The DP talks about her one-year preparation with Jane Campion to create the appearance of “The Power of the Dog”.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner won’t consider embarking on a project unless she first falls in love with the script.
Indeed, a script that knows exactly what it is trying to accomplish is the common thread running through all of Australian DP’s diverse work, an awe-inspiring work that spans the buttery textures of William Oldroyd’s ‘Lady Macbeth’, the soaked Giallo hue of “In Fabric”, the fiery sights of “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Justin Kurzel and the frenzied vibrancy of “Zola” by Janicza Bravo.
âI must have a knee-jerk reaction to the script,â Wegner told IndieWire in a recent interview. Wegner, who wrapped up SebastiÃ¡n Lelio’s new film âThe Wonderâ earlier this year, is rightly in the ongoing awards conversation with Jane Campion’s lyrical epic âThe Power of the Dogâ. âIt’s such a commitment to make a feature film. If I’m not really excited about it, then it’s not even a choice.
Wegner began tapping into his visual storytelling instincts at a young age amid a family of creative artists, discovering his passion for writing and photography in high school. When she realized that her two loves could merge in filmmaking, going to film school – namely, Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television – was the natural next step. âI thought I wanted to be a director,â Wegner says. “But once I started shooting other people’s movies, I immediately knew it would be an amazing life.” So she followed that intuition, tackling everything from shorts and commercials to music videos and TV shows, until she earned enough cache to be a bit more selective. “When a project comes along with a really interesting script and director, it’s irresistible.”
One of those irresistible projects Wegner is referring to is the lively âZola,â released this year after its Sundance Film Festival 2020 debut. Based on an infamous Twitter thread about a 48-hour trip involving a waitress from Detroit, a Unorthodox road trip to Florida with a stripper and lots of nonsense, Wegner shot the film in 16mm, an experience she cherishes dearly.
âIt’s when they sing Hannah Montana,â she says, referring to a specific music video-like sequence in the movie that was captured unconventionally on a GoPro. “We wanted [the scene] feel alive and that was an exciting idea. Giving [my] camera to an actor and saying, âYou guys do it! Was terrifying, but then so completely in the spirit of this movie.
A chance encounter with Campion on a commercial set years ago ultimately led Wegner to âThe Power of the Dog,â perhaps the most important project of his career. The two hit it off, but went their separate ways while Campion worked on his “Top of the Lake” TV series. Then Wegner got a call from the writer-director as Campion was adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 book, the 1920s story of intimidating breeder Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the games of intimidating spirit he plays on his brother George (Jesse Plemons) the new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and his reserved son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). âWhen Jane Campion calls you up and tells you that she wants to make a movie with you, the rest of the world kind of disappears,â Wegner explains. âOf course, I found the book that afternoon and read it right away. I was seized with it. “
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix
The duo turned out to be the right partner, especially when Campion said she wanted her cinematographer to be involved in all aspects of the planning, starting with scouting. This requirement suited Wegner’s impulses as a full-fledged storyteller. With that in mind, she spent an entire year with Campion just to prepare. âThe main thing we had to do that year was to become really good friends,â Wegner says. âJane is a holistic person. She knew she wanted a strong ally in her DP, a rock solid sidekick [as well as] someone who was obviously going to do the job, make an amazing looking movie.
Naturally, Campion and Wegner accomplished a lot more than becoming close friends during that year, dissecting script details to reveal the narrative role and emotional tone of each scene inside and out, an engaged process that allowed them to quickly recover whenever they felt lost or off track. They also assessed and adopted the environment of the New Zealand place that would replace mid-Montana in history. âWe’re both kind of like teachers’ pets for a long time. So we were obsessed with preparation, âsays Wegner. âThe environment there is wild. It’s devastatingly beautiful, but the wind is crazy and the sun is intense. New Zealand is like the brightest place. Your brain has issues with the environment. If you only start to think of how to capture [it] the first time you get there you will definitely leave some nice things behind.
The first location task was to find the iconic, if not sacred to Phil, mountain range a suitable location to erect the Burbank ranch which would also have sufficient sunlight properties to produce long shadows. Once they settled into a general area, Wegner and Campion mapped out the interiors, piecing together the choreography of the story. Presumably, selling the full-scale printing of the Burbank ranch was one of the most difficult challenges Wegner faced, a difficulty Campion solved by initially coming up with a large cattle-driving sequence, which Wegner considers. as one of his most rewarding accomplishments. ” There is always [individual] shots that stick out, but I like it when a whole sequence, a series of shots, works. I am really proud of the history of cattle transport from the moment [Phil and George] say goodnight the first night, when they start talking on set again. [The sequence] travel in time and distance. It feels natural and fluid, it [gives] a lot of information in a short time. [After that], you [didnât] need to constantly remind people that [theyâre] on a ranch. I am really happy with the result.
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix
Wegner admits that visual effects (around 150 VFX shots) and other techniques have been found to be helpful in increasing the film’s overall eye credibility. As well as creating an imprint of a dog figure on the side of the mountain range – a recurring motif in the film – the visual effects were crucial in increasing the small number of cattle they had. For some window scenes elsewhere, they took photos of the location and printed massive billboard-like backgrounds to create an old-fashioned optical illusion in the camera. “It seems quite plausible [because] Jane Campion has an incredible aesthetic eye and impeccable, impeccable taste. [So] you believe it. And the camera believes it.
Throughout, Wegner strived to establish a rich dialogue between his camera and the actors, organically reacting to their emotions and accentuating their physical isolation through a play between foreground and background. One example is when a desperate Rose sits alone at the table at a high-profile dinner party, an image juxtaposed with guests mingling behind her. “We really planned this very precisely, blocking off the camera,” Wegner recalls. âWe had a floor plan so we spent a lot of time [figuring it out in theory] even before the assembly is built. Jane is really good at capturing the essence of a scene all at once. As [when] Peter enters the barn for the first time with Phil and Rose is in the foreground, Peter in the middle, then further on is Phil with the barn. Then the barn door closed over his face. I would like [actually] argue that even before Rose arrives at the ranch, all of the landscape photos create a sense of seclusion. To address the claustrophobic aspects of the story, she interpreted the narrative as something of a monster movie, given the genre’s common tropes. “[Perhaps] you’d call it a monster movie, a horror movie, but we always wanted you to feel where Phil is. Or if Rose feels safe or in danger about where he is. And it made its way into photography one way or another.
The opposite of that sense of confinement was a liberating sense of intimacy Wegner captured with a handheld camera, especially during Phil’s unattended vulnerable moments. “In the holy place, in the willows, or even the first night George brings Rose home and he’s sitting on his bed all alone playing his banjo.” He’s the real Phil, not the Public Phil. There is something special about being incredibly close to someone who has great emotions, like the first time you see a friend cry. And whenever you go through this with someone, you will always be closer to them than someone you haven’t seen cry. [Filming him] in [his] sacred place was truly a special day: just me, Jane and [minimal] crew hidden in another small area. We only had one goal. It was like an old film school experience. [Benedict] has put his trust in both of us to capture what he does, which is the trust that Jane builds.
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix
“She brings out the best in people,” Wegner continues of Campion. âThe honesty in how she could happily say, ‘I don’t know yet’ is empowering. For someone at the top to say that [allows] you say it [too]: ‘I have to do a little more work before I can give you an answer.’ And working with someone who is so excited to learn is very inspiring to me. You can be excited to learn no matter how many movies you’ve made.