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Jane Campion's Netflix Western The Power of the Dog plays out across two spaces: The first is the vast, unforgiving landscape of 1920s Montana (played here by a remote valley in New Zealand); the second is in the tortured psyches of three people inhabiting it, all trapped there with each other and their own secrets. The task for cinematographer Ari Wegner (Zola) was to convey the deeply human story that existed between both worlds.
"It's such a beautiful place that I [got] nervous," Wegner admits to EW of the grand location. "Like, 'How are we going to capture how amazing this place is?'" She and Campion managed it after a very long pre-production, about a month of which they spent in a cabin near the valley where they eventually filmed, memorizing the environment's most photogenic angles and how the spaces transformed throughout the day: "By the time we came to shooting, we would know in the afternoon, 'This is going to be an amazing sunset. We should get a second camera to go up and shoot that vista.'" To give the grand space a sense of immediacy, Wegner shot much of it on a long lens.
KIRSTY GRIFFIN/Cross City Films Limited/Courtesy of Netflix
For the second realm in which the film takes place, Wegner had to be similarly in sync with the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a ruthless cowboy whose growing resentment of his brother's new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes even the sprawling ranch feel claustrophobic. "Phil is such a huge presence that even if he's in one room of the house and another character's in another room on the other end of the mansion, you know exactly where he is," Wegner says. "He resonates his presence everywhere he goes."
The imposing Phil is visually introduced as "the protagonist of that whole valley," as Wegner describes him, but over the course of the film, Cumberbatch reveals a surprising interior life under the intimidating, charismatic surface, and Wegner's approach to him had to guide the audience's evolving understanding of who he is. "The way information is portrayed needs to be delicate because of the architecture of the film," she says. As more of Phil's soul is teased out, "the camera becomes a bit looser; it's often handheld and it's closer to him."
Wegner credits Campion with creating an environment of trust on those vulnerable scenes, which demanded a "more spontaneous, responsive" collaboration between actor, director, and cinematographer. "It was like, 'Here's your playground,'" she says. "'Let's see what happens.'"
The Power of the Dog arrives in theaters Nov. 17 and hits Netflix Dec. 1.
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