Before shooting “The Power of the Dog” back at the start of 2020, Jane Campion kept having crazy dreams. “I’ve had this terrible fear of being on this big black horse and trying to go down this little lane on this cliff,” she said. “The horse was very testy. And I was proud to be on such an exciting animal, but I didn’t really know it at all. I was going down this trail, it’s getting smaller and smaller. And I can see we can’t fit here. And we can’t get back because this horse and I don’t know each other, I can’t get it to go back. ‘This is certain death.’ Then I woke up.”
Campion faced her fears with a woman who “facilitates a dialogue between yourself and your dreams and work,” she said. “She’s a genius. Most people are just too scared to do it. They don’t want to have their heads messed with, but I’m used to having my head mixed with. I ended up with the confidence, because I took myself to those places. And I analyzed my fear… and then I dove in, and got to know my work. I was just saying, ‘Get going, learn your job.'”
After its Venice Film Festival premiere, and Telluride, Netflix title “The Power of the Dog” sits at 90 on Metacritic and ranks high on Oscar site Gold Derby. The noir western marks the return to movies by the second woman to score a Best Director Oscar nomination (“The Piano”); she won for Best Original Screenplay. Back at Cannes 2017, Campion took meetings while doing press for the second season of her New Zealand series “Top of the Lake: China Girl.” After enjoying her sojourn in television, the director yearned to return to the rigors of a two-hour movie for the first time since “Bright Star” in 2009. One book kept haunting her: Thomas Savage’s 1967 mystery-thriller “The Power of the Dog,” a fraught family drama set on a 1925 Montana cattle ranch.
Hollywood sniffed around the project for years. At one point, Paul Newman flirted with taking on the charismatic but tortured cattle rancher at the center of the story. Campion looked into the rights and learned that someone still held them. But she couldn’t shake images from the story, like a slim young man in a giant cowboy hat striding past a row of jeering cowhands calling him “faggot.”
“It just kept coming at me,” Campion told me at Telluride, where the film followed its rapturous Venice debut with a warm welcome from audiences and critics. “I said, ‘Let’s find out who’s got [the rights]. Maybe they need a director.'”
That’s when she met Canadian producer Roger Frappier (“Jesus of Montreal”), who was then negotiating a directing deal for the property with someone else. But they were “book fans together,” she said, and by meeting’s end the project was hers.
First, she had to write it. Campion and her trusted producer Tanya Seghatchian (“Bright Star,” “Top of the Lake,” “The Crown”) took notes at a meeting with Annie Proulx, another woman who had tackled western males with her short story “Brokeback Mountain.” Finally Campion and Seghatchian hunkered down for 10 days, hammering out a shooting script in London as they moved Post-It notes around a giant dining room table. “It’s a ranch story,” said Campion. “Nobody’s got a gun. It’s just on the end of that mythology when the cowhands are working there because they love cowboys of old and they are getting their clothes from the mail orders and dressing as cowboys as a kind of quoting of cowboys.”
Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” bears a movie-Western stamp, even if it’s more “Giant” than “Shane.” Unlike the book, Cumberbatch’s Montana rancher Phil Burbank doesn’t ride horseback in a suit like his brother George (Jesse Plemons); he wears overalls and spurs and woolly chaps over his jeans. “Those woollys are like Satyrs,” said Campion. “You know, they’re so sexy in a way. He’s gonna wear them everywhere. He’s gonna wear them to bed. He’s not taking it off unless he’s naked, you know?”
Phil presents a gruff cowboy exterior and underneath… he’s a nasty piece of work. Early in the movie, at a dining house, his cruel, belittling treatment of the widow Rose and her son Peter (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee) who serve his cowboy posse drives them to tears. Phil is used to dominating and mistreating George, who falls in love with and marries Rose, leaving Phil dumbfounded. This is the set-up for a tightly wound domestic catastrophe that Campion expertly lays out one telling detail at a time. No matter how carefully you ingest the rising tension, you don’t know how this intricate clock will wind down. Phil undermines interloper Rose at every turn, driving her to drink, and tries to toughen up fey medical student Peter. This is a kinky story that Hitchcock would have loved.
Clipped British thespian Cumberbatch, who could land his second Oscar-nomination after “The Imitation Game,” might seem like odd casting as a macho man of the American West. Campion was inspired by his performance in the 2012 BBC TV series “Parade’s End,” when he portrayed a conservative statistician-turned-wounded WW1 veteran. She decided that you could take a man with exquisite sensitivity and teach him how to be a cowboy, but you couldn’t expect an action actor to go the other way.
The cast flew in for three weeks of rehearsals, with more intense ranch training in Montana for Cumberbatch. “He had to do castrating, and learn how to do everything,” Campion said. “It’s such a big step for him. It’s a fantastic demonstration of his capacity and his courage.”
The film’s title comes from Psalm 22:20, when Jesus is suffering on the cross. (“Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.”) “As the title stands, it’s a kind of warning,” said Campion. “The power of the dog is all those urges, all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us, you know?” Even Donald Trump has trouble keeping up his powerful male facade, she said: “Like, when things didn’t go well for him, he melted. He couldn’t ever even say the words ‘I lost.’ He created this massive fiction. Even to say the word ‘failure’ is just not an option for someone like him, for these kind of men.”
When production scheduling meant that “Top of the Lake” star Elisabeth Moss couldn’t squeeze out enough time for the lengthy period New Zealand production, the role went to Dunst. Similarly, the role of George went from Paul Dano to Dunst’s partner, Plemons. Campion focused on the sheer scale of the enterprise: constructing a massive ranch set complete with barn and stockyards (designed by “The Lord of the Rings” Oscar-winner Grant Major) on a flat plain in challenging, windy, and freezing — but affordable! — southern New Zealand. “It had this mythic, epic feeling about it, that we couldn’t find [in America],” she said. “But it was a very difficult location to work with.”
Before shooting began, the director had to stare down her own anxiety about taking on her most ambitious movie, her first focused on men, and a horse opera at that. “I’m going to shoot in the rivers: ‘Are they going to be too high or too muddy and we can’t shoot?’ We have to have a lot of good weather. We can’t be on that hill with Jesse and Kirsten and share that special moment of tenderness in high wind and chilly weather. And we were blessed. But I was carrying a lot of anxiety about all of that and doing the right job.”
The director devastated her regular cinematographer Adam Arkapaw by hiring Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth”), with whom she had worked with on a commercial. “I’m working with so many men,” Campion said. “And it’s still an issue for me, the equality of women. So I just went, ‘I am gonna chose a woman DOP.’ [Ari] is brilliant and she loves serious cinema, like me, trying to do something that’s as good as we could have. We did a really long prep together. So we didn’t just come there with all the toys. We really figured it out before we arrived on set.”
When Campion finally saw the movie with festival audiences in Venice and Telluride, she reveled in the return of that communal experience. “They go with you, hopefully. It’s a slow burn. Some people like things coming at them at a faster pace. That might be hard, but I felt it was probably necessary to get the full impact, the changes, and the way that the space rolls.”
Will she wait so long before her next movie? “I have no idea,” she said. “I should do more meditation. It just tells me not to be very interested in the neurosis aspect of my life. I’m looking at emptiness. That’s my dream.”