Drawing: Ari Wegner

Autographed drawing of cinematographer Ari Wegner

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.

Drawing: Jane Campion

Autographed drawing of director Jane Campion

It was a proud night to be a New Zealander after kiwi auteur Dame Jane Campion won the Academy Award for Best Director at this year’s Oscar ceremony on Sunday evening for helming THE POWER OF THE DOG, her universally acclaimed modernist western based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title.

The psychological drama became one of the most celebrated films of the year, reflected in its 12 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and certainly the most honoured – with nearly 250 wins from over 300 noms – dominating all 10 Best Lists and Year-End critic groups’ Awards since its world premiere at the 78th Venice Film Festival last September, where Jane won the Silver Lion for Best Direction. She became the first woman to receive two Best Director Oscar nominations and the third to win the category.

The first was for THE PIANO in 1994, losing to Steven Spielberg for SCHLINDLER’S LIST. She did however collect the golden statue for her screenplay written directly for the screen. Steven was also nominated this year for Best Director, for his remake of WEST SIDE STORY. A couple of weeks prior to the Dolby Theatre ceremony, Jane won the BAFTA for Best Film and Direction, the Directors Guild Award and the Crictics Choice Awards for Picture, Direction and Adapted Screenplay all within a few hours of each other, which pretty much summed up the her whirlwind year. The self-proclaimed ‘shy extrovert’ collected just about every accolade going.

Author and academic Dana Polan stated in his 2001 book that Jane Campion is one of the few female directors who can be considered an auteur… “it is the disturbances in her work – the divergences, the dispersions, the tensions, for instance between quirky humour, making strange of the familiar and an interest in the ambiguous, even that which is uncomfortable and which makes the viewer uncomfortable.”

Glenn Whipp, writing recently in the LA Times summarized her contribution to cinema. “She has long been celebrated as an iconoclast, a woman whose radiant films meld beauty and barbarism in their depiction of the world and the flawed humans inhabiting it” Jane was the only woman to win the converted Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival for THE PIANO until French director Julia Docournau won last year for TITANE, who presented her with the Lumiere Prize (considered to be cinema’s Nobel Prize) at the Lumiere film festival in Lyon in October.

I caught up with Jane last October at the BFI Southbank after her Screentalk at the London Film Festival, prior to the gala screening of THE POWER OF THE DOG, where we had brief chat and an antipodean connection while kindly signing my quick sketch.

Drawing: Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible

Autographed drawing of Saoirse Ronan in The Crucible on Broadway

American-born Irish actress Saoirse Ronan made her stage debut on Broadway as the main antagonist in the 2016 revival of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play THE CRUCIBLE at the Walter Kerr Theatre. She played the manipulative maid Abigail Williams, responsible for the deaths of 150 people accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. It was an allegory for McCarthyism. In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney called Saoirse’s performance “icy and commanding.” The production won the Tony Award for Best Revival.

Last year she made her London stage debut as Lady Macbeth in the Almeida Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.

In 2020 the New York Times ranked her tenth on its list of this century’s Greatest Actors. She has been nominated for four Oscars – for her performances in ATONEMENT (2007), BROOKLYN (2015), LADY BIRD (2017), and LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and five BAFTA Awards in the same films with the addition of THE LOVELY BONES (2009). She won a Golden Globe for her title role as Christine ‘Lady Bird’ MacPherson in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut LADY BIRD.

Saorise signed my sketch of her as Abigail at the Almeida Theatre during the final week of MACBETH In November 2021.

Drawing: Stephen Sondheim

Autographed drawing of Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, ‘the Titan of American Musical Theatre’, passed away at his home in the small town of Roxbury, Connecticut on 26 November at the age of 91. Lights were dimmed in early December at all venues on Broadway and the West End, where he has theatres named after him. He was considered the theatre’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th Century.

The New York Times former theatre critic, Frank Rich, wrote, “Stephen Sondheim was the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.” In case you need reminding, here is why: WEST SIDE STORY (1957), GYPSY (1959), A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1962), COMPANY (1970), FOLLIES (1971), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973 – including one of my favourite songs,’Send In The Clowns’), his best; SWEENY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1979), MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (1981), SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984), INTO THE WOODS (1987), ASSASSINS (1990) and PASSION (1994).

Among his many accolades, Steve collected eight Tony and Grammy Awards, six Oliviers, A Pulitzer (for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE) and an Oscar for Best Original Song – ‘Sooner or Later’ from DICK TRACY (1990), sung by Madonna. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.

