Cinematographer Ari Wegner on the Neon Intimacy of ‘Zola’ and Sun-Drenched Dread of ‘The Power of the Dog’ (2022)

The DP talks about her year-long prep with Jane Campion to create the look and feel of “The Power of the Dog.”

Cinematographer Ari Wegner won’t consider taking on a project unless she falls in love with the script first.

Indeed, a screenplay that knows exactly what’s it’s trying to achieve is the throughline in the Australian DP’s diverse body of work, an impressive oeuvre that spans the buttery textures of William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth,” the Giallo-soaked tint of Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric,” the fiery vistas of Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” and the frenzied vibrancy of Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.”

“I need to have a gut reaction to the script,” Wegner tells IndieWire in a recent interview. Wegner, who wrapped Sebastián Lelio’s new film “The Wonder” earlier this year, is deservedly in the ongoing awards conversation with Jane Campion’s lyrical epic “The Power of the Dog.” “It’s such a commitment to do a feature film. If I’m not really excited about it, then it’s not even a choice.”

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Wegner started tapping into her instincts as a visual storyteller at a young age amid a creative family of artists, discovering her passion for writing and photography in high school. When she realized that her two loves could merge in cinematography, going to film school — namely, Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television — was the natural next step. “I thought I wanted to be a director,” Wegner says. “But once I started shooting other people’s films, I knew straightaway this would be an amazing life.” So she followed that gut feeling, tackling everything from shorts and commercials to music videos and TV shows, until she earned enough cache to be a little more selective. “When a project comes along that has a really interesting script and director, that’s irresistible.”

One of those irresistible projects Wegner refers to is the vivacious “Zola,” released this year after debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Shot on 16mm, a format that Wegner always had a soft spot for, the film isbased on an infamous Twitter thread about a 48-hour journey that involves a Detroit waitress, an unorthodox road-trip to Florida with a stripper, and plenty of promiscuous mischief.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner on the Neon Intimacy of ‘Zola’ and Sun-Drenched Dread of ‘The Power of the Dog’ (2)

“Zola”

A24

Wegner cherishes that experience, drawingspecificattention to one of her favorite scenes in the movie:a music video–like sequence that was unconventionally captured on a GoPro.“It’s when they are singing Hannah Montana,” she says. “We wanted [the scene] to feel alive and it was an exciting idea. Giving [my] camera to an actor and saying, ‘You guys do it!’ was terrifying, but then so completely in the spirit of that film.”

A chance meeting with Campion on a commercial set years ago eventually led Wegner to “The Power of the Dog,” perhaps the most significant project of her career. The two hit it off, but went their separate ways while Campion worked on her TV series “Top of the Lake.” Then Wegner received a call from the writer-director while Campion was in the midst of adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 book, the 1920s-set story of browbeating rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the daunting mind games he plays on his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her reserved son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). “When Jane Campion calls you and says she wants to make a film with you, the rest of the world kind of disappears,” Wegner says. “Of course, I found the book that afternoon and read it straight away. I was gripped by it.”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The duo proved to be the right match, especially when Campion asserted that she wanted her cinematographer to be involved in every aspect of planning, starting with the location scout. That requirement suited Wegner’s impulses as a storyteller in her own right. In that spirit, she spent a whole year with Campion just to prep. “The main thing we got to do that year was become really good friends,” Wegner says. “Jane is a holistic person. She knew that she wanted a strong ally in her DP, a rock-solid sidekick [as well as] someone who was obviously going to do the job, make an amazing-looking film.”

Naturally, Campion and Wegner accomplished a lot more than becoming close friends during that year, dissecting the specifics of the script to reveal the narrative role and emotional tone of each scene inside and out, a committed process that allowed them to rapidly recover whenever they felt lost or offtrack. They also evaluated and embraced the environment of the New Zealand location that was going to stand in for the story’s Montana milieu. “We’re both a little like teacher’s pets from way back. So we obsessed with the preparation,” Wegner says. “The environment out there is wild. It’s so devastatingly beautiful, but the wind is insane and the sun is intense. New Zealand is like the brightest place. Your brain glitches with the environment. If you only just start thinking about how to capture [it] the first time you get there, you’re definitely going to leave behind beautiful things.”

