Next week, Ari Wegner could make Oscar history. The 37-year-old Australian has a very good chance of being the first woman to win a Best Cinematography Oscar for helping create the indelible images for ‘The Power of the Dog’ alongside director Jane Campion.
Together, Campion and Wegner battled the extreme conditions of the New Zealand landscape to transport audiences to a desolate ranch in 1920s Montana and create an unforgettable piece about human frailty. Some of the footage, like a shot of two actors silhouetted through a barn door, is the kind budding filmmakers are already studying.
And they might never have met without an advertisement for an Australian bank. Campion, an Oscar-winning author, had never done a commercial before, but she said yes to this one and hit it off with the young cinematographer. Yet it was still an adrenaline rush for Wegner to get a call from Campion a few years ago about a potential project to adapt Thomas Savage’s 1967 book. bought and read it.
Wegner was already making a name for himself working on films like “Lady Macbeth” and “Zola.” But the visual languages of the films were distinct and impactful, they had one thing in common: they were all low-budget and independent.
“The Power of the Dog” was in a different league and not just because of Campion’s involvement. Here they would have the support of Netflix. The streaming company gave Campion a budget she had never had the chance to work with before. “It was like working with the Medici,” Campion said.
Wenger and Campion had a year of preparation traveling around New Zealand, scouting locations, learning about the landscape and discussing all aspects of the film, from small technical details to the themes and values they wanted to communicate.
“I had read that other filmmakers had these dreamy pre-productions. I thought, well, that’s something that happens to other people,” Wegner said. instinct that with more time, there was another level of filmmaking there. And it definitely was.
They got to know the conditions on the South Island of New Zealand so that when filming came they would know what they would be working with. But there were still filming challenges in the valley, which is one of the windiest places on the island.
“I can only compare it to skiing on a sunny day when the sun goes down and it also bounces off you. The air is even intense,” Wegner said. “It’s a very difficult environment to think creatively, because a lot of the time you’re just trying to keep your eyes open.”
Each morning they would get ready indoors over tea and toast before stepping 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 part of the shoot that worried Wegner the most was the interiors. She worried about creating an authentic environment in a large, sterile warehouse in Aukland worthy of a Campion film.
“Ultimately, it became one of the greatest joys to start with a completely clean slate and be able to control absolutely everything,” Wegner said. “It was a real playground.”
Shooting the exteriors first was also a blessing. She was more aware of when something was happening, like when the air was too calm or clear or the light wasn’t wild enough to match the valley conditions, and they could adapt appropriately.
Wegner was also always open to inspiration in the moment, like when the clouds parted perfectly and the mountains looked great. She was aware of being on the lookout for “the possibility of very beautiful, iconic frames”.
Campion invited his collaborators to seize unforeseen opportunities, one of which was the shot in the barn, which they captured after shooting the scene. Wegner said Campion created a “quiet spell” on set that allowed for improvisations.
“When you’re with her, the seconds on the clock are slower,” Wegner said.
And while it’s always the shots that command the most attention, the most ineffable part of a cinematographer’s job is their relationship with the actors. Wegner laughed that if she had another life she would write a thesis on the intimate, voyeuristic, one-sided relationship where you both have to be invested in the emotions of the scene while being invisible, even literally touching the actor at times. as would happen with Benedict Cumberbatch in some of the pocket shots. For her, the experience is like entering a meditative state.
“You’re both really present and all of your senses are tuned in and you’re somewhere else too,” she said. “During a take I never felt the temperature or the pain or the hunger and I would come home at the end of the day and be like, ‘Where is that bruise coming from? I don’t remember hitting myself the shin on something.
It’s been a surreal ride for Wenger since the Oscar nominations were announced last month, and she doesn’t take the honor for granted. The statistics, she knows, are grim for female filmmakers in Hollywood. In a survey of the 250 best films of 2021, only 6% had female filmmakers – a number that hasn’t budged since 1998. And just two have been nominated for an Oscar in the 94 years of the awards show. The first was Rachel Morrison, in 2018, for “Mudbound”.
And yet, she sees a silver lining in this second statistic. After 90 years of nothing, two women have been nominated in the past five years. According to her, change is possible if people give women the opportunity to make big, high-profile films.
Campion, who has worked with some of the great cinematographers over the years from Dion Beebe to Greig Fraser (who is nominated for ‘Dune’) said she “wanted to work with a female DP” on ‘The Power of the Dog”. And part of that decision meant taking a chance on someone. Morrison was also hired by a woman, director Dee Rees.
“I think of everything we missed. All this talent that could have been there that we’ve never seen in the last 100 years, not because the talent wasn’t there, but the door was never opened. It’s the loss of the film industry,” Wegner said. “Now I think it’s time we can catch up.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr