"This is going to sound like a made-up story, but it's true," says cinematographer Ari Wegner. At age 16, she enrolled in a media studies class at her Melbourne high school, during which her teacher screened a worn-out video cassette copy of Jane Campion's Passionless Moments. That was the moment Wegner realized she wanted to make movies.
"I don't think it was until this media class that I'd even understood the power of cinema as an art form, as much as a painting or a sculpture or a piece of poetry can be art," she tells A.frame. "I'm sure half the kids in the class were not even paying attention, but that just spoke to me so strongly. Something about it really unlocked something for me."
Years later, Wegner served as Campion's DP on The Power of the Dog, for which she became the second woman to be Oscar-nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography. It's a fortuitous and full-circle moment Wegner still can't quite believe herself, let alone iterate to Campion.
"Not to this gushing extent," she laughs. "I've definitely said how much I enjoyed it to her and how much it influenced me. Australians are really awkward about compliments, and giving and taking compliments. So, it's so much easier for me to tell that to you. It would be awkward for me to say that with her here for some reason."
Below, you can read Wegner's thoughts on Passionless Moments and four more films that have most inspired her as a cinematographer.
Everything about it is playful and disciplined, and there's humor but also profoundly human moments. The whole theme of it is that every moment is something and also nothing. Like, moments come and go and you realize how everyone's in their own head at any moment. And you think about all the moments you've had in your life that happened and how you have no recollection of and could never get back to that. No one ever documented them, but there is an inconsequential moment or realization that is now lost to time. I love the form of it, with the voiceover and the minimalism of the shots. Jane said something really beautiful about her use of macro shots, that attention to detail is love. The purist kind of love is to pay attention and be interested and curious and listening and watching.
Passionless Moments stands the test of time a hundred percent. It was right up my alley in terms of the almost humor that's like funny, but not – it's not intending to be, but kind of is – and for the first time, I realized that filmmaking was something that I could do. Unlike when you go see a big film in the cinema, and it's got famous actors and American accents and crazy scenes and you don't even know where you would start. As a teenager, it feels like going to the moon. And then you see something like Passionless Moments, and it's the same art form. It's the same images in a rectangle. And something like that is just as watchable, if not more kind of fascinating. It really stuck with me.
Something about the simplicity of the form and maybe it was the Australian accents, I was probably even too naive at that point to realize anything about gender politics or that women were underrepresented in filmmaking and cinematography, but it really stuck with me and it came at the perfect time. It was the perfect thing that I didn't know that I needed to kick off a deeper curiosity about cinema.
A Man Escaped was a film that Jane and I really looked at as a benchmark for minimalism tension, of a kind of attention to detail and what sound can do and that it's not necessary to add any more than needs to be added. When a concept is robust and when the story and the character have a strength to them, it's not necessary to add much more to be a really impactful film. It's really a masterpiece of craft, and there's nothing in it that a student film couldn't do. Like, the technology involved and the camera work is so simple. It really is this shot, then this shot, then this shot, building a story. I could watch that film over and over.
That's really one of my all-time favorite films, in its singular vision and incredible visual consistency – and consistency of everything. I love when all the elements are perfectly aligned, from the casting to the locations to the performances. They're like an orchestra playing the same song, or a perfect meal. But it's also so much more than the sum of the parts. [Cinematographer] Harris Savides has always been a big influence and I think his work on that's sublime, elegant and perfect for the world. And I love the narrative. I love when films have the story, and then there's, like, something else. I don't even have a word for it. It's like a question is raised about the whole world, not just what you're seeing. Like, could this be possible?
And the score is so incredible in that particular themes feels like springtime or new life coming and possibility and hope. The score is telling you subliminally, yeah, it would be possible to be reincarnated. Why wouldn't that be possible? The scores so hopeful, and you become really aligned with Nicole's character. You want to believe as much as she does. That's a real masterpiece. I've sat down so many times to watch a scene, to get a frame grab for a lighting reference or something. And I find myself 90 minutes later, still watching. It's too good. Each scene, you're like, "Oh, I'll just watch to the end of this scene. OK, I'll just watch to the end of this scene."
You're seeing my Savides fanboy love, but I just love Gerry's mix of discipline and freedom. You're seeing this incredibly disciplined photography and then two actors, I can only assume, riffing off each other. There's an extreme naturalism in their interaction and the dialogue, and then this disciplined and deliberate minimalism in the photography.
You can go so deep into plot and narrative and third act, blah this, antagonist that, something at page 90, whatever, but you really realize you need so little to make a watchable film. But it also can't be nothing. The bits that you put in have to each be perfect. And there's nowhere to hide in a film like that. It's literally actors in a landscape. If a scene doesn't work, it couldn't belong, because it could bring the whole thing kind of down. It seems like a miracle that that film is so watchable, because it defies everything we are supposed to know about filmmaking, pace and what would engage an audience.
Kleber Mendonça Filho is an amazing Brazilian filmmaker. I could watch that film over and over. I actually met Kleber on the festival circuit when I had a short film called Night Shift doing the rounds. It just so happened that all the festivals that I was going to, this film was playing, so I've probably seen it in cinema like five or six times. Because the first time I saw it, I was like, "Wow. I need to see this again." And it's amazing to sit in a different audience and watch the same film.
But there's just a beautiful, incredible attention to detail and that time and place. I know that particular film was shot and written for the neighborhood where he lives, and I love when a film is so local that it becomes universal. Like, it really happens on a few blocks of a neighborhood, but every scene feels like it's so Brazilian and so local and also there's something so universal about it. I love his work so much. His more recent film, Bacurau, is also incredible, and Aquarius, the film he made after Neighboring Sounds, is fantastic. I could watch that any day of the week.