On the Journey: The Power of the Dog Producer Tanya Seghatchian
As a young woman, Tanya Seghatchian remembers laughing, crying and suffocating through Jane Campion’s early work, a cinematic compass she had internalized by the time she began her first job for the BBC—researching a two-part TV documentary about John Ford, pioneer of the American western. Over the years, Seghatchian’s trajectory expanded across genres and scales, from coproducing the first two Harry Potter films and executive producing more than 20 episodes of The Crown to producing Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love and Cold War, the latter of which was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film, in 2019. It wasn’t until Seghatchian found herself beside Jane Campion in New Zealand, working on a film set in the American West, that she realized she’d been led back to where it all began.
Set in 1925 Montana, The Power of the Dog—based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name—has jaw-dropping performances from Benedict Cumberbach, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst. Two brothers run a ranch together while their cattle business appears to be booming. Unexpressed tensions that have stifled their relationship become poisoned interactions when a new wife and her son are introduced onto the homestead. Weaving together an astonishing display of multilayered emotional complexity, Campion compellingly creates a lifetime of behavior in every frame.
Working as a producer/director team for the first time, Seghatchian and Campion began shooting on location in New Zealand during January 2020 and resumed production after a several-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Power of the Dog is now open in theaters and online from Netflix.
Filmmaker: I read that you were in a theater group called Footlights when you were a student at Cambridge. Were you interested in writing and performing back then, or did you know you were more interested in producing?
Seghatchian: I was interested in doing all of it, but rapidly went from wanting to perform to producing—I think because the Footlights are a legendary comedy group and, well, I wasn’t terribly funny. But I could see how funny everybody else was, and had an instinct that I could be entrepreneurial with the company and help at a time when we didn’t have a huge amount of money. I learned how to put on a show, promote a show, bring in sponsorship, run budgets—a lot of practical elements of producing, which I didn’t know would be the shape of my future but realize, with hindsight, were incredibly helpful.
Filmmaker: What drew you to wanting to work in film?
Seghatchian: I was always passionate about films and had watched all the classics in rep cinemas and on TV growing up. When I left university, I had the early works of Jane Campion in my sight. But looking at what was going on around me in the U.K., there weren’t many opportunities in features. But there was inspiring work happening in television, like Pawel Pawlikowski’s documentary films for the BBC. So, I followed his path and began my career in documentaries, working at the BBC and for The South Bank Show, a program about the arts. I was researching, writing, producing stories about filmmakers or writers for British television. It was an incredible education, really, because I got to talk to people about how they did what they did. I got to study their full biographies. I had all these archived films and documentaries at my disposal. I had access to information and equipment at a time when it was very hard to get access to both of those things. And I got paid to do it.
Filmmaker: Fast-forwarding in time to your work on The Power of The Dog. I heard you once say that you look for material that takes you on a journey. But it’s also the relationship with a director that can feel like a journey, and I’ve heard you speak of the creative synergy between you and Jane Campion. How much is that synergy about filmmaking taste versus how much is it about your personal relationship with each other—shared values, communication styles, aligned temperaments?
Seghatchian: With Jane specifically, I think it’s a combination. We do have a sort of symbiotic energy that works together, which has come from me having watched her work all my adult life and being profoundly influenced by it. She has a way of seeing which is, I think, unlike any other. From the days of Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, the first iteration in her way of filmmaking was remarkable. Her voice was so uncommon and original, and I absorbed that and realized that was a way of seeing. Then, from The Piano through to Bright Star, I think she was able to encompass and access so much of the romantic imagination and big emotions I had previously only found voiced through literature. We both love literature, and when we became friends, we talked a lot about books. In addition to a shared literary passion, we also share the desire to be creatively playful together, which is really important to her—that the process is about intimately sharing every step of the way, being able to weather the vicissitudes of filmmaking together, whether they are the good bits or the terrifying bits. And I think you can only have that confidence together if you see the world the same way.
Filmmaker: How did you facilitate open space on set so that Jane felt free to take creative risks?
Seghatchian: It starts really early, not just on set. We found something that we love, then tried to work out how to make a journey that is the best expression of that love—that is, both robust enough in terms of process, but open enough in terms of vision to be able to be flexible. It started with the story and script. We both read the book and managed to secure the rights. She lives in the Antipodes, I live in England, but she came and moved into my house. For two weeks, we sat down and broke down the novel together. We cut it up; we worked out what we wanted to keep, what we wanted to throw away. We did it on the kitchen table. It was informal, but formal. We hired a picture researcher, so we could ensure very early on that what we were doing was both thinking about the text and the images, and building up a way of seeing the story that she was then able to take into drafting. We were able to take the research into the prep very confidently. That trust meant she knew I knew the material as well as she did, so that when we hit problems or obstacles, I’d be intimately involved and able to help her make the right decisions and contribute creatively. Obviously, no one knows the material better than she does, but engagement and prep is key with Jane. I think that was also the sort of relationship she sought to create with Ari Wegner, the DP, and is a real indication of how Jane works because she’s very, very thorough. She’s very, very hardworking. And she really does look at it from every angle, so that she can be flexible when she needs to be flexible and to not take it so heavily on set.
