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Jane Campion’s first film in over a decade, The Power of the Dog, which has played to glowing reviews at the Venice and Telluride film festivals ahead of its screening at TIFF, is a kind of bookend to her 1993 Palme d’Or-winning period drama, The Piano, in its portrait of caged sensuality and repression. 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.
At Telluride, Campion spoke with THR about her movie’s themes of toxic masculinity, her fleeting sense of power in the film industry and why there will never be a Jane Campion comic book movie.
What kind of feedback are you getting about The Power of the Dog now that it has screened in Venice and Telluride?
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.
Have you had that with a film, where people treat you like you have leprosy?
I’ve had those. 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.”
In The Power of the Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch’s character Phil Burbank is an example of toxic masculinity circa 1925. How much were you thinking about contemporary examples of toxic masculinity when you were making it?
Because of the previous president, I think everybody felt it. 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?
Do you think of yourself as having power within 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.
How early on did Netflix get involved with The Power of the Dog and what went into your decision to take the film there?
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 in 2019. 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.
How much did it cost?
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 that [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.
So we won’t be seeing a Jane Campion comic book movie?
No, I’ll never do that. Do you know what? 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.
Do you know what your next project will be after this one?
No. 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, I think. I also think it could be for people of any age group to explore their creativity. And people, too, who’ve done maybe 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.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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The Harder They Fall
The Power of the Dog