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Podcast – Cinematographer Ari Wegner ACS on The Power of the Dog

Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner ACS discusses the making of The Power of the Dog, from working with Jane Campion to the New Zealand shoot.

Ari Wegner ACS and director Jane Campion on the set of The Power of the Dog

Ari Wegner ACS and director Jane Campion on the set of The Power of the Dog (Photo credit: Netflix)

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Ari Wegner ACS was doing Christmas shopping in Melbourne several years ago when her phone rang. The caller was director Jane Campion.

“I thought it’s probably a wrong number, because my name starts with ‘A’ so people call me accidentally quite a lot,” Wegner says on the Screen Australia Podcast.

It wasn’t a pocket dial though. Campion was calling to say she was adapting a book called The Power of the Dog into a screenplay and whether the cinematographer was interested in coming on board the production.

Wegner had worked with Campion once before, on a commercial a few years previously, where “we really hit it off and we learnt that we really enjoyed working together and shared a common aesthetic. Also that we enjoyed working the same way – we love preparation, but to always be open to a better idea coming up on the day…

“I didn’t have to give it much thought to say, ‘yes please I would love to do this film with you.’”

Campion had a caveat though. She wanted a DoP who would start essentially straight away.

“She said ‘we’re going to shoot in about a year’s time… but I want to start prepping now. I don’t want to be rushed… I want to start scouting… and I want to have someone that’s a real ally and that’s going to be just as much an expert on this film by the time we shoot as I am.’”

That’s exactly what happened. Wegner says it was a ‘dream’ to have a year-long pre-production period, which also allowed her to collaborate with production designer Grant Major on the building of the Burbank mansion – a pivotal location for the story.

“It’s really the work of a fantastic architect… not just to build a house that works as a space but to build a house that’s literally designed to be shot: it’s only purpose is to exist in this film, so when you’re working with someone like Grant at his level, we can talk about what kind of lenses you’re going to use, what’s your aspect ratio, what kind of shots are you planning.”

Ari Wegner on the set of The Power of the DogAri Wegner ACS on the set of The Power of the Dog (Photo credit: Netflix)

Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is set in 1920s Montana and centres around the charismatic and domineering rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). When Phil’s brother brings home a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at their sprawling property, he seems determined to wage a war of intimidation upon them, until a more surprising consequence starts to occur.

Throughout the podcast, Wegner also talks about shooting the South Island of New Zealand as 1920s Montana and what it was like switching to a handheld camera style for some scenes with the always-in-character Benedict Cumberbatch.

“I didn’t meet Benedict until very recently. I spent a lot of time with Phil Burbank and very little with Benedict Cumberbatch,” she says.

Wegner, who was recently honoured with the TIFF Variety Artisan Award at the film festival in Toronto, and whose credits include Zola, True History of the Kelly Gang and The Kettering Incident also talks about starting out in the Australian industry working with the likes of Greig Fraser ACS, Robert Humphreys ACS, Adam Arkapaw ACS, Stefan Duscio ACS, and Germaine McMicking ACS, as well as her hopes for more female DPs to be nominated in the 2022 Oscar race, where The Power of the Dog is getting buzz alongside Claire Mathon’s work in Spencer, Hélène Louvart for The Lost Daughter and Alice Brooks for In the Heights. To date, only one female cinematographer has been nominated in the 93-year history of Academy Awards: Rachel Morrison for 2017’s Mudbound.

“I think there’s been amazing work from female DPs going on for a long time but it’s really nice to see… I think we’re all ready for it to be honest. It’s 2021 and it’s not out of charity or altruism that this conversation is going on. It’s recognition of work.”

The Power of the Dog is out in cinemas now and launches on Netflix on December 1.

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