What a fantastic cackle Jane Campion has. The only woman twice nominated for a best director Oscar could come off a bit austere: colossal CV, monochrome uniform, touch of Michael Haneke to the knitwear. But that laugh! It first barks out in the introductions then sticks around the whole time, so infectious you start guffawing at things that aren’t funny. It’s warm and straightforward, and so is she.
When I come into the room, Campion is hugging Ari Wegner on the couch. Wegner, 38, was the director of photography (DOP) on The Power of the Dog; she wears a padded kimono, blue grandad shirt and bright red trousers. Campion is recounting how she went to Tate Britain and ate this and that and isn’t it great New Zealand has reopened its borders! “It’s fabulous! Til the next lurgy-burgy or whatever!” Omicron is no match for Kiwi bonhomie.
Wegner seems almost as lovestruck as I am, and she has spent nearly two years with Campion, first preparing The Power of the Dog, then shooting it in New Zealand, including a four-month break at the start of the pandemic.
They are in town on an awards push. Does The Power of the Dog need it? Not really. It has 12 Oscar nominations, the most of any film this year, and few would bet against it winning picture, director, cinematography, score, adapted screenplay, editing and more besides. Also nominated is Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as Phil Burbank, a bullying rancher in 1925 Montana; and for best supporting actor, Jesse Plemons, as his mild brother, George, and also Kirsten Dunst as George’s new wife, Rose, who buckles beneath Phil’s hostility.
But perhaps a surer bet for a win is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, Rose’s delicate son, whom Phil first persecutes then begins to regale with tales of his dead mentor, Bronco Henry, whose prize saddle he buffs nightly.
If Campion wins the Oscar, she’ll be only the third woman to do so, following Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 and Chloé Zhao last year. Wegner is only the second female cinematographer to ever be nominated. I begin by asking how comfortable they feel with all the glass-ceiling chat.
Jane Campion: I don’t think about it. People love to talk about records. Personally, I don’t. But I’m really proud of Ari, because she’s only 12 years old.
Ari Wegner: Almost 13.
JC: She’s the first woman to finally crack that ceiling and it needs to go. There’s nothing that a woman DOP can’t do.
AW: Art should be genderless. [All that matters is] if you have a skill and a passion for something.
JC: What’s exciting is that it’s no longer charitable to support a woman film-maker – it’s a wise business choice. We don’t wanna be like: “Why don’t we have an award for the best woman film-maker?” I’m sorry. I am not gonna go for that. That’s disgusting. It’s ridiculous. I think the change is about the #MeToo movement and busting up of sexual abuse and the calling out and realisation of the enormous inequities. Women have been emboldened by that.
Catherine Shoard: Do you think the tastes of the Academy have evolved because of their diversity push? With the big wins for Nomadland and Parasite in the past two years?
JC: I don’t know. Go back one year further and it’s Green Book! It’s always a mystery. We can’t see into the minds of the Academy. They vote with their hearts. We hope they vote for us! But it’s all a plus for film. [The Oscars] bring people into cinemas – or on to the Academy online screening room at least. And it’s been such a buzz to have made something that people go deeply into. Not everybody, obviously, but a great many more than I would’ve ever expected.
JC: Well, I thought it was a good story and I know some people only really responded to it in that way, but the rest is really rich and I would’ve thought maybe off-putting for more straight punters. But when I arrived in London, the guy at the passport desk said: “Love Power of the Dog by the way. Absolutely wonderful film.” Normally they say: “You’re a film-maker? Anything I’d have seen?” I doubt it!
CS: So what do you see of yourselves in each other?
AW: We both definitely love homework.
JC: The sense of satisfaction you’ve really explored something. Shooting is an amazing opportunity and it feels very hollow if you haven’t bothered to figure it out. Ari is super-interested in the power of preparation. It’s like being marinated in different ideas and possibilities. When we got to shoot, I got so scared because I was like: “I don’t know what to do!” And then you realise: “Oh, it’s kicking in. I can feel it!” It’s like you trained your intuition.
CS: Is that more common among women? Do men wing it more?
JC: Broadly, I would sort of agree with you, but if I’m trying to think of the examples, I’m not sure. [Guillermo] Del Toro does a really obsessive amount of prep. But it’s really about artists with vision and artists with swagger. But I have seen a lot of people go: “Hey, I’m directing a movie! I know the DOP will help me fix it and look good. I’ve got a good budget and good actors and it’s gonna come together.” They don’t really know what their job is or how you create a vision.
CS: How critical for the crew is it that the director and DOP are in sync?
JC: I don’t like to think about what the crew is doing. I didn’t know hardly any of them, except for Ari and the heads of department and my first assistant, who’s so essential to my confidence and making the film happen. With the crew, I’m really always trying not to care what they think. I’m not there to please them. But I did get the impression that as time went on, they got more committed. Some of the young women actually said it was exciting to see us work together and how much everything meant and how the decisions were so well thought out. It made them want to shift their game up.
CS: It sounds quite different from the kind of lawlessness we’ve heard about recently on the sets of, say, Mad Max: Fury Road and Rust.
JC: I think [that kind of set] probably does exist. I’ve never had one myself. The stories behind Rust are just so tragic. There is a lot of pressure at times, and that’s a really bad thing when you’ve got lethal weapons. I don’t even see why they need bullets of any kind on set.
AW: I’ve never been on a kind of wild west type of set. I find [most sets are] actually quite a well-oiled machine, because there’s too much at stake.
