JANE CAMPION ON THE POWER OF THE CRAFT
So much of the, well, power of The Power of the Dog comes from the visionary mind of illustrious filmmaker Jane Campion. From the moment the Oscar winner read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel about a charismatic cattle rancher in 1920s Montana, she felt compelled to bring the tale of obsession, love, and revenge to the screen. Campion assembled a quartet of top-flight actors for the project; Benedict Cumberbatch as mercurial rancher Phil Burbank, Jesse Plemons as his meek brother George, and Kirsten Dunst as a widowed mother to Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter, a reedy, removed college student. It was a story that profoundly moved the director, who immediately sensed its remarkable cinematic potential. “The challenge of directing, and the freedom, is to open up to whatever is in a project that you can bring all your discernment, all your psyche, and all your dreams to,” Campion says.
The film necessitated an equally dedicated and gifted crew to realize Campion’s ambitions for the adaptation, which has been widely hailed for its uncompromising artistry. “The whole of filmmaking is trusting in the relationships you form,” Campion says. “It’s a big exercise in trust over doubt, inspiration over fear.” Holding hands with the Silver Lion-winner are an untouchable team of technical experts and artists. Here Campion describes their contributions to The Power of the Dog.
Campion on Cinematography
Ari Wegner (Director of Photography)
Jane Campion: Ari Wegner is a star. She is true, constant, intelligent, poetic, and hardworking. Every morning before work she runs for an hour. Her nature is kind, and she is always focused, but enjoys a laugh. Very importantly, she handholds like an angel, syncing deeply into an actor’s energy. Like me, she likes a long preparation. We both know we can offer a project and ourselves much more if we have the time to properly dig deep and together find the right photographic language for the story — as simple, elegant, intimate, and direct as we can make it. For Ari and myself, the story is our guide and our strength. Showy visual flourishes have no place. Ari’s instinct for story and character development is like a writer’s. She is endlessly curious about how best to reveal character and story. We spent so much time together planning and preparing — our brains felt conjoined. We fretted about all the things we could not control: extreme weather with winds so strong you had to take shelter, the river drying up, the river flooding, the grass not being blond enough, no wet-weather cover, and the one thing that came our way that we could never have imagined — COVID.
We weren't interested in beautiful for beautiful’s sake, we wanted beautiful storytelling. We really wanted for the camera to feel really patient. When a frame holds, you can really examine it and get all of that information. Also when you have a camera that’s quite still, anytime you do move it, that becomes quite memorable.
Campion on Production Design
Grant Major (Production Designer), Amber Richards (Set Decorator)
JC: Grant can do the really big things, like designing the 16-room, 3-story, 19th-century, elegant, old ranch house that the Burbank parents had built when they moved west to try ranching. A house like this might normally take two years or more to construct, but Grant’s team had to find a way to have it up in a few months, in a remote part of New Zealand, amidst terrible daily gale force winds. I honestly thought it would not happen, but it did, and then I thought it would never be able to be aged in time, and it was. Grant is as good a creative companion as he is a leader of his team, and it’s always by example. He arrives at work every day at 7 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 7 p.m.
Grant can turn his design brain to the small character challenge tasks, too. There was a journal for the Peter character, which was a wish book for how they would get themselves out of their one-trick-pony town. People were stepping around this project because it was going to be hard to create in a way that we all really loved. Finally, Grant took it on, and the feminine and detail-loving side of Grant just completely shone: The pictures he found and the pieces of lace and other touches he added to the journal were so clever, making it so incredibly decorative and amazing. It was perfect, inspiring.
Another example of Grant’s capacity to really partner a director through all their difficulties was when Rose was initially going to draw a heart on a window, but then, when I changed the staging so she was sitting, the heart drawing was no longer possible. I must have mentioned this to Grant because one day soon after, he came to me with a tray that was elegantly set for tea, with a bowl of sugar, and he sprayed the sugar across the wood of the tray and drew a heart in it! Thanks to Grant, it’s what we so effectively used.
Grant and I entered the film industry at the same time. An Angel at My Table was his first job as designer and my second as director. He is one of the great world builders of his generation for the inspirational, imaginative work he did with Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings, a classic star of design who accomplishes large-scope work as well as more intimate pieces.
A lot of care and attention went into creating the tone of these interiors. The big-boned rooms have largely been emptied out of furniture, warmth and love leaving an echo-y void both physically and emotionally but retain a sort of subverted formality, reflective of the huge wealth of the estate juxtaposed with Phil’s eschewing of these trappings. —Grant Major
Campion on Costume Design
Kirsty Cameron (Costume Designer)
JC: Kirsty approaches costuming like an artist. She starts by steeping herself in the material of the story, digging into the themes and subterranean signals and motivations of the characters, because everything they wear has to work profoundly on two fronts: It has to serve the story and always also serve the character. She never wants to feel the hand of the costume designer in the film. She wants the many-layered wonder of what people wear and why they wear it to be part of the character mystery we enjoy in a story, part of the storytelling and the delight, of course!
We had an enormous amount of visual research into 1920s cowboys, with help from two brilliant researchers, which unearthed some wonderful black-and-white shots of cowboys wearing striped jerseys that both Kirsty and I loved. We also loved all the woolies and summer chaps that were worn and gave a fantastic satyr-look to the men: half man, half animal. In the book, Phil Burbank was written as mocking the fad for the movie cowboy that his cowhands spent all their money trying to recreate. So Kirsty had to find a look for Phil that gave him an alpha feel, but maintained Phil’s eccentric choice of overalls, which can tend to make someone appear childlike.
Kirsty set up a first-class workshop, staffed with New Zealand’s best, where there were constant experiments in color-dying, dirtying and aging, leather work of all kinds, and — of course — making. The walls of Kirsty’s design room were covered with her inspirations and frequently refreshed. I would often find myself sitting with her at the end of the day, puzzling together over various characters’ costumes as well as discussing the palette, and how Kirsty would be responsible for almost all color in the film.
I aspire to create costumes that sit within the whole. [Costumes] that are deeply embedded and earthed in character; that don’t shout to be noticed, but that quietly deepen the story through their connection to, and reinforcement of, subtext; that support the emotionality of the characters and the film; costumes that actors can embody and make their own. —Kirsty Cameron
Campion on Sound Editing
Robert Mackenzie (Supervising Sound Editor, Re-Recording Mixer), Tara Webb (Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Effects Editor), Richard Flynn (Production Sound Mixer)
JC: Robert Mackenzie was the supervising sound editor and mixer on The Power of The Dog. Rob has a musician background and a great capacity for inventing fresh ways that sound design can elevate the subtler aims of storytelling. On set we had the great Richard Flynn and his team capturing every piece of dialogue, always working to have everything be usable, which was crucial because we did often draw sound from different takes.
We all talked at the beginning, imagining the atmospheres were going to be very important to the story, but because we anticipated Jonny [Greenwood’s] music also being a strong contributor, we knew we would need to give the music room to rise and bloom. The team gave us a very strong guide track of every approximate sound to feature, including the music, but the dialogue needed cleaning, and the sound effects [needed to be] recreated, and new ideas were added like the detailing of Phil’s spurs and boots, so Rose and Peter would always know where Phil was and feel “that chill.” Rob and I figured that by curating what was important, we could help the audience experience the film with more focus and help build tension.
One thing that happens with the arrival of so many exciting and dynamic sound offerings is that, for a while, it’s easy to get a little lost adding too much of everything, but by being strict about returning to the guide, we could strip back in the right direction to include the new, strong ideas. Rob has an excellent set of ears and great broad intelligence. His sound team creates soundscapes that experiment yet ultimately work and can be changed and controlled to strengthen the story, right up to the last listen.
Leah Katz delicately saved almost all of our dialogue and worked to micro-slice every piece of A.D.R. if necessary: one word from here, one half of a word from there. Dave Whitehead, who also worked on Dune, led our sound effects team and joined us for the mix as a practical genius, suggesting and making small and large effects that brought focus to moments in the film. A mix is a tense time for a director, as it seems as likely you could swamp your film and lose its meaning, as you are trying to improve the film. This was never an option [with my team], and I particularly feel Rob worked with Jonny’s engineer Graeme Stewart to massage each of Jonny Greenwood’s cues into the texture of our world so that the music felt deeply part of the world of the story.
The challenge for the sound team was to not rely on conventional tropes; but rather to explore new ways to develop tension and keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Focusing on the contrast between close intimate sounds, and the wide expanse of the Montana landscape was the goal. We are all enormously proud of the result. —Robert Mackenzie
Campion on Film Editing
Peter Sciberras (Editor)
JC: I’m a director who likes to be in the room all the time with their editor, and that’s how Pete likes it, too. Together we shared the film and learned it — every scrap of footage, we learned how it worked and what it needed. It also means I know exactly why Peter is so good; he is equal parts intuitive and analytical, an incredible problem solver and a staunch ally. He knows how and when to move me on when editing a scene, with the classic, “Lets just park it here,” and lends his whole intelligence to bringing the film to its feet, then pulling on its laces.
Every film is different and we had some tricky challenges. The first was the assembly, which was tight, and an hour and 15 minutes too long. It felt like the best film would be 2 hours or thereabout, which meant we had to lose a lot of scenes with smaller characters and slim down many other scenes to achieve a good narrative flow. But our biggest challenge was the first 15 minutes, getting the film moving. We tried so many versions, but it was Pete who cracked the code by cutting the dusty cattle section with which the film now begins. Enormous patience, intelligence, fine performance judgment, and determination to the very end: That’s how Pete is. Yes, he knows all the little tricks of editing the sound — micro cuts, as well as what the many digital fix tools can offer — but arguably his best gift is his enduring kindness and sense of humor. I was always keen to get to that edit room and start laughing.
We set out to tell a powerful and surprising story and that makes for unique rhythms and unexpected turns. There is a lot of speculation that the audience can be making during this film with so much going unsaid by the characters, it was incredibly important to give the audience just the right amount of time to think about the possibilities through the editing. —Peter Sciberras
Campion on Original Score
Jonny Greenwood (Composer)
JC: Jonny Greenwood, our composer, is a genius. Simple as that. For me, it’s so remarkable to have a composer who thinks about the characters, who thinks about the story, who sees and hears it in the way that I do. The results really speak for themselves. I mean, when you actually listen to the mixed film, the music is so epic and powerfully integrated. It takes you someplace you’re not expecting, even me. When I heard it again recently for the first time after being mixed, I found it’s really got an energy.
I’ve worked with a lot of different composers and I think they’re brilliant, but [Jonny] really is stepping out of the canon of classical music and reusing instruments in ways that we’re just not familiar with. It’s quite emotionally devastating because we don’t know how to react. We haven’t heard it before. Normally when I hear classical music played in a score, I’m a little cynical, to be honest, because it feels like it can’t avoid all the normal cliches of bringing the strings in to build emotion, things like that. And I so hate being manipulated — It just doesn’t work on me.
I’m lucky I got the chance to write and record this soundtrack: Jane was open-minded and very trusting, especially given that there were no real demos made of many of the ideas. The final recordings were often the first recordings. —Jonny Greenwood