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Cinematographer Ari Wegner on the Neon Intimacy of ‘Zola’ and Sun-Drenched Dread of ‘The Power of the Dog’

The DP talks about her year-long prep with Jane Campion to create the look and feel of “The Power of the Dog.”

Power Of The Dog_Benedict-Cumberbatch_Kodi-Smit-McPhee

“The Power of the Dog”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

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Cinematographer Ari Wegner won’t consider taking on a project unless she falls in love with the script first.

Indeed, a screenplay that knows exactly what’s it’s trying to achieve is the throughline in the Australian DP’s diverse body of work, an impressive oeuvre that spans the buttery textures of William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth,” the Giallo-soaked tint of Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric,” the fiery vistas of Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” and the frenzied vibrancy of Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.”

“I need to have a gut reaction to the script,” Wegner tells IndieWire in a recent interview. Wegner, who wrapped Sebastián Lelio’s new film “The Wonder” earlier this year, is deservedly in the ongoing awards conversation with Jane Campion’s lyrical epic “The Power of the Dog.” “It’s such a commitment to do a feature film. If I’m not really excited about it, then it’s not even a choice.”

Wegner started tapping into her instincts as a visual storyteller at a young age amid a creative family of artists, discovering her passion for writing and photography in high school. When she realized that her two loves could merge in cinematography, going to film school — namely, Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television — was the natural next step. “I thought I wanted to be a director,” Wegner says. “But once I started shooting other people’s films, I knew straightaway this would be an amazing life.” So she followed that gut feeling, tackling everything from shorts and commercials to music videos and TV shows, until she earned enough cache to be a little more selective. “When a project comes along that has a really interesting script and director, that’s irresistible.”

One of those irresistible projects Wegner refers to is the vivacious “Zola,” released this year after debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Shot on 16mm, a format that Wegner always had a soft spot for, the film is based on an infamous Twitter thread about a 48-hour journey that involves a Detroit waitress, an unorthodox road-trip to Florida with a stripper, and plenty of promiscuous mischief.

"Zola"

“Zola”

A24

Wegner cherishes that experience, drawing specific attention to one of her favorite scenes in the movie: a music video–like sequence that was unconventionally captured on a GoPro. “It’s when they are singing Hannah Montana,” she says. “We wanted [the scene] to feel alive and it was an exciting idea. Giving [my] camera to an actor and saying, ‘You guys do it!’ was terrifying, but then so completely in the spirit of that film.”

A chance meeting with Campion on a commercial set years ago eventually led Wegner to “The Power of the Dog,” perhaps the most significant project of her career. The two hit it off, but went their separate ways while Campion worked on her TV series “Top of the Lake.” Then Wegner received a call from the writer-director while Campion was in the midst of adapting Thomas Savage’s 1967 book, the 1920s-set story of browbeating rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the daunting mind games he plays on his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her reserved son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). “When Jane Campion calls you and says she wants to make a film with you, the rest of the world kind of disappears,” Wegner says. “Of course, I found the book that afternoon and read it straight away. I was gripped by it.”

Power of the Dog_Ari Wegner_Cinematographer

Ari Wegner and Jane Campion on “Power Of The Dog”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The duo proved to be the right match, especially when Campion asserted that she wanted her cinematographer to be involved in every aspect of planning, starting with the location scout. That requirement suited Wegner’s impulses as a storyteller in her own right. In that spirit, she spent a whole year with Campion just to prep. “The main thing we got to do that year was become really good friends,” Wegner says. “Jane is a holistic person. She knew that she wanted a strong ally in her DP, a rock-solid sidekick [as well as] someone who was obviously going to do the job, make an amazing-looking film.”

Naturally, Campion and Wegner accomplished a lot more than becoming close friends during that year, dissecting the specifics of the script to reveal the narrative role and emotional tone of each scene inside and out, a committed process that allowed them to rapidly recover whenever they felt lost or offtrack. They also evaluated and embraced the environment of the New Zealand location that was going to stand in for the story’s Montana milieu. “We’re both a little like teacher’s pets from way back. So we obsessed with the preparation,” Wegner says. “The environment out there is wild. It’s so devastatingly beautiful, but the wind is insane and the sun is intense. New Zealand is like the brightest place. Your brain glitches with the environment. If you only just start thinking about how to capture [it] the first time you get there, you’re definitely going to leave behind beautiful things.”

