Power of the Dog, The: Director Jane Campion on her Neo-Western

The Power Of The Dog

Filmmaker Jane Campion’s neo-Western “The Power Of The Dog” is one of the year’s most anticipated films. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the cruel and fiercely repressed rancher Phil Burbank, it gracefully lays bare the emotion and agony of those living alongside him on a Montana cattle ranch in the 1920s.Through his fraught relationships with brother George (Jesse Plemons), his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her delicate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Campion’s story builds in force until it accrues the grand weight of a Greek tragedy.

“I see this film as a departure from my other films, but it’s perhaps a nice bookend to ‘The Piano,’ which is from the feminine perspective,” said Campion during a Friday NYFF press conference in New York. “This is another big landscape film exploring the masculine myth.”

Ahead of its official arrival at the New York Film Festival Friday evening as this year’s Centerpiece Selection in the fest’s Main Slate, “The Power Of The Dog” screened for critics earlier in the day, with press conference taking place after with Campion, Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, and cinematographer Ari Wegner.

On stage, the filmmaker, cast, and crew expressed enthusiasm for Campion’s first directed feature in 12 years, which was discussed as a creatively freeing experience.

Unlike Campion’s previous films, which have explored the female condition, “The Power Of The Dog” looks at masculine archetypes, particularly through its detailed portrait of Phil as a fiercely repressed man whose eventual bond with Peter forces him into vulnerable positions. “I didn’t want to stand back from it,” said the filmmaker. “I wanted to really go in there and feel what Phil was feeling.”

Cinematographer Ari Wegner spoke to a “sense of scale and isolation” that was essential to capturing the character of the remote landscape in “The Power Of The Dog,” whether it was accentuating Phil’s rigidly inflexible masculinity or Rose’s overwhelming loneliness. “I come to it from more of a sensuous point of view,” added Campion. “I think the hills are sexy, all those folds and crevices, hiding secret little strings… It can get you trembling.

For Cumberbatch, the landscape was crucial to Phil’s tormented interior life and another character to play against. “Phil is the landscape,” said Cumberbatch. “It’s in him. He brings the outdoors indoors.”

Cumberbatch went to set before filming started, immersing himself in the New Zealand nature to convincingly play Phil’s affinity for it. “I had to literally lay in the earth for a while: just be there, hear the grass, see the clouds move, and feel the different temperatures,” said the actor. “It’s one of the only aspects of his life he has total control over, is that he can show masculinity when he’s working the land, or the people, or the animals, in any condition.”

Cumberbatch wasn’t initially sure that he could do justice to Phil’s inner complexities. “All the time, I felt like I was reaching, and then those lovely moments [arrive] when you stop reaching and just let go,” said Cumberbatch, recalling the vulnerability he felt on set as “something unspoken.”

“You need someone who really wants a challenge,” explained Campion, asked what led her to cast Cumberbatch in the leading role. “Benedict has this fantastic ability to show vulnerability, and that’s so important for viewers to connect to with this character. The character might put you off at first, but he brings you into the character.”

To get closer to the heart of such a fiercely suppressed lead, Campion did what she describes as “psyche dream work,” working with an acting coach to induce dreams that would guide her toward the version of “The Power Of The Dog” she wanted to make.

Cumberbatch’s tense, menacing performance is only one piece of Campion’s psychological puzzle in “The Power Of The Dog.” Smit-McPhee’s quietly steely turn as Peter Gordon, an effeminate young man — first seen crafting paper flowers for a dinner table populated by rough-hewn farmhands — is another. “Phil Burbank is such an interesting study in masculinity,” said Campion, addressing Cumberbatch directly. “And yet Peter is another. He’s very feminine, and his femininity, he’s comfortable with it, in a way your character finds really uncomfortable.”

“The Power Of The Dog” is adapted from a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, an American novelist who grew up on a cattle ranch in Beaverhead County, Montana. Given that many critical elements of the novel — from a manipulative ranch hand to a young mother struggling with alcoholism — were drawn from Savage’s life, Campion spent time in Montana researching the circumstances under which he wrote it.

“Savage was a gay man, but at that time, he wasn’t openly gay; he married,” said Campion. “He was a great horseman and broke horses. He had a much more complex relationship to the romance about the West than most people did.” Consequently, Savage’s “The Power Of The Dog” explores alpha masculinity and its interest in dominance through a psychosexual lens as well as physical, emotional, and vocational ones. “It’s a complex way of approaching masculinity,” said Campion. “I think [the story was] such a great container, in a way, for thinking and rethinking the men in this world.”

