Peter Sciberras Shares Insights Into Editing "The Power of the Dog"
Peter Sciberras (photo by Rhett Wade-Farrell)
ACE Eddie Award-nominated cutter reflects on collaborating with auteur filmmaker Jane Campion

Today (1/27) Peter Sciberras picked up his first career American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Award nomination. It came in the best edited dramatic feature category for his cutting of writer-director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (Netflix), adding to an awards season momentum for him which also includes making the BAFTA Best Editing longlist for the film and being recognized by various film critics’ associations.

The Power of the Dog marked Sciberras’ first time working with Campion, whom he’s long admired. The opportunity came through Libby Sharpe, one of the fllm’s producers. Sharpe knew director David Michôd for whom at the time Sciberras was editing The King. Through that it’s-a-small-world connection, Sciberras got a chance to read Campion’s adapted screenplay based on the Thomas Savage novel “The Power of the Dog.” Sciberras loved the script and got an interview with Campion.

Campion’s The Power of the Dog centers on two brothers in 1920s’ Montana--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 seemingly none of the above. Both are intelligent and somehow share a brotherly bond--but their worlds move closer to colliding when George 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 whose sensitivity rankles 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.

Sciberras was drawn to the tension and psychology of the film as Campion sought to elegantly build momentum throughout. From an editing standpoint, he felt a prime challenge was “balancing the story” while not losing “the motor of the film” which is driven by Phil’s character. “Structurally it was quite bold, kind of a five-act structure in a sense,” said Sciberras. “Each chapter begins with a new character. You need the audience to invest in that character and never lose track of the film.”

The balancing act cited by Sciberras also applied to the emotional range of the story. On one hand, he observed, there’s “a sense of violence though it isn’t shown.” On the other hand, the story has elements of “tenderness and romance.” Balancing all that, related Sciberras, is “a matter of really just being incredibly attuned to the story and the characters...the feeling of every moment, calibrating ever so slightly.”

Sciberras also had to dovetail with the tour de force work of production designer Grant Major in terms of the environments created, and how they were lensed by cinematographer Ari Wegner. One such environment inherently carrying contradictions was that of the ranch. While the wide open beauty of nature on and around that expansive ranch appears liberating, by contrast the characters there seem confined, almost imprisoned in some instances in that setting. That’s yet another balancing act--this one rooted in somehow marrying wide open environs with cut-off, at times almost suffocating personal space.

“The house is so devoid of love and warmth,” assessed Sciberras who added that even in the hot tub, you feel as if you’re in a cold place.

Close-knit collaborations
Sciberras, though, found nurturing warmth in his collaborative relationships on The Power of the Dog, including with Campion and Wegner. With the latter, he enjoyed a close rapport. Sciberras and Wegner have known each other for some time, their residences about a 10-minute walk apart.  While the two were so busy they couldn’t talk extensively throughout The Power of the Dog, they managed to exchange emails here and there and chat on weekends. Sciberras felt he could reach out to her, talk about a potentially interesting shot, brainstorm as to how a scene could be made better. Sciberras noted that Wegner would even ask him at times if he had all he needed for a certain scene or sequence. He said it was a grand luxury to have “free communication” with the cinematographer.

As for Campion, Sciberras described her as “an incredibly fun person to work with, funny and smart, great instincts, playful” and “willing to try any idea,” even if “it sounds a little crazy. She’s totally willing to go there and try that.” 

The editor characterized The Power of the Dog as an “atmospheric film” requiring “a lot of intuition” as much as “a kind of story analysis...It was a lot of fun playing in that world, to hit it off on that level (with Campion).”

Most helpful early on was viewing dailies together with Campion. That experience gave Sciberras a better understanding of what she was after, particularly from getting the chance to have long conversations with the filmmaker about “why this take, not that take, getting on the same page about the way she sees the world.” That laid the foundation for Sciberras being “in sync” with Campion throughout the process. 

Sciberras said that perhaps what he walks away with first and foremost from The Power of the Dog was how gratifying it was to work with Campion who’s “made films I watched when I was like 18 and that blew my mind.” To gain an understanding of the auteur’s process “and be part of that process,” said Sciberras, is as good as it gets. Developing a friendship with “such a wonderful human being” has been a career highlight. And for their collaboration to be on a film that was “incredibly challenging and rewarding to work on,” a story that was “bold, interesting and brave, the kind of cinema I enjoy and love” and of which there “isn’t that much of in the world.” The editor added that it takes a director with “real courage” to invite an audience into this world (of The Power of the Dog), and respect viewers’ intelligence all the way through.

Sciberras started out his career editing short films and commercials, then diversifying into long-form endeavors. He continues to be at edit house Exile for select short-form and branded projects. Sciberras has felt lucky to have his commercialmaking exploits be high-level storytelling projects done in tandem with top-drawer directors over the years. Sciberras noted that whether short-form or feature fare, his first instinct is to “react to the material,” trying to best do justice to it. 

At the same time, advertising has helped him develop a sense of time and working within its constraints, doing the most he can to connect with an audience--even in as little as 30 seconds. He found it a great training ground to work on different material with varied talented directors. These experiences honed his ability to collaborate and problem solve.

As for what’s next, Sciberras at press time was scheduled to embark on Foe, a slightly futuristic film, for director Garth Davis.



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