As told to
The cinematographer reveals the trick to shooting digital cows, and why the film is really a monster movie.
Ari Wegner is fast becoming one of the most exciting cinematographers around. From William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth and Peter Strickland’s In Fabric to Janicza Bravo’s Zola and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, her work is highly imaginative, varied and always evolving. We’ll next see her behind the camera for Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder and Oldroyd’s second feature, but before then she spoke to us about the The Power of the Dog.
“I really like to start afresh on each film and take the lessons from the last project but not take any of the visual ideas or rules or approaches. I really try and start completely fresh with the script and the director, completely open-minded to what they’re thinking and I’m imagining. I love variety and I really love morphing the way I work to suit how a director wants to work because I really believe that the way a director works is so specific to them. How a director likes to work infuses into the film and I really enjoy as I’m getting to know someone beginning to understand not only how they want the film to look, but how they want the shoot to look. In many ways, I feel the DoP is an advocate for that because it’s not a given that a film shoot will morph to how a director wants to work.”
“I’d met Jane previously when we worked on a really short commercial together, so when she called me we knew each other but not that well. The first thing she said was that she’d read this book, and that she was adapting it into a screenplay, and would I be interested in talking about it. The main thing she wanted was a DP that was going to be available throughout the next year, and I didn’t know what form that would take, whether it would be a couple of conversations or something more. But the first thing I did was read the book, and I completely fell in love with it. That was before I’d even read Jane’s screenplay.
“The first thing she wanted to do was get out on the road and find the location, because she really knew the place had to work and had to work as for real as possible, without cheating too much. That said we were looking in New Zealand for a farm that was supposed to be in Montana, but we wanted to find something that would evoke the spirit of what you feel in the book, but also had a mountain range that felt powerful and iconic. Our first conversations were in the back of a van, between me, Jane and Grant Major the production designer, just driving around for days looking at different properties. Jane’s a great explorer, so there’s a lot of ‘Ooh, let’s go down that road, that looks cool!’ and jumping out, walking up hills.”
“After we found the place, we dove into what the challenges would be. I really love that about Jane because I can be a terrible procrastinator. Everyone’s natural instinct to start with the thing that will be the most fun, and ignore the things that will be harder or more daunting. One of the first things we talked about was ‘The Dog’ and the town of Beech; the two biggest worries from the visual effects side. The next scary thing was cattle. Jane’s quite an outdoorsy person, she grew up around horses and cattle, so she has some kind of idea that when the scene says ‘thousands of cattle go over the ridge’ it’s easier said than done. One of the other things I learned about Jane is that she really gets excited about things she doesn’t know. She’s very confident in saying ‘I don’t know’ and finding experts to give us the information.
“Then we started talking about colour, which was another big conversation. The great thing about having a year of pre-production was that we could sleep on something for a month and really mull it over, think about the best choice, get more information. We explored every possible option, we looked at black-and-white, we looked at more Technicolour intensity, trying to do a hand-coloured look, and made a variety of different palettes of colour approaches with old photos and paintings and postcards. We were drawn to this palette I’d probably call ‘dusty’ – the colour of the grass, the cattle, the timber of the buildings. Those sun-bleached colours, with the idea that Rose would stand out with her pastel pinks and yellows.”
“We thought about 16:9, because as much as Jane is a romantic she’s also a realist and knows that so many people enjoy watching things at home. We explored whether we should make it the perfect shape for the home experience, or go more 4:3, do something totally unexpected for a film set in such a vast landscape. Then we started doing storyboards, and as Jane was drawing she kept going off the edges of the rectangular board templates. Eventually, we realised this film really wanted to be widescreen. We did think about the fact it would have a home on a streaming service, but I think people are open to a cinematic experience at home.”
“In many ways it’s like a monster movie. We wanted the audience – and Rose and Peter – to be constantly aware of Phil’s presence, and thinking about where he is. What they’re going through, it’s never gonna end – it’s their life now. They’ve entered into this world. On the surface there’s visual elements of the western, but as a film I don’t think it quite fits, just because the typical themes of the western were not so much things that we were interested in. In westerns, the danger often comes from the outside, whether it’s the sheriff or the outlaw or someone that wants your land. In our film the danger comes from within the family unit, within the house. Nowhere is safe. We kept the house quite dark, so there’s a feeling Phil could be around any corner. For example, we knew we wanted it so that from Phil’s room you can see the piano, like that kind of visual connection. There’s so many doors everywhere in the house, but it’s impossible to feel really safe there.”
“There was no getting around the cattle. Some of the guys who play cowboys in the film were real ranchers: there was one guy Jane met at a rodeo in Montana; another who works in Northern Queensland where there’s a lot of cattle. We had to get some people who were really comfortable being on a horse surrounded by cattle. You can’t act that kind of confidence. Cattle are interesting because they’re a prey animal – they’re a big animal that’s quite afraid, which makes them hard to train. But they’re also very curious, and when they’re calm they’re really cute.
“It took a lot of planning. Like, how many times do you need to see a lot of cattle to believe and understand that this is what this family does? And what tone and atmosphere do you want that scene to create? In the first scene with the cattle being taken to Beech, we were trying to create a sense of place and scale, as well as a sense of time passing. But the actual through line is Phil trying to get George’s attention; the cattle are sort of a background excuse for one brother to try and elicit some nostalgic thoughts from the other.
“Then there’s the scene with the castration. It’s really about emasculation and domination, and it’s no coincidence it happens just before Peter arrives at the ranch. It’s a real moment of male-on-male violence, and foreshadows this idea of the space not being big enough for more than one male presence. We had a great visual effects supervisor too, Jay Hawkins, who we worked with very closely to understand to what extent we could do digital cows, never as the main event but as an addition. There’s actually a lot of real cows, but then a lot of cow clones. You can’t see them! I’ve even forgotten which cows are what.”
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 2 Dec 2021
Jane Campion’s claustrophobic, slow-burn western dials up the queer subtext of Thomas Savage’s source novel.
Twenty-five years on, this adaptation of the classic Henry James novel offers an unflinching study of female sorrow.
Taylour Paige and Riley Keough star in a wild Floridian road trip movie based on an iconic Twitter thread.