It was, in fact, Jane Campion’s first rodeo.
In late 2019, the first female filmmaker to receive the Cannes Palme d’Or — for 1993’s The Piano, which also landed her two Oscar nominations, for best director and original screenplay (she won the latter) — found herself at a San Francisco-adjacent rodeo with her producer Tanya Seghatchian. “Maybe rodeos aren’t quite what they used to be,” laments Campion. “We kept being told to sit down.” Unconcerned with the bucking broncos and other ancillary theatrics, the duo were eyeing the riders, looking to populate their latest production, set in 1920s Montana, with convincing cowboys.
“I found myself suddenly too grand to go and lean over the ring,” remembers the director, struck by the inherent ridiculousness of the proposition she would be shouting at the passersby: “Come over here! Want to go to New Zealand?” The task was left to Seghatchian, who approached riders after they had dismounted their horses, asking for a chat.
“We looked like a very unconvincing couple of women that claimed to be making a feature film,” recalls the producer.
But they did happen to convince one rodeo rider, Max Mata, to join them for The Power of the Dog, Campion’s first feature since the 2009 period drama Bright Star. From its sheepskin chaps and a fully operational barn and method performances, the movie is a handcrafted product. A protracted preproduction process and an unexpected mid-shoot shutdown because of the pandemic afforded the cast and crew ample time to take a deep dive into every detail, giving the movie the lived-in texture of a well-worn Stetson.
Campion came to Power of the Dog by way of her stepmother, who sent the filmmaker Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. The movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a wealthy, menacing and hyper-intelligent Montana rancher who is obsessed with traumatizing Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, the kindly new wife of his brother, George, played by Dunst’s real-life fiance, Jesse Plemons. “A book could sit in my bookshelf for maybe two years without me reading it,” says Campion. “But I started reading it and the book started with Phil’s castration technique and I thought, ‘Oh, this is something else.’ “
Campion had just wrapped filming on the second season of the BBC’s Top of the Lake and, in terms of upcoming projects, she had, as she puts it, an “empty nest.” After the heavy lift involved in producing hours and hours of prestige television, the prospect of returning to feature filmmaking was enticing. Two hours, she thought, “is really a beautiful time.”
After she sent Savage’s book to Seghatchian, they began hunting for the rights, only to discover they were held by producer Roger Frappier, who was underway on packaging the project. The filmmakers traveled to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival to meet with Frappier, which is where, just one month after they had read the book, Campion and Seghatchian found themselves attached to the movie. See-Saw Films, which had just worked with the director on Top of the Lake, hopped on board, and a commitment from Netflix, — as well as a budget in the mid-$30 million range — followed.
With a first draft in hand, Campion traveled to Montana to visit Savage’s ranch (the author died in 2003), meeting with members of his family as well as an expert on Savage from the local university in Dillon. It was while on this trip that she also realized that the state would not be the right place for her production. Irrigation ditches and other modern agricultural infrastructure slashed through the sweeping landscape that Savage described in his novel. “It just didn’t have the excitement I was looking for,” says the director. But this left Campion with the initially unwelcome reckoning that the filming for a period piece set in the American West would have to take place in her native New Zealand. “Oh for Christ’s sake,” Campion thought at the time, “what kind of crummy show is this going to be?”
A small crew, including cinematographer Ari Wegner and production designer Grant Major, embarked on the task of finding her a stand-in for early 20th century Montana on the South Island of New Zealand months ahead of the film’s early 2020 start date. But the country, whose lush green landscape was famously home to the Lord of the Rings franchise, was almost too picturesque. “[Locations] looked more like postcards. Or a place that would fit into a fantasy film,” says Wegner of the scouting process. “That’s New Zealand for you.”
They landed at Home Hills Farm in the southeastern region of Otago, which had never hosted a major movie production — or much else outside of its herds of sheep. In a moment of kismet, Campion had previously seen her eventual shooting location in a painting by landscape artist Grahame Sydney, whom she had met in passing at the home of fellow Kiwi Sam Neill. Apart from historic shepherd’s cottages, Home Hills offered Campion the kind of blank slate she had been seeking. “It’s 360 degrees of emptiness,” she says.
Contending with heavy springtime rains and winds, Major and his team first set about building one of the film’s key structures: the facade of a two-story period mansion. “It felt like a golden-era classic Hollywood film,” says Major of the hands-on work, which also included building out a working barn and a cattle pen. (All of the film’s interiors would be shot during the final weeks of the 50-day production on soundstages on the country’s northern island in Auckland.)
Even the film’s smaller set pieces were handcrafted. Major and his team would travel to the local slaughterhouse for cow skins, dry them out and braid them by hand to create the rawhide ropes that are integral to the film’s plot. Costume designer Kirsty Cameron constructed the entire cast’s wardrobe from scratch, a process that included everything from blue jeans to a knee-length possum-fur coat.
After briefly toying with the idea of shooting the film in black and white, Campion and her creative team decided on a muted color palette, where each scene would not have more than five colors. Major organically pulled the bright green color out of the farm’s well-fertilized ground cover in order to emulate Montana’s dry grasslands. The film, as Wegner puts it, is “a rainbow of brown.”
Two weeks before filming, the crew began their rehearsals, something Plemons initially balked at. “Because I haven’t done a ton of theater, my knee-jerk reaction to rehearsal is ‘Bah! Come on!,’ ” he says with a laugh. But, he adds, “It made such a huge difference, having that time.” For his part, the Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch went full-method cowboy, reading up on Lewis & Clark and meeting with a dream analyst to better meld with his character. He also worked for a time on a cattle ranch facing Glacier National Park in Choteau, Montana. “Everything I did in the film, I did for real,” says the actor.
Cumberbatch stayed in character throughout the production, which lasted longer than the expected time due to a pandemic shutdown that came as the film was one day into its Auckland shoot in March 2020. For Dunst, the shutdown was one of the earliest indicators of just how disruptive and serious the pandemic was going to be. But it was the COVID-related death of a musical hero that really hit home. “John Prine dies and you are like, ‘What is the world?’ ” she says. She and Plemmons stayed in New Zealand for a month before flying back to the states at a time when air travel was minimal. All told, the production was shuttered for nearly four months.
Before returning to the set in June, editor Peter Sciberras was tasked with cutting a sizzle reel together to “get everyone excited about coming back.” It was during the lockdown that Sciberras assembled a rough cut of the entire film using a mix of the footage that had already been shot and title cards that acted as placeholders of the scenes that still needed to be filmed. “It took up ages to type up all the titles,” he remembers. Campion took the downtime to review footage, seeing what worked onscreen and what wasn’t yet coming through. She says, “I was looking at it thinking, gee, I like the work where we get close to Phil.” When the production returned to set, she and Wegner employed more handheld camera work as a way for the audience to get inside Phil’s head.
Externalizing the characters’ inner worlds was a priority for composer Jonny Greenwood. “The French horn was important,” he writers over email. “They sound like the embodiment of pent-up emotion. It’s that move from warm and repressed to bright and angry-sounding, the louder they’re played. Perfect for Phil’s character.”
And after being in the head of the villainous Phil for the better part of a year, Cumberbatch found himself filming his final take on a dark soundstage in July 2020. “When the scene was finished, I heard this noise and someone went, ‘Benedict, can you hold that for just a bit longer,’ ” remembers the actor. When the lights came on, he was confronted by the cast and crew holding glasses of champagne, with Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah playing over a loudspeaker. “They were toasting Phil, saying goodbye to him and hello to me,” he says, his throat catching while remembering the moment. “I suddenly became Benedict, and I was embarrassed about it all.”