The film world was shaken when Jane Campion’s long-awaited return premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. The successful trajectory of The Power of the Dog was set after Campion won the Silver Lion at the event, making way for a slew of endless nominations and wins. The film’s themes resonated with people around the globe as more and more eyes were able to gaze upon its beauty, before finally arriving on Netflix last December. Jane Campion is best known for her Oscar-winning work on The Piano along with a range of other acclaimed films like The Portrait of a Lady and Bright Star. With The Power of the Dog, Campion sets her sights on the Western, a genre steeped in masculinity. Campion is able to contort the genre’s rules and unveil a deeper, engaging story that challenges what audiences are used to with Westerns, and this couldn’t have been achieved so successfully without cinematographer Ari Wegner.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Ari Wegner to discuss her Oscar-nominated work on the film. Throughout our conversation, Wegner talked extensively about her working relationship with Campion, their shared year-long preparation, and how the visual aesthetics of The Power of the Dog came to be. In an absolutely stacked awards season for cinematography, Wegner’s work is of its own kind. Furthermore, she is only the second woman to ever be nominated in the cinematography Oscar category. Her superb talent this year is recognized alongside the awe-inspiring visuals seen in Dune, Nightmare Alley, West Side Story, and The Tragedy of Macbeth – making this an even more monumental occasion.
Just to start, I was wondering, how did you first get involved with Jane Campion on The Power Of The Dog?
Ari Wegner: We had done a commercial together, actually, a few years before. We both did our own things for a few years and then she called me out of the blue saying that she has a film, a book she’d read, that she was starting to adapt, and would I be interested in talking more? Obviously, I said yes.
Can you talk about your working relationship with Jane on The Power of the Dog, what was the collaborative process like?
Ari Wegner: We had worked together before, but we didn’t really know each other well. We had a year to do all the prep, so part of that was really getting to know each other. A film set is a really high-pressure environment, but when you have someone who you’re really good friends with, who’s your sidekick, then it can be high-pressure without being high stress. It was really our mission to always protect each other, from whatever that meant. To be looking out for each other, so that’s the personal side of it.
Jane is a super collaborative person – she really is – and I know a lot of people who think of themselves as collaborative but sometimes they’re actually not. She really encourages ideas from everyone, whether that’s the visual effects supervisor or anyone at all; she’s open to hearing what someone’s recommendation would be and then once she has all that information, she can choose what her instincts are telling her. She has incredible instincts and is very in tune with them. Often, the things she’ll say when she’s describing a shot, she probably would say things like, “It feels too cold or it feels too distant,” more than something like “too wide.” You become a good translator for them. So we had a very tight collaboration and Jane is an absolute pleasure to work with and just a great person in general; beautiful energy, very contagious, and calm.
You said that you were brought on a year before, so you obviously knew the project very well. Then with the actors coming on board, what was the dynamic like on set?
Ari Wegner: It depends a bit on set because there’s also the camera operator as well. On a set day, I’m very busy and I would love to give the actors more love in my conversation and attention, but my love for them goes into the work and the lighting of them, and the attention to detail I’m getting. So I get to become friends with them after the film, more than during the film because there’s so much to do. Five minutes on a film set feels like an eternity. So having a great camera operator is amazing because they can be a little piece of me.
I want it to be a warm, calm, and safe environment. So what I prioritize is a very quiet and respectful set that the actors are the priority once they arrive. We find ways to communicate that won’t disrupt the energy of the room, because that’s also something that Jane is very in touch with. My apologies to any actor who thinks that I’m disinterested in them, it’s just that I’m putting all my love into lighting their face.
Moving deeper into your visual aesthetics, obviously you were working with Jane for a long time prior to shooting, so can you talk about some of your choices in The Power of the Dog?
Ari Wegner: There are millions and millions of choices that you can make. In the big picture, what’s amazing about having all that prep time is that you can make really informed and sought-out choices that you’ve really thought about. It’s a bit like throwing a stone into a pond, you make one choice but all the choices that then come off that you might not have thought of before. Some of those implications might be like a year later when you get to the color grade or something. So having time to really think about all the choices and also crosscheck them with the different departments and with Jane was really special.
You can see something like the scene where Rose is playing the piano and Phil is playing the banjo to mess with her head, we imagined that shot looking down at Rose very early on over the balustrade. So we start designing the house knowing that’s a shot we want to create. At the start of the scene, you see Rose closing all these doors, so that’s also something that has to be in the house. Also, we needed to find a tune that works for banjo and piano that could be whistled. Jane worked with Jonny Greenwood to come up with that, and then gave the actors time to practice it. Then, Jane and I came up with the coverage and the shots for the best tension, everything from what we’ll see out the windows and how much we see and whether that should be a blue screen or backdrops or have them be blurred out windows.
Every frame has so many decisions; some of those decisions are made a moment before we roll and some of them happen a year before we roll. We wanted to make a film that had the audience engagement that jane and I both love. It’s a film where you’re watching quite actively and it’s quite satisfying as a viewer – you are the one joining the dots in whatever way you think they join. The film’s not telling you exactly what to think about something, as a viewer, you’re on this journey of collecting pieces of information. You start to build a picture or image of someone and what they’re capable of. It’s satisfying to be wrong, but not be tricked.
So a light touch is necessary to have a viewer feel, especially when you get to the end, that it’s a surprise but you don’t feel tricked or there was no way you could have seen that coming. It feels very possible, even though it’s a surprise; it feels almost inevitable even though you didn’t see it coming. In many ways, we have to form an attachment to Phil and be in his head, so that we don’t find out until he does, what’s happened. We had aspirations and we had ideas of how that might work, but there’s also no recipe or formula. So you’re really hoping that all those thousands of choices and decisions add up to the effect you were hoping for the audience. It’s super satisfying to hear people give their feedback.
The Power of the Dog was shot digitally, but in multiple cinemas around the world they’ve been screening film prints. Have you seen any of these prints and what are your thoughts on having the digital being transferred to film?
Ari Wegner: I haven’t seen it all as a whole in the cinema. We did a bunch of tests at Photo Chem in LA, I was involved with looking at those. I love the different formats, actually, because I think a great film can work on any kind of platform. In the cinema, I have a real soft spot for film being projected, but it is quite a subtle effect. I love the look of it, it’s very gentle and something that I don’t think can be replicated well digitally.
You mentioned the love of getting feedback, so how did you feel when you got the big Oscar nomination as well as the BAFTA win, was it gratifying to see years of work pulled off?
Ari Wegner: Absolutely. It’s very surreal, it’s the kind of thing you dream of maybe happening one day but it feels almost too wild of a dream to say it. It’s very satisfying, especially because I followed my instincts to do all that prep. I know Jane wanted someone that was available for a year, but it was a real choice of mine to not do anything else and devote myself to the preparation. I’m glad that I can see that choice as well in the film and that my instinct, that this could be something super special, was correct. Also, for all my crew that worked in some really tough conditions and went above and beyond to support Jane and I, there’s something super satisfying to know that they also made the right choice to come aboard and go all in.
When going into a film you have to build sets and find locations, so I was wondering about how you found your main location with the mountains, was it a matter of going on scouts or did you both already have ideas of where to shoot The Power of the Dog in New Zealand?
Ari Wegner: We were in the South Island, New Zealand. Actually, it’s a part of the world that Jane and I both know quite well. Jane lives not far from there and I’ve shot there and lived in New Zealand as well before. But also, it’s the kind of place where there are so many gorgeous places, no one’s been down every single farm road. We had some amazing location scouts that gave us a shortlist because there are some practical considerations as well. You need to find somewhere to shoot where the people who own the land are open to you disrupting their lives for a good few months. Also, you need to find a place where it’s not so remote that there’s nowhere for people to stay and live because we’re bringing a lot of people down there and also for the build.
But the most interesting thing was, for me, during the early days of knowing Jane, what I was saying about her instincts, she has such great gut instincts and is able to listen to them even in the noisiest environment. We had seen some other mountain ranges, which were so insanely spectacular, but this one is a lot more humble in many ways. The way that Jane works is, rather than taking hundreds of photos, actually being in the place, sitting down and having a snack, seeing if it feels good to be there. Does it feel like the kind of place that Phil would get attached to?
What the site offered was this group of pine trees and some other little buildings, it just felt like such a good place. And the mountains being almost close enough to touch and not so distant that you wouldn’t feel a personal, emotional attachment to them in the way that Phil does. I think for our film, he thinks of them as his mountains and we needed something that felt humble enough to have that as well. So yeah, I love location scouting, it’s one of my favorite things.