Inside Top of the Lake: China Girl’s “Small Rooms” Approach

Top of the Lake cinematographer Germain McMicking talks about turning a grand-scale show into something more claustrophobic and affecting

Germain McMicking is very tired.

“I’m probably a bit scattered but we’ll see how I go. If you need to call back some other time because I’m not being clear that’s totally fine.”  

The Aussie cinematographer wrapped up work on Top of the Lake’s second installment “China Girl” months ago but from the sounds of things he’s still recovering.

Shooting TV shows is difficult as it turns out. “China Girl” debuts four years after the original Top of the Lake, which saw Sydney detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) dealing with the terrifying disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in her native New Zealand. Now the demons from that first case follow Robin back to Australia for a new case involving the body of an unidentified Asian girl washing up on Bondi Beach.

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The scale for this round of Top of the Lake is grander yet also somehow more intimate. To capture that delicate, contradictory aesthetic balance, creator Jane Campion brought McMicking and his director collaborator Ariel Kleiman into the fold.

We spoke to McMicking via  phone from his home in Australia at the end of another long work day about the particular challenges and delights in bringing Top of the Lake back to life.

Den of Geek: How did you get involved in this year of Top of the Lake. You weren’t a part of the first series, correct?

Germain McMicking: Yeah, I wasn’t. Hard to know how it all came about. I’d had previous relationship with some of the people involved. Then I think at the time Jane was looking for a DP and a co-director. So Ariel Kleiman came on and I had worked with him previously on a movie called Partisan. It played Sundance in 2015 and won Best Cinematography. I think she was interested in the team that we offered. Aesthetically it was a good fit as well. She’s quite strong and a powerful figure. She really wanted to bring this new aesthetic to Top of the Lake. This time around the show didn’t have the same landscape. There weren’t mountains. It didn’t have the harsh natural beauty of New Zealand to play a story against. There are a lot of small rooms this time around. Somehow that’s how I got placed into it.

Had you seen the original Top of the Lake?

I had, yeah. I really loved the way it looked. I’ve always been a bit nervous and individual about the things that I do. I was a bit apprehensive about taking it on. I didn’t want to just replicate what they had done in season 1. But then I never got kind of any instructions to make it look like it did in season 1 which was great. It felt like an open book. It was fun to go at it with a new kind of approach.

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The change of setting probably helped in that respect then, right? The original being in New Zealand and “China Girl” being in Australia.

It’s a very different environment. The first series is incredibly open. This series features people trapped behind walls both literally and walls of their own making.

Had you done much TV work prior?

There was a show that I did with another director from Melbourne (Glendyn Ivin) called Gallipoli. It’s a really great piece of work, I think. I did a TV movie called An Accidental Solider as well. And of course Wilfred (the Australian version). Early in my career I did some documentary work. A lot of journalistic stuff. I’ve done a bit of a mix between TV and film. TV is exhausting. Top of the Lake – I came out of that and I was in the dust for a couple of months. I just came home, did some commercials and was exhausted. It’s pretty full on.

Well a cinematographer for a TV series must take on some added responsibility since they cycle through directors for episodes.

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Absolutely. The directors are there and looking at the camera after every shot in the whole series. More and more it’s becoming a trend to have one or two directors for the whole thing. Dealing with the directors is really interesting as well. One director has a different feel and create a different emotional world on set from the other director. Even if their aesthetic line is consistent. It is kind of difficult. Nailing down the time and staying healthy can be pretty tricky.

What were some of the differences between the two directors on “China Girl” – Jane Campion and Ariel Kleiman?

I think the similarity between them is that they’re both very single-minded. They know that they’re right. They have a good, commanding sense of what they want to say. That’s important. Their processes are wildly apart though. When you have pre-production meetings with them their in agreement about aesthetic and the kind of story they want to tell. The onset work though is different. People are people. People are different. Jane was a joy to work it – beautiful and inspiring. Some days when you turn up and she’s just offered a piece of poetry that would capture the feel of the scene or in one case three hand-drawn frames to base the days work off of. The way she communicated that was great and all you needed. Ariel loves a rolling master shot where you try to get everything in a wide. He loves that sort of choreography. It’s difficult but a really lovely way to approach it.

What was it like to get to work with some of the now TV-royalty actresses on Top of the Lake like Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman?

It was amazing. I often work with casts featuring lots of women. Which is great!  Do you want me to address each of them specifically?

Sure! Elisabeth just won her Emmy so that’s a good jumping off point.

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Did she? For…Handmaid’s?

Yes!

Oh that’s awesome! I didn’t know that. That’s fantastic. She’s unbelievable. She’ll go from laughing her ass off to adopting a really deep emotional space. You’d imagine there might be a distrust for that kind of approach like “how can it be real?” but it absolutely is. She’s so genuine. It’s just incredible. She’s a generous actress too. She’s been working since she was like 14.  Gwen is also great. Absolutely genuinely hilarious. She’s very, very funny. I think what you see is what you get with her. She’s like her character, Miranda on Top of the Lake. She should be a comedian and do stand-up. She’s hilarious. This is also the first time I worked with Nicole.

She won an Emmy too!

I know! I totally fell in love with her. She’s amazing. She was always the first one on set. I’d turn up fro “pre-light” on set and you walk into a dark room and she’s already there in the corner with her script. I’ve been such a big fan for such a long time and that kind of thing can be intimidating but she was great. And she’s got such a warm relationship with Jane. She’d always help with staging and blocking a scene. It’s just a super fun cast. David Dencik, he plays “Puss.” He was amazing. Sorry I’m rabbiting on.

No, it’s cool. That’s how interviews work! I ask a question and you rabbit on. What drew you to film and cinematography?

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My mom was a painter and my dad was an engineer. Maybe the meeting of those two minds kind of started it all? When I was a teenager I always drew and took photographs. I started telling stories and my friends would help me out coming up with characters. In university I studied cinema. I just watched films every Monday morning at 9:30. The rule there at the cinema was that they had to project everything on 35mm. I’ve always been interested in people and listening to them. I’ve always wanted to tell stories. That kind of graduated in to directing music videos and getting involved with documentaries. Eventually I started moving more into narrative work. I’m still pretty open to it. I’m still discovering stuff. It’s a passion that I hope will be lifelong. It’s hard to imagine doing anything else. It’s also just so much fun. It’s awesome.

What movies or TV shows do you look at as inspiration?

That’s hard. I always find that question very difficult. There’s too much. So…no I can’t. It’s too hard. I don’t even start and where I would end.

Really? When someone asks you what your favorite movie is – what do you say?

I just say I don’t think I can answer that! No, it’s impossible! Could you do it?

Oh definitely.

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Then what’s your favorite.

Goodfellas.

See, that’s one of the greats!

Your favorite film is allowed to be good!

Ok yeah. I’ll have to think some more then.

Fair enough! What are you working on now and what are you working on next?

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Right now I’m working on some commercials. Then the next film I’m on is called Acute Misfortune. It’s based on a book by the same title written by Erik Jensen. The director is Tom Wright who played Johno in the first season of Top of the Lake. He’s also in the U.S. version of The Bridge. It’s a fantastic novel and will be a small film. It’s about a young writer who does an article about this artist from New South Wales. It’s based on a true story. The artist had some serious drug and alcohol issues and he takes this young journalist under his wing. He wants the journalist to be his biographer. But then it turns out it’s all a lie. It’s all bullshit. It’s really interesting.