The Power of The Dog: Ari Wegner on Shooting the Vast Landscape and Human Nuance of Jane Campions Western

Cinematographer Ari Wegner is about to become a more familiar name in the film world, as the “Zola” DP starts to rake in recognition for her contribution to Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” in selected theaters Nov. 17 and arriving on Netflix Dec. 1.

Wegner has received the Toronto International Film Festival Variety Artisan Award and the Middleburg Film Festival Distinguished Cinematographer Award. At the Middleburg, Va., fest, she sat down to talk with Variety about working with Campion. “Jane is a visionary auteur [and] a deeply wonderful person whose ability to see the world in a boldly openhearted way is infused into her films as well as her filmmaking process,” says Wegner.

More than a year before shooting, Wegner and Campion scouted locations and traded ideas. “We looked at the exploration of the big and the small — in a vast landscape, the nuance of human interactions,” Wegner says.

The Western features Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, an intimidating presence who looms over a sprawling Montana ranch. When his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), returns home with his wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), he becomes resentful of the new dynamic.

The film revolves around the Burbank family ranch house, a pivotal part of the drama that production designer Grant Major (“Mulan”) based on a real location in Montana. Wegner was conscious of the elements she needed to pull from Thomas Savage’s novel, on which the film is based, as well as from the script. “It’s this symbol of generational wealth, but the architecture doesn’t make sense as a ranch house,” she says.

It’s a big place, yet it feels claustrophobic — deep browns and old woods fill the house with a dated European decor. “It’s a space devoid of love, and any feminine touches and maternal love have faded away,” says Wegner. The foreboding aspect was deliberate “We wanted this dark space because in many ways it asks, ‘Where’s the monster?’ Rose is always hyperaware when Phil is in the space.”

With some interiors built in a studio, Wegner faced the challenge of bringing the vast and brightly exposed, barren landscapes into the house. Campion didn’t use a green screen and visual effects for exterior-facing shots. “We took photos of the locations and printed them on billboard-style backdrops, which helped with my lighting because I was seeing it all in-camera,” says Wegner. The DP adds that the backdrops enabled her to be riskier not only with her lighting choices but also with scene composition.

For instance, Smit-McPhee’s Peter is a shy teen whose character arc is a subtle one. He leaves audiences wondering what he’s thinking, adding to the dynamic of the family drama. “He doesn’t change — it’s the audience’s perception of him that changes,” Wegner says. “Kodi’s physicality is incredibly beautiful and lanky because we were shooting widescreen; those two shapes go opposite to each other, so whenever we did full-body shots, you feel the space.” Once the character starts interacting with Phil, Wegner needed to capture the tension between the two without being restrictive.

“When he goes to the bird’s nest, we shot him full-bodied, because we wanted to show that nothing fazes him — or this ambiguity of nothing fazes him, or does it?” Wegner says.

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