A frequent visitor to London, I had the honour of meeting him on a couple of occasions, the first at the Royal Festival Hall’s Artist Entrance in October 2010, when he was interviewed by Jude Kelly. By that time he had stopped signing autographs and politely declined my request along with a handful of people waiting with similar intent. I was pre-warned when I wrote to him and received a reply, apologising, but after years of accommodating fans he had decided to discontinue the practice.

However, a year earlier I did manage to acquire a signed autograph album page from an American collector. I drew this quick portrait sketch last week and added the sig in remembrance of the great man.

RIP Steve.

Drawing: Michael Pennington as Prospero

Tom Littler’s production of THE TEMPEST at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, featuring Michael Pennington as Prospero, opened in March 2020 for a five week season. After only six performances it was forced to close due to the Covid lockdown. Eighteen months later it set sail again, and even though the Omnicron variant, currently rampaging through the West End, is causing show disruptions, the production looks likely to complete its rescheduled run this week.

One of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation, Michael’s distinguished career is dominated by a variety of leading stage roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded and was its Artistic Director from 1986-1992. The four-time Olivier Award nominee has also toured two solo shows; SWEET WILLIAM and ANTON CHEKHOV worldwide. Earlier this year he released a memoir, entitled ‘In My Own Footsteps’.

“Being taken to the theatre when I was 11 years old lit a light in me, and that light has never gone out.”Michael’s latest stage performmance drew universal acclaim.  In the West End’s smallest producing theatre, he is “a colossal Prospero”, wrote Broadway World. The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar said, “The magic spark in this production lies largely in Pennington’s Prospero… a physically wizened but still mighty magician and displaced Duke.

“Michael also has a number of screen appearances to his impressive credit list, including CALLAN, THE BILL, THE TUDORS and FATHER BROWN on television and as Moff Jerjerrod in STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) and Michael Foot in THE IRON LADY (2011) on the big screen.

I met Michael a couple of weekends ago as he arrived at the Jermyn Street Theatre for a Saturday matinee, where he kindly signed my Prospero portrait for me.

Drawing: David Puttnam

Autographed drawing of producer David Puttnam

David Puttnam has spent thirty years as an independent producer of award-winning films, including many of my favourites such as CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981), MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), THE KILLING FIELDS (1984), THE MISSION (1986), BUGSY MALONE (1976). Together these films have won ten Academy Awards,13 Golden Globes, 31 BAFTAS, nine Emmys, four David di Donatellos and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. From 1986 to 1988, he was Chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures and between 1994 to 2004 he was Vice President and Chair of Trustees at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship in 2006.He has personally won 13 major film awards and nine other nominations, including the Best Picture Oscar for producing CHARIOTS OF FIRE, receiving three other nominations, four BAFTA Awards, and three Emmy noms.

David pursues an active role in a variety of areas including education, environment and digital skills. He is the recipient of over 50 honary degrees and fellowships. He founded the Irish-based Atticus Education in 2012 that delivers audio-visual seminars to students worldwide.
After his knighthood in 1995, Sir David received a life peerage two years later, sitting on the Labour benches in The House of Lords, where I sent this sketch, which Lord Puttnam kindly returned, signed and dedicated, accompanied by a nice note.

Drawing: Carol Burnett

Autographed drawing of Carol Burnett

Continuing my ‘lockdown letters’ to some of my favourite performers, I wrote to the wonderful Carol Burnett via her production company in Santa Monica earlier this year, enclosing this simple portrait sketch for signing, which she dedicated and quickly returned.

Rated one of the best TV shows of all time by a variety of notable publications including TIME magazine, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW ran for 11 seasons from 1967-1978, with a total of 279 episodes and a further nine in 1991. I don’t think I missed one of them. The groundbreaking comedy-variety show was one of the first of its kind hosted by a woman. It featured Carol with regulars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and in later episodes Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke, collecting 25 primetime Emmy Awards. 

Beginning with student productions while studying at UCLA in the early 1950’s, Carol’s impressive seven-decade career in stage, television and film, with a mixture of dramatic and comedic roles has been recognised with numerous awards including six Emmy Awards (23 nominations), seven Golden Globes (18 nominations) a Grammy and a Tony (three nominations each). In 2005 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for enhancing the lives of millions of Americans and her extraordinary contribution to American entertainment.

During her student days, Carol was struggling to pay her tuition bills. An anonymous benefactor came to her rescue. She had to pay back the interest-free loan in five years, never to reveal his identity and if she became successful, help others in financial need. She kept all those promises, contributing to scholarships at both UCLA and the University of Hawaii.