The first location task was to find the mountain range that was iconic, even sacred to Phil, somewhere suitable to erect the Burbank ranch that would also have sufficient sunlight properties to produce long shadows. Once they settled on a general area, Wegner and Campion mapped out the interiors, piecing together the choreography of the story. Believably selling the full-scale impression of the Burbank ranch was one of the toughest challenges Wegner faced, a difficulty Campion addressed by proposing a big cattle drive sequence in the beginning, which Wegner considers to be one of her most fulfilling accomplishments. “There are always [individual] shots that stand out, but I love when a full sequence, a series of shots, works. I’m really proud of the cattle drive story from when [Phil and George] say goodnight on the first night, to when they start talking again up on the plateau. [The sequence] travels in time and distance. It feels natural and flowing, it [gives] a lot of information in a short time. [After that], you [didn’t] need to constantly remind people that [they’re] on a ranch. I’m really satisfied with the result.”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Wegner admits that visual effects (about 150 VFX shots) and other techniques came in handy to augment the movie’s overarching ocular credibility. In addition to creating an imprint of a dog figure on the side of the mountain range—a recurring motif in the movie—VFX was crucial to expand the small number of cattle that they had. For certain window scenes elsewhere, they took photos of the location and printed massive billboard-like backdrops to create an old-school, in-camera optical illusion. “It looks completely plausible [because] Jane Campion’s got an incredible aesthetic eye, and flawless, impeccable taste. [So] you believe it. And the camera believes it.”

Throughout, Wegner worked towards establishing a rich dialogue between her camera and the actors, organically reacting to their emotions and accentuating their physical isolation through a play between foreground and background. One example is when a forlorn Rose sits alone at the table during a high-profile dinner party, an image juxtaposed against the mingling guests behind her. “We really planned that up very specifically, the blocking in relation to the camera,” Wegner recalls. “We had a floorplan, so we spent a lot of time [figuring it out in theory] even before the set was built. Jane is really good at capturing the essence of a scene in one shot. Like [when] Peter goes into the barn with Phil for the first time and Rose’s in the foreground, Peter in the middle ground, and then further away is Phil with the barn. Then the barn door getting closed on her face. I would [actually] argue that even before Rose arrives at the ranch, all the landscape shots set up a sense of isolation.” To engage with the story’s claustrophobic aspects, she interpreted the narrative like a monster movie of sorts, considering the genre’s common tropes. “[Perhaps] you’d call that a monster film, a horror film but we always wanted you to sense where Phil is. Or whether Rose is feeling safe or unsafe compared to where he is. And that got its way into the photography somehow.”

The opposite of that feeling of confinement was a liberating sense of intimacy that Wegner captured on a handheld camera, especially during Phil’s vulnerably unguarded moments. “In the sacred place, in the willows, or even the first night when George brings Rose home and he’s sitting on his bed by himself playing his banjo. That’s the real Phil, not the public Phil. There is something special about being incredibly close to someone who’s having big emotions, like the first time you see a friend cry. And whenever you go through that with someone, you are always going to be closer to them than someone you haven’t seen cry. [Filming him] in [his] sacred place was really a special day: just me, Jane, and [minimal] crew hidden in another little area. We just had one lens. It felt like an old film school experience. [Benedict] put his trust in both of us to capture what he’s doing, which is the trust that Jane builds.”

Cinematographer Ari Wegner on the Neon Intimacy of ‘Zola’ and Sun-Drenched Dread of ‘The Power of the Dog’ (5)

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

“She brings out the best in people,” Wegner continues about Campion. “The honesty in the way that she could happily say, ‘I don’t know yet’ is empowering. To have someone at the top say that [allows] you to say it [too]: ‘I need to do some more work before I can give you an answer.’ And working with someone who’s so excited about learning is super inspiring to me. You can be excited about learning no matter how many films you’ve made.”

