Power of the Dog, The: Jane Campion

Jane Campion on ‘The Power of the Dog’s Toxic Masculinity and Why She Won’t Make a Marvel Movie

The director, whose first film in over a decade screened at Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Fests, discusses bringing the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring film to Netflix, starting a pop-up film school in New Zealand, and the power of women in the industry.

Jane Camion’s first film in over a decade, The Power of the Dog, which has played to glowing reviews, is a kind of bookend to her 1993 Palme d’Or-winning period drama, The Piano, in its portrait of sensuality and repression.

Photo: The Piano

But for the first time in Campion’s career, the protagonist in The Power of the Dog is a man, Montana rancher Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Campion spoke about her movie’s themes of toxic masculinity, her fleeting sense of power in the film industry and why there will never be a Campion comic book movie.

Reaction to The Power of the Dog?

Our screenings are full. That’s what makes me think it must be some good word … Well, you don’t know. Nobody’s going to say to me, “Oh, you’re full of shit.” I don’t read reviews because it’s always … you pick up the one thing that’s shit, the one comment. I feel it’s easier just not to read those. They [the studio] give you percentages. So I now know it’s going well. There’s a different warmth coming toward me. When people don’t really like your movie, it’s like you’ve got leprosy or something. They avoid you.

I’ve been in the business a long time, and I’ve had films that were more troubled. I don’t really feel I’ve ever made a complete failure. But sometimes they’ve been divisive. My very first film, Sweetie, the view on it now is that it was audacious and bold. At the time it was very divisive. I had some really powerful critics on my side, like Vincent Canby, who were saying, “This is amazing.” And others saying, “This is a disgusting piece of nonsense melodrama crap. She doesn’t even know how to frame a shot.”

Cumberbatch’s character Phil Burbank is an example of toxic masculinity circa 1925

Because of the previous president, I think everybody felt it has contemporary relevance.  Phil’s style of masculinity, and the ethos of masculinity that is heralded in the cowboy world, it’s very romanticized. Cowboys are seen as being about the natural life, the simple life. However, the Burbanks had one of the wealthiest ranches in Montana. They wield a lot of power, and I think power is always the real issue. It comes through with women too, when they have power and how they choose to use it. Power is always it. And money is often power. Don’t you reckon?

Power in the film world?

I don’t think of myself as having power because my films don’t always make that much money. If your films are popular, then you’ve got power. And if they’re unpopular then it’s the opposite. I had power after The Piano. I noticed that people were interested in what I had to say, which was an absolute new thing. But it definitely does travel up and down. I didn’t identify with it too much because I knew it was temporal. It’s going to change.

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The Power of the Dog COURTESY OF TIFF







Netflix Involvement

When producers Roger Frappier and Tanya Seghatchian and I decided to do this project, there was some discussion about who to do it with. Who would give us our freedom? And who would give us enough budget? It’s actually a really expensive film because of the [set] build. I worked again with See-Saw — I worked with them on Top of the Lake. I said, “What about, instead of us going to Amazon or one of those big online people, what about you develop it with us? And you arrange the financing and take care of all that side of it.” Then we got money from the BBC. [BBC Films director] Rose Garnett really supported us. She’s fantastically supportive to me and to Tanya about anything we want to do. There’s a bit of a women’s mafia underneath, slim as it is. So we didn’t want to go out to anyone before it was written. The idea was that we don’t want it to languish at Amazon when they had paid for it to be written and then they didn’t want to pay for it to be made, but they didn’t give it back to us. And that often happens. That’s when Netflix came in.

We went to Cannes Fest in 2019, and we pitched it to several people, everybody who was interested that we thought would be good partners. But Netflix were the only people that would actually give us enough money to make it.

Film’s budget?

Somewhere in the $30 millions. I think it is economical, but the story itself was a bit risky for people. Anyway, that’s what the market was telling us.

It’s an art film writ large, which is what Piano was, too, really. That is a very hard area to actually raise money in now. They want a lot of guarantees. They want stars. They want experienced directors. You’ve got the Academy race that supports that discussion and raises the profile of films.

As I analyzed it, television was where you had your freedom. You could really almost do anything. Nobody would shut you down. Discuss any topic, be as crazy as you want. It was fantastic for that. Cinema is a lot more conservative. I understand the Marvel movies, the big superhero movies, being like conservative. I don’t enjoy them. I don’t get horror movies. I don’t even get piles of entertainment that lots of people love. I don’t understand them.

Campion comic book movie?

No, I’ll never do that.  I just don’t need the money. I understand why the others do it because … you can have a career where you go between. I actually don’t know how much that’s true, because once you get used to the big toys … I don’t see so many people going backwards into smaller budgets once they go out and do a great big Marvel movie. I think it’s hard to go back into personal stories.

Next project?

The only thing I do know is that the very next thing I’m going to do is start a pop-up film school in New Zealand.

I know that people are working on the environment, but I’m working on the intellectual environment, the learning environment and educational environment. I want it to be for free. It’s really important to me that people have the option to become filmmakers without having wealthy parents. I know I’m going to get the money for it. I’ve actually already spoken to Netflix about it and they’re going to support me doing it. I’ll start with 10 students. It could be for people of any age group to explore their creativity.

It’s also for people who’ve done a couple of features, but know that they need more education, they need more time to explore who they really are and what they could do, and how they can do it.

I actually think that, barring dementia, you’re at your strongest in your capacity and your wisdom in your 60s and 70s. You’ve got insight, because you’ve got the length and breadth of a life behind you.