Cinematographer Ari Wegner on Looking Past the Plains in “The Power of the Dog”

The allures of joining Jane Campion in adapting Thomas Savage’s western “The Power of the Dog” were immediately obvious for Ari Wegner, but as someone who can always be expected to invite audiences to look a little deeper into the frame, the cinematographer recognized there was an even greater opportunity than what she initially saw.

“There’s nothing that wouldn’t excite me [about this],” said Wegner. “I read the novel, which is a beautiful, beautiful piece of literature and the screenplay is an amazing piece of adaptation and Jane is just an irresistible person and collaborator and purely selfishly, a period film in a gorgeous location, but that’s all surface. There’s the depths of it as well, doing something where you can start and have enough preproduction time. That’s my most favorite thing — to have a good prep time.”

It was a big ask of Wegner, who couldn’t be any more in demand as one of the most talented and chameleonic directors of photography of her generation, rising to prominence with her arresting work on “Lady Macbeth,” every bit as zesty in its color palette as Florence Pugh was the film’s irrepressible lead, and consistently surprising with a knack for making the unreal feel completely authentic and bring the magic out of the mundane in Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric,” Justin Kurzel’s “The True History of the Kelly Gang” and Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” However, Wegner pulled herself out of circulation for over a year to get behind the camera for Campion’s first feature in a decade, looking to bring out both the beauty and the foreboding in New Zealand’s South Island to replicate what it must’ve felt like for the cattle baron Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his new sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst) to live a lonely life in the pastoral plains of Montana while his brother and her husband George (Jesse Plemons) travels to keep the business side of their ranch afloat.

It isn’t uncommon for shafts of light to cut through the windows of the Burbanks’ shared home, a cold place even after the bitter winters give way to spring and Wegner employs what radiance there is to expose all that’s being held within, as the irascible Phil longs for his former mentor Bronco Henry, whose saddle still looms large in the barn, and Rose, who has found that the safe harbor she believed she found in accepting George’s proposal has made life more dangerous for both her and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) when the menacing Phil is left alone with them. Captured with a cutting edge 4K Arri Alexa Mini LF camera, the image is often as sharp as the razor Phil uses to shave, with the clarity of the open range and its blue skies for miles in any direction smacking you across the face so as to make the corrosiveness of the past’s hold on Phil and Rose feel particularly cruel, each unable to live life on their own terms and all too conscious of the limitations of the ones they’re leading now without the imagination to transcend them.

As immediately striking as each individual shot of “The Power of the Dog” is, that richness was the result of meticulous storyboarding and location scouting well before a shoot which endured the additional complication of a four-month shutdown due to COVID. But in working towards something timeless, all that was relative to the film’s cast and crew and recently Wegner spoke about the experience of being able to take such care with film, how contrasts informed her approach to this story and how the arrival of the actors changed things up.

Something that’s been striking about your work is you never tip your hand to the period a film is set in with the quality of the image – both “Power of the Dog” and “The History of the Kelly Gang” are pristine while “Zola,” a present-day film, is grainy 16mm. Is it much of a decision going into a project about what you shoot on or what lenses you’ll use will say about the time it’s set in?

Everything’s a decision. [laughs] There’s so many decisions and I love making them all. I think of them as choices actually [because] I feel sometimes decisions are too serious whereas choice is a lot more fun. One of the big questions is will the visual style go with or against what we know that time period to be. For example, if you’re shooting a film in the ‘50s, do you shoot it like a ‘50s film or when I shot “Lady Macbeth,” it was set in the 1800s, but we decided to give it a very contemporary style because we wanted to somehow make those themes feel like they’re still relevant. This film, we actually did use some vintage lenses, but lenses alone don’t define much because it’s what you do with the lens that is the most visible in terms of where the camera is or how you light something and how you expose something, how you grade it.

That sharpness that you talk about [comes from] lighting and telegrading and all we know about sharpness is our eyes perceive contrast – two different things together and a clear edge is what creates sharpness. As a DP, you can manipulate all of those things. You can have a very sharp lens, but not have the image look sharp if there’s nothing in the frame that creates the feeling of sharpness, so [there’s] infinite, infinite decisions about what combination of things are going to go together, but the big joy of filmmaking is you’ve got all these choices. You’ve got a huge menu and you put them all together, so it’s like you can have this entree with this main and this desert and you can go real wild and just have two entrees and just dessert. You can really push hard and make something way outside the envelope, and all those choices add up to quite a unique flavor and a unique experience.

The lighting in this is extraordinary and when you get this full year of preproduction, can you work with Grant Major, the production designer, to design spaces that can bring the emotion out in that way?

Yeah, Grant is a humble genius, and Jane got him on from the very early days as well, so the first few trips were just me and Jane and Grant — and the location scout and the producers — [but] mainly the three just roaming around various properties dreaming about whether this could be the place and trying to feel that spirit of the novel – the feel of Bronco Henry or the dog in these places. Then as we started to get more specific, the house is described very emotively and it needed to feel lavish and wealthy, but also in many ways like a haunted house. It’s a space that’s devoid of any kind of maternal love or any femininity, and had the joy sucked out of it. But the windows were a big thing.

