'The Power of the Dog' cinematographer Ari Wegner might make Oscars history
For her work on The Power of the Dog, Ari Wegner could make history as the first female cinematographer to win an Academy Award.
"Many of us believe you will be the first woman to win this award," Women In Film CEO Kirsten Shaffer announced at a luncheon in honor of Wegner. Four years ago, Mudbound cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated for the award.
Already this year, Wegner was the first female director of photography to win the top award from both the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the British Society of Cinematographers. The Australian cinematographer seems quietly stunned by all the attention.
"It's really surreal, actually," she tells NPR, of her Oscars nomination. "Every creative person in film might dream that one day a nomination could happen. Maybe you dare not even speak it, because it feels like somehow it's too audacious to talk about."
On finding the New Zealand location
Winning awards was not top of mind the year she spent prepping to shoot The Power of the Dog, a Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch. He was nominated for a best actor Oscar for playing Phil, a menacing cowboy who lives on a Montana ranch with his quiet brother, the brother's new wife and her teenage son.
Wegner went location scouting in New Zealand with director Jane Campion and production designer Grant Major, both also nominated for Oscars. They camped out and climbed mountain ranges, looking for places that felt like the story's dusty Montana ranch. "We chose one of the windiest kind of valleys in the whole of New Zealand," she recalls. "It was really an extreme environment. The sun there is really another level of of brightness."
There on the South Island, in a region not far from Queenstown, she and Major spotted the perfect mountain ridge line at dusk.
"We saw in the shadows, the face of a witch," Wegner says. "Then we both had this moment of revelation: ah, the dog in the mountain range."
In the film, Phil reveres the shadow of a barking dog he sees in the mountains, a visual effect that was actually added later.
Filming the emotional core of the story
Wegner says her favorite scenes to shoot were a cattle drive and a scene with an unguarded moment with Phil. In a willowy glade by a river, he's alone and half naked. He caresses a scarf that belonged to his mentor, the late cowboy named Bronco Henry.
"It's such an important moment for an audience to witness," says Wegner. It was a closed set with just her, Campion and Cumberbatch. "It was really an afternoon of us, the three of us kind of exploring ideas, definitely led by Benedict."
She used a handheld camera to shoot the highly emotional, erotic scene as Cumberbatch improvised.
"Such a prickly character like Phil that really doesn't let anyone close, but you can feel a camera being close," she says. "You kind of unlock something in the relationship between the viewer and Phil. You've been let into something that's very private."
Campion tells NPR she was moved to tears watching the performance. "It was absolutely moving and riveting to see how deep Benedict seemed to sink into this sense of grief, mourning, erotica."
Campion says she admires Wegner's bravery and artistry and says her handheld work was special.
"That was actually one of my lifetime privileges, to be there with Ari and Benedict and just see them sort of come into some kind of sync with each other," says Campion. "She was able to anticipate his movements, and he seems to have had this sort of awareness of where the camera was, yet still felt free."
Wegner's path to cinematography
The 37-year-old cinematographer was born in Melbourne and grew up in a creative home. Her father was a painter and visual artist; her mom made ceramics and jewelry. Wegner merged her two passions — writing and photography — when she studied at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television.
She ditched her original idea of being a director and began shooting films, music videos, TV shows and ads. She met Campion when they filmed a TV commercial for a bank together.
Among Wegner's film credits are the 2016 film Lady Macbeth, starring Florence Pugh, and last year's film Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo. Zola is based on a Twitter thread by a Detroit waitress who goes on a wild trip to Florida with a stripper.
Wegner shot Zola on 16-millimeter film, but for one scene, she handed the actors a GoPro camera so they could shoot themselves singing in a car.
"There's a kind of scrappy chaoticness to it deliberately, and yeah, I love that scene," she says. "You can really feel the energy of the actors and how much fun they're having. I really do believe that as a [director of photography], you can influence a lot, but you can't kind of create electricity and magic in a room where it's not there, right? A lot of what we're capturing really is the real feeling in the room."
Wegner says it's a special privilege to be a film's first viewer. When she's looking through a camera eyepiece, the real world disappears and she's inside a story like Zola and The Power of the Dog.
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