Filmmaker: You’re not the kind of producer who does a deal and then turns up to the premiere. Jane is also a producer of the film. How do you balance creative intimacy with the logistical elements of literally making the film?
Seghatchian: It comes very naturally. I have to trust my instincts, because I think taste and instinct are all we’ve got. With Jane, and possibly other filmmakers I’ve worked with, they can feel that I really do love their work. It’s about trying to find the best expression of it, and to reasonably find it. I listen, then I try to enable in any way that I feel capable of doing. I’m incredibly honest with the filmmakers I work with, and with Jane, if I don’t think I know how to handle something, I’ll tell her, or if I think she’s wrong, I’ll tell her. All I know is I’m best when a filmmaker trusts me, and they seek me out because they know that I know how they make the work they make, why they do it and how to protect that. I’ll hire other people to help do the other bits that are more practical if I don’t think I can do it. Jane is a very good producer in her own right, so she knows how to make the right artistic compromises. But for both of us, what’s important is someone else to discuss everything with. Producing is a complex thing.
Filmmaker: Within the business, there’s often a lot of confusion around the role of a producer and the various identities a producer can assume. Strategically, were you ever having to shield Jane from certain issues as they arose in order to protect her space as the director?
Seghatchian: There are so many different ways of producing. In the end, you have to protect the vision. What you share and what you shield, and how you share and how you shield, depends on the size and nature of the film and story. It’s being realistic about why everybody who’s in it is in it and what they want to get out of it. If you aren’t all making the same thing with the same expectations and understanding, and you’re just on a train track that is the conventional process, it’s not necessarily going to work with great filmmakers who tend to swerve in different directions. You’re a producer. Why do you do what you do and how do you do it?
Filmmaker: I don’t know if I have a good answer. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Kafka, who said something like, “Just sit at your table and do nothing.”
Seghatchian: Seghatchian: Can you? I can’t, which might be why I do what I do.
Filmmaker: So, how do you deal with feeling depleted? The effort required to pull off any movie is taxing. You pulled off The Power of the Dog during a global pandemic. How do you keep your enthusiasm and love for the project alive?
Seghatchian: I’m very judicious about what I take on at the outset because, in my experience, it’s very hard to do something well if you’re not passionate about it. So, I’m very picky about what I actually produce. I have to know that I can go to bed and dream about it and think about it every day for at least two years—and potentially 10, realistically. When it gets tough, I lean on my family, basically. I’m very lucky. My producing partner is also my life partner—John [Woodward]. We work together and know the business, the reality of it, and it doesn’t impact our ability to be honest with each other. So, I have a really good support system in that sense. Also, a lot of my friends are filmmakers. Because they’re real friends, I’ll turn to them and ask for advice when it gets tricky or tough. Sometimes, the wisdom of another director or writer giving you the honesty of what they think is very helpful.
Filmmaker: Going backward in time, after some years working at the UK Film Council (now called the BFI) you left to focus on production. What were you looking to achieve at that time in your career?
Seghatchian: I discovered it was harder to be intimately involved with the filmmakers and own the process. Because I had so many things going on, my involvement with each film felt distant. So, although I could make a real substantial difference by spotting, investing and working with talent, I couldn’t live and breathe it in every day, and I wanted a bit more of that. I wanted to get back into being intimately involved creatively with filmmakers in a way I couldn’t do when I was spread thin. Having said that, I was also able to form relationships in that role with filmmakers like Jane (and Peter Morgan, who I went on to develop The Crown with), so it was indispensable in that sense.
Filmmaker: How do the skills you developed running the film fund translate to running productions?
Seghatchian: Producers never get to see what other producers do because you don’t really have a reason to know what’s on someone else’s slate or how they work or sell or support talent. But, because I found myself in a position where producers were coming to me all the time to talk about their projects, I got to see many different skills and ways producers tend to operate. To learn from the exposure to others probably made me clearer about where my strengths and weaknesses were, and also clearer about how I wanted to devote my time.
Filmmaker: With your background in government-subsidized cinema, how are you now negotiating a career dominated by streaming and changing viewer habits?