[One of] Jane and I’s big fears or decisions was how do we make this interior set, which we knew was going to be a build in studio feel like you’re really still in the place. Part of that was these big windows, which was great as an idea, but then you have to actually do it, which is terrifying because [outside the windows are the walls of] the studio and we weren’t super interested in the idea of doing blue screen or green screen or having every shot be a visual effects shot. So what myself, Jane and Grant and Jay Hawkins, our visual effects supervisor, did, even though it wasn’t visual effects, was to do backdrops – print photos from the location and put them outside the windows, these kind of billboard-sized landscapes that we planned very particularly.

The amazing result was was this optical illusion where you’re standing in a studio and you’re looking out the window and you’re seeing the same place we shot in in the South Island. And when you’re lighting something and a part of the frame is missing for the blue screen or green screen and you have to imagine it later it’s going to be something, it’s really hard to light in a satisfying way. I think I can be riskier when I can see it all — the brightness of the landscape and make the inside dark and create that whole atmosphere, [which] is really key for Jane and for this film. So having those backdrops out there was really key to the atmosphere of just being able to stand on that set and being able to see the landscapes. You’re there as much as you can be.

The obvious contrast is between light and dark, but there are also these big landscapes paralleled with intimate shots. Were you think about visual extremes throughout this and how they could inform one another?

Absolutely. This is definitely a film about big and small. It’s a film with a lot of beautiful, epic landscape wides and a huge amount of really important macro shots, but on a thematic level as well, it’s about these people in this really big landscape and what we’re really watching is the look of one person to another or a smile that you’re interpreting — [these] really micro nuanced interactions in this huge, huge place, so everything from mountains down to the microscopic things Peter’s interested in, that takes a real kind of focus and quiet to tune into that visually and know how we’re going to capture that. You can probably see that in the long lens exteriors and also the long lens macro work we did as well.

As a visual motif, I loved the angle from Phil’s bedroom upstairs, which has an almost predatory view to the front door and to the piano where Rose can be – how did you figure out that shot? It’s such a great power dynamic.

Yeah, there is a classic power dynamic that happens when someone is down and someone is up, but then again, I think Phil is someone who is so powerful, he can be powerful anywhere like when Peter and Phil first meet at the restaurant, there’s Peter first standing and Phil’s sitting – he’s someone who can control anyone with his menace, no matter where his body is. But we designed very specifically for those scenes and what’s actually important there is actually less and the up and down and more it’s that Phil is a really smart person and a mastermind bully. It’s described very well in the book where he talks about how Phil loves to get someone’s goat and it doesn’t take him long to figure Rose out and to know where her insecurities are. Then for Rose, it’s having that person who knows her weaknesses and that person’s in your head all the time. They’re there all the time, so when they’re actually there, it’s terrifying and when they’re not there, you’re asking yourself where are they.

Like the dinner party [scene], Phil’s absent for so much of it, but his absence is deafening and we wanted to make a film that in many ways is really a monster film where you’re really asking yourself where is the monster? Where in the house? How safe are you right now? That’s something we kept in mind even when on some days we didn’t have Benedict — or Phil — on set, we were always aware at this point in the story where Phil is in the house. [Having] Phil in the back in the mind constantly really infuses into the room because he’s such a big presence and he has that much of an effect on Rose.

The dinner party scene is extraordinary for a number of reasons, one of the most obvious being a long take in which you linger on Rose as she sits at the table and feels completely isolated from the rest of the room. From what I understand, Jane will shoot for the edit, so you’ll cut down the amount of camera set-ups for any given scene, so does a scene like that emerge from that kind of focus?

The dinner party was always going to be an essential tentpole kind of scene in the film and it’s really Rose’s worst nightmare come true, so it’s like how do you find shots that allow you to be in her experience. That might not necessarily be by being close to her all the time, that might be to feel how lonely she is when she is sitting at the table and everyone has left and moved their chairs so they can listen to her play piano. So where do you put the camera to tell [where] the social pressure that comes? The fear, the loneliness, the isolation, the expectation, what’s a shot that could tell all that? Then to find the blocking as well — where people move in the room and when they move is not always specified in a script, but Jane and I talked a lot, at least in theory before we had the actors with us about where and when they’d move. Obviously, we’re flexible and actors have way better ideas than we had – that is to say that the actors and the camera need to be in sync in whatever we’re trying to do. There’s another shot I really love where the camera is kind of pushing in on Rose at the piano, but it’s only going when she’s playing and when she stops, the camera stops, so we’re trying to be in her experience in order to feel an emotional connection to her. I think that’s one of the beauties of cinema as well. You get to hopefully be inside of an experience that you can’t and for a couple hours, you’re transported to at least what we imagine kind of is what it’s like for Rose to be at that time and place and who she is at that point.