The first location task was to find the mountain range that was iconic, even sacred to Phil, somewhere suitable to erect the Burbank ranch that would also have sufficient sunlight properties to produce long shadows. Once they settled on a general area, Wegner and Campion mapped out the interiors, piecing together the choreography of the story. Believably selling the full-scale impression of the Burbank ranch was one of the toughest challenges Wegner faced, a difficulty Campion addressed by proposing a big cattle drive sequence in the beginning, which Wegner considers to be one of her most fulfilling accomplishments. “There are always [individual] shots that stand out, but I love when a full sequence, a series of shots, works. I’m really proud of the cattle drive story from when [Phil and George] say goodnight on the first night, to when they start talking again up on the plateau. [The sequence] travels in time and distance. It feels natural and flowing, it [gives] a lot of information in a short time. [After that], you [didn’t] need to constantly remind people that [they’re] on a ranch. I’m really satisfied with the result.”

Power of the Dog_Benedict Cumberbatch_Jesse Plemons

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons in “The Power of the Dog”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Wegner admits that visual effects (about 150 VFX shots) and other techniques came in handy to augment the movie’s overarching ocular credibility. In addition to creating an imprint of a dog figure on the side of the mountain range—a recurring motif in the movie—VFX was crucial to expand the small number of cattle that they had. For certain window scenes elsewhere, they took photos of the location and printed massive billboard-like backdrops to create an old-school, in-camera optical illusion. “It looks completely plausible [because] Jane Campion’s got an incredible aesthetic eye, and flawless, impeccable taste. [So] you believe it. And the camera believes it.”

Throughout, Wegner worked towards establishing a rich dialogue between her camera and the actors, organically reacting to their emotions and accentuating their physical isolation through a play between foreground and background. One example is when a forlorn Rose sits alone at the table during a high-profile dinner party, an image juxtaposed against the mingling guests behind her. “We really planned that up very specifically, the blocking in relation to the camera,” Wegner recalls. “We had a floorplan, so we spent a lot of time [figuring it out in theory] even before the set was built. Jane is really good at capturing the essence of a scene in one shot. Like [when] Peter goes into the barn with Phil for the first time and Rose’s in the foreground, Peter in the middle ground, and then further away is Phil with the barn. Then the barn door getting closed on her face. I would [actually] argue that even before Rose arrives at the ranch, all the landscape shots set up a sense of isolation.” To engage with the story’s claustrophobic aspects, she interpreted the narrative like a monster movie of sorts, considering the genre’s common tropes. “[Perhaps] you’d call that a monster film, a horror film but we always wanted you to sense where Phil is. Or whether Rose is feeling safe or unsafe compared to where he is. And that got its way into the photography somehow.”

The opposite of that feeling of confinement was a liberating sense of intimacy that Wegner captured on a handheld camera, especially during Phil’s vulnerably unguarded moments. “In the sacred place, in the willows, or even the first night when George brings Rose home and he’s sitting on his bed by himself playing his banjo. That’s the real Phil, not the public Phil. There is something special about being incredibly close to someone who’s having big emotions, like the first time you see a friend cry. And whenever you go through that with someone, you are always going to be closer to them than someone you haven’t seen cry. [Filming him] in [his] sacred place was really a special day: just me, Jane, and [minimal] crew hidden in another little area. We just had one lens. It felt like an old film school experience. [Benedict] put his trust in both of us to capture what he’s doing, which is the trust that Jane builds.”

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Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog”

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

“She brings out the best in people,” Wegner continues about Campion. “The honesty in the way that she could happily say, ‘I don’t know yet’ is empowering. To have someone at the top say that [allows] you to say it [too]: ‘I need to do some more work before I can give you an answer.’ And working with someone who’s so excited about learning is super inspiring to me. You can be excited about learning no matter how many films you’ve made.”

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