Benedict Cumberbatch's dark silhouette against a blue curtain.

Jane Campion & Holly Hunter

Longtime collaborator and actor talks to the director about making history with The Power of the Dog.

Interview by Holly Hunter
9 March 202211 min read

In Jane Campion’s 1993’s period drama The Piano, actor Holly Hunter embodies Ada, an electively mute pianist and mother — to a young Anna Paquin in her first major role — who is sent off to marry a man (Harvey Keitel) in rural New Zealand. As Campion’s third film, The Piano earned eight Academy Award nominations, and Hunter and Paquin won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Campion became the second woman to be nominated for Best Director and won the Best Screenplay prize.

Now, The Power of the Dog has her in the running again. Adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the Montana-set neo-Western that chronicles the lives of wealthy ranchers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) in the time surrounding George’s marriage to widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and Phil’s tense relationship with Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Campion’s first project since her 2013 Sundance Channel series Top of the Lake — featuring Hunter as the charismatic leader of a women’s support group — received 12 Oscar nominations in all, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and in numerous below-the-line categories.

Having shared similar success following the release of The Piano, Hunter and Campion reunited to discuss how The Power of the Dog evolved into what Hunter calls, “an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.”

Holly Hunter: Jane, it was like you cast a spell on me. It’s such a seductive movie. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Phil Burbank is extraordinary. The tension that he is able to derive every single frame that he’s onscreen — I felt really captured by him in so many different ways. It’s such a complex relationship that we have with him. How did you construct that character from beginning to end? It’s such a feat to have adapted this from a novel. 

Jane Campion: The book really did provide the most incredible portrait of a complex man that I can remember reading. One of my challenges is that when I started turning it into a script, it was very easy to be turned off completely [given]the comments he makes to George all the time, calling him “Fatso” just out of habit, just a casual dominance and shaming that Phil has with everybody. So it was all about showing why he believed this dominance was so important, this alpha instinct that Thomas Savage very subversively portrayed. The story peels the onion of Phil’s strength, and as the onion comes undone, we see underneath it this really fragile human who’s not really living his life because he’s actually the opposite of what he’s pretending to be. 

When [Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee] comes to the ranch, [Phil’s] pretty much squashed him on the first meeting, by humiliating him and mocking him — the way [Peter] has his little serviette over his arm to do the wine. But the boy really begins to bring it all up again for him — this possibility of actual companionship, closeness, a bigger, more fragile, more open life. And they do genuinely seem to be friends, even though Phil is working at him to make sure that Peter knows that his mother’s an alcoholic.

Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee sit on a bed together. Kodi holds a bunny and rests his hand on his moms knee.

Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee

HH: Yes, kind of driving a wedge between him and his mother.

JC: That’s a very big goal of his, and it’s a really terrifying one for Rose, of course. The secrets that both men have in the story are very important because of the misunderstanding of society at that time — all of the cruelty of it.

HH: From the beginning of the movie, in the midst of that humiliation and shaming of all the other characters, you do see what a giant stake Phil has in his brother. There’s a vulnerability that you see immediately in that companionship. The familiarity, the world order that his brother offers him, is going away. The fear that Phil has about George leaving him . . . I had such empathy for him. 

JC: Beautiful work from Benedict, that moment of pain, where he has to listen to his brother [through the wall] have sex, or intimacy, or even just talking and enjoying himself with this woman. These two brothers, just turning 40, are sharing a bedroom, like a child’s bedroom, and they’re in a 16-bedroom house. It’s just unfathomable and kind of an unexamined life. It never occurred to them to move out of their childhood room. 

HH: But you see that George is going, Yeah. I want to move out of my childhood bedroom, and Phil is completely happy to be paralyzed in the past.

JC: Well, he is safe there and he dominates that space, and it’s the way he’s always wanted it. But George has started to find himself and discover that actually a different sort of life would suit him very nicely. The film demands that you really broaden your ideas and just think about human nature, what it is to be human, the complexities of it, and be interested in that.

Benedict Cumberbatch flails in a fit of rage.

Benedict Cumberbatch

HH: It’s your empathy that I think drives your movies to demand. You demand that the audience take characters on fully, and that is exactly what happens to us with Phil. In many ways, your portrait of Phil and Benedict is probably a more human portrait of him than I even found in the novel.

JC: In the novel, Thomas Savage really tells a revenge story. I think there’s real depth of connection there between Peter and Phil, and a loss for Peter as well. I mean, of course, he has to protect his mother, but he’s losing something himself, which is someone who understands him, who values him, who wants to talk to him, is a teacher in a way. And what he gets is the same as what Phil had. He gets Phil becoming, I think, his Bronco Henry. When he puts that rope under the bed, he’s going to have his own potential lover haunting him.

HH: It’s very significant that he is the only other person who sees the dog [in the contours of the mountain]. 

JC: That recognition between the two characters is really profound. Phil obviously really loves that Bronco and him could see what others can’t, and when Peter so easily can see it, it’s shocking to him.

HH: It’s an extraordinary performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s magnificent how willing he is to be wide open. And Kodi Smit-McPhee is also wide open. It was a beautiful match and gorgeous casting, Jane. 