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FAQs

Who was the cinematographer on the power of the dog? ›

Wegner, who worked alongside director Jane Campion on Netflix's "The Power of the Dog," could make ...

What is the cinematography of a film? ›

cinematography, the art and technology of motion-picture photography. It involves such techniques as the general composition of a scene; the lighting of the set or location; the choice of cameras, lenses, filters, and film stock; the camera angle and movements; and the integration of any special effects.

What camera was the power of the dog shot on? ›

ARRI ALEXA Mini LF

Was power of the dog shot on film? ›

Wegner shot The Power Of The Dog with the Arri Alexa LF. “It's a beautiful sensor, but Jane and I didn't want a film that looked digital, even though we were shooting digitally.” Wegner used vintage Panavision Ultra Panatar lenses, which give a soft, more classical widescreen image.

Why did Rose get rings in power of the dog? ›

The following day, we see Phil being seriously ill and taken to the doctor. However, he could not be saved and died in the hospital. At the funeral, George and Phil's mother embrace Rose and give her some jewelry which makes Rose very emotional.

What does the name power of the dog mean? ›

'The Power of the Dog' title comes from a Bible verse

Their relationship reminds Phil of a deep and meaningful love that he once had. Indiewire confirms that The Power of the Dog title comes from Psalm 22:20, which reads: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”

How does cinematography tell a story? ›

Cinematography sets and supports the overall look and mood of a film's visual narrative. Each visual element that appears on screen, a.k.a. the mise-en-scène of a film, can serve and enhance the story—so it is the cinematographer's responsibility to ensure that every element is cohesive and support the story.

What are the two main elements of cinematography? ›

In general, the key elements of cinematography are: exposure, shot size, camera angle, camera movement, composition, type of lens, depth of field, and white balance.

Were any animals harmed making the power of the dog? ›

No. The film was shot entirely in Campion's native New Zealand and does not bear the “no animals were harmed” trademark approval phrase from the American Humane organization.

Was a real bull castrated in the power of the dog? ›

'He was brave and game!': Benedict Cumberbatch learned how to castrate bulls in preparation for his role in The Power Of The Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch learned to castrate bulls in preparation for his role as a cowboy in The Power of the Dog.

Were any animals hurt in the power of the dog? ›

The organisation has done so on the ground that the actor allegedly castrated a real bull and agitated a horse in the movie. The post reads, “Clearly upset & frightened—the horse is NOT “acting.” #BenedictCumberbatch was quoted saying “I did everything you see in the film” – he apparently learned to castrate bulls.”

Why does Phil hit the horse in The Power of the Dog? ›

Almost as soon as Peter learns of Phil's homosexuality, Phil knows that Peter knows, imbuing their next few scenes with apprehension. When George informed his brother of his intentions to marry Rose, an angry Phil beats a horse, hurling misogynistic slurs at the animal clearly intended for his future sister-in-law.

Why did Phil burn the hides? ›

Phil's plans were to burn the hides that he didn't need and while they were given to the Natives who will have a better use for them, Phil refuses to acknowledge this. Peter offers Phil the hide from the cow he'd skinned, concealing that the animal was dead when he found it.

What did the ending of The Power of the Dog mean? ›

Whatever Phil and Peter's emotional intentions with each other, The Power of the Dog's ending makes it clear that Peter purposefully poisoned Phil to eliminate his step-uncle as a threat and thus protect himself and his mother.

Why did Phil hate Rose Power of the Dog? ›

And, in love's jealousy, Phil's, spawned by “betrayal” (when George marries Rose), he torments Rose, hates her, because she openly expresses the need that Phil cannot.

What is the meaning of The Power of the Dog in the Bible? ›

It is Phil's ability to prey on others' inadequacies and insecurities—thus making them question their value and feel like “worms”—that is the dog's “power” as alluded to in The Power of the Dog's title.

