Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s Top Of The Lake can now boast two film festival firsts. When Season 1 debuted in March 2013, telling the story of detective Robin Griffin and her investigation into the disappearance of a young girl in New Zealand, it became the first TV miniseries ever screened at Sundance. Critical and awards glory followed, with Elisabeth Moss picking up her seventh career Emmy nomination for her turn as Robin. And now, with Season 2, the show joins Twin Peaks in a premier Cannes berth—a shift into television few saw the venerable festival ever making.
Top Of The Lake 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 Moss is a key collaborator on the project. “Elisabeth challenged Jane and Gerard to take risks in exploring the chaos inside Robin’s character as they were writing,” notes producer Philippa Campbell of Season 2. “Once we were shooting, it was thrilling to see her capacity to hold the tangles of the new story together and to unlock Robin’s heart in a way we’ve not seen before.” Here, Moss teases the pitch-black darkness ahead for her haunted detective.
When you made the first season of Top Of The Lake, everyone thought it would be a one-off. What changed?
That’s what we thought, too. Honestly, Jane and Emile [Sherman, executive producer] and I kind of started lightly talking about if there was a second season, and what it might be when we were in New Zealand, filming the first season. But at the time, it was one of those things, like, “Let’s see how the first season goes first.” You can imagine: We were making this weird show in New Zealand, and thinking, I don’t know if anyone’s going to watch it.
Jane and I kept musing about it after that. It started to get more serious around the time of the Emmys, the year the show was nominated—that was when we had our first real conversation about it. I asked her to make it more challenging and make it darker; we needed a real reason to do it again. And then it just took forever. Jane and Gerard don’t just churn these things out. They take their time to make sure it’s good and worth it.
It’s hard to believe it’s possible, but this season really is much darker for Robin.
Because we didn’t wrap everything up cleanly at the end of Season 1, I think it made it easier to do that. Four years have passed, the exact amount of time that passed between filming the seasons. It has not been a good four years. I think that she’s sort of in this place where she’s figuring out what she’s looking for, and this thing that she has run away from since she was 16—which is her daughter—she’s discovering is the one thing that she actually needs to find.
Beyond the darkness, you’re also working in a new location, with an almost entirely new cast. Did that change the experience?
You know, it felt as different as I think it needed to be. One of the great things was that we had this four years. Robin had had a four-year gap in her journey, and I had also had a four-year gap, so I was a little bit older. I had my experiences now to draw on.
For me, honestly, it didn’t feel that different. I think that’s so much to do with Jane. Our connection is just very strong, and it felt like coming home.
I feel like the scripts in Season 2 are so much more complicated, and so much more challenging. I also felt like they were much more rooted in reality, with the basic storyline of the crime and illegal surrogacy, and all of that. I felt like there was a lot more to bite into, and there was a lot more realness in it that I really loved.
It’s not a strict anthology like American Horror Story or True Detective, where you have a totally different story and a totally different cast; the whole thing is completely different, but in the same genre. You have one or two, I guess, of the original cast, but it’s the same story with a new cast. It really does kind of defy the expectations of a second season.
It leaves the audience slightly off-balance.
Exactly. I was so pleased when I saw the first two episodes because I felt like it had the same Jane Campion-esque element that you want—that really strange sense of humor, that creepy feeling against the beautiful images—but then, it’s much more interior.
Jane kind of set the tone at the very beginning with this little manifesto that she wrote for the cast and crew about what Season 2 was. She said that the first season was about the wilderness outside, and the second season is about the wilderness within. For me, that describes it so well, because it feels like a film noir—you’re in a city this time, and there’s jazz on the soundtrack. I was so pleased because I felt like it retained what we liked about Season 1, but…why do the exact same thing all over again? You do want to do something that has a little bit of a different feel.
How do you feel about joining Twin Peaks as one of the first television shows to premiere at Cannes?
I think it’s so telling of what’s happening in television. The fact that it’s being included at Cannes is not lost on us. I think it speaks to the quality of the work, obviously, and the quality of the filmmakers. But it also really speaks to this thing that I’ve witnessed in the last decade of my career, going from The West Wing to Mad Men to Top Of The Lake, which is, before I started on Mad Men, it was considered perhaps a risky move to do television. It was starting to change then, but I’ve seen it really change in front of my eyes over the last decade. When you have filmmakers like David Lynch and Jane Campion doing this work on television, I think everyone starts to go, “I don’t know what the difference is.” It’s fantastic to see something like this on the big screen, as well. It’s so beautiful, and it’s so visual and cinematic that the chance to see it on a big screen is really, really cool for us.