13 Nov 2021

Dame Jane Campion: the power of the filmmaker

From Saturday Morning, 5:05 pm on 13 November 2021

Twelve years after releasing her last feature film, trailblazing director Dame Jane Campion has emerged with revisionist western, The Power Of The Dog - based on Thomas Savage's 1967 book of the same name and her first film with a male protagonist.

Campion talks to Kim Hill about filming a movie set in Montana on the expansive plains of Central Otago and how it echoes The Piano.

Jane Campion attends the official screening of Netflix's "The Power Of The Dog" during 2021 AFI Fest on 11 November, 2021 in Hollywood, California.

Jane Campion attends the official screening of Netflix's "The Power Of The Dog" during 2021 AFI Fest on 11 November, 2021 in Hollywood, California. Photo: Rich Fury / Getty Images via AFP

Known best for her portrayal of the female experience, The Power of the Dog is the first Campion film with a male protagonist, played by English actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

It's already being considered a frontrunner for best picture at next year's Academy Awards, having scooped Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. In October Campion was also awarded the 13th Prix Lumière, one of French cinema's top honours.


Campion said she is stoked that the film has been so well received.

"It is a beautiful thing when you spend a lot of time figuring out this film that you want to share and it actually seems to land with people, especially as I think the film has got a depth and complexity to it which you wouldn't think everyone would necessarily have the appetite for."

Campion said once the film was finished she realised it was almost a companion piece to The Piano - "an exploration of masculinity in maybe the way that The Piano was of femininity".

The book's author, Thomas Savage, was gay and grew up in a difficult environment on a ranch in Montana where he had to suppress his sexuality, Campion said.

Campion was sent the book as a gift and when she started reading it found its opening scene, which features a castration, "very visceral and full on" showing an immediate neutering of masculinity.

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Photo: supplied

She said the book's farm setting felt very real and after reading the afterword which was written by Pulitzer Prize winning American author Annie Proulx, Campion realised many of the book's details were similar to events that had occurred in Savage's real life.

"You know talking about who Thomas Savage really was and his other work and how it fitted into the canon of western literature, I realised that a lot of it was true to his real life - I think he really did have an uncle who bullied him and who did die from anthrax poisoning, though apparently not from him but on a splinter from a pole."

Campion said what really captured her attention was the book's great narrative.

She did a tour of Montana where the book is set and saw the ranch where Savage grew up. She says it was essential research, particularly when they started to consider shooting the film in New Zealand.

When it was first suggested the film be shot in New Zealand Campion was horrified, and said the book was set in America and so should be shot there.

"But then I found myself fall in love with the stand-in location. The landscape in New Zealand is so extraordinary and ... you know, if there was an Oscar for best landscape country New Zealand would win it hands down, when you think it's stood in for Middle Earth and now Montana - pretty amazing."

Campion said New Zealand landscapes have a bigger-than-life quality and people also talk about the quality of the light which "seems brighter and clearer than anywhere else".

She said the 86-year-old author Annie Proulx is also a fan of Savage's work and it was wonderful to meet her.

"She gave us crab claws and we just had this big nerd out on the novel about what the real meanings were. She pointed out attention to various different ways Savage got around talking about the sexuality in the book or the eroticism, even within the nature you know he talked about the leaves kissing in the wind."

Campion said the actors then bring something else to the story and she hopes the film makes it hard to judge the characters as either good or bad. She would rather viewers become curious about who the characters are and how they came to be that way.

Campion said the increasing success of women in the film industry has made it easier for her to have a male lead character at this time.

"I think it is to do with the fact that there are so many more women in the field doing so brilliantly that I can kind of have whatever subject I want to."

She said to ensure the film's female actors really knew their characters, Thomasin McKenzie was taught how to do some domestic chores such as ironing, while Kirsten Dunst was shown how to cook the dishes her character makes.

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Photo: Screenshot

She said lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch actually spent some time on a ranch and learned how to castrate cattle although the steer castrations which took place during the film were actually fake.

"He [Cumberbatch] had a lot of things to do - not least the accent - also just the whole physicality of the character, playing a banjo ... wood whittling, whistling, horse riding and also the braiding cause he actually learned how to braid and to roll a cigarette in one hand."

Campion said when Covid-19 hit and the country locked down hit she feared the film may not happen.

But she said due to the government and all of New Zealand's hard work after the first lockdown the country was able to start operating again and the film could be completed.

The Power Of The Dog is in cinemas now on limited release ahead of streaming on Netflix from 1 December.