THE POWER OF THE DOG
Dame Jane Campion DZNM (The Piano) directs a stellar cast in the highly-anticipated The Power of the Dog, filmed in New Zealand by cinematographer Ari Wegner ACS.
– by Sarah Jo Fraser
Set against the harsh Montana plains, The Power of the Dog is a tale of misdirected masculinity and a sibling bond gone awry. Nestled on a cattle ranch in 1925, brothers Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are brought to conflict when George brings home his new wife and her son, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), from the neighbouring town of Beech. Faced with the reality of his own loneliness and the perceived loss of his closest companion, Phil sets off a chain of events with dire consequences.
“It’s a film about first impressions,” Wegner explains, “and most of those impressions turn out to be only partially correct, or completely wrong. It’s also a film about loss and longing. The book puts it beautifully, about ‘someone for whom everything that mattered happened in the past.’ It’s only when Peter arrives at the ranch that the past is reinvigorated in a living form rather than just in memories and in nostalgia.”
Legendary director Jane Campion DZNM and award-winning cinematographer Ari Wegner ACS had previously worked together on an advertising campaign for ANZ bank so were no strangers. “I was doing Christmas grocery shopping in Brunswick, I looked down at my phone and Jane Campion was calling me,” says Wegner. “She said that she’d read a book that she wanted to adapt into a screenplay, and would I be interested in talking to her about it.” And with that, their pre-production began.
“Campion knew she wanted to be shooting in the South Island of New Zealand in Summer, so we needed to go there as soon as possible to scout because the fields in winter turn really green, like something you’d see in a butter commercial. As the summer goes on, the grass gets dry and then it goes silver. A month or so later we were scouting.”
The first port of call was to find their Montana, to find the mountain range and a suitable space for the ranch, and start building the whole jigsaw of how the rest of it would fall into place. “One thing I really learnt from Campion is that whatever she’s most nervous about, that’s where she starts, she goes straight for the bit that stings the most,” says Wegner. They ended up settling on a property large enough to handle both the cattle ranch and the fictional town of Beech, where George and Phil first meet Rose and Peter.
Campion and Wegner decided to utilise storyboards to ensure they had a foundation for shooting in the harsh winds of the South Island. “We really wanted it to be an elegant and considered film,” Wegner adds. “It became clear to us even from the very early location scouts that the environments were so exposed and at the mercy of the elements, that when you’re in those environments it’s a bit like an extreme sport. It’s hard to think creatively when the wind is so intense you can hardly open your eyes. We knew we had to go there with a really good plan, or a plan ‘A’ as I would say, because the plan more often than not morphs to some extent. You can make some good adrenalin decisions, but If you don’t arrive with a plan when the weather is extreme it is a lot harder to think creatively.”
To ensure they were going into the shoot with a solid foundation, Campion and Wegner spent a month storyboarding one-on-one, leaving the routine of the production office and immersing themselves in the world of the film. “We’d storyboard and then go out to the location and test whether the plans worked or go to a place we knew we we’re going to shoot and see how it looked on say, a slightly overcast dusk, or the hour after sunset on a really sunny day. We really got to know the location, and by that stage they’d started doing the set build, so we could stand in the barn as the frame was starting to be built or see what the view was from a particular window,” says Wegner.
Wegner describes the pre-production process with a refreshing fondness; It’s not often a cinematographer gets to scout so long before the main unit shoot. “Having a long pre-production really allowed me to plan well and be responsive in the moment because I knew the script so well.”
The Power of the Dog was shot on the ARRI Alexa LF with a Panavision Ultra Panatar 1.25x Anamorphic lens. On choosing a lens package Wegner explains, “When we started storyboarding we realised that in order to do a storyboard you need to draw a rectangle, and our rectangles just kept getting wider and wider. I really liked the subtlety of the Ultra Panatar, I like that they’re not quite anamorphic and they’re not spherical. It’s beautiful without being attention seeking.”
One one of the most surprising aspects of The Power of the Dog, a period piece set on a fairly straightforward cattle ranch, might be how integral visual effects were to the film. “The challenge was that we needed visual effects that would be completely hidden,” she says. While the exterior shots were achieved on location, the interiors were largely constructed separately on a sound stage. “We had a lot of conversations about how we would see the landscape from within the house, because we knew we needed to see the landscape. I didn’t want to step into a studio and for it to suddenly feel like we were in a studio.”
It was production designer Grant Major who suggested the idea of backdrops, very basic printed billboard photos that were put outside the windows. “They’re like an optical illusion, and because the mountains were so far away and there was no mid-ground it really worked,” says Wegner. “During the shoot on location, visual effects supervisor Jay Hawkins took photos from each window and we committed to a few particular times of day and lighting conditions.”
Using printed backdrops helped to create a more believable world for the actors, but it also came with unexpected benefits to Wegner’s cinematography. “Because the interior walls of the ranch were dark timber panels with a beautiful sheen they’re actually incredibly reflective, so having the correct reflection was really amazing because it meant we didn’t have blue or green spill coming into the set,” Wegner explains. “It allowed my lighting to be better because I could see what was out there, I could be slightly riskier because I knew the parameters. They were also really versatile, we were lighting them for night and dusk just using Skypanels to change the brightness and the colour, and even at night having something there rather than just straight black really made a difference.”
“The great thing about light is that it’s entirely predictable, in theory.”
The 1920s were a time of change for domestic lighting, which informed the way some key set pieces were lit. The Burbanks are described in the book as having the first electricity generator in the valley. “We knew we had license to have some electric light, but we wanted to restrict that to just inside the ranch. At The Red Mill Inn where Rose is working, and in the barns, we told ourselves that there would be no electric lighting in frame so we designed around that,” she says.
Wegner and Campion decided they didn’t want the cinematography of The Power of the Dog to dictate to an audience how they should feel about any given moment, that the frame wouldn’t have judgement or an opinion. “That’s not to say it’s scientifically objective, we just didn’t want it to be emotionally prescriptive. We really wanted people to be able to apply their own reading,” adds Wegner.
Wegner is known for her ability to immerse herself in the reality of the narrative and use the truth of the story to inform her choices. The character of Phil was a particularly meaty subject to unpack, both visually and narratively. “Campion would often talk about the masculine identity as a fragile shell; it always needs to be reinforced because it actually knows that it’s not strong, it has to constantly be reaffirmed,” says Wegner. “Deep down it knows it’s all a façade, and it doesn’t want to be cracked open. I think that’s very Phil.”
Camera movement is used as a tool to transport the viewer into Phil’s psyche. “When he was being himself, in vulnerability or in cruelty, we were able to go hand-held; having the hand-held made the other moments feel more controlled. When he’s alone with big emotions we wanted the camera to feel the proximity to him, to be literally and figuratively close to him. We’d have a slightly wider lens going closer, or just be able to move with him and allow him to feel free and unrestricted in those moments, be more playful rather than mannered as he usually is.”
For the cinematographer, the process is integral to getting great images. “It’s really important to me as a cinematographer that the way the images are created is a good experience for everyone, It’s maybe the most guiding principle I have. I also love how much creativity there is in how much you can change about how a set is run, which is actually quite a lot. A lot of things feel like they’re set in stone but they’re not really, there’s other ways to do them.” An apt lesson, in this time of collective change.
Ari Wegner ACS has earned multiple awards and nominations around the world for her cinematography, and is know for her work on The Kettering Incident (2016), Lady Macbeth (2016), In Fabric (2018) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2019).
Sarah Jo Fraser was the recipient of Screen Australia’s 2018 ‘Gender Matters’ cinematography placement program and is based in Melbourne, Australia.