Did Peter poison Phil in The Power of the Dog? ›

The Power of the Dog alternate end

"And then the camera landed on the definition of anthrax in the book. And that was the last shot of the film." It is noted to be almost identical to the final passage of the novel which confirms Peter had killed Phil.

What did Phil need the hides for? ›

When Rose gives away some of the ranch's extra hide to local Native Americans, Phil is furious because he intended to use that hide for Peter's lasso. That's when Peter sees his opening. Earlier in the summer, Peter found a dead, diseased cow, and he saved some of its hide.

What is the theme of The Power of the Dog? ›

The film makes up for its slow introduction as it explores broader themes of benevolence, introspection, sexuality, and family.

What are the 3 perspectives in film? ›

Let's look at the different points of view you can use in your film.
  • First-Person Point of View (Subjective)
  • Third-Person Limited Point of View (Objective)
  • Omniscient Point of View (Objective)
4 Feb 2022

Why is point of view important in film? ›

Point of view shots give audiences a view from a character's perspective by positioning the camera right where the character's eyes would be. These shots cast an illusion of access to a character's inner life, which makes POV shots very popular in TV and film.

Why is the relationship between the actor and the camera so important in making and looking at movies? ›

Why is the relationship between the actor and the camera so important in making and looking at movies? Actors interpret the director's guidance in the area between them and the lens-an intimate and narrowly defined space that necessarily concentrates much of the actors energy on their faces.

What is the primary goal of a cinematographer? ›

The cinematographer's primary goal is to capture the director's vision. Using lighting, camera, and composition techniques, a DP translates that vision into images.

What is the most important part of cinematography? ›

One of the most important choices that a Cinematographer makes for every single shot is its composition—or what will be seen in it 3. Composition refers to how each shot is framed and all the elements within that frame.

What are the 3 basic elements of cinematography? ›

So there you have it: exposure, lighting and camera placement and movement.

Which is the most important element of film making? ›

But as filmmakers, our overriding concern should be movement. Movement also has a double meaning: 1) the physical movement of the camera or objects within the frame and 2) moving our audience emotionally.

What are the five principles of film form? ›

Terms in this set (5)
  • Function. Story lines or characters that serve a function effect the outcome of the whole movie.
  • Similarity and Repition. Are there repeated scenes or lines that reinforce the meaning of the film?
  • Difference and Variation. ...
  • Development. ...
  • Unity and Disunity.

Why is cinematography so important? ›

Much of the impact of a film or television show is visual. Cinematography represents that visual aspect, whether through the camera and lens choice, angle width, aspect ratio, or other visual elements. The impact of certain shots also plays a significant role in the overall feel of a film.

Is there homosexuality in power of the dog? ›

Elliott's comments about the “allusions of homosexuality” are correct in that the film suggests that both Phil and Peter are gay. Phil had an important mentor in the unseen Bronco Henry, and the film implies that there was an element of homosexuality in Phil and Henry's relationship.

Is Peter a psychopath in power of the dog? ›

It could be argued that Peter is somewhat of a psychopath here. He's very good at manipulating people's emotions and he manages to play Phil at his own game, using his weakness surrounding Bronco Henry to outsmart him.

What is the secret in The Power of the Dog? ›

The Power of the Dog editor revealed that the final scene shot was: "a slow pan across Peter's desk in his room, which showed a medical book on his desk. And then the camera landed on the definition of anthrax in the book.

Did Peter give Phil anthrax in The Power of the Dog? ›

The ending of The Power Of The Dog reveals itself to be an ice-cold revenge story. Peter tactically kills Phil by infecting him with anthrax to save his mother from her drinking problem. And this we know from many clues the film gives us.

Is there abuse in power of the dog? ›

The story includes violence against both humans and animals. Ranch animals are castrated, pushed, hunted, beaten, and put out of their misery (carcasses are shown), and a character dies (the dead body is visible in a couple of scenes).

Did Benedict Cumberbatch really hit the horse in The Power of the Dog? ›

Although it's evident that a trick of the camera was used and that actor Benedict Cumberbatch didn't actually hit a horse, the animal was still clearly upset and frightened in the scene.

