“The Best Way to Fight the Sun is With the Sun”: DP Ari Wegner on The Power of the Dog
In The Power of the Dog, a Montana rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who compensates for his repressed desires with hypermasculine cruelty has his isolated domain punctured by the arrival of his brother’s new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Based on Thomas Savage’s 1920s-set novel, the film is director Jane Campion’s first feature in 12 years. As a condition of shooting Campion’s welcome return, cinematographer Ari Wegner committed to a full year of prep with the director. They spent weeks on location on the remote South Island of New Zealand, getting to know the light during the season in which they’d be shooting. They shared references, everything from Andrew Wyeth paintings to Robert Bresson films to the turn-of-the-century photographs of Evelyn Cameron. The final month before production, they sequestered themselves in a cabin near the location and storyboarded the entire film. They’d draw in the morning, act out the scenes themselves to discover blocking, walk over to the still-under-construction sets to take photographs, then adjust the boards again.
Even with that elongated, meticulous preparation, Wegner still found spontaneous inspiration all around her. She found it in the way the light came into her room during a two-week pandemic quarantine, in the way the dust from her old sweater filled the air if she shook it in front of the camera just before a take, in the way the cows parted like the Red Sea as the film’s cattle wrangler walked through them.
With The Power of the Dog now streaming on Netflix, Wegner spoke to Filmmaker about the inspiration behind some of the movie’s most memorable images.
Filmmaker: I want to start with two questions about this extended storyboarding process. What’s one image that remained unchanged from the first time it was drawn up until it was captured on camera? And what’s one image that was never on a board or a shot list, something you just found on the day?
Wegner: One storyboarded image that comes to mind is a shot of Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the barn [toward the end of the film] with the rope in the foreground and Peter staring at it. That was an enduring image from the get-go.
Then, something we found on the day: there’s a shot right towards the end of the film where Peter is alone on the ranch. It’s a very long lens shot with the Burbank family ranch house very small in the center and this huge mountain range beyond. We were actually setting up a different shot, doing some lighting while we waited for dark to fall to prepare for the shot where Phil comes out of the saloon [in the town of Beech], which we built on the same property as the ranch house. It was insanely windy, you could hardly stand up. I had gone to the bathroom and when I stepped out and turned around there was this incredible light falling on the house behind where the camera was set up. At that point, we’d actually finished shooting at the house and they were beginning the work of tearing it down, because we had to restore the property to the state we found it in. So, there was a team of builders climbing all over it, literally throwing bits of wood down, and lots of crew vehicles and things in the way. But I knew that we could restore it in post. We actually never built the entire roof of the house. The roof and chimneys were always going to be a VFX extension, so any shot of the house was going to need visual effects work. I just knew that if I could get the mountains and the center of the house, everything else could be fixed. It was also so windy that, because we were on an incredibly long lens, you could see the image vibrating, so we were bracing the camera to stop it.
It’s one of my favorite shots in the film and it comes at a really special moment where you suddenly see the ranch in a different way. There’s a sense of peace in a place that’s been very tense before that moment. I didn’t know when I shot it where it would go [in the edit]. I just knew that the shot could be really iconic and beautiful.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen the film twice now and that first shot you mentioned—the rope in the foreground, Peter watching it intently—takes on such a different meaning when you experience the movie a second time.
Wegner: One hundred percent. I’m so glad you saw it again and had that experience, because that was one of the big aspirations Jane and I had when we were boarding and making the film. We really wanted to find a way that this film would be able to be seen again and be a different experience. We wanted [rewatching it to be like] eating the same meal but now it has a whole new flavor. That’s something that was very much at the front of my mind when we were choosing shots and designing it. How is this going to feel the first time, and how might it feel the second time?
Filmmaker: Phil [Cumberbatch] is cold and hard on the outside but vulnerable on the inside, and Peter is sort of the opposite of that. Tell me about the way you introduce those characters. The first two shots of Phil are wide shots at the Burbank ranch— a tracking shot from inside the barn that looks out at Phil and the mountain range in the distance, then the second shot is Phil walking toward the house. With Peter, first it’s a close-up of strips of paper, followed by a close-up of Peter crafting that paper into a flower.
Wegner: With Phil, we wanted to feel his presence in this place and how it’s part of his identity. Even in the way he walks, there’s a sense of entitlement, a sense of ownership. He’s the big man around here and we trusted that you would feel that in his physicality (even in those wide shots). I think his whole silhouette is very iconic, these wooly pants and the hat. At first you think he’s a cowboy, a ranch man with a classic kind of look, which is part of this idea of a first impression that you form through seeing these images that you later realize isn’t entirely accurate.
Peter working with the flowers gives the impression of this delicate, gentle soul who’s also very precise and meticulous. Jane always talked about wanting to see this kind of innocence in the first shot of him. He’s in this moment that borders between boy and man, but there’s something very childlike about him. There’s also a femininity to him and we planned this lovely little eye light in his eyes for his first close-up. That eye light, actually, came from the two weeks I spent in quarantine on my way back to New Zealand (after we resumed shooting following a COVID shutdown). I spent two weeks in one room and there was a certain moment in the day when the sun would come in and I saw that eyelight effect in my own eyes. There was also something about seeing Kodi’s beautiful eyelashes and the eyelashes of the paper that again sets up, purely through imagery, expectations and assumptions about the character.