JC: I like a really soft set because it’s actor-friendly. We are here to capture their performance and without them feeling safe and listened to and looked after, we’re not gonna get it. I remember saying to [production designer] Grant Major, when we were doing the costume and makeup checks: “I don’t wanna see that clapperboard!” It’s put in front of an actor and goes: “CLAP!” Horrible! He said: “Oh, I get where we’re going. This is gonna be very different …”
CS: Were there other measures you took?
JC: No phones on set. They’re just so incredibly distracting. Energy drains. When we were doing Top of the Lake we didn’t have a rule like that and you’d look around and everybody was slouched on couches just absorbed in their world and their phones. [On The Power of the Dog] if you moved yourself out of the way of the sightline of everybody who’s working hard that moment, or you went to your car, you could check your phone. But you’re paid to be working.
AW: I think people actually enjoyed not having them, though there is a lot of downtime on sets.
JC: People used to use a lot of drugs to get through the very long hours. But it’s not really me; I’ve always felt I was so lucky to be doing this that you’ve gotta put everything you’ve got into it. Though it could be kind of fun to do it really stoned …
AW: I can’t think of anything worse!
JC: It could be kind of cool. The funny thing is you have to care and not care because caring can become too pressuring on the day.
AW: As much as you can prepare and there’s a safety net with the storyboards, there’s so much you can’t know until all the elements are in front of you. And you want to be open to the possibility that a new, better idea is gonna come to you.
JC: There are films that are pre-visualised and have already created every facet of their world. So there is no dance with chance. And I think that’s sort of sad. We had a dance with the weather, and we thought that was the big dance. Then the pandemic came along.
CS: Beyond the logistics, did that change your approach to the story?
JC: Yeah. It was an amazing opportunity for reflection, apart from feeling a bit bummed because it felt possible Netflix would say: “Oh, don’t bother finishing it.” Nobody knew where we were heading. But once we got the idea that things in New Zealand were getting very stable very quickly and Netflix said to keep going, then we had a look at what the editor put together. It’s a desperate thing to look at. Painful because it looks shitty. But you’re learning a lot about what we were enjoying and what we needed more of and less of. I always think of the Muhammad Ali quote: “Dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” And what I finally realised was that the dance was Ari and my dancing with circumstances and then the sting was when we stood as close to Phil as we could.
CS: In the film, Phil says that man is made by patience and the odds against him. Do you agree?
JC: I never really think like that. It feels like a 1920s, Reader’s Digest kind of way of thinking. It’s Phil’s language, not mine. But I love it in terms of their characters. Phil at this moment is just trying to rub Peter’s nose in the fact that his mother’s an alcoholic, but at the same time they’re becoming friends.
CS: You’ve said you thought Thomas Savage [who wrote the 1967 novel on which the film is based] would be OK with your directing the film as he was quite a feminine man. Could you talk any more about making a western – one concerned with definitions of masculinity – as a woman?
JC: I got a lot of comfort realising it’s a very subversive piece of work written by a gay man who was secreted on a ranch. Savage knows Phil because he actually could break horses, but he also was a tennis-shoe-wearing effete. He really did go to a ranch with his mother and lived with a guy very similar to Phil as his uncle. So you get the feeling that he’s writing about what he knows in a pretty spectacular way and also peeling that onion of masculinity. Taking layer and layer off until you find what’s underneath, which is vulnerability. Overt masculinity is sometimes performative. And that necessity to perform as a male – I don’t like it. It’s pretty tough.
AW: I think there’s a lot that’s universal and timeless in Phil’s vulnerability and also in what happens to people that you’ve known who aren’t here any more.
CS: I was struck watching it again by how much Bronco Henry lives on after death.
JC: I used to be obsessed with imagining what happened between Bronco Henry and Phil. I had my own fantasies about it and I think Ben[edict Cumberbatch] had his too, which are quite different. I saw a picture of the man people thought might have been the model for Bronco Henry and he looked like Clark Gable. Super confident, dash, big woolies.
CS: He must have been considerably older than Phil.
JC: Yeah, I think Phil is gonna be Peter’s Bronco Henry. He charged Peter up with a lot of agency.
CS: The shot of him putting the rope Phil made for him under the bed …
JC: It’s quite eroticised. That rope, man! That’s such an object. You’re making a rope out of the hides of the beasts that you grow on the ranch. It’s sort of like a proof of masculinity because you use it to get animals into submission.
AW: And it’s made from their own skin!
CS: It’s so fetishistic. Did you ever worry about overdoing all the leather and ropes and chaps?
JC: I encouraged it! I loved it because they looked like satyrs. And when I looked at the pictures from the period, big woolies are really common; I guess Montana’s super-cold. So wearing a sheep on each leg is sort of helpful. You see Peter starting to wear these wrist leather things, God knows what for. People love gear. Now they love running shoes. Gear, stuff!
CS: Some people have suggested viewers have been confused by the ending because they’ve seen the film at home, on their TVs, while doing other things.
JC: When I read the book, I had to go back to it, wondering if I missed something, because it was such a kind of a shock. So I did try to give that experience in the film. I remember when I saw No Country for Old Men I had to keep watching it again because I wasn’t quite sure I’d understood. And I found that rewarding.
AW: That experience of slowly realising Phil has died; people aren’t expecting that.
CS: The shot of him being shaved in his coffin, eyes slightly open, is amazing.
JC: I love that. I saw the eyes slightly open thing in a lot of western photographs of dead people. I really wanted that moment of seeing Phil as a body, not able to control anything any more and being made to look like every other man. Sort of like: oh my God, what is it all about?
CS: What is it all about?
JC: Hubris. Thinking you can control things. Nope!