“Power of the Dog” focuses on psychological terror, tension
Despite its recognizable mix of cowboys, cattle and the open border, “The Power of the Dog” by director Jane Campion was never conceived as a true western. From Campion’s point of view, the story is far too specific for that. Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and set on a Montana ranch in the 1920s, the Netflix film is less of a blanket hymn of praise to the Old West than a tight and terrifying psychological meditation on mystery, oppression, and misguided anger .
The American setting may be a first, but for Campion this is familiar territory. Since her explosive 1989 debut “Sweetie” she has been more interested in the unconscious and the local horrors that profoundly change and infect family relationships. A gorgeously rendered character study in a remote landscape is not a new concept even for the acclaimed director of “The Piano” and “Top of the Lake”.
“I tend to agree with Jane,” says her cameraman Ari Wegner, who shot the film in breathtaking locations in Campion’s native New Zealand to replace rural Montana. “When we were shooting, I never thought of it as a western, even though it has all the classic, western elements. Everything, that is, except weapons. “
It’s a telling omission following the accidental death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust, a western born from a more traditional template. But Wegner says guns are irrelevant given the kind of psychological violence she, Campion, and the A-list cast wanted to explore on screen. “What we’re really interested in is this really delicate, really tiny energy and tension between people,” she says. “For us the danger was already in the house. It is not necessary to draw a weapon to scare someone and keep them mentally immobile. “
How she and Campion told the story of two very different brothers and the new family turning their fragile peace on its head began with a year of preparation together in New Zealand exploring places, exploring looks, and thinking about camera style and tone . They spent many months just on the color palette. “There were really so many directions that we could take,” says Wegner. “We talked a long time about black and white and then some kind of hand-toned technicolor style.” They went for a muted, dusty look, with a little more color than sepia, ranging from brown to silver and gold that go with the grass and fit the mountains that anchored many of the recordings.
With strong, contrapuntal performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons and a haunting score by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, Campion and Wegner made sure not to visually overload any scene. “You can’t have everything at the same time in a film,” says Wegner. “It feels like too much sugar or unnecessary jewelry or something. A great performance with a great score and great photographs is not what we were trying to do. “
Campion preferred an equally no-frills style of shooting that even extended to overhead shots captured by drones that were never too conspicuous. “It was very clear to Jane that she never wanted the camera to move in a way that manipulates itself emotionally,” says Wegner. “So we would try not to push an important moment forward. The camera should only move when an actor is moving instead of moving on its own to get a point. ”
What Campion pushed or nudged gently were the actors and filmmakers. “The amazing thing about Jane is that she really manages to make you comfortable, to feel uncomfortable,” says Wegner, just as her films often do for audiences. “I still can’t say how she does it. Being outside of your comfort zone feels strange, but once you are there it feels great because you have a new comfort zone. “
Wegner says she aimed her camera “to keep an unbiased look at what we were seeing, knowing that the feeling for the audience should end up being quite complex, not one particular emotion but several, in fact conflicting emotions. ” It is summarized by the note on one of your shot folders. “I had written ‘highly retrospective experience’. We wanted to create a feel for an audience that would stay with you for a while, an experience that would make you think about it and try to tease it out long after it ended. “
Shot in large format with the Arri Alexa Mini LF camera in 4K, which Netflix requires, Wegner opted for long Panavision Ultra Panatar lenses, which are best for capturing landscapes and delivering a classic widescreen look. Intense, detailed storyboarding led them there. “We drew pretty much every frame of every shot, and at some point our rectangles got longer and longer,” she says. “Jane had a couple of them printed and kept tearing off the edges. The mountain range, the cattle drive, the large table in the main room, even Phil’s braided rope: so many shots became long, thin and wide. That’s when we noticed that this film was widescreen. ”
Inside the family home, “an architectural masterpiece” built on a sound stage by Oscar-winning production designer Grant Major, Wegner played subtle lighting and rich, historical details. Rose’s room has such an abundance of rose-patterned wallpaper and shades of red and pink that the filmmakers saw “green” when they walked off the set after a long scene. Large photographs of the outdoor scenes on billboards behind the set’s open windows were especially helpful, she says, as they gave the actors and filmmakers a more complete staging than any blue screen could provide.
Wegner says she admires Campion’s fearless intuition for improvisation most of all. “She’s great at facing her fears and starting with the toughest and most challenging things,” says Wegner. “It took us a year to plan, but everything was always ‘subject to change’. She knows herself well enough to understand that if she is too tied to something, she is not doing her best job. Even if we have invested a lot of time, money or thought in the setup, she is incredible at following her gut feeling. “