When Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion signed up to adapt Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, she deliberately sought out a female cinematographer to work alongside. Specifically Ari Wegner, a name you’re going to be hearing a lot more often from now on.
It may be 2022, but the combination of both a female director and a female director of photography is still a rare occurrence in Hollywood.
The pair combined to create an unsettling and menacing western which tackles toxic masculinity and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as complicated, malevolent cowboy Phil, who forms an unlikely friendship with a younger man, Pete (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
The film is leading the pack at this year’s Academy Awards with 12 nominations, including best picture, best director and best cinematography – Wegner could be the first woman to win the latter.
For many, that female recognition is cause for celebration after the so-called “male gaze” has dominated Hollywood for so long.
But is there such thing as “the female gaze” and if so, what does that bring to a traditionally male genre like a western? Campion, who is now the first woman to be nominated for two best director Oscars, isn’t sure.
“It’s so hard to know how much to believe in the female gaze or the male gaze,” she tells the BBC. “I think, to me, it’s really the artist’s gaze, bringing your sensitivity to the story. [But] I really wanted to have a woman cinematographer on this film, because there’s so many other men and I really like to support women.”
Wegner, who previously worked with Campion on a commercial, told the BBC’s culture editor Katie Razzall: “There probably is a gender element to it, but it’s also just what interests you, what your upbringing is, what you notice.
“And I think maybe Jane and I are similar in that way, really fascinated by subtle kinds of energy between people and what’s not being said.”
Campion says it’s thanks to the film’s “feminist” producer Roger Frappier that she got on board with the project in the first place after a meeting in Cannes.
“It’s very lucky that he really trusted me with this story, which you would think is a book for the kind of big-guy type of person that would handle ranch material – even though I do ride horses, and my parents did have cattle on the farm (Campion grew up in New Zealand).
“I was grateful to him for believing in me. And I was grateful to Savage’s book, which is kind of subversive… when you think about most western genre movies, they’re really a kind of celebration of masculinity in one way or another… and often a romanticised version of what a man is.
“In Savage’s hands, he ripped through it really, and showed us a very true and different version.”
His version is one Campion and Cumberbatch have faithfully brought to life on screen through the latter’s swaggering, snarling and insidious presence.
The film also stars real-life couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as Phil’s brother and his wife Rose, who is also Pete’s mother.
The film is Campion’s first in more than a decade and has been largely well received by critics, with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw describing it as “one of Campion’s best” and Empire’s Beth Webb noting that while the “narrative here feels somewhat underdeveloped… Campion remains a master of sensory storytelling”.
The Netflix film is another feather in the streaming giant’s cap, but Cumberbatch recently told Vanity Fair he wished the film had enjoyed a longer cinema release (it had a finite two-week run before it headed exclusively to Netflix).
“I’d have loved it to have been out in the cinema for longer but that wasn’t the plan that Netflix had. However, I would have to say that we wouldn’t have made the film at all without Netflix. They were the only people that were willing to pay what this film cost to make and they are incredibly supportive.”
She adds that Netflix are now putting the film out in cinemas again “because of the 12 nominations that we got and you know, the general interest in it and people wanting to see it on a big screen”.
Campion also points out that streaming brings the film – which is essentially an arthouse one – to a bigger and wider audience, making it more accessible. And she’s delighted with the attention it’s getting, including the awards buzz.
“I’m kind of thrilled. I feel like I’ve had kind of a comeback. I do feel really quite moved. People in the Academy have voted for so many categories.”
She also understands it has greater significance for women in the industry as a whole after the shocking revelations about the abuse of women in Hollywood including the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“I really feel that the MeToo movement changed everything. I think it was a very dark time in the late 90s. And up to about 2015. It was almost as if nobody was hearing the fact there was such a depth of inequality.
“And when those brave ladies shared their stories… everybody woke up and went: ‘It’s really been impossible, and it’s incredibly unequal, and we’re not going to have it.’
“It’s just not OK to have so little representation of women in film and TV. I think women are doing so well. It’s no longer charitable to be employing women. And that’s the big change. We want to be recognised because we are really good!”
Wegner is also blazing a trail on the awards circuit. As well as the Oscar nomination, she is the first woman ever to receive a Bafta nod for best cinematography.
“I think the visibility really matters because everyone’s the harshest critic of their own work, but it is something very meaningful to be recognised by your peers,” she told Razzall.
The Australian says she was “so naïve” when she first decided to go into her field.
“I had no idea that it was not a job that women usually did. It wasn’t really until later in film school that I heard this term female cinematographer. And it slowly dawned on me that there were very few but… it was too late. I’d already decided [my career].”
Campion says: “We just have to keep going this way. It can never go back to what it was. It was a really dark time when people didn’t want to see what women thought or made films about but now there’s a real appetite amongst audiences, men and women.
“Netflix are actively seeking to keep their ratio of material made by women up. It’s acts like that that make a real difference.
“And hiring Ari for an ambitious film like this one. Is that a risk? Well, I don’t think it was a risk. She’s really talented. All she needed was people that believe in her and to give her that opportunity, supporting her to make sure she does succeed. And she did succeed. Brilliantly.”