Early during Camerimage, everyone’s still reeling from jet lag. By the time Ari Wegner sits down for an interview by a reception desk in the festival’s main hall, she’s already held one Q&A and is about to head to another. Still, she’s upbeat and articulate about one of the most acclaimed films of the year.
Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog takes place on a remote cattle ranch. Brothers struggle over control of the ranch, a conflict heightened by the arrival of a new wife and her college-age son.
Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the story pries into characters and themes long ignored by Westerns. The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as overbearing rancher Phil Burbank, Jesse Plemons as his diffident younger brother George, and Kirsten Dunst as Rose Younger, a bride unsure of her position in a new family. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays her son Peter, the brunt of homophobic hostility on the ranch.
After prepping for a year with director and writer Jane Campion, director of photography Ari Wegner shot The Power of the Dog in anamorphic with an Alexa LF. Her filmography includes Zola and The True History of the Kelly Gang. She also shot Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder starring Florence Pugh, recently completed for Netflix.
The Film Stage: Do you like Westerns as a genre?
Ari Wegner: As much as this film on the surface is a Western, we thought of it as more of a kind of monster movie—a vampire monster movie, a monster in the house.
It’s easy to make connections to films like The Searchers, Giant, Days of Heaven.
It is hard to find unique images in a world that’s been explored so much in cinema. But we didn’t really watch any films together, aside from A Man Escaped by Bresson. Just its simplicity, how you can build tension with so little.
I brought up those Westerns because of their toxic masculinity, which seems to be a major theme in The Power of the Dog.
I think all of Jane’s films deal with the power dynamic between masculine and feminine. The way we were looking at it, it’s a film about big things and small things. So there’s the minute nuance of human interactions, the flick of an eye, or the energy between two people in a room. And then this vast landscape. Which is a through line in Jane’s work, I think: an iconic setting and then focusing in on people.
But yeah: toxic masculinity is undeniably at the core of this. But there’s something more complex, too, because it’s a film about first impressions, and as the film goes on we come to realize that people aren’t quite that black-and-white.
Westerns have iconic scenes, a barroom, breaking horses, rounding up cattle. In this case they appear from an unexpected point-of-view.
I used to brush off “the female gaze” as something I didn’t necessarily believe in. But quite recently it occurred to me that the “gaze” is really just what pulls your interest, you look at whatever interests you the most. And whatever that is, is going to be influenced by probably everything that has occurred to you in your life. What you see here—what was most interesting to us in this film—was the power of psychological violence.
In Westerns there’s often a big show of physical intimidation with guns, a big chase or something. A physically intimidating, violent challenge or showdown. We weren’t so interested in someone pulling out a gun as much as what can happen when the violence that someone inflicts embeds itself in your mind. Physical violence is scary in the moment; psychological violence is terrifying 24/7.
Phil and Rose have so few scenes together, but you see the seed he plants in her mind: that she’s doesn’t belong there, that she’s not worthy of this relationship, that something terrible is going to happen. It’s just glances and the sound of a chair being pulled back, footsteps on a stairway, whistling, a couple of sentences at most. It’s the work of some serious pro gaslighting.
Their most direct scene is a sort of piano / banjo duet to the “Radetzky March” by Strauss. Can you talk about putting that together?
We planned that sequence to show Phil sneaking behind Rose—his foot on the floorboard, very macro, extremely tight shots, very extreme angles. Because she can’t actually see him. It’s her idea of him that is scary. Their duet is like a swordfight, a duel. The camera pushes in on Rose when she’s playing, stops when she stops to listen. It’s a camera move that’s in her mind, in a way.
Actually, if I really zoom back out, the whole house we designed around that one particular shot where we see over the banister down onto her at the piano. She’s not unlike the rabbit in hiding in the logs in another scene. In our very early conversations with Jane and Grant Major, our production designer, we made sure that angle down to her would work. It was the core of the planning, even all the way back to engaging Jonny Greenwood in what kind of song would feel like Rose. And then be able to be turned against her by Phil.
Part of what I love about that sequence is the shot after, where she walks up on this kind of ridge with the house in the background. It’s one of my favorite moments. Kirsten wraps this cardigan around her and does this thing with her jaw—you feel someone trying not to cry or be affected and yet so clearly is. There’s nowhere she can go, nowhere to be safe in this house haunting her over her shoulder.
