“Power of the Dog” focuses on psychological terrors and tensions

Despite its recognizable mix of cowboys, cattle and open borders, director Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” was never intended as a true western. The story, in Campion’s opinion, is far too specific for this. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel and set on a Montana ranch in the 1920s, the Netflix film is less a Wild West hymn than a tense and terrifying psychological meditation on secrets, repression and evil rage. directed.

The American setting may be a first, but it’s familiar territory for Campion. Since her explosive debut in 1989, “Sweetie”, she has become more interested in the subconscious and the local terrors that deeply modify and infect family relationships. A beautifully rendered character study in a distant landscape is not a new concept for the famous director of “The Piano” and “Top of the Lake” either.

“I tend to agree with Jane,” says her cinematographer Ari Wegner, who shot the film in stunning settings in Campion’s native New Zealand as a replacement for the Montana countryside. “I never thought it was a western when we were shooting it, even though it has all the classic western elements in it. Everything, that is, except the guns.

This is a telling omission after the accidental shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of “Rust”, a western emerging from a more traditional style. But Wegner says the guns weren’t relevant given the kind of emotional abuse she, Campion, and the A-List actors wanted to explore on screen. “What we’re really interested in is this really delicate, really tiny energy and tension between people,” she says. “For us, the danger was already in the house. You don’t have to pull out a weapon to terrify someone and keep them psychologically immobilized.

The way she and Campion told the story of two very different brothers and the new family that upsets their fragile peace began with a year of preparation together in New Zealand scout locations, exploring looks and ruminating on style. and the tone of the camera. They spent many months just on the color palette. “There were really so many directions we could go,” Wegner says. “We talked about black and white for a long time, then we talked about a sort of hand-tinted Technicolor style. They went for a muted and dusty look, with a bit more color than sepia, in a range from brown to silver and gold that matched the grass and mountains that anchored many shots.

With strong, contrapuntal performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons, and a haunting score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Campion and Wegner were careful not to visually overload any stage. “You can’t have it all at once in a movie,” Wegner says. “It sounds like too much sugar or unnecessary jewelry or something. A big performance with a big score and a big photograph is not what we were trying to do. “

Campion preferred an equally straightforward style of shooting, which even extended to aerial shots, captured by drones, which were never too conspicuous. “Jane was very clear that she never wanted the camera to move in an emotionally manipulative way,” Wegner said. “We would therefore try not to intervene at an important moment. The camera should only move when an actor moves, instead of moving on their own to make a point.

What Campion would push, or push gently, were the actors and the filmmakers. “What’s amazing about Jane is that she really manages to make you feel uncomfortable,” Wegner says, just like his films often do for audiences. “I still can’t say how she’s doing. Being out of your comfort zone sounds weird, but once you get there it’s good because you have a new comfort zone.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner and director-writer-producer Jane Campion on the set of “Power of the Dog”.

(Kirsty Griffin / Netflix)

Wegner says she aimed with her camera to keep “a non-judgmental eye on what we were watching, knowing that we wanted the audience’s feeling at the end to be quite complex, not to be one particular emotion but multiple emotions, even conflicting “. It comes down to the note on one of his shooting records. “I had written ‘strongly retrospective experience’. We wanted to create that kind of feeling for an audience that stays with you for a while, the kind of experience that makes you want to keep thinking about it and trying to tease it long after it’s finished.

Kirsten Dunst in "Power of the dog."

Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog”.

(Courtesy Netflix / Courtesy Netflix)

Shot in large format with the Arri Alexa Mini LF camera in 4K, which Netflix needs, Wegner chose the Panavision Ultra Panatar long lenses best suited for capturing landscapes and delivering a classic widescreen look. An intensive and detailed storyboard got them there. “We drew pretty much all of the images in each shot, and eventually our rectangles just got longer and longer,” she says. “Jane had a few printed and continued to draw around the edges. The mountain range, the herd of cattle, the big table in the main hall, even Phil’s braided rope: So many shots were getting long and thin and wide. That’s when we realized this movie was big screen.

Inside the family home, “an architectural masterpiece” built by Oscar-winning decorator Grant Major on a soundstage, Wegner played subtle lighting and rich period detail. Rose’s bedroom features such a profusion of wallpaper patterned in roses and shades of red and pink that the filmmakers “see green” when they step off set after filming a lengthy scene. Large photographs of outdoor locations hung on billboards behind open set windows were especially helpful, she says, giving actors and filmmakers a more complete staging than any blue screen could provide.

Wegner says she admires Campion’s fearless intuition for improvisation the most. “She’s amazing to just face her fears and start with the toughest and most difficult things,” Wegner explains. “It took a year to plan, but everything was still ‘subject to change’. She knows herself well enough to understand that being locked too tightly in something isn’t where she does her best job. Even when we’ve invested a lot of time, money, or thought into the setup, she’s amazing at following her instincts.