JC: I was just so lucky with both of them. I put my bets on actors, their ambition, and their performance skill. He was wanting an opportunity to go very deep. I needed someone to feel that ambition that this character can bring into you because it’s a big, big journey. Both of us, through friendship and curiosity, took that path, and I think it deepened our lives and our curiosity and our understanding.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee look off into the distance at a moguled moutain.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee

HH: There was such an incredibly deep trust between the two of you that was apparent throughout the movie. That one scene when Rose has given away the hides, and he goes into the barn, that is such an epic scene. It just includes the world.

JC: That rageful three-year-old that Phil became — I didn’t have a clue what he was going to do in rehearsal; we never went there. What I tend to do is to work on a 360-degree presence of that character, so no matter what happened, if we went off script, he could be Phil. So when I first saw him let rip, I was absolutely stunned and thrilled because I felt like, This is totally what this film needs, to see the threat of Phil actually explode.

HH: But at the same time, even in that state, Phil is still vulnerable enough to be reached by Peter.

JC: He’s so hurt and enraged at Rose’s interference with his hides. Peter, at that moment, does something incredible because he knows he’s got a hold on him. And when he creeps up behind him to offer him the new strips of his diseased hide, and he touches his arm, he knows the effect that’s going to have on him.

HH: The way that you shot it was just so intimate.

JC: And he takes his glove off so he can touch him with a naked hand. And then Phil puts his hand on the back of Peter’s neck while they’re talking. We rehearsed a lot because we knew how important it was, this moment of actual recognition of intimacy, and the turn. Phil becomes so vulnerable towards Peter, and it’s like a kiss has happened, really. We had this choreographer with us called Ross McCormack. He suggested, “Look, I really think there’s a very vulnerable spot on the human body, and it’s the neck. If Phil was to put his hand around Kodi’s neck at that point, it’s not what you expect. It’s not an obvious erotic zone or anything like that, but there’s something tender and interesting about it.”

HH: It was a truly breathtaking scene. Was that [choreography] also the inspiration to have George and Rose dance?

JC: They don’t dance in the book on the top of the hill. While I was adapting the book to the film version of it, I kept looking for ways to be more expressive visually. The book doesn’t really need to concern itself like that. That was before I thought about having a choreographer. So I wrote that in and then because of that, I also thought, Well, we’ll have to explore that with a choreographer anyway. I just thought that would be a nice way to see Rose and George start to connect for the first time, because Rose is so kind and that’s not been around in that world at all. And, also, it would bring to mind the comment that George makes, which is so beautiful and in the book, “It’s just so good not to be alone anymore.” That moment on the hill was very important to me too because it was the last intimacy and gentleness and a move towards connectedness that we were going to see in the film for George and Rose until the very end — when for the very first time they kiss when Peter’s looking out the window and they’re coming back from the funeral.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst dance on a mountain top. The sky is bright blue and streaked with white clouds.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst

HH: Thank God that Peter gets to see that, that we get to see that. It’s such a beautiful future that you feel. Did you and your D.P. Ari Wegner look at movies together?
JC: We looked at movies that weren’t necessarily incredibly close to this story. It’s such a unique piece, you know? There’s not any Western that I can think of that is exactly like this. Yes, there’s Brokeback Mountain, but you don’t want to look at that film because it’s so masterful in its own way, and you don’t want to be copying that. We just looked at films that we both thought were extraordinarily well done. We looked at Birth by Jonathan Glazer, which has never had its due.

HH: Incredibly mysterious movie.

JC: The guy is so extraordinarily talented. Then, I think we looked at one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films because he’s such a master of just everything — the way he sees people, the way he photographs and understands the dimensions of the way humans are together. It’s hard to put words on it, but you’re so fascinated by the worlds he creates. We watched Master and Commander, and then The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I love that film. Again, amazing performances. Really, what Ari and I did in preparation was to marinate ourselves in a lot of extraordinary dreams and hopes and ideas and drawings of our own, so that when we were on set, we would be able to act in the moment and not take rigid plans into the work. Of course, we had things that we were going to try to do, but we could always go off and do something that we thought was better, and we would constantly discuss where we were with the story. As we went on, we learned more and more. In fact, the pandemic helped us because it gave us a chance to stop and reassess what we’d shot, and what was working.

HH: Such an incredible marination process. How did you find that house? That house was so extraordinary.

JC: The house was not found. It was built. And it’s great that you actually asked that. Grant Major, who was the designer, you might remember from An Angel at My Table. That was his first job in the industry. It was such a treat for us to work together again. We had to build the barn and all the stockyards, and then age them. I honestly didn’t know that we would get there with it because we actually broke dirt to build in September, and the ground was frozen. It was so hard, and then [we had to] start shooting in January. 

HH: You capture something of the whole history of this family [with the house]. It’s such a deep experience seeing the movie. And that’s not unlike how I felt about so many movies that you’ve directed. It’s like a seduction that you immediately engage the audience in, as soon as the movie begins. From the very second that the movie begins, the second that you hear the soundtrack that you see the first image, it is though I am being immersed in this world, whether I like it or not. And of course I always like it.