I was recently browsing Netflix for streaming movies and decided to revisit Jane Campion’s 1993 art-house hit The Piano as I had not seen it since it was originally out in theaters.
I really enjoyed the movie and proceeded to do my usual tour of various film analysis sites to read what other critics and viewers had to say about it.
That was when I stumbled across an incredibly interesting fact: The Piano earned 40 million dollars at the box office.
That’s 40 million dollars against an estimated production budget of 7 million. That means The Piano earned almost six times its actual cost. And this is saying nothing of its critical accolades and numerous awards.
The financial numbers were so interesting to me because, on paper, everything about The Piano sounds like box office poison: a 19th-century period film about a mute Scottish woman sent off to an arranged marriage in the New Zealand wild where she must prostitute her body in exchange for the privilege of playing her beloved piano.
There is not a traditional studio or an executive or a script consultant in the world that would even conceive of encouraging this premise – glum, provocative and thematically ambiguous, it challenges just about every norm that conventional Hollywood thinking holds dear.
And yet I remind you: The Piano earned 40 million dollars at the box office.
For me, it was just another in a long list of reminders that you can get away with telling any story imaginable as long as you tell it well.
Not only did it get away with its story – it excelled with its story, and it established Jane Campion as one of our most self-assured contemporary filmmakers (and perhaps the only female filmmaker taken seriously at that time).
What’s even more important here is why we like The Piano: we like it for the very reasons that no one would ever think it could get made in the first place – we like it for its brave, daring dramatic voice, and its willingness to commit to its provocative premise with unrelenting depth and clarity.
What makes The Piano so captivating is the evocative way in which it explores the clash between stubborn will and the deeper needs of the spirit. We find strength and pluckiness in Ada (Holly Hunter), who rebels against a constrictive society that attempts to bend her toward its collective will – she is a feisty, independent woman who vowed never to speak for the simple principle of not speaking, and to this day finds voice through the haunting melodies of her piano. She is a woman who, even when forced into an arranged marriage with repressed, unfeeling Alisdair (Sam Neill), stands her ground and refuses to compromise her body and soul to a man that does not understand her.
But underneath that fiery determination lies a human being with a need for deep human connection and romantic intimacy. And it is Ada’s unexpected response to the seemingly manipulative sexual advances of her new neighbor George (Harvey Keitel) that catapults the movie into exciting high-stakes territory – Ada can no longer hide behind the will that has served her for so long, she must now surrender to her unmet longings.
And it is at this point that the movie shifts its focus away from the titular piano and instead navigates the climactic clash between Ada’s impassioned surrender and her husband’s own attempts at exerting his steely will upon her.
It is worth noting that every single dramatic choice in The Piano serves to illuminate this searing conflict between the force of will and the deeper desires that lie underneath it.
The Victorian setting illustrates repressive attitudes that keep our truer impulses at bay, the indigenous New Zealand rainforest and Maori people illustrate a connection to a more primitive flow of life, the piano itself embodies the haunting spirit that has the capacity to both create life and also destroy it (this is so aptly visualized in the movie’s final image when Ada hovers on the brink of literal death, tied to her piano at the bottom of the ocean, only to make a final choice to live and be figuratively reborn into a life of emotional freedom and literal new voice).
In other words, every moment of The Piano comes together to breathe impassioned, beautifully photographed life into the notion that we must surrender to deep emotional and spiritual abandon or else risk devastating destruction in our lives.
But what is even more captivating about The Piano is the distinctly female point-of-view of its writer/director.
It struck me that we almost never see sexuality as it is depicted in The Piano: the frank look at human bodies, both male and female, so starkly and fully naked; the equality in Ada and Harvey’s sexual encounters, the deep hunger and desire embodied by a woman, and the vulnerability embodied by a man; the mature, unflinching way that the story treats its lovers in their risky sexual freedom. No one in this movie is exploited, sex is not used as a mere tool for titillation, sex is not relegated as an expression of power for men.
In other words, The Piano, in addition to being so absolutely clear about its provocative premise, also serves as a kind of battle cry for a voice not usually found in film – a humanist, female outreach for met intimacy and sexuality. A voice that sees sexuality as the fulfillment of personal expression and imagines a world inhabited by mutually respectful, mutually vulnerable, mutually hungering adults.
It is a thrilling journey to behold because it is such a rarity in the world of cinema.
And it is precisely these reasons that The Piano made the impression that it did.
Can you imagine if Jane Campion had, for one single moment, compromised her vision for the sake of making it more palatable to conventional Hollywood wisdom? If she had worried about the audiences’ willingness to receive the story aching in her heart and modified it to fit those perceived expectations?
The very thing that makes The Piano so special would be lost.
And it very well might not have earned 40 million at the box office.
It very well might not have earned all those accolades and awards.
It very well might not have established Jane Campion as one of our great contemporary directors.
But even more importantly, Jane Campion would not have made a movie that was uniquely hers to make; she would not have expressed the story that truly wanted to be expressed through her; she would not have fulfilled her true vision as an artist with something special to contribute to the world.
It all would have been shortchanged at the behest of the lies of her mind.
And millions of people worldwide would have been robbed of the chance to experience this dynamic, lyrical movie and to reassess their own relationship to stubborn will at the expense of their truer needs.
So, there are three major lessons to learn from this:
1: You can get away with telling any story imaginable as long as you tell it well (that is to say – with depth, with clarity and with fierce dramatic commitment).
2: The very thing that makes your voice unique, challenging and distinctly you is its most viable business commodity.
3: If you shortchange that voice on the premise of what your mind “thinks” you can or cannot get away with in filmmaking, you are in fact sacrificing your best shot at having your own unique, brilliant career.
In all of us lies a unique voice that wants to be heard. We all have our own battle cry that comes from the result of our own unique set of life circumstances and inner conflicts.
That is why we’re artists.
Your job, as a writer and/or a filmmaker, is to identify and unleash that voice with everything you’ve got – so that you too can impact viewers in the same way that Jane Campion did with The Piano.
On Saturday, September 28th, I will be offering another one of my Screenwriters’ Constellation Workshops designed to help writers do just that: get out of their heads, drop into the deeper layers of their creative imagination and bring forth the deep voice that wants to be heard. It’s a powerful, experiential process that will help you cast aside the mental muck and get to know your story on its own terms. Please write or call me for details.