Drawing: Ed Asner

Autographed drawing of actor Ed Asner

I always meant to write to Ed Asner. The various lockdowns gave me the time to do so. I’m pleased I did. Sadly he passed away on Sunday at the age of 91. I drew this quick drawing of Ed in his defining television role as Lou Grant, the burly, blustery but lovable newsman and sent it to him at his Tarzana home in Los Angeles in April this year. He signed, dedicated and returned it within a week, along with my postage money.

On his twitter page, Ed described himself as an “Actor, author, activist, warm, lovable, gruff, leftie, patriot.” I’m sure many kind words will follow in the coming days from his millions of admirers. During his illustrious career, Ed was an outspoken supporter of a number of humanitarian and political causes, including trade unionism and animal rights. He served two terms as President of the Screen Actors Guild.

The US Army veteran made his Broadway debut with Jack Lemmon in FACE OF A HERO at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in 1960, before moving to Hollywood, becoming a prolific character actor with over 400 screen credits.

Ed was the most honoured male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, winning seven – five for his portrayal as the hard drinking, tough-talking Lou Grant in the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (3) and its spin-off series LOU GRANT (2) in the 1970’s and 1980’s. His other two Emmys were for the miniseries RICH MAN, POOR MAN and ROOTS.

Documentary film-maker Michael Moore wrote in his Twitter tribute that when he was making his first film, ROGER & ME, he was broke and wrote to a number of famous people to invite them to invest in it. Only one replied: Ed Asner. “I don’t know you kid, but here’s 500 bucks. Sounds like it’ll be a great film. I was an autoworker once.”

Thanks and RIP Ed.

Drawing: Amanda Harris

Shakespearean stalwart Amanda Harris won the Best Performance in a Supporting Role Olivier Award in 2005 for her portrayal of Emilia, the wife of the evil Iago (played by Anthony Sher) and Desdemona’s maidservent in the 2004 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of OTHELLO, directed by Gregory Doran. After its initial staging in Stratford-upon-Avon, followed by a tour of Japan it returned to England and opened the larger of the two theatres at the Trafalgar Studios in London in June.

My wife and I were fortunate to see Amanda in the RSC’s staging of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW at the Barbican Theatre in London in 2019 as part of our annual Shakespearean tradition to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The production switched the genders for every role with Amanda playing Minola Baptista, one of the wealthiest ‘men’ in Padua and ‘father’ of Kate, the ‘shrew’ of the play’s title and Bianca.

Her screen credentials include appearances in all the popular British TV programmes, including MIDSOMER MURDERS, THE BILL, A TOUCH OF FROST and HEARTBEAT.
Amanda has taught drama and Shakespeare at the University of Alicante in Spain and is an Associate Artist at the RSC, where I sent this Emilia/Baptista sketch of her as for her to sign, which she kindly did and returned with a nice complementary note.

Drawing: Kane Williamson

Autographed drawing of New Zealand cricketer Kane Williamson

It’s a great time to be a Black Caps supporter and a proud Kiwi. The New Zealand men’s cricket team are ranked No 1 in the world, having beaten India in an absorbing World Test Championship Final in Southampton last month. Central to that victory was Captain Kane Williamson, who appropriately lead his team to victory with an unbeaten half century on the final day.

Not only did his team reach the panicle, he himself returned to the top as the world’s number one test batsman. Kane became the kiwi captain in all forms of the game – test, ODI and T20, in March 2016, after the retirement of Brendon McCullum. New Zealand is also the number 1 side in ODI’s and is the third ranked team in T20 Internationals. Since his test debut in November 2010 against India at Ahmedabad, Kane has scored 7,230 runs in 85 test matches, averaging 53.95, including 24 centuries, the most by a New Zealander and 33 half centuries with a top score of 251. He’s also a useful spin bowler, taking 30 wickets at an average of 44.23. In 151 ODI’s he has scored 6,173 runs with a highest score of 148 and 1805 runs in 67 T2O Internationals.

“Of all the top players, Williamson seems to have the most ideal temperament. His batting is minimalist and his mind calm – as if the zen is given. He rarely plays a shot in anger”, wrote English cricket commentator Mark Nicholas.

Kane signed (with his left hand, despite batting and bowling right-handed ) my sketch at the Headingley Cricket Ground in Leeds, while he played for Yorkshire in the 2018 County Cricket Championship.