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With a track record that in the last five years alone includes Oscar best picture nominee Lion, Steve McQueen’s all-star heist thriller Widows and the Kate Winslet/Saoirse Ronan period romance Ammonite, prestige tastemakers See-Saw Films are back with another buzzy A-list feature hitting the fall festival circuit ahead of awards season.
But the Montana-set Western drama The Power of the Dog is arguably its most hotly-anticipated title so far — marking the return to the big screen after more than a decade for Oscar-winner Jane Campion (who up until this year was the only female to have claimed Cannes’ Palme d’Or), and featuring a heady cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Acquired by Netflix before its New Zealand shoot (which was impacted by the pandemic right in the middle of filming), The Power of the Dog is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and tells the story of a charismatic yet brutal rancher who clashes with his brother and his new wife. Of course, the film isn’t See-Saw’s first rodeo with Campion, who helped launch the company’s now booming TV arm with two seasons of her hit mystery series Top of the Lake, paving the way for shows such as Nick Hornby’s unconventional short-form sitcom State of the Union and, more recently, AMC+’s brooding Arctic drama The North Water. Many more — including Apple TV+’s The Essex Serpent — are on the horizon.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of The Power of the Dog’s world premiere in Venice, See-Saw founders Iain Canning, based in London, and Emile Sherman, in the company’s Sydney office, discuss reuniting with Campion and how she helped steer a disrupted production, why being split between both the U.K. and Australia has made then “lockdown riders,” remaining entirely independent despite the current clamouring for deals by studios and streamers, and how they celebrated 10 years since the film that kick-started their rise to prominence, The King’s Speech.
How did The Power of the Dog come your way? You obviously already had a relationship with Campion
SHERMAN It’s always such an incredible opportunity to work with Jane. We had a great time on the first two seasons of Top of the Lake. She does things in our own time. We did the first season, waited a couple of years, and she decided to do another season, which was brilliant. And then we were really fortunate enough to join this next endeavour of hers. She’d come across this book, she ‘d met Roger [Frappier, producer] and knew she wanted to include Tanya [Seghatchian, who helped finance Campion’s last feature Bright Star while at the UK Film Council] as a producer and ourselves, and we all just got together and said, let’s do it. But you know, we would have made whatever Jane wanted to do.
Was there a sense that this was her big return to cinema after a decade away?
CANNING It’s like the book found her. In a way Jane seems like she’ll do what she is compelled to do. I think she read the book after it was recommended by a family member and it Thomas Savage’s story pulled her into writing and directing. I don’t think she was at all pondering, oh I haven’t made a film since Bright Star, it was just wanting to tell the story.
SHERMAN She’s always talked about being led by a story and guided by the book – she felt like she had a light there and kept being drawn to it. She’s not thinking strategically about her career.
How did COVID impact the shoot?
SHERMAN We really were halfway through. We’d shot the location part and were moving to the studio part. New Zealand was looking very safe at that point and we were in a very safe part of the world, but very quickly it went from level one to level four, basically over 48 hours. We went from thinking, we’re going to be fine, speaking to people in government, we’re going to be cruising through to the end before it gets difficult, to shutting down in the morning. It was incredibly traumatic and difficult. Jane didn’t know whether the film would ever get finished. No one knew what was going to happen.
So what happened? Did having Netflix already on board — rather than an array of international distributors — make life easier?
CANNING There was a moment when the world was in a chaos state where nobody knew which way was up. But I think the project was so special and with Jane’s approach and the culture that she created, plus also the magical quality of the location in New Zealand, everyone was just so excited and felt like, with Netflix’ support, we had a fighting chance of getting it back up and running. I think we looked at 17 different different plans and I remember this moment, a very producorial moment from Emile, where he said, ‘We’re choosing this date’ And a million things could have stopped us from that, but Netflix wasn’t one. But I didn’t feel that there was any level of extra anxiety producers could feel in this business until COVID came along!
SHERMAN You really do know who your partners are when crises happen and Netflix were a great partner, because no amount of contracts prepare you for that.
It’s been just over 10 years since The King’s Speech. Did you do anything to mark the occasion?
CANNING We made another film with Colin Firth! We made [WW2 drama] Operation Mincemeat. That was a film where we were shooting in Spain and at the very, very end and a few weeks later the U.K. went into lockdown. It’s now complete, but [director] John Madden has still not seen the film with an audience. We actually screened the film in Australia. The See-Saw dynamic of Australia/NZ and UK/Europe has been really effective in terms of being able to be busy and survive the lockdowns.
SHERMAN We’re lockdown riders!
CANNING Emile’s in his lockdown now. We’ve swapped.
SHERMAN We’ve actually just started shooting Firebite, a TV series which Warwick Thornton created and is directing, and we’re shooting in Adelaide, and that is literally the only place you can shoot in Australia at the moment. So we’ve been lucky.
You’re teaming up with Florian Zeller for The Son, his follow up to one of this year’s most critically-acclaimed and award-winning films, The Father. How did you manage to get involved in this project?
CANNING I was lucky enough to see The Father at Sundance in 2020 and was completely blown away by it. And then COVID happened and we all sort of wondered what our purpose was as producers and were desperately trying to get Zoom calls set up, learning the rhythms of chatting to talent on Zoom. I think a writer’s relationship with an EP in TV or a producer on film is a very trusting thing. You being a trusted place for them to tell their story is super important and it’s trickier to rely on that trust when you’re Zooming. But one of the most extraordinary calls we had was with Florian. We talked about film and cinema and things that he loved and we gushed about his film and he talked about the films that he like’d that we’ve made — it just became a meeting of of minds in terms of wanting to work together. So a real highlight of a terrible, terrible time was meeting and getting to know Florian and now doing his film.
While See-Saw has been ramping up its TV side, your film output has remained exceptionally steady – usually just one film a year. Do you simply prefer to focus on one at a time?
SHERMAN I think that we’re very selective about the films that we take on. We know that films need to hit a particular target of quality in terms of the level of the director and the cast. We try to make only the best films. But we’re really committed to expanding the world of television, and have brought on Helen Gregory as creative director which is hugely exciting. We want to use all those great talent relationships we have in film and expand them across television, which is a key part of our growth.
Given See-Saw’s impressive track record and the huge appetite from studios and streamers at the moment to lock-in film and TV content from notable production houses, it’s surprising that you’re still going it alone, and haven’t either been bought or signed any deals. Has it always been your aim to remain independent?
SHERMAN I think in a way it has. We really do value our flexibility and being able to find the right home for the right project. You just know that the most important thing that you can do for the creative talent that we work with is to align the vision of the project all the way through from every crew member to the financiers and just know that everyone is passionate. So having that flexibility in dealmaking is really important to us. So it has been important, but maybe we’re crazy.
CANNING There’s 30 of us, so maybe we are crazy.
SHERMAN But we’re enjoying it, and we like controlling our destiny at the moment.
Has anyone kicked See-Saw’s tyres over the years?
CANNING Lots of people are continually trying to have conversations and it’s great to feel wanted. We’ll never stop wanting to be wanted.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 1 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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