"Working with Jane is like a before and after kind of experience," cinematographer Ari Wegner says of her The Power of the Dog director, Jane Campion. "She's just an incredible person to be around, and then working with her is a whole other level."
During Sunday's Academy Awards, Campion became the third woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. (Just being nominated was historic in and of itself, as Campion become the first female filmmaker to earn two nominations for Directing.) Her win also marks the first time in Oscars history that female directors have won in back-to-back years, coming after Chloé Zhao's win for Nomadland last year.
The Power of the Dog was years in the making, an all-consuming undertaking to create something meticulously crafted at every level to withstand the test of time. A.frame spoke with producers Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier and Tanya Seghatchian to reflect on their journey and share these seven stories of what it was like to bring The Power of the Dog to the screen.
1. Jane Campion never set out to make 'The Power of the Dog.'
Upon wrapping season two of BBC's "Top of the Lake," which Campion co-created and Canning and Sherman's See-Saw Films produced, she was given a copy of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel from her stepmother.
Jane doesn't work on lots of projects at the same time. She really focuses in on what she's doing, and then, she has a break and she waits for inspiration to strike. She's very present to her passions, and a moment will come where she's just taken in a direction. It happened with this book. She read it and couldn't get it out of her mind. She was not planning even to make it when she met with Roger, who she found controlled the rights. She just wanted to meet with him and talk about it. She just followed an inclination towards what interests her and the deeper she got in, the deeper she got in. I had a coffee with her in Bondi, in Sydney — where we catch up from time to time — and, when she told me about it, it was obvious that we wanted to make it with her and join the team she was assembling. But Iain and I were nervous to read it. And hoped that we'd fall in love with the story as much as she did. We read the book overnight and the hairs on the back of our neck collectively went up. She was very faithful to the book, always. That was her Bible. She went back to the book in moments of doubt. When she didn't know what to do, she'd return to the book. She had great faith in Thomas Savage. —Emile Sherman
2. Meet Phil Burbank.
Upon casting British thespian Benedict Cumberbatch as 20th century Montana rancher Phil Burbank, Campion presented him with a challenge: Remain in character throughout the duration of the shoot.
At the onset, Jane introduced him to the crew as Phil Burbank and said that they could meet Benedict — who's actually a nice guy — at the end of the shoot, but, until then, they'd have to put up with Phil. To some degree, Phil kept to himself. He wasn't somebody who socialized. And I think, for Benedict, that was quite a challenge. Because Benedict is a really lovely, sociable, kind and considerate kind of guy. The interactions were in performance and in character. Occasionally, on the weekends, Benedict and I were lucky enough to be able to see one another. But, the rest of the time, he was very much the character you see on-screen. —Tanya Seghatchian
When you have Phil on the set every day in lieu of Benedict, that sets the tone for everything that will happen during the day. So, you leave Phil alone. You don't go and talk to him like you would go and talk to Benedict between takes. Rose, being played by Kirsten Dunst, doesn't come and talk to Phil between the takes. Jesse [Plemons] had to stay a little bit inside George, and Kodi [Smit-McPhee] inside Peter. It's such a great idea by Jane. It created the tone of the movie even when the camera is not rolling. And the crew, the artisans, and us, we respected that. And we didn't go to them unless they were coming to us. We left them in relationship with Jane. —Roger Frappier
3. The moment that nearly made Benedict break character.
When I was on set and I met Phil — which is so strange, 'cause, as a British person, I know Benedict Cumberbatch. So, coming on and meeting Phil was sort of, slightly frightening. It was also strange because I'd just seen Benedict's previous film [The Courier] at Sundance, and I had flown from Sundance to the set. So, I could see this almost Marvel-esque fight that was going on with Phil Burbank. But he was too Phil Burbank to be able to ask me a question. He said, "I've got a lot of things I'd like to ask you, but I can't ask you now." And he sort of walked off in the chaps, off into the set. It was this strange battle between Benedict and Phil, and in the end, Phil won. —Iain Canning
4. Meet Benedict Cumberbatch.
After living as Phil Burbank for a year, Cumberbatch died as him. In June 2020, on a soundstage in Auckland, Campion called cut and the actor received a champagne toast from the film's cast and crew.
When Benedict came out of the coffin — because that was the last scene we shot with him — it was actually quite extraordinary. We shaved him, put him into a coffin and put the lid on, and then, after Jane said cut and announced that it was Benedict's last shot, Benedict came out of the coffin. And, looking at him, unshaven and wide-eyed, staring at everyone who was applauding him, it was a monumental moment. Because that person had disappeared for the duration of the shoot. It took a moment to catch one's breath and realize that Phil didn't do this. It was a performance from this other person who had completely transformed himself. I was brought to tears. —Tanya Seghatchian
5. A rose by any other name.
Elisabeth Moss and Paul Dano were originally cast to star as the widowed Rose Gordon and her new husband, George Burbank. Due to scheduling conflicts, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons assumed the roles and only went method insofar as they are a real-life couple.
That partnership — both in life and on-screen — really was one of the very special qualities that Kirsten and Jesse bring to this story. Because you're so invested in that relationship working. That kiss at the very end, when you see them and you know there's now the potential of hope and optimism for them, it's a moving moment. And you see that up against the moment on the hill where Jesse turns and says to Kirsten, "I'm glad not to be alone." There's a beautiful, beautiful synchroneity in a sense that they were able to bring to both Rose and George from their own lives. —Tanya Seghatchian
6. Inside the (literal) cattle-call casting auditions.
Never work with children or animals is the oldest rule in Hollywood. But no livestock PTSD was experienced from working with the bovine co-stars here, who had to prove their own star quality.
We were very lucky to have the benefit of Jane growing up on a farm, so she was familiar with animals and the way to work with them. But we had a great ranger who had our cows perfectly auditioned and he knew how to select the good actors from the bad actors and which would respond accordingly. They had to look good too! [Laughs] One of the pleasures of working today is we could duplicate them in post. We knew we were going to face challenges of not being able to move all those cows from one area of New Zealand to another, but we were able to replicate the cows in post-production, so we could have as many as we needed for the drive. —Tanya Seghatchian
7. Making a home on the range, Jane Campion-style.
"The Power of the Dog" filmed on location in Campion's native New Zealand, standing in for the American West of the 1920s, with a pandemic shutdown extending the production by four months. All roughing it, however, was left for the big screen.
Jane was the first director to have a barista on set. That was life changing for everybody. With Jane, it really, truly becomes about friendship. It's all about feeling loved and feeling part of the team, and coffee's a great start of the day. —Iain Canning
To Iain's point about friendship, there is something very immersive about working with Jane. She wants to bring everyone into a very immersive experience and not to feel like it's just a job. It's anything but a job. And the experience of making it, if handled deftly, should result in a quality that you can't find in other movies. And I think it's up there on the screen in this one. —Emile Sherman
I think she's very playful, actually. There's something about how she wants to bring laughter to each day. And she does that by making jokes — often putting herself at the center of the joke — just trying to cut the energy so that everyone feels at ease and relaxed and doesn't take the moment too seriously. Although they are serious as she is about the work at hand. Phil was allowed and was able to react the way Phil Burbank would and Jane did not take it personally. —Tanya Seghatchian