Kirsten Dunst dot Org » Blog Archive » Jane Campion Finally Made a New Movie. She Gave It “Everything”

John / August 24th, 2021

Deep into a mid-September day in Horse Prairie, Montana, Jane Campion still hadn’t seen the dog. She’d been looking for hours while touring the ranch featured in the novel she was about to adapt, The Power of the Dog, & kept her search quiet. Why so secretive? The book, written by Thomas Savage, describes a rock outcropping on a nearby hillside that only a privileged few—including wily protagonist Phil Burbank—can identify as a running dog. Campion didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t find it. But as her guide, the Savage scholar Alan Weltzian, began driving them away at day’s end, she turned from her seat & stared into the distance, convinced she’d spotted it. She asked Weltzian to stop, exited the car, and made out a landform with “two little paws” in front. This was it.

“It really felt like a kiss from Thomas Savage to me, to say, ‘Okay, this is yours,’” Campion says now. “‘You’ve seen the dog too.’”

The auspicious discovery also rather perfectly encapsulates Campion’s methods as a filmmaker—the way she so completely surrenders her “whole self” to every story she sets out to tell. “That’s the way it works when you really love your work,” she says over Zoom, calling in from her New Zealand home. “You give it everything.”

And it’s been a while since Campion has done that, at least for the big screen. The Oscar winner’s last feature was the 2009 romantic drama Bright Star; she took a long break from the feature world after that release, expressing disillusionment with an industry shift toward “mainstream” entertainment. “Film is complicated now,” she tells me. “In a way, it’s not as daring as series-making.” (Her Emmy-winning TV show, Top of the Lake, marked her sole 2010s directing credit.)

Here was one of the greatest & most significant directors of her generation, indefinitely out of the moviemaking business. Would she ever return? Did she want to? Yes, thank God. She was just waiting for the right thing.

The Power of the Dog tells a sexually charged, ultimately tragic story of longing & betrayal. Set in ’20s Montana & centered on Phil, a brilliant, über-masculine rancher with a cruel streak, the narrative kicks into gear when Phil’s brother marries a widow & brings her—and, eventually, her “sissy” teenaged son, Peter—to live with them. The novel received a renaissance of sorts when Little, Brown reprinted it in 2001 with a glowing afterword by Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx. Campion picked up that edition several years ago & saw its cinematic potential instantly. “The book stayed with me a long time & it didn’t let me go,” she says.

With her producer and friend Tanya Seghatchian, Campion went to Montana in 2018 & met with Weltzian. They spent days discussing Savage, his life, & the novel’s complex, twisty impact. “She saw much better than myself that this is a movie whose time has certainly come,” Weltzian tells me. “It was begging to be done.” Campion came away from the experience energized, newly connected to the material—she wandered the massive log cabin that inspired Phil’s home in the book; she rode horses & researched ranching—& with her particular love of Westerns invigorated.

There was just one thing: The Power of the Dog would be made many, many thousands of miles away from Montana. For her first movie in over a decade, Campion was coming home.

When New Zealand was first floated as the production base for The Power of the Dog, Campion felt terrified: “I was thinking, Oh, my God. I’m not American…& now you want me to do it at home, for freaking hell’s sake?’” But the “magic” landscapes detailed in Savage’s novel didn’t quite match what the director found in Montana. “The dream is to go to the ranch, it’s perfect, you shoot there,” she says. “But that dream didn’t happen.”

She scouted a stunning rural area in New Zealand’s South Island, vast with bright blue skies and surrounding mountains, & led her A-list cast & crew to this remote, beautiful location. By this point, star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Phil, was ready to go. “This was certainly a different texture of character than I’ve played before,” he says. “But Jane gave me a long runway to really get Phil, to let him in, to understand him, be with him, think like him, move like him, talk like him.” Campion had met the Oscar-nominated actor back in the U.S.—she warmly remembers “turning up at his door with a little backpack on”—and was intrigued by the possibility of him playing such a mysterious, complicated role. “I loved how emotional he can be as an actor & what a lover he is,” Campion says. “That’s something that a lot of men aren’t so good at.”

Cumberbatch had gone to Montana himself several times before shooting, learning everything from roping to braiding to horsework—all new skills to him. (“I managed to fashion Jane a horseshoe, which was I guess a lucky emblem for her before the shoot started.”) Upon arrival in New Zealand, Campion introduced Cumberbatch to the crew as Phil, allowing him to go method—& the shoot, which started in January 2020, lasted about seven months due to a COVID-induced hiatus. “To be in character for an entire shoot is new to me; this level of work, & the long run of this project, is also new to me. But it’s very much what I’ve been hoping for for a long while now,” Cumberbatch says. “It felt so important to be able to walk from the outside in, & bring that sense of everything that Phil keeps on his body—the stink of his work.”