Filmmaker: That first close-up of the paper being cut is another example of a shot that takes on another layer of meaning the second time through. The strips of paper resemble the strips of hide that Phil cuts for his rope. Peter is also cutting up sheet music and the piano becomes one of Phil’s methods of tormenting Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Also, that first shot of Phil—the tracking shot looking out the barn—is repeated the last time we see Phil on the property.
Wegner: Yeah, I love repeating shots or framing as a way of reminding people how much has changed. It’s very much the magic and power of cinema that your mind remembers, “Oh, I’ve seen this before.” and subconsciously realizes that the world is a very different place now from when you last saw that image.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked in other interviews about how in some ways this is a monster movie and Phil is the monster. Some of the shots inside the Burbank house do almost feel like they come from a Gothic horror film. Were most of the house interiors done on stage?
Wegner: The only rooms we also built on location were the kitchen and cowboy dining room. The rest of the interiors were all on a stage in Auckland. There is a Gothic and noir element to it. I was so blessed to have our production designer, Grant Major, create this house for us.
One of the big challenges of shooting in studio, especially when the main set is a really vast landscape, is creating the sense that you’re not in a studio. You want all that dust you would see in the air [in a real place]. I would constantly, just before a take, jump up and shake something like an old pillow around to get that real dust in the air. I had this one jumper sweater I would sometimes take off and shake in the air right before we’d roll. (laughs) I’m obsessive and I’m sure there’s a lot of hilarious footage of me doing weird things between takes.
Filmmaker: The saloon that the Burbank outfit visits when they first ride into Beech looks so different than your classic western watering hole. There’s a wide shot of Phil’s men that has these deep shadows and a cowboy in the foreground lighting up a cigarette that looks like Caravaggio painted a saloon tableau. I love that shot.
Wegner: Maybe it’s because I’m Australian, but I’m used to this kind of intense summer sun outside, then everything feeling dark when you come inside. We really embraced that idea. It feels very real to me. Then we designed that kind of amber window [tinting] that would cast a warm, yellowy glow onto the scene. I love the darkness all around but putting little glints of light in the frame, especially in the eyes or in the details, like on the shot glasses on the bar.
Filmmaker: How did you approach lighting Rose’s Red Mill restaurant, where the men all congregate after the cattle drive in Beech? I believe this was on stage, but you create very convincing sunlight.
Wegner: That was on stage. For the wide shots [that saw] out the windows we put printed backdrops of panoramic photos that our VFX supervisor, Jason Hawkins, took down on location on the South Island of New Zealand. We printed them on big vinyl billboards and moved them around the studio to be what we’d see out the windows. First I’d light them and that would bounce some light inside. Then we introduced some sun with HMIs coming in through the windows. For me, reality is imperfection, so you want the sun to come in but in kind of an odd way. If something feels too perfect, I tend to mess it up a bit. Then we hit Peter’s flowers on the table with a top light from a Leko bounced into the Cine Reflect Lighting System (CRLS). It’s so terrifying to see Phil pick those flowers up because, from that first scene with Peter, you know how much care he put into them. And as soon as Phil takes an interest in them, you know it’s not going to go well.
Filmmaker: Christian Berger is the only cinematographer I’ve talked to about using the CRLS, which is a system of varying reflectors used to bounce light. Did you use it more for specials like that flower top light or did you use it in situations to key as well?
Wegner: I used them for a lot of things. I met Jakob Ballinger, who’s Christian’s gaffer, many years ago and he introduced me to this system. I love bouncing light in general, so I would use them wherever I could. It’s an amazing tool. We used them a lot outside as well, when we were down in the South Island, to redirect the sun. The sun is so powerful that I think the best way to fight the sun is with the sun. When you’ve got those mirrors, you can redirect the sun onto whatever you desire.
Filmmaker: The dinner party scene where Rose is expected to play piano for the guests is almost unbearable to watch. There’s two great shots before she leaves the dinner table to play. In the first, from the point of view of the piano room, we see the guests picking up their chairs and carrying them into the room as Rose sits alone at the dinner table with a top light on her that almost feels like a spotlight. Then you cut to the reverse with Rose in the foreground at the table and the guests in the background settling into their chairs.
Wegner: Jane and I talked a lot about how to do that scene and how we would really anchor ourselves in Rose’s experience. I think that’s why it’s so unbearable to watch, because it really is unbearable for her. It’s her worst nightmare. Like you said, the spotlight is on her and the crosshairs are on her, almost literally, in the frame. When you’re looking through the camera, there are crosshairs in the middle of the frame to tell you where the center is and we put Rose right in those crosshairs. It wasn’t in the original script, but we came up with this idea that they would all take their chairs, literally leaving her alone, and put them ready to watch the show to the point where she really has no choice but to go over. You really feel all eyes on her.
Filmmaker: Thomas Savage’s novel opens with a description of Phil castrating a cow, but in the film that act comes later, just as Peter is arriving for an extended stay at the ranch. There’s this great shot of Phil coming from the distance walking directly toward the camera and all the cattle that are in his way part to make a path for him.
Wegner: That was a shot inspired by our cattle wrangler, Lyle, an American guy who was with us. He did that exact action, walking through the cattle and them parting, and Jane asked him, “Do you think we could get Benedict to do that?” Generally, putting actors near a lot of animals is something you want to avoid for safety reasons. Animals are so intuitive. They sense whether you’re confident or not. They’re either going to move or they’re not. That was really a moment of truth for Benedict, that even the cows could feel Phil’s power and moved out of the way.