Cumberbatch’s copy of the book, which he said is written with “violent beauty,” went wherever he did go throughout production, as the actor sought to understand and portray Phil as deeply as possible. “It’s covered in dirt,” he said, laughing, “because I was the annoying actor bringing it to set.”

Campion’s “The Power Of The Dog” is not an entirely faithful adaptation of Savage’s novel, expanding roles for many of the supporting characters with a discerning dramatic eye that’s become second nature for the filmmaker.

“Jane added more to my character, Rose, and more richness than what was on the page,” said Dunst, calling the performance “a little of the book, a lot of Jane, and me, myself, and I.”

Dunst agreed to star in “The Power Of The Dog” to work with Campion. “Jane wrote me a letter in my early twenties about working together, and I saved it,” explained Dunst, calling her “one of my favorite filmmakers” and films like “The Piano” and “In The Cut” “inspiring” in their complex portrayals of womanhood. Campion was full of praise for Dunst as well, explicitly saluting her turns in “The Virgin Suicides” and “Melancholia.”

The pair joked that one reason for their collaboration was the revelation that they share a birthday with Lars Von Trier as well.

Missing from the stage was Jesse Plemons, whose strong performance was praised by the filmmaker, cast, and crew in attendance. (Dunst is Plemons’ partner and also lamented that he hadn’t traveled to New York with her for a weekend in a swanky hotel, away from their two children.)

The actor is now filming another Western:  Scorsese’s period drama “Killers of the Flower Moon,” in which he’s playing a lead role initially written for Leonardo DiCaprio. “He’s just such a unique and human actor,” said Campion. “He just takes you two degrees more grounded into a character than you’ll see anywhere else.”

Cumberbatch had particularly tricky dynamic with Plemons on set, given that their characters are brothers whose long-standing resentment is palpable from practically the first frame. “We hardly talked because we were in character all the time,” said Cumberbatch.

“We were friends on the weekend,” Dunst assured him, smiling.  Cumberbatch wasn’t involved with casting but said he’d especially pushed for the film to cast Plemons. “He wanted your role!” Campion retorted, laughing, to which Cumberbatch admitted that nearly every actor he knew wanted to play the lead role in this film.

Asked about the memorably unsettling score by Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist who’s emerged as Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to composer since collaborating with him on “There Will Be Blood.” “Jonny Greenwood is a genius,” said Campion. “There’s no other word for it. It was an absolute pleasure to go through the process with him, and he really led it.  We got an exemption from financing to work with Jonny because I felt we needed someone who had his depth as a composer.”

Campion described the sonic “palette” that Greenwood created, drawing from his impressions of the script to maintain a sense of fluidity and freedom. “What he basically did was built up a lot of suggestions, sharing what he was going to do, like ‘What about horns, mechanical piano, viola?’”

An Australian cinematographer who’s shot alien-feeling, sun-scorched expanses before in films like Justin Kurzel’s “True History Of The Kelly Gang,” Wegner explained that lensing “The Power Of The Dog” was all about following her instincts. “The most definition we got to was knowing in every frame what the information was that we wanted to communicate, and having clarity of information,” she said. “That sounds quite simple but, knowing what that information is, takes quite a lot of attention and work.”

To shoot a particularly vulnerable sequence in which his character strips naked to clean himself in a river that Campion describes as “the sacred place,” Cumberbatch shot only with Campion and Wegner. “There was a huge amount of freedom with that, to ignore the trappings of a camera following your route,” recalled the actor. “I felt unobserved, and I felt free.”

Cumberbatch liked the film’s revisionist conception of the Western, which excavates pain and vulnerability beneath the hardened exterior of his character. He believes that he couldn’t have given the performance he did without the intimacy established onset. “This is all a credit to Jane’s female gaze and sensibility and Ari Wegner’s camera,” he said.

“I wasn’t gender-aware,” added Cumberbatch, speaking directly to Campion about working with her on set. “I’m just working with a really talented director and someone who I trust. And of course, you bring a sensibility that is about your life experience to your work, and I have worked with female directors before — not as many as I would like — and I’m very glad it was you directing this film, is all I can say, you in your entirety.”

For Campion, “The Power Of The Dog” came down to trust — in her cast, her crew, and her own vision for the story. “You’ve just got to take risks, and you’ve just got to trust,” she said. “There’s really no other way around it.”

The film is in select theaters on November 17 and on Netflix December 1.