The Power of the Dog DP Ari Wegner is only the second woman in history to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography following Rachel Morrison, who shot Netflix’s 2017 drama Mudbound. Five years later, the streamer boasts another female contender who could make history at the Oscars, especially seeing as how Wegner recently took top cinematography honors from both the British Society of Cinematographers and the Critics Choice Awards.
While many people are rooting for Wegner to become the first woman to win that particular Oscar, she faces tough competition from Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser, who triumphed at both the ASC Awards and the BAFTAs. No matter who wins, the category surely offers one of the Oscars’ most exciting races come Sunday night.
The Power of the Dog is based on the Thomas Savage novel of the same name, and the story takes place in 1925 in Montana, where a pair of rancher brothers, Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) cross paths with a single mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Below the Line recently spoke to Wegner, who explained how she first became involved with The Power of the Dog and what it was like working with Jane Campion, who asked the cinematographer to spend at least a year with her in pre-production. The duo took their collaboration to the next level, and their intense preparation shows onscreen, as the film offers stunning images. Please enjoy our chat below.
Below the Line: How did you first become attached to The Power of the Dog?
Ari Wegner: I worked with Jane on a commercial, actually — which is not something she usually does, but something I kind of dabble in — maybe three years or so before the film. It was a pretty short little thing, but we really connected, I think, on an aesthetic level, and also to the degree in which we loved preparation, really — obsessively kind of prepping something. We also knew that we worked well together. We kind of both went our separate ways, and then three years or so later, I was doing my Christmas grocery shopping and my phone rang and [it] said “Jane Campion.” I really assumed it was an accidental call but I answered and Jane basically said, ‘what are you up to? What are you doing the next couple of years? And would you be interested in hearing more about this book that I’m in the middle of adapting for film?’ I didn’t actually have anything kind of imminently coming up but I probably would have cleared the books anyway. That’s really the dream for what any cinematographers are dreaming of.
BTL: How familiar were you with Thomas Savage’s book before signing onto the film?
Wegner: I’d never heard of Thomas Savage or the book or anything. When Jane called, as I said, there wasn’t a script ready yet. She was kind of still writing, but she said, ‘Oh if you’re interested, [you can] read the book or wait for the script.’ Of course, I literally hurried home, ordered the book [via] next day delivery, [and] read it straight away. And yeah, it’s such a great book. As I was reading it, I think I was surprised it wasn’t already an American classic. Have you read it?
BTL: No, I’ve got the book right here. Netflix sent The Power of the Dog. Warners sent Dune. I could either watch the movies or read the books, but I couldn’t do both.
Wegner: I feel you.
BTL: How did you first become interested in being a cinematographer?
Wegner: As a teenager, I was really kind of obsessed with photography — still cameras and the world of the darkroom and that whole teen obsession, as you do. I really didn’t know anything about cinema. I mean, obviously, I’ve watched movies, but I didn’t really consider it, I guess, even like an art form. It was more like, ‘there’s art and then there’s entertainment.’
I had a fantastic media teacher who — this is a true story — introduced us to Jane’s short films, and I really had a revelation of ‘wow, this isn’t just something you do with your friends on the weekend to pass the time, this is art as much as painting or sculpture or poetry. Oh, this is really exciting.’ So that was my introduction to cinema.
At a very young age, you realize like, ‘Oh, it’s not the director who does the camera, there’s someone else who does that.’ [So it was] that, in combination with this newfound kind of art form and the idea that there’s a photographer that’s working on it, [plus] it’s not just one frame you’re working with, it’s [the] movement within the frame, and visual storytelling.
I had always kind of been a very voracious reader of fiction and writing, [but] I loved the idea of visual storytelling –[combining] photography and story together was kind of irresistible.
BTL: Do you have a preferred camera, or does it vary by project?
Wegner: That totally varies. I really try to kind of clean my mental slate after each project and try not to bring too much over as a given, or get into too many kinds of habits or even too much of a comfort to any one tool, just because every story is so different. Every director is different. Every situation is so different. Pre-production is, to me, really getting to know a director, and then part of that would be how they want the film to look or what kind of crew they might like working with, and also, what camera and lens package might be appropriate for them for this particular project.
BTL: It’s my understanding that you spent a year in pre-production with Jane Campion, location scouting, storyboarding, and developing the visual style for the film along with your other collaborators. Is that typical when you look back on some of your other projects?
Wegner: Definitely not [laughs]. I wish. I mean, I’d never had that as an offer before, or a suggestion before, from a director. But I always had a gut feeling that if there was more time in pre-production for me to spend with a director and prepare in a deeper way, the result could be something on another level. So yeah, a very rare and I think very wise gut instinct of Jane to say, ‘this particular film is going to require a level of input and collaboration that can’t [really] happen in six to eight weeks.’
BTL: I remember watching this film on the big screen back in November and the visuals were just so beautiful, it was amazing.
Wegner: Thank you. Is there a particular frame or sequence that comes to mind for you?
BTL: The scenery, especially the mountains.
Wegner: That’s the great joy of my job, really, to try and pull out, maybe, what a director is imagining, and then put some of my own kind of ideas in there and mix it around, and then select all the real-life elements that you need to actually put that in a frame. It’s easy to get out of bed in the morning when that’s on the table.
BTL: In terms of lighting, what were some of the films you looked at for inspiration?