For me the scene after a big scene is almost as important as the big scene itself. It’s like processing time for the audience and the character. It’s one of my favorite things in cinema, to have a quiet scene after a big scene. It’s almost universal that as a viewer, our eyes are seeing a new shot but our minds are still reliving the scene prior.
How do you collaborate with Jane Campion?
Right at the end of pre-production we did about four or five weeks of storyboarding. Then she spent three or four weeks with the actors. We spent every day drawing, talking about our concepts for a scene. By that stage it had been almost a year, so we knew the script front-to-back, knew what every scene needed in terms of where the viewers would be at that moment and the information we needed to get across.
We did that kind of homework in the morning. In the afternoon we would go to the site where they were building the sets and tested whether our concepts would work. Take photos, have Jane be Phil, feed that back into the boards.
Once you’ve done that, it’s a plan that you kind of know could work. On the day of the shoot you line it up as you planned. Then Jane’s got an amazing radar for anything that doesn’t feel authentic, that she’s not feeling. She can tell if we’re on too wide a lens or the angle isn’t giving what we’d imagined.
The hope is that you’re always open to the possibility of a better idea or a better option presenting itself, even after a few takes. Not just executing the plan you’ve made, because there’s no prize for shooting the most accurate storyboards. Even if you knew at one point something was a good idea, you still have to be on your toes, stay tuned into your gut feeling, decide does it work with what we have in front of us? Jane’s also very playful on set. Our thought was that if we’d done our homework, then we could go out and play.
Did you have any rules? Say, for how you shot individual characters?
I’m someone who loves those kind of strict guiding rules, but Jane is such a rebel; she doesn’t enjoy being constricted like that. So I had to rethink my way of making rules. We had something more like a set of values, the things we didn’t want to do. One of the things that we really wanted to avoid was a camera that was too emotionally manipulative or photography that was trying to convince you of something. We wanted to find a way for first impressions to be your own first impressions. I know that’s quite an airy rule, but I think if we ever felt the photography was pushing a point, we’d kind of take a lighter touch.
But you do seem to show Benedict Cumberbatch a certain way, lots of low-angle close-ups.
Yes, absolutely. He’s like a hawk looking down on people as he goes about his life. There’s an assumption of superiority. That language actually developed because we shot the exteriors first. Phil has his oasis, his willow glade, which we always wanted to do handheld. Sort of planned unplanned: planning not to have a plan, be responsive to whatever happened in the moment. Because that sequence was written quite lyrically, we wanted to be very open to any possibility that Benedict and Jane wanted to explore on the day. If we had pre-planned the shots, by definition we would have been preconceiving some blocking, some specific action.
In the willow glade it was just the three of us, myself, Jane, and Benedict. We had the rest of the crew essentially either not there or kind of hiding. It was very different from the rest of the film. That space doesn’t have the restraint you find on the ranch. When we shut down over COVID, we eventually got bored and watched the assembly. We saw that the handheld approach with Phil really added something—we couldn’t really define what, but there was like an intimacy that he and the camera were developing.
We thought that could be useful to us in the interiors, which we hadn’t originally planned to do handheld. So when Phil is unguarded or alone, having those big feelings, it felt right to do it handheld. And then those low angles were more or less discovered by being in that space with him. Benedict was a hundred percent in-character the whole movie. So that’s quite a presence to be with in a room. It did take some time to feel the confidence, to get that physically close with him, to get kind of down literally at his feet looking kind of up.
You’ve spoken about the intimacy of that dance between you and the character. How do you negotiate that space with an actor?
Whenever we did handheld, we’re trying to have a very small crew—the absolute bare minimum. I’m going to say Jane and Phil rather than Benedict, cause it was very much Phil in the room. Maybe that handheld methodology was something that worked for Phil, the idea of continuing to roll, not cutting, having Jane’s quiet voice beside camera talking about what we should do next, and Phil having a real freedom to not feel the restrictions of marks to hit or an audience of a hundred people standing there watching—perhaps that helped create an environment where a different side of him could come out.
With a small crew, and the camera handheld, there was definitely a different energy in the room. There would be times when, you know, Phil and I would literally be centimeters apart, or sitting on the same bed. It’s no small thing for Phil Burbank to allow that. So we definitely built that together, that trust. I mean, I truly respect any actor who steps in front of a camera. Just that vulnerability, to not be able to see what we see, to be in the moment and give full trust to a director and cinematographer—it’s an incredible leap of faith.
The Power of the Dog is now on Netflix.