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‘The Power of the Dog’ Artisans Ratcheted Up Film’s Tension

Jane Campion’s DP, production designer, editor and sound editor crafted a world where every nuance reveals character.

Courtesy of Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion, Netflix’s award-winning Western “The Power of the Dog” is set in Montana in 1925. Campion assembled a crew of accomplished artisans to craft her stark vision of a cattle rancher, George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), who brings home a new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), only to have his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) mock and taunt her.

These four featurettes explore the artistry behind the film’s cinematography, production design, editing and sound, all of which were vital in shaping the drama’s story and tone.

 

 

Cinematography

Before production began, cinematographer Ari Wegner spent an entire year working with Campion to develop a slow-moving visual style designed to draw out tension and conflict between the characters.

“Color was one of the big early conversations,” says Wegner. “We knew there would be certain things from nature that would definitely be in the film — it’d be the grass, then you have the cattle and their color, the browns and the blacks, the leather of the saddles and the color of the dust. You’ve got these kinds of browns and golds and silvers.

“The question is, from there, do we make it a full rainbow, or do we keep it reduced and say, ‘That is our world’? With Jane being a bit of a rebel at heart, additions to the color palette have to be exceptions to feel real. So we have the willow glades, a sacred place that is this vivid green and a whole different kind of world. And then Rose was going to be an exception as well, because she’s a real outsider in this place.”

Additionally, Wegner’s considered camera work gives the audience time to absorb the emotional lives of the characters who live in an era when real feelings are seldom outwardly expressed.

 

 

Production Design

Production designer Grant Major envisioned sets for “The Power of the Dog” that would carry all the history of 1920s Montana. Known for his Academy Award-winning work on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Major developed a design for the Burbank house that he and his crew built from the ground up in rural New Zealand.

Major and Campion set up the house and the barn so they reflected the history of the Burbank family and could be used to reveal more about the characters. Phil Burbank often gazes out at the Western landscape through the open doors of the barn, for example.

“The house is central, in my view, to the production design of the film, and our notion of the house’s construction is roughly 1880 to 1885,” says Major. “So we chose a very early arts-and-crafts style for the house. We used a lot of logs in the barn.”

Used instead of milled wood, the logs were essential in creating the raw, unfinished feeling Major wanted for the sets, symbolizing the roughness of the buildings and the world around them.

“The first day that I turned up on location, there were rain showers coming through,” says Grant of the challenges they faced constructing the set. “The builders were wrapped up in all their gear. The physicality was a big hurdle to jump.”

 

 

Editing

This story of a divided family in early 20th century Montana is one of low-boiling emotions that become increasingly heated as the tale moves forward. Editor Peter Sciberras found ways for the audience to experience the seething conflicts as they begin to dominate the narrative.

Keying into the performances of Dunst and Cumberbatch, Sciberras constructs a scene that begins with Dunst’s character trying to practice a song on the piano in the main downstairs room of the Burbank house. As Rose struggles with the tune, Phil slowly moves through the house to get his banjo and then mocks her by playing the song from memory. While it may feel the actors are mere feet from each other, the actors filmed their parts separately, and Sciberras edited them together so seamlessly that no one would ever know.

“Phil is the central character,” says Sciberras, who worked to always make the audience aware of him even when he wasn’t the focal point of a scene. “We kind of need to always keep him alive. There are some really cool sound devices for that, like his boots.”

 

 

Sound

In the bleak and expansive world where “The Power of the Dog” takes place, even the smallest of sounds can help create atmosphere. Supervising sound editor Robert Mackenzie contrasted the intimate sounds inside the Burbank house with the soundscape in the expansive Western outdoors.

As Phil Burbank braids rope, we hear the leather softly moving through his hands, and we hear the leather creak when a saddle is caressed. Each of these everyday sounds reveal something new to the audience about the film’s characters.

“With Phil’s boots, there’s something very early on that Jane really wanted to focus on,” says Mackenzie. The sound of the boots “embodies his masculinity — his sort of aggression, his dominance.”

Mackenzie was able to draw on some production sounds captured during the filming that had the resonance he needed. He then went back into those sounds and added additional layers to give depth to them, including identifiable sounds for the spurs.

“By the time we get to the piano/banjo duels scene, we know what’s going to happen,” says Mackenzie. “We sense Phil’s presence through his boots, and we know he’s really going to intimidate Rose.”