- LOS ANGELES
For cinematographer Ari Wegner, the opportunity to work with legendary filmmaker Jane Campion initially came in a short burst and grew years later to a feature-length film which has garnered great acclaim on the current festival circuit.
The short-term collaboration took the form of a commercial after a mutual colleague brought Campion and Wegner together. The two hit it off, making in just a couple of days what Wegner described as an aesthetic connection. Fast forward some three years and Campion reached out to Wegner about “The Power of the Dog,” the Tom Savage novel centered on two brothers in 1920s’ Montana. Campion was in the process of adapting the novel for a screenplay and asked Wegner if she’d be interested in discussing it.
Wegner immediately embraced the project, reading the book and discovering it to be “a powerful and intriguing story that really stays with you.” Campion’s western, which is also titled The Power of the Dog (Netflix), introduces us to brothers Phil and George Burbank portrayed, respectively, by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons. While they share a bloodline, the two are profoundly different. George is polite, sensitive and considerate while Phil is the polar opposite. Both are intelligent and somehow share a brotherly bond--but their worlds move closer to colliding when George meets, falls in love with and marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a desolate hotel. She then moves to the brothers’ ranch to begin life with her new husband. Phil’s disdain for her is evident--but perhaps even more so for her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sweet dreamer of a kid who is the antithesis of Phil. The complexities of these characters heighten when they are brought together as ultimately Phil and Peter form what appears to be an unlikely friendship, raising questions as to where true masculinity resides--in the hard-as-nails seemingly unfeeling rancher or the lad who harbors aspirations of becoming a doctor, all the while doted over by his mother.
Location scouting began about a year before production. In a van for hours driving from one prospective location to the next made for meaningful conversation--about the project, life in general, “what kind of film we’d like to make” and “what experience we’d like the audience to have from watching the film,” recalled Wegner.
The conversation between the director and DP also got into granular details relative to such aspects as color and visual approaches, which in turn served as a springboard for the creation of “mood boards.”
Also fruitful were their long walks together on location. “Jane’s a big walker,” noted Wegner who observed that those constitutionals were in some respects like being in the van. “You’re not looking at each other. Instead you’re looking ahead,” taking in your surroundings and their potential as story settings.
Frequently Campion and Wegner would then go off separately, after discussing locations and scenes, to draw storyboards.
“I would draw my version, Jane would draw hers and we’d kind of compare,” recalled Wegner. “‘What did you come up with? That’s amazing.’ Maybe from there we’d do a third drawing, a mesh of the two. Or maybe one of ours was clearly better than the other. If a shot didn’t work for one scene, we’d go back to a drawing yesterday that might apply.”
The back and forth continued with set construction, seeing how buildings fit in with a location, walking through to see “what the light does” during the day, said Wegner who gained inspiration from the landscapes, the structures and the light, formulating shooting schedules based on that light.
In the bigger picture, there were contradictions which Campion and Wegner had to address--such as telling a personal, intimate story within vast landscapes, depicting an expansive ranch that at the same time felt confining to characters who seemed almost trapped, and shedding light somehow on the feelings of those who reside in a dark, emotionally cold place.
In a world full of huge landscapes, “the energy between two people in that environment is really microscopic,” said Wegner who observed that you have to be very “zoomed in and zoomed out” at the same time.
“That’s what I love about Jane’s work, the nuance and complexity in everything,” continued Wegner. That’s why there are no movie cliches from Campion, noted the DP. Rather an authenticity is realized which comes from the fact that there are contradictions within most every character.
Wegner opted for the ARRI Alexa LF for The Power of the Dog, noting that it’s a camera with which she’s become increasingly familiar. “Like any tool, the better you know it, the more you can push it.”
Wegner also took an approach which she described as “a cross between anamorphic and spherical” for The Power of the Dog. Though the film needed to be epic and cinematic, she and Campion felt anamorphic was not the right choice. Anamorphic, observed Wegner, can give you “a big movie look. Jane is not about the big movie cliche,” which anamorphic can lend itself to. So they moved towards an anamorphic feel without going fully anamorphic. Wegner added that she and Campion were also mindful of the fact that while they wanted a big cinematic experience for theater audiences, a great many viewers will enjoy the movie within their own homes. Thus Campion and Wegner took a lensing path that would be conducive to both.