Was Phil attracted to Peter? ›

After driving Rose to alcoholism, Phil eventually begins to develop a friendly relationship with Peter after the youngster realizes he is a gay man who was in a romantic and sexual relationship with his late mentor, Bronco Henry.

Was a real bull castrated in The Power of the Dog? ›

'He was brave and game!': Benedict Cumberbatch learned how to castrate bulls in preparation for his role in The Power Of The Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch learned to castrate bulls in preparation for his role as a cowboy in The Power of the Dog.

Why does Phil hit the horse in The Power of the Dog? ›

Almost as soon as Peter learns of Phil's homosexuality, Phil knows that Peter knows, imbuing their next few scenes with apprehension. When George informed his brother of his intentions to marry Rose, an angry Phil beats a horse, hurling misogynistic slurs at the animal clearly intended for his future sister-in-law.

Were any animals harmed in the making of Power of the Dog? ›

No. The film was shot entirely in Campion's native New Zealand and does not bear the “no animals were harmed” trademark approval phrase from the American Humane organization.

Were any horses harmed in the making of The Power of the Dog? ›

The Power of the Dog doesn't feature the “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer—issued by American Humane (AH)—in the end credits of the movie. Even if it did, the disclaimer is never a guarantee that animals weren't exploited, hurt, or killed during production.

Is there homosexuality in power of the dog? ›

Elliott's comments about the “allusions of homosexuality” are correct in that the film suggests that both Phil and Peter are gay. Phil had an important mentor in the unseen Bronco Henry, and the film implies that there was an element of homosexuality in Phil and Henry's relationship.

Did Phil know Peter killed him in power of the dog? ›

The Power of the Dog ending explained

The closeness of Phil and Peter causes Rose to spiral into alcoholism. As they take part in the business of the ranch, Peter slowly opens up to Phil, revealing that he found his father's dead body after committing suicide.

Is Peter a psychopath in power of the dog? ›

It could be argued that Peter is somewhat of a psychopath here. He's very good at manipulating people's emotions and he manages to play Phil at his own game, using his weakness surrounding Bronco Henry to outsmart him.

Was Phil attracted to Peter? ›

After driving Rose to alcoholism, Phil eventually begins to develop a friendly relationship with Peter after the youngster realizes he is a gay man who was in a romantic and sexual relationship with his late mentor, Bronco Henry.

What is the meaning of The Power of the Dog in the Bible? ›

It is Phil's ability to prey on others' inadequacies and insecurities—thus making them question their value and feel like “worms”—that is the dog's “power” as alluded to in The Power of the Dog's title.

What is the moral of The Power of the Dog? ›

And while The Power of the Dog leaves quite a bit open to interpretation, the clear moral is that having faith in Campion will surely pay off.

Did Peter give Phil anthrax in The Power of the Dog? ›

The ending of The Power Of The Dog reveals itself to be an ice-cold revenge story. Peter tactically kills Phil by infecting him with anthrax to save his mother from her drinking problem. And this we know from many clues the film gives us.

What is wrong with Rose in The Power of the Dog? ›

In the final scene it was shown that Rose had recovered from her alcohol addiction and was now seen happy with the man she loved. Her tormentor had met his end, her lover was now all hers, and her son was free of Phil's sinister grasp as well. So, Dunst's character was the backbone of this incredible film.

Is there abuse in power of the dog? ›

The story includes violence against both humans and animals. Ranch animals are castrated, pushed, hunted, beaten, and put out of their misery (carcasses are shown), and a character dies (the dead body is visible in a couple of scenes).

What happens at end of The Power of the Dog? ›

The Power of the Dog editor revealed that the final scene shot was: "a slow pan across Peter's desk in his room, which showed a medical book on his desk. And then the camera landed on the definition of anthrax in the book. And that was the last shot of the film." (via TheWrap.)

What is the story of The Power of the Dog? ›

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