By Jessica Gelt Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — It’s a sun-soaked afternoon in Los Angeles, but Elisabeth Moss is shivering. She recalls how cold the water was in New Zealand, where she filmed “Top of the Lake,” a miniseries created by Jane Campion that premiered Monday on the Sundance Channel.
“The lake is the same temperature all year round: freezing,” Moss said. “My makeup artist had this black plastic bucket, and they would fill it with hot water and I would go sit in it fully clothed to warm up.”
It’s an odd detail, but it’s in keeping with the making of the moody crime drama, filmed over a five-month period against a beautiful natural backdrop of soaring mountains, rugged bush and the omnipresent lake.
The setting plays a natural foil to the darkness of the plot, driven by the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old named Tui. Moss plays a confused and hardened Sydney, Australia, cop who gets wrapped up in the case during a visit to her cancer-stricken mother.
The mystery reveals itself in unexpected ways during seven hourlong episodes. The length of the series allows delicate subplots to push to the surface, including the story of Paradise, a desolate refugee camp for lost, mostly menopausal women, silently lorded over by an enigmatic visionary named GJ, played by Holly Hunter.
“I think this is Jane’s best work. She really thrived in the miniseries genre,” Moss said. “It’s all about the secondary characters, the locations and all the weird moments — all the extra things that make Jane a genius.
If you cut it down to two hours you’d make an awesome detective story, but you’d lose all that great stuff.”
Making a miniseries did, indeed, give her room to play, Campion agreed.
“My favorite form is the novel,” she said, speaking by phone from Jodhpur, India.
Campion’s feeling that anything goes on the small screen translated to some genuinely brave directorial choices, particularly when it comes to the world of Paradise, the camp by the lake.
Here the women live in empty shipping containers and there is a sense of weird, wind-swept desolation that easily conjures “Twin Peaks” comparisons.
Campion said that Moss wasn’t who she had in mind when she was writing the role but that it quickly was apparent during casting that she was the correct choice.
“I always want to know more about her,” said Campion of Moss. “She’s a bit like the Mona Lisa, she shows you something, but there’s so much more.”
Episodes 1 and 2 of “Top of the Lake” will be repeated at 8 and 9 tonight on the Sundance channel. Episode 3 premieres at 10 p.m. Monday.