Beyond doing justice to the story and its characters, which were priorities, Wegner noted that she also felt the pressure of shooting a Campion movie--doing justice to an auteur filmmaker and contributing to a body of work that people will look back on for generations to come.
Wegner shared that key for her was to never forget why Campion’s body of work is so important--why it has touched so many and how it has impacted those with whom she’s worked. Wegner said that “being in the presence of Jane” is an unforgettable experience, citing her “hugely influential energy, the way she sees the world. She is curious, openhearted and holistic in the way she tells stories. She’s been a big beautiful influence on my life. And other people who have worked with Jane have a similar before-and-after kind of feeling.” Campion, affirmed Wegner, changes your perspective on life and people for the better.
The Power of the Dog was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival where Wegner was honored with the TIFF Variety Artisan Award. Part of the fest’s Tribute Awards, the Artisan honor recognizes a distinguished creative who has excelled at his, her or their craft and made an outstanding contribution to cinema and entertainment. Academy Award–winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and Oscar–nominated and six-time Grammy Award–winning composer Terence Blanchard are previous recipients of the award. Wegner’s career began to take off with Night Shift by Zia Mandviwalla, which went to Cannes in 2012. Wegner has worked both on television and film projects, including The Girlfriend Experience, True History of the Kelly Gang, In Fabric, Stray, Ruin and Lady Macbeth. Wegner recently worked on Janicza Bravo’s Zola, which was released by A24 this summer. The Power of the Dog hit theaters last month and made its streaming debut on Netflix on December 1.
The Power of the Dog made its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. Among the fest stops along the way were Toronto, the New York Film Festival, and most recently the AFI Fest in Hollywood, Calif.
Actor Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with Passing (Netflix), fashioning a screenplay adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel which is centered on two Black women, Irene (portrayed by Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who can “pass” as white women. While Clare decides to pose as white, Irene maintains her heritage. The two women, who grew up in the same community, lost touch with one another until by chance their paths crossed. This sparked an unexpectedly lasting reunion in which Clare returns to her roots--unbeknownst to her racist white husband (Alexander Skarsgârd)--setting off ripple effects, subtle and not-so-subtle, on the women and their families. With themes of colorism alongside sexism, race, class and gender, Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau, ASC, AEC adopted a monochrome approach--removing complexion, affording them an extra measure of visual freedom, buoyed further by the happy discovery that less was more when it came to achieving a desired painterly quality.
In seeking what he described as a more “impressionistic” and “painterly” approach, Grau had to buck what he perceived as a quantitative norm. In a world where there are points and counterpoints regarding 4K vs. 6K and 8K, even IMAX, Grau went for a softer 1.7K image resolution. “It doesn’t seem that we are exploring the image itself but rather exploring the resolution,” he observed. “For us it was a lot more important to get a feeling from an image...to get an image that was fragile and decomposed.” It’s a fragility and impressionistic Monet feel that best served the story of--and the characters in--Passing.
While Hall and Grau decided they wanted to shoot in black and white, they found that b&w movies in the past were too crisp and clean around the edges. So they sought lenses that would mitigate against that. ultimately opting for anamorphic Lomo lenses. This, explained Grau, put the focus on the center of the frame, throwing away basically half of the resolution and the censor of the ARRI Alexa Mini digital camera. While it’s a “counter-intuitive” way of shooting, the result helped to center the focus during intimate close-ups that were instrumental in telling the story and better reflecting what the characters were going through.
Grau said that the cinematography choices were “narrative decisions,” helping to define the characters in black and white with light, shape and shadows. As the story evolves, he noted, the shades of gray and black play a part in revealing the intimacies of the protagonists.
Grau said it was “a joy for a cinematographer to play with the textures,” to shade black and white where the image is critical to telling the story. He described Passing as a dream job for a cinematographer and is grateful to Hall for her trust and affording him artistic freedom. He added that to call Hall “a first-time director” doesn’t tell the whole story. “She’s a super accomplished actor who’s worked on hundreds of sets around the world with professionals. Her father is one of the most accomplished theater directors of all time. She’s been observing exquisite directors at work from an early age. She’s super clever, attentive and learned a lot. She picks up all the details. That’s not the same as a ‘first-time director.’”
Hall, continued Grau, is “a great person to work with, a true leader. She has a vision. She cares for every single detail and every single crew member. She’s funny and fun to work with.” A great collaboration, related Grau, is one in which people grow and learn together, where “we are all kind of pushing our limits to make the film better.” Hall creates an environment and process where that all happens, according to Grau.
