When Robert Mackenzie, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” first read the script, he felt the story not only held a mirror up to life but challenged his thinking.
Mackenzie worked to capture the sounds of Montana in this story featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, an intimidating presence who looms over a sprawling Montana ranch. When his brother, George, played by Jesse Plemons, returns home with his wife, Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, he becomes resentful of the new dynamic.
MacKenzie says, Campion’s approach to sound is one of reverence and innocence. He says, “This allows the sound team to explore a world that has been created within the story. Any and all preconceived ideas about what sound contributes to a story are both equally encouraged and abandoned.”
The main conversation around sound centered around taking audiences and the sound team on an emotional journey and what would the audience take away as the signature sound of the film. MacKenzie says, “We strived to create signature sounds that were representative of the characters and the environments they are in, and the emotions they are feeling.”
The film opens with Phil striding over his land and into his house. For that sequence, the team highlighted the sound of his boots as a metaphor for his strength and masculinity. This is reflected by the heavy weight of the shoe and the ever-present sound of the ringing spurs.
MacKenzie explains, “Phil’s boots represent his identity as a ranching man but they also become a psychological device used to torment and warn others that he is near.”
The sound design of the film focused on the contrast between close intimate sounds and the wide expanse of the Montana landscape. Some examples of this are the intimate macro detail of the knife slicing through rawhide leather. Another example is the wind blowing through grasses versus the wide expanse of Montana, and the close detail of the footsteps of George and Rose dancing with wide backgrounds when they are dancing on the hilltop.
Other intimate sounds included the caressing of Henry Bronco’s saddle, the braiding of the rope, and Peter cutting the material to make the paper flowers and the scraping sound of his comb when he is deep in thought.
Says MacKenzie, “These macro sounds can only be created in the quiet treated space of a Foley room with sensitive microphones and talented artists.”