You see that commitment, that total immersion, in Cumberbatch’s performance, which ranges from sexy to menacing to quietly heartbreaking. One scene, in which Phil’s simmering rage boils over, took the actor to an unexpectedly raw place; it’s “what this kind of work brings out of you,” he says. He found great solace & peace in the land: watching sunrises & sunsets, trailing the birds circling. “It’s so awe-inspiring,” he says. He wanted to embody that spirit on and off camera, as well as the story’s ambiguity. As the drama increasingly hinges on the tense dynamic between Phil & Peter (who’s played with startling, mesmerizing assurance by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the film’s dramatic thrust leaves ample room for interpretation & exploration. Much stays unknown until the final minutes.

Cumberbatch calls Campion a “kindred spirit,” down to the impassioned disagreements that’d regularly play out between them on set (again, with Campion addressing him as “Phil”). “??We bicker the whole time, but it’s a trust thing,” Campion says, smiling. “He can say whatever he wants, & I’ll say whatever I want back.”

“She’s remarkable,” Cumberbatch says of his director. “She’s got such a vision. She’s so specific in her art—& her art runs deep.”

That close bonding stayed rooted in a character they jointly brought to life—& who, for both of them, marked very new territory. “I was standing on the outside a little bit—I looked like an anthropologist with my little science coat on,” Campion says with a chuckle. “I got close to Phil in a way that made me very, very confident that I could feel him & love him. I loved his dirtiness. I loved who he really was.”

Let’s pause to clarify an important detail: Until The Power of the Dog, Campion had never made a movie with a male lead.

This chewy study of human behavior & masculinity feels, in many ways, utterly Campion-esque, a thrilling return to form. The homoerotic tension rushing through the narrative too feels part of the director’s enduring, groundbreaking approaches to sexuality on screen. Further, “I think that the differences between men & women are a little bit exaggerated sometimes, certainly when it comes to love & sexuality,” Campion argues.

But still: It’s taken her nearly 40 years to make a movie centered on a man, and this was by design. “Right from the beginning of my career, it’s been women’s stories because women have been completely flipping ignored,” she says. “It was kind of a mission, and it would have felt like a huge betrayal. Even though I see myself as an artist who can go anywhere, I still felt this natural, but also political, necessity to cleave toward women.”

Campion was the first woman to win the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, & the second ever nominated for the best-director Oscar (both for 1993’s The Piano, which also won her best original screenplay). Not a ton more progress was made in the decades following. At the 2019 Governors Awards, she was tapped to present for one of the honorees, Lina Wertmüller, the first-ever female best-director Oscar nominee. “I have been asked to speak on the history of women in the directing category in the Academy,” she’d said to begin, sporting a magnificent smirk. “It’s a very short history; more of a haiku.” Cue uncomfortable audience laughter.

Campion believes things are finally changing. The Power of the Dog will world-premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where last year, Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao became the fifth woman to win the Golden Lion prize; this year’s Oscars featured two women nominated in directing for the first time. “I’ve never seen such a big thing in my lifetime,” she says of the post-#MeToo climate in Hollywood & beyond. “I see it as permanent & I’m going to act into that. With that I feel like…I can imagine into a male space now.”

The experience of doing that with The Power of the Dog was freeing. “Bringing your feminine knowing into those spaces is actually exciting,” Campion says. She references the work from Kirsten Dunst as Rose, Phil’s sister-in-law (& the main target of his unyielding nastiness), & the way that felt so essential to her vision: “Her natural warmth as a woman, her loveliness, her beauty…Phil saw her coming into his world with such strong feminine energy.” (Dunst stars with her real-life partner, Jesse Plemons, who plays Rose’s husband & Phil’s decidedly less-macho brother, George.)

Campion thinks of Savage, who died in 2003, when considering her unique perspective on his somewhat autobiographical tale. “I did ask that question: ‘Here I am, a woman, telling this story. How would he feel about it?’” But once she witnessed that dog-shaped spiritual blessing from the author in Montana, she recognized their perspectives as aligned, if hardly identical. “When you adapt a book…you want that to not just be adoration, but to use the view of what he built, & to stand on that—to look beyond,” she says. “You’re making something new with it, as well as the thing itself.”

It’s the power of imagination—of “discovering something bigger than you could know.” What Campion discovers in The Power of the Dog is different from what Savage found, from what she’d found in her previous work, perhaps even from what she expected to find here. “It’s an amazing story,” she says. Just wait to see how she tells it.

David Canfield, Vanity Fair

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