Passing also reaffirmed Grau’s commitment “to make films that I care about, that have something to say to the world.”
Grau’s career spans some 20 years and counting. He first served as a DP on European art house film Honor de Cavalleria which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. Two years later Tom Ford brought him to the U.S. to shoot A Single Man. Grau has since worked with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Ryan Reynolds, Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Lady Gaga, Ben Affleck, Emily Blunt, Penelope Cruz, Micheal Fassbender, David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Sam Rockwell, Margot Robbie and Michelle Williams, among others. Grau’s range of directors extends from art-house cult auteurs like Albert Serra and Carlos Vermut to such notables as Ford, Gavin O’Connor and Sarah Gavron combined with actors turned directors like Edgerton and Hall.
Grau won the Bronze Frog at Camerimage 2011 for his cinematography of Buried, as well as being nominated for the Goya, Gaudí and CECC Awards. He was selected in Competition at Camerimage for his films A Single Man, Suffragette, A Single Shot and Animals.
For production sound mixer Ed Novick, a four-time Oscar nominee who won in 2011 for Inception, the decision to take on The Guilty (Netflix) centered on its director. “Antoine Fuqua asked me to do it. It’s as simple as that,” said Novick. “We’ve enjoyed a nice working relationship over many years.”
Those prior collaborations include such films as The Magnificent Seven and Southpaw. Novick noted that on the continuum of directors, there are two extremes when it comes to sound--on one end, you have the filmmaker who micromanages and takes the fun out of the process, while on the other end there’s the helmer who leaves everything for postproduction. Fuqua happily sits somewhere in the middle of that expanse, according to Novick. “He cares enough because I care enough,” assessed Novick who values that mutual trust.
Also attracting Novick to The Guilty were the inherent challenges that come with bringing a feature to fruition in the midst of a pandemic. The film follows a sidelined Los Angeles cop, Joe Baylor (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal), who while awaiting trial has his duty confined to fielding 911 emergency calls at a dispatch center. The Guilty takes place virtually entirely in this call center during the course of the night and early a.m. shifts of a single workday.
With a setting that’s limited visually, sound--while always important--takes on an even more essential dimension in the storytelling. Callers’ voices, the background sounds in their surroundings--which at times reflect the plights they’re in--bring a compelling dynamic to the film. Gyllenhaal’s interactions with these voices and sounds--and his voice as well--make for an engrossing drama as he lays bare some of his inner demons which we come to understand more as the workday unfolds.
Due to COVID precautions, Gyllenhaal didn’t have the voices he was interacting with in close proximity. Under normal circumstances even if not on camera, those actors would be on set or nearby. Instead the voice talent was pretty much at home in different parts of the world, necessitating Novick’s creation of user-friendly audio kits so that they could record themselves and be “present” on the end of the line in real time for Gyllenhaal.
“My work was really with Jake,” related Novick who had to make sure that Gyllenhaal “could hear what he needed to hear and the timing was such that it would drive the story.” That cast at their homes included Riley Keough, Christina Vidal, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano and Peter Sarsgaard. Rehearsals were conducted via Zoom two weeks ahead of shooting.
Among the many logistical challenges that Novick had to deal with was getting professional audio results from people who don’t do professional audio--namely the off-camera actors who had to record themselves. Novick thus had to devise an at-home recording package that wouldn’t scare or intimidate these actors--on one hand, easy enough to use while on the other hand being of high enough quality to satisfy audio needs.
Also contributing greatly to the story were psychological uses of sound. At certain times the audio was destabilized to reflect Jake’s growing instability. And the 911 callers’ worlds came into play as, for instance, the voice of an apparently abducted woman is accompanied by the sound of the van--in which she’s held hostage--being driven along a freeway.
As for his biggest takeaway from working on The Guilty, Novick shared, “I like to be challenged at work. This had a lot of challenges and I’m grateful for that...I’m grateful that we found solutions to help actors deliver the performances they wanted to. That’s meaningful for me.”
The Guilty adds to an extensive filmography for Novick that includes his alluded to three other Oscar-nominated turns--on Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and Moneyball.
Editor’s note: This season, SHOOT’s series of The Road To Oscar weekly feature stories kicks off on December 3. The 16-part series runs through March 18, 2022. Nominations will be announced on February 8, 2022, with the Academy Awards ceremony on March 27, 2022.