‘The Power of the Dog’ cinematographer on historic Oscar nod, Sam Elliott comments
Ari Wegner is close to making history.
Wegner, who collaborated with New Zealand auteur Jane Campion on the Western drama “The Power of the Dog,” could soon become the first woman to win a best cinematography Oscar. Campion’s latest goes into the March 27 ceremony with a leading 12 nominations, including best picture.
In the 94-year history of the Academy Awards, only one other woman has been nominated in the cinematography category: Rachel Morrison, who in 2018 was recognized for her work on Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” (The prize that year went to Roger Deakins for “Blade Runner 2049.”)
In a wide-ranging interview via FaceTime on Tuesday afternoon, Wegner, who is Australian, talked about this potentially historic moment for female cinematographers. She also discussed the process of collaborating with Campion, crafting an evocative visual language and what she made of actor Sam Elliott’s recent criticism of the film.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC News: You are only the second woman to be nominated for the best cinematography Academy Award, and, at the end of the month, you could become the first woman to win the category. What does this moment mean for you?
Ari Wegner: It would definitely be a real milestone for filmmaking and for women. If we zoom out and look at the whole history of film, it’s been a long time coming. [Laughs.] We got close with Rachel’s nomination, and there’s been more and more recognition of the work women are doing.
I think, obviously, it would be great for me personally. But more importantly, thinking ahead to future generations, I think visibility is a really big factor in progress. If you see someone that somehow breaks the mold of what a cinematographer supposedly should look like, I think it does something — even if it’s one face amongst a bunch of other faces. It’s the crack in the ceiling.
The idea that only an older white guy can be a cinematographer … any fact that’s not true, it’s already fragile, you know? It’s ready to crumble. [Laughs.]
“The Power of the Dog” has been hailed as one of the most visually stunning films of the last year. I’d love to hear about how the visual style came together. How much was drawn from Thomas Savage’s language, and how much of it was you saying, “Here are my ideas for this story”?
That’s a great question. I’m really glad you went back to the book, because it’s such a beautiful novel. It’s not an autobiographical novel, but there are so many parallels with [Savage’s] life. I was struck by his really vivid descriptions … even of a freshly sharpened pencil Phil [Benedict Cumberbatch’s character] uses in a scene.
I would say some of Savage’s descriptions are literally in the film, and some of the images were more about taking his spirit of attention to detail and really honing in.
Jane’s adaptation of the novel was no small feat. In the novel, Thomas Savage can describe Bronco Henry [an unseen character in the film] and what’s in Phil’s head. But we needed a way to have physical manifestations of things that are internal. Jane’s choice to have something like the saddle or the shrine to Bronco Henry —
Yeah, those items that take on deeper meaning and say so much. Peter’s [Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character] comb, or the way that Phil braids the rope.
They’re like totems or talismans.
The objects are an outlet for the kinds of things the characters aren’t able to say.
Did you or Jane Campion consult any old Westerns for visual inspiration, or did you try to avoid classic Hollywood cinema because this film tries to challenge those old mythologies?
It’s funny, because when I think back, we weren’t terribly interested in watching other films. I think we really wanted to make something with a unique flavor, which we knew we wouldn’t find in other filmmakers’ work.
I’m not drawn to [other films] as a touchstone. But the only film we actually watched and looked at as a benchmark was “A Man Escaped,” [Robert] Bresson’s film. We were really drawn to minimalism and simplicity and how much tension could be created with so little. You don’t necessarily need big vistas.
The personal stakes — if you care enough about a character — you’ll see it. It doesn’t require old foes to have a big shootout.
I hadn’t made the connection to Bresson, but I think the Criterion cover for “A Man Escaped” is a man holding a braided rope, which is a big image in “The Power of the Dog.”
I hadn’t make that connection, either! [Laughs.] There’s beautiful close-ups in that film. I’ve been thinking about rewatching both films as a double bill. The idea of what happens when you take away anything that’s not necessary, whether that’s a camera move or anything that’s just there to be pretty.
I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to what Sam Elliott recently said about the film. What did you make of his comments? [Elliott called “The Power of the Dog” a “piece of s—” and criticized what he called “allusions to homosexuality.”]
I had to laugh, really. I mean, I find it hard to take it seriously because it’s really a wonderful example of the point the film is trying to make: There’s so many stereotypes of what a man should be, and it’s crazy to think that they’re still so strong and present.
I don’t know. I had to laugh a little bit, not out of disrespect — everyone has their own opinions — but there is something deeply uneasy about hearing those kind of comments in 2022.
Two more questions about the Academy Awards. Eight categories are going to be pre-taped. What do you think of that decision?
I feel like it’s a shame that certain categories are seen as somehow less interesting to the public. We’re such an ecosystem. You can’t take out editing or say production design is less important. Maybe because they’re not as tangible? I don’t know.
Every craftsperson that’s working on a film … once you make it to the Oscars, you’re doing something right. It seems a shame to do this, in order to save half an hour or so.
The people that are behind the scenes so rarely get a moment — and most of us are really modest, that’s why we’ve chosen to be behind the camera — and there are so few opportunities to be in the public eye and get recognition for what you contribute to films.
“The Power of the Dog” goes into the night with 12 nominations, and it seems to be the favorite to win best picture. Are there other films nominated this year that you loved or would like to see receive accolades?
I really loved “The Lost Daughter.” It’s a film that the world is ready for, as we redefine some of the stereotypes about motherhood. What I love about this moment … is that we’re really starting to have some honest conversations about all the different experiences people have around parenthood, gender stereotypes. “The Lost Daughter” did a beautiful job of talking about that.