Seghatchian: I’ve had the negotiation of dealing with the studio and the indie system in the government-subsidized U.K., so I’ve always been used to working within two different models. But in the end, it comes back to the same thing: Who’s going to finance the story, who’s got the idea, how are you going to pay for the screenplay? Is someone going to do it speculatively, or do you need to take money for that to happen? If you do take money, whose money, and what are they taking for it? What does it mean, in terms of the implication for the nature of the territories, the production, SVOD rights, exhibition, etc.? All of the different models have to come into play, and they’re changing so rapidly that I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to sit back on systems that they learned two, five or 10 years ago. You have to constantly be aware that there is a changing landscape but also that everyone wants good material. So, it’s about how you best protect the development of the idea, or the IP or the script at the outset, because that’s where you build the foundations.
Filmmaker: You have a long-standing working relationship with Pawel Pawlikowski, another great auteur filmmaker. Is the business set up anymore to support the emerging careers of the next generation of auteur filmmakers?
Seghatchian: It’s definitely changed. Filmmakers of Pawel and Jane’s caliber have already proven their exceptionalism, and that makes it easier to get interest in financing their movies. If all you have to show is a couple of short films and a fledgling idea, it’s much harder. I do think that filmmakers have become an awful lot more savvy about how to use their shorts, though. Both producers and directors, particularly in the American indie world, seem to be aware that those shorts can be calling cards. If you’re clever about how to position your film within a festival, you will get recognition, and that recognition hopefully will lead to different doors opening.
I don’t know whether it’s easier or harder. I don’t think it’s ever been easy. But I have to believe—even if it’s just naively—that real talent will win out because I have to believe that’s why we’re all doing it. I mean, that’s why I’m doing it. That’s why I’ve done it at every scale that I’ve done it, whether it’s low budget or big budget. I’ve done it because the work itself has really spoken to me, haunted me, touched me, and I’ve felt this inkling of jealousy that if I don’t do it, someone else will do it, and I don’t want someone else to do it. That’s a sort of odd thing to say, but I think that’s one of the instincts that empowers me—I’m obsessed by an idea or a filmmaker, and I just have to find a way of making it happen because I don’t want to not be the person who went on that journey. It’s very guttural, in a sense.
Filmmaker: If today’s landscape was the film environment when you were starting out as an independent film producer, how do you think you would have fared?
Seghatchian: I’m not sure how well I would have fared because I’m not on social media, so I would miss the buzz. I would be trusting my instincts as a response to material but wouldn’t necessarily have the white noise of heat surrounding me to either influence, guide or distract me—whichever way you look at it.
Filmmaker: Your instincts are good, to say the least. You’re the person who read an early copy of the first Harry Potter book when you were working for David Heyman and pushed to get the option.
Seghatchian: Harry Potter is a good example of instinct and strategy. I had a very clear task: I’d been asked to go and find something that would be the next Bond franchise in the U.K. and didn’t quite know what that meant, but [I] spotted an article in the newspaper about a little boy who was going to wizard school. Once I read the book, I was moved by it in a way that other people might not have been at the time. When Harry looked in the mirror and saw his mother, I cried; I thought I was too old to be crying in a kid’s book, but I was. It’s not that it was self-evident at the time, but if I hadn’t been asked to find a movie franchise, I wouldn’t necessarily have gone out and looked for it in that way. So, understanding where the gap in the market is can be really helpful as a producer. It requires a huge amount of strategic foresight, to understand what’s current or needed, as opposed to what was fashionable several years ago. I think it’s also so important not to just chase fashions. No one can anticipate a zeitgeist, so you absolutely have to believe in the thing that you are doing, otherwise you can’t propel it. It’s good to have an eye on where audiences are interested or potentially interested and where that marries with your interests.
Filmmaker: How much are you reading for pleasure these days versus reading with an eye for IP?
Seghatchian: That’s the saddest truth. I think it’s been a long time since I’ve read for pleasure. Even though I read things thinking they are for pleasure, it’s very hard to read contemporary fiction and not wonder if there is something in it. And occasionally, if I know the rights are already gone, I find myself thinking I should read something else, because there’s so much to read. But then again, I do read for pleasure in the same way that I produce for pleasure. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a job, which if I wasn’t paid to do, I would do anyway. I’m able to indulge in my fantasies about storytelling, work with writers and directors, practice filmmaking and benefit from it, so it’s all sort of for pleasure. Obviously, it’s incredibly stressful, and, you know, I’m not working solely for pleasure—it’s a job where you are constantly aware of your responsibility to the film, the filmmakers, the cast, crew, the money, and the audience—but it is a pleasure to do what we do, and we’re all incredibly lucky to do it.