Wegner: Lighting, again, is one of my great joys. It’s an art in that there’s a kind of imagining of what you want it to be. and then there’s the kind of science and physics of how to actually achieve that. I think we definitely wanted a natural feeling to the lighting. And for me, it’s really important that the lighting and the sets and the world feel real if that’s the style of the film, and if you’re going for naturalistic performances, that the photography suits that as well. I think it’s really hard to believe a performance if you don’t believe the lighting and the sets. It’s so much harder — you’re already in an audience kind of not believing, or even thinking that the style… this whole thing must be some kind of something made up or a different world, a different level of reality. I think this film really required a kind of authenticity to it for an audience to believe. I mean, I love the work of someone like Harris Savides, who was probably my kind of touchpoint of beautiful photography, in that [his work is] beautiful but it doesn’t feel lit. A lit frame is kind of my worst fear and nightmare. I’m going for a balance of, I guess, visually pleasing and realism.
BTL: Is there a sequence that you would say was the biggest challenge for you?
Wegner: There were a lot of challenging sequences. I would say, actually more than a particular sequence, the biggest, I think, challenge or anxiety I had was integrating the work that was needing to be done on a set with the location work. Again, knowing that level of authenticity we were going for and in particular, Jane’s style, which is, there’s realism and authenticity there and it’s not cliché. There’s no artifice.
I think my biggest challenge going in was, ‘how do I make these interiors, which are completely made up — we’re really in a warehouse in an industrial corner of Auckland in New Zealand — feel as real as what we shot in the exteriors, [because] nature’s real. I put a lot of, I think, work [and] anxiety [and] thought into how to create a kind of realism in the lighting, and for me, whenever something’s feeling too perfect, to somehow shake it up because, again, like with Jane’s work, it is aesthetically beautiful but it’s not a kind of cliché or a postcard, or a kind of illustration. There’s something about it that’s real and finding that in the lighting, as well as on-set, was really important. Kind of lighting a frame and then messing something up in some way to bring in that realism that we were going for.
BTL: How did the pandemic change your usual process with regards to lighting and such?
Wegner: We were pretty lucky, actually, in that we’d just finished all the location work in the South Island, and we just arrived in [the] studio in Auckland in the North Island of New Zealand. We were there for a few days before it became clear that we were going to have to break. At that point, the world was in such a point of turmoil. I mean, I really didn’t know if filmmaking would even be relevant because it was something [that] none of us have experienced before. We got super lucky because New Zealand did such a fantastic job early on at locking down and getting to zero cases that we only really shut down for about three months.
Over that period — in many ways, it’s hard to say this, because there’s so much suffering in the world — we took the time to kind of rest, which you’re desperate for at that point in the shoot, and to watch back some of the work we’ve already done and kind of assess how well it worked, [and] if there was anything missing, or if we wanted to get more of something we liked because there wasn’t enough, or we felt like we’d done something already enough.
One thing that came out of it was the handheld work we’d done with Benedict’s character in what we call the sacred place, where he swims and has [that] scene with the staff. That handheld work — the feeling of that footage and the relationship between the camera and him, is kind of like intimacy and freedom, freedom of camera and freedom of performance and [the] intimacy between the two. The feeling for a viewer was really special, and [it] almost kind of unlocked something in that relationship between the viewer and Phil.
One of the main changes, I think, we obviously made over that break, was to do more handheld work with just Phil in these kinds of unguarded moments. For example, when he’s by himself in his room, in whatever state of mind, or in the barn with the saddle — these moments where no one’s watching him. That could add some other level of intimacy and I think it’s maybe why, if I really break it down, he is such a prickly character, and the feeling of being close to him physically or being a camera that has a kind of agency is really special. What we really feel like is you’ve been let in on something that no one else is allowed to see.
Also, Jane wrote a new ending. That was also a great kind of revelation, and I’m really glad she did. If you read the book, it’s a very subtle change. It’s very small. It’s a change of a prop at the end, but I think that somehow really is the beautiful choice she made that makes the whole piece really kind of circular.
BTL: How honored are you to be nominated for an Oscar, and what does that recognition mean to you?
Wegner: It goes without saying: incredibly honored. The kind of thing you maybe dream about but never even dare say because it feels too presumptuous to offer something like that out loud. It feels like such an impossible thing to even aim for in a lifetime, let alone at this point in my career. So yeah, a huge honor and even looking at my fellow nominees in the cinematography category alone, [it’s] just a list of some of my favorite DPs working now, if not ever. To see my name up in that group is also one of the more surreal feelings you can experience in life.
BTL: The Academy recently made the decision to give out eight Oscars an hour before the live telecast, and you’re no stranger to that after the Indie Spirits gave out their cinematography award during a commercial break. What’s your take on the situation as it currently stands?
Wegner: I do think it is a shame because I think there’s an assumption that, I guess, some categories are of more interest to the public than others. But I do think that that assumption is wrong. I think the people that love watching the Oscars are really into every aspect of filmmaking, not just some of them, not just seeing the faces we recognize up on the podium but all the other faces and people that have contributed just as much as the actors or directors to the whole. Filmmaking is such a… there are so many people involved. Take any one of those out of any of the films we love and there’s a fair chance it wouldn’t work. I do you think it’s a shame that there’s been a decision that some categories are of less interest to the public. Yeah, [those are] my thoughts on the whole thing.
BTL: How have you managed to stay grounded during awards season?
Wegner: I think I’m a fairly grounded person. The way I stay grounded in my day-to-day life is, I run in the morning, every morning, for an hour. That’s kind of my morning meditation. Get out in the crisp morning air and the sun or the shade and kind of start the day that way. I mean, it is quite surreal to be running and seeing billboards of your film [laughs]. I think it’s also a real pleasure to talk to people about the film and I’m so proud of what we did. I love the film as well, so it’s really easy. And also, I mean, a lot of people have said it’s kind of a lot, etc. But if you think this is a lot, you should try being on a film set for one day. I’m not having to set my alarm at 3 a.m. or stand outside in the melting hot or [freezing] colds, so this is a luxury kind of experience for me compared to my normal life.
The Power of the Dog is currently streaming on Netflix.