In 2018 Ari Wegner received a phone call from New Zealand director Jane Campion, enquiring about her availability for the next two years. The brilliant Australian cinematographer immediately signed on to lens Jane’s first feature film in twelve years, the revisionist and submissive western THE POWER OF THE DOG, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel about charismatic Montana rancher Phil Burbank, who inspires fear and awe in those around him.
Jane specifically wanted a female cinematographer. The Western was traditionally a masculine genre, but she wanted to approach it from a feminine point. Although Ari stressed that gender was only one of the many, many elements when you are viewing the dynamics of desire. Poetically, it was Jane’s 1983 short film PASSIONLESS MOMENTS, which her High School Media Studies teacher showed her that inspired Ari’s interest in film, eventually specialising in cinematography, completing her studies at the prestigious Victoria College of the Arts in her home town of Melbourne. Subsequently they worked together on an ad campaign for an Australian bank.
Photographing THE POWER OF THE DOG both invigorated and terrified her, Ari said in a recent New York Times interview. “You don’t want to be the DOP of the only Jane Campion film that didn’t look any good.” She said they clicked immediately, sharing both a similar aesthetic and an obsession with preparation. Jane said Ari was “good at working on problems until they’re solved, which is very reassuring.” They had the luxury of a year in pre-production. Jane rented a house in Central Otago in New Zealand’s South Island, which doubled as 1920’s Montana, where they spent each day drawing meticulous storyboards and scouting locations.
Ari’s influences included the work of English photographer Evelyn Cameron, who moved to Montana at the turn of the Twentieth century and Ken Burns’ documentary series THE WEST. The paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Lucian Freud were also additional points of reference. She also researched the rugged landscape of the American State before the the actual shoot took place in 2020, interrupted by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions.
Ari’s breathtaking cinematography rightfully garnered many accolades as THE POWER OF THE DOG became the most celebrated film of the year. She made history, becoming the first woman in the British Society of Cinematographers 73-year history to win its feature prize and then receive a BAFTA nomination. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has only ever nominated two female cinematographers for the Oscar, Rachel Morrison in 2018 for MUDBOUND and this year, Ari. She also won a number of Film Critic’s Circle honours including Best Cinematography at the Critics Choice Awards, where the film also won Best Picture and Jane collected both Director and Adapted Screenplay Awards.
I meet Ari to get my sketch signed, when she was in London for the BFI London Film Festival last October. She immediately recognised my kiwi accent. I told her I was very familiar with the landscapes that her phenomenal photography captured having lived there most of my life.