Next week, Ari Wegner could make Oscar history. The 37-year-old Australian has a very good track record of becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for helping to create the indelible images of “The Power of the Dog” with director Jane Campion.
Together Campion and Wegner battle the harsh conditions of the New Zealand landscape to transport audiences to a desolate farmhouse in 1920s Montana and create an unforgettable work of human fragility. Some of the images, like the shot of two actors silhouetted through a warehouse door, are the type that aspiring filmmakers are working on.
And they might never have met if it weren’t for an Australian commercial bank. Campion, an Oscar-winning artist, has never acted in a commercial before, but she said yes and shook hands with the young cinematographer. Still, the fact that Wegner got a call from Campion a few years ago about a potential project to adapt Thomas Savage’s 1967 book was still an adrenaline rush. That day she went out, bought it and read it.
Wegner has made a name for himself with films like “Lady Macbeth” and “Zola.” But the visual language of the movies is so distinct and impactful that they have one thing in common: They’re all lower-budget, indie fare.
“The Power of the Dog” is in a different league and not just because of Campion’s participation. Here they will have the backing of Netflix. The streaming company gave Campion a budget she never had the chance to work with before. “It’s like working with Medicis,” says Campion.
Wenger and Campion had a prep year driving around New Zealand, scouting locations, learning about the landscape and discussing every aspect of the film, from minor technical details to themes and themes. values they want to convey.
“I’ve read about other filmmakers having these dream pre-productions,” Wegner said. I think that’s what happens to other people. “But I have an instinct that with more time there’s another level of filmmaking out there. And that’s for sure.”
They know the conditions on New Zealand’s South Island so when it comes time to shoot they know what they’re going to be working with. But there are still challenges when shooting in the valley, one of the windiest places on the island.
“I can only associate it with skiing on a beautiful sunny day when the sun goes down and it bounces on you too,” says Wegner. The air was even more intense. “It’s a really hard environment to think creatively because most of the time you’re just trying to keep your eyes open.”
Every morning, they prepare inside tea and toast before heading out to brave the elements because, “It’s hard to come up with a plan from scratch when your body is under attack.”
And yet, the filming part that Wegner was most worried about was the interior. She worries about creating an authentic environment in a large, sterile warehouse in Aukland worthy of a Campion movie.
“In the end, it became one of the greatest joys to start with a completely empty slab of stone and being able to control everything completely,” Wegner says. “It’s a real playground.”
Shooting the outdoor scene first is also a blessing. She is more aware of when something is amiss, such as when the air is too calm or blue or the light isn’t wild enough to match the conditions in the valley, and they can adjust a appropriate way.
Wegner is also open to inspiration at this point, such as when the clouds will separate perfectly and the mountains look great. She’s conscious of being attuned to “the possibility of having some really beautiful iconic frames.”
Campion invited his collaborators to seize on unplanned opportunities, one of which was a shot in the warehouse, which they captured after filming the scene. Wegner said Campion created a “mantra of calm” on set that allowed for improvisation.
“When you’re with her, the seconds on the clock go slower,” Wegner says.
And while those are always the most attention-grabbing scenes, the worst part of a cinematographer’s job is their relationship with the actors. Wegner laughs that if she had another life, she would write a thesis about an intimate, voyeuristic, one-sided relationship where both of you have to invest in the emotions of the scene while being invisible, right away. even when literally touching the actor sometimes as would happen with Benedict Cumberbatch in some hand-held shots. For her, the experience was like entering a meditative state.
“You’re both really present and all your senses are attuned and you’re somewhere else too,” she said. “While taking the pills, I would never feel a temperature, pain or hunger and I would come home at the end of the day and wonder, ` `Where did that bruise come from? I don’t remember hitting my shins. something of mine.”
It’s been a surreal ride for Wenger since the Oscar nominations were announced last month, and she doesn’t take it for granted. The stats, she knew, were grim for female cinematographers in Hollywood. In a survey of the 250 best movies of 2021, only 6% are female cinematographers – a number that hasn’t budged since 1998. And only two have ever been nominated for an Academy Award in 94 years of the year. prize. The first was Rachel Morrison, in 2018, for “Mudbound.”
However, she sees a glimmer of hope in that second statistic. After 90 years of nothing, two women have been nominated in the past five years. She believes that change is possible if people give women the opportunity to act in big, quality films.
Campion, who has worked with some of the great cinematographers over the years, from Dion Beebe to Greig Fraser (who was nominated for “Dune”) said she “wanted to work with a female DP” on “The Power”. of the Dog.” And part of that decision means taking someone’s chance. Morrison was also hired by a woman, director Dee Rees.
“I think about how many things we’ve missed out. All the talent that could be there that we’ve never seen in the last 100 years, not because the talent isn’t there, but the portal. “That’s the damage to the film industry,” said Wegner. “Now I think it’s time we could catch up.”