for her cancer-stricken mother, only to be roped into the investigation. Robin discovers that in trying to find Tui, she must delve deep into her own history: she too is running from something dark and dangerous.

"Robin's history is kind of a crime scene," says Campion. "She has to solve it for herself, and she has to become aware of it first. She's in denial ... and Tui is triggering it, her disappearance mirroring something for her." It's a classic novel structure, argues Lee. "The character, by following the case, goes into herself and her own psyche and her own past," he says. "They've got to solve that before they can solve this thing."

As directed by Campion, Top of the Lake is an atmospheric and moody piece, both haunted and haunting, a gritty look at what lies beneath the surface of a seemingly idyllic lakeside town. As in many of Campion's films, the inner lives of the characters are as rugged and wild as the landscape itself, and Top of the Lake is no exception. Numerous story strands—Robin's dark past, the venomous Mitcham and his ne'er-do-well sons, a New Age women's camp run by the mysterious guru GJ (Holly Hunter)—all coalesce into a taut and provocative thriller about damage, vengeance, and escape.

The project marks a reunion between Campion and Hunter, who won an Academy Award 20 years ago for her portrayal of mute Scotswoman Ada McGrath in Campion's 1993 film, The Piano.

Elisabeth Moss’s Detective Robin Griffin, a woman running from the ghosts of her past. Parisa Taghizadeh/See-Saw Films

"For both of us, The Piano was seminal, fairly important for both of our careers, and we really had a good time on it as well," Campion says. "We do work like sisters. We don't have any method. We just figure it out. We go, 'What the f--k do we do here?' We strategize."

Hunter, with whom I spoke in early January, feels similarly. "It was just kind of effortless," she says of their reunion. "She's such an intimate person and so much fun; she brings a goofiness to making movies. She did with The Piano, too. But this one, in a way, I think, she was having a slightly more gleeful time. I know it's hard to believe, because the subject matter is so dark, but Jane really loves making movies; it's playtime for her."

"To see Holly Hunter dance is to understand how talented she is," Campion says. "She's spookily curious. She's from the South, and they seem to have Gothic rhythms, and the ghosts have gotten to them. They can come up with and find energies that you don't realize anyone's got a finger on."

In Top of the Lake, Hunter plays the enigmatic GJ, a guru overseeing a women's recovery camp on a piece of land simply known as Paradise. She glides through the camp, dressed androgynously in men's clothes, her long gray hair hanging limply around her face, ageless and sexless, existing beyond worldly concerns. GJ is inexplicable, unknown, an unpredictable variable that has set itself up within the community.

"She's an enigma," says Hunter. "When you spend more time with her, you find out more about who she is. But she remains enigmatic, as do many of Jane's characters, in fact. I think that mystery is a part of Jane. That's what she greases the wheels of all her fiction with. All of her characters have a slight withheld quality.

"There is no morality expressed," continues Hunter. "She doesn't see people through any lens of morality at all. She sees them as animals. These are people who are alive now. They will be dead. I will be dead."

Hunter's GJ is inspired by the late Indian philosopher U.G. Krishnamurti, a friend of Campion's who died in 2007. Like GJ, he too underwent a "calamity" that he claimed changed every cell in his body. The cause of GJ's calamity is never revealed within Top of the Lake, and she claims that it transformed her, separating her from humanity. She calls herself "dead" and "a zombie," and she appears to exist on a different plane of existence altogether.

"He was a friend of mine," says Campion. "I wouldn't say he was a guru. Like her, he doesn't teach; he doesn't have anything to teach. He can't teach anything you could learn. And anyone that says otherwise is a common charlatan and a whore. Even a whore would give you better value, because at least they deliver. All these holy men do not deliver."

Holly Hunter’s GJ is an androgynous guru on the margins of society. Parisa Taghizadeh/See-Saw Films

A group of disparate women from around the globe convene around GJ. Each of them is fleeing from something, and Paradise quickly becomes a locus point within the narrative: the last place where the missing Tui was seen and a source of conflict for crime interests within the community.

"I wanted to write about a group of women who were postmenopausal and on the edges of what's interesting to our sexy society," says Campion. "People who aren't sexy, but they have another sort of life of freedom. And they're almost like Vietnam vets: they've failed in the old romance battle, but they can't help rattling the guns ... I'm really interested in what happens when people fall off the frontier of our society."

For Moss, Paradise represents something that many of the characters are seeking. "They're all looking for their own independence and their own freedom from their pasts," she says. "So that is where Jane Campion comes in. That's where it becomes deep and dark and strange and emotional and weird."

And Top of the Lake does get very, very weird at times, balancing the stakes of the crime investigation with Robin's own inner journey. The Maori have a legend about the lake at the center of the plot: that it contains a demon's heart at its very bottom, rising and falling with each beat. There's a sense of the mythical at play within the plot, even as it delves into the seedy demimonde of Laketop and nearby Queenstown: drugs, sex, and every vice imaginable. But Robin is no paragon; she's as flawed as those she's investigating, emotionally invested in a way that's unhealthy.

"I was sick of those American TV shows where the woman detective is perfect from the start of every show to the end of the series," says Lee. "They never do anything wrong. They are so politically correct. They can karate-chop better than guys who've been at the gym for years."

Top of the Lake dives into a demimonde of drugs, sex, and every vice imaginable. Parisa Taghizadeh/See-Saw Films

"Perfection" is not a word that comes to mind with Robin. As played by Moss, Robin is deeply scarred, a fragile bird constantly in flight. It's not clear what she's running toward or running from, until she collides—both literally and figuratively—with the ghosts of her past. Robin is about as far from Peggy Olson, the character Moss plays on AMC's Mad Men, as possible, yet there are overlaps. Both women construct a rigid armor against the world, each seeking to distance herself from the unspeakable in her past.

"Robin's mom, Jude, has a great line in Episode 2: 'You confuse being hard with strength,'" says Moss. "She thinks she's being strong, and she's not: she's just shutting everything off. She's just built a wall this high to be able to not deal with things, and she thinks she's strong ... Robin actually has to lose herself to be able to understand that she's not strong and that she has to find her strength again."

It's a reversal from recent Scandinavian crime dramas like Forbrydelsen or The Bridge, which feature detached female detectives who appear to have switched off their feelings, if they ever had them to begin with. They live in a world of logic and deduction, whereas Robin exists almost purely in emotion. Her crime is that she cares too deeply, too keenly; she sees echoes of her past within this new case, even as she is unable to psychologically process all that happened to her.

In an age of open-ended series that run for eight or even 10 seasons, Top of the Lake is refreshing with its innate sense of closure. There will not be another season, says Campion. She and Lee—a former lover with whom she worked on the 1989 film Sweetie—wanted to create a piece of television that borrows from the novelistic form, one that offers a distinct ending.

Campion’s characters are as wild and rugged as her landscapes. Parisa Taghizadeh/See-Saw Films

"We're making a statement with our [show]," says Lee. "The statement is stronger than the economics. Partly because of the deal we're offered, but really you don't want to be a burden on people's attentions."

"We're in a position to try to do what we wanted," says Campion. "Gerry and I ... work constantly together. We've lived a life now and got particular curious interests ... We're in our late 50s, and so it's time for us to cough up. It's time for us to say what we see, in our own way, and if we wait any longer to say it, we'll be senile."