Director of photography Ari Wegner spent a year with filmmaker Jane Campion preparing to make The Power Of The Dog. She tells Screen how the immersive approach reaped creative dividends.
Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner was in a supermarket, doing Christmas shopping, when Jane Campion called and asked if she would read a book she was interested in adapting. “Her only caveat was she wanted someone who would be up for being with her for the entire year before we shot,” recalls Wegner, whose credits include Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth and Justin Kurzel’s True History Of The Kelly Gang.
“I mean, that’s a dream come true for me. Not just Jane, but any director saying, ‘I want as much time as possible with the DoP.’ Normally by the time you get into production, their time is so in-demand, your chance of having any quality time to do the creative work can be one of the hardest parts of the job.”
The book in question was Thomas Savage’s The Power Of The Dog, and the adaptation would mark Campion’s return to moviemaking after a decade working in television. Wegner agreed immediately, and soon the pair were driving around New Zealand’s South Island, searching for the right mountain range to provide a dramatic backdrop to Savage’s story about Montana rancher brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), George’s new bride Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as well as their homestead. The exterior of the ranch would be built on location, in an environment that could be filmed 360 degrees without the real world impinging on the frame.
“That was the first chapter of planning,” says Wegner, who studied film at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts. “The next step was how to unify the whole vision, from costumes, production design, to what the colour palette was going to be. One of the reasons we wanted to shoot in summer was, in that part of the world, the grass has a silvery, almost monochrome quality, it’s so bleached it’s almost metallic white. That was the keystone of the colour palette — along with the browns of the earth and the colours of the animals.”
Together with production designer Grant Major (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), Wegner and Campion worked out the layout of the house from the inside — built on a soundstage — out, choosing the best eyelines on location. Then, as the ranch was under construction, Wegner and Campion spent a month shot-listing, staying close to the site.
“We would drive to the location and have a look at what the light on the hills was doing. We would see what it felt like to stand in the barn, look out and be inspired by the buildings.”
A major visual reference on the look of the film was Evelyn Cameron, a UK-born photographer and diarist who documented her life as a pioneer in Montana in the late 1890s. “Often, with directors in pre-production, one of the first things we’ll do is watch films together, but we weren’t drawn to that here,” says Wegner. “We fixated on these incredible photos, which feel like a full and complete world within a frame. There was not much photography going on at the time, let alone a woman living on a ranch in Montana. It felt like this outsider’s view. And the photographs are so beautiful.”
Wegner shot The Power Of The Dog with the Arri Alexa LF. “It’s a beautiful sensor, but Jane and I didn’t want a film that looked digital, even though we were shooting digitally.” Wegner used vintage Panavision Ultra Panatar lenses, which give a soft, more classical widescreen image.
The Power Of The Dog is backed by Netflix, which led to a discussion between Campion and Wegner about the film’s aspect ratio. “Jane surprised me in that she said she sometimes had a bad reaction to watching things on a TV when you see black bars [top and bottom]. For a long time, we thought maybe we should shoot 16:9 and use the whole TV, knowing a lot of people would end up seeing this on a screen in their home.
“But after looking at location photos and analysing the scenes and the drawings we were doing while shot-listing, we found both of us were doing these very long rectangles and realised [the story] naturally wants to be widescreen. The mountain range we chose fitted that shape, as did ensemble scenes at the dinner table, even a shot of someone alone with space around them. It was a film that wanted to be widescreen and we weren’t going to fight it.”
What Campion did insist on was no emotionally manipulative camera moves. “So never push in on an important moment,” Wegner explains. “We wanted classic, unadorned, grounded photography that didn’t draw attention to itself. But for the camera to always be in the right place for the emotion of the scene. I made a note that said, ‘Iconic images + just shoot the actors’. As soon as anything got too fussy or a shot too complicated, it wouldn’t last long. Jane has such an amazing radar for things that are too fancy or too attention-grabbing. A cool shot was the worst crime you could possibly commit.”
Wegner has already earned recognition for her work on the film, winning best cinematography prizes from both the New York and Los Angeles critics associations. This year she has two films making headway for major awards — she also shot Janicza Bravo’s Zola, which picked up seven Independent Spirit nominations, including for cinematography.
Ultimately, says Wegner, the time she spent embedded with Campion on The Power Of The Dog was more than a dream come true: it proved a boon to her work, and to the film itself. “That year was key, in preparing, knowing the places and the architecture of the script, knowing what the emotional truth of each scene was, so you could understand where the camera needed to go, and what the movement needed to be.
“The script was tightly wound and already had all the tension. We knew if we could tell this story as written, an audience wouldn’t need convincing via photography that it was tense or scary.”