by Anmol AhujaMar 29, 2022
The text ahead contains potential spoilers for The Power of the Dog. Reader discretion advised.
The most rudimentary thought accompanying the mention of a western, a bonafide genre in global cinema despite its American roots, and a way of living traditionalists swear by even today, brings forth a deluge of images that bear the flag for the region’s representation in cinema, however stereotypical. Gunslingers, cowboys, Mexican standoffs, ranchers, cattle hands, timber-slatted saloons, a thick accent underlining the proceedings, and an arid, dirt-stained landscape that impinges upon the senses as much as the other things I mentioned. Despite the stereotypes, director Jane Campion’s electrically charged drama that is in the running for the most Oscars this year, including production design, attempts to subvert the quintessence and traditionality of a western by expositing the central character’s fragile core. The architecture of the film, designed in exquisite detail by Oscar-winning production designer and this year’s nominee Grant Major, does the same.
Unlike the sweeping epic that was Dune last year, where fantastical worlds guided every action and character stance, the world of The Power of the Dog is rooted in the past, in a lived reality, and draws from a culture that still forms an essential era in American history, despite its datedness going back at least a century-and-a half. Interestingly, Major’s own repertoire spans the three Lord of the Rings films, operating on a similar scale, fetching Major an Oscar for his work. Here, however, both Campion and Major work in close coordination on a diminutive scale, dialling down the 'epic', conducting intimate character studies on intertwined lives. The wild, wild west in the film is then clearly and essentially a backdrop peppered with generous details at the hands of Major, lending an unmistakable sense of time and place for the characters and their drama to populate it. The trope is subverted, and a great degree of that subversion may be denoted to the fact that the film wasn’t shot anywhere near the geographical bounds of the 'West'.
Following a scouting visit to Montana, director Jane Campion, producer Tanya Seghatchian, and the lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch found the area to be “overbuilt” for the era, and not in line with the vision of the film that places both the characters and the ranch they reside on in contemplative isolation. It was, as Grant stated during the interview: the west had moved on. The Burbank Ranch then found its footing in a remote region in Southeastern New Zealand, Campion and Major's home country, on the foothills of the Hawkdun Ranges in Central Otago. The area turned out to be sparsely populated with vast grassy plains, and framed by rocky mountains in close vicinity, near perfect for Campion’s vision and Major’s imagined built environment. Despite the challenges the site brought, Major’s adulation of the gorgeous side lighting lent by the morning and evening sky adding to the drama is a level of synchronicity rarely achieved in films across disciplines. In the context of the film, however, the common paradigm of the locale becoming a character stands much more true for the Burbank ranch conversely, as opposed to the gorgeous setting. The house is the epicentre of all the drama in the film, and the spot where the tectonics of the production design emanate from and culminate in.
For a brief moment during this line of questioning, the enquiry turned toward me; what is a western? Major perused. The west was a large place, and the events happened over a very long period of time, he stated. Citing his extensive research into barns and ranches - a staple of western architecture, Major spoke about the style and architectural typology of the barns changing from the east to the west, and from the north to the south. For Major though, getting the look and feel of the ranch absolutely right remained somewhat paramount, while still aiming to subvert the traditional. Echoing the same stylistic sentiment, The Burbank house was constructed on an existing ranch called the Hope Hill Farm that came complete with its own historical cabins and sheep shearing structures. To complete the ensemble, new cattle yards were built in addition to the main house. The Hope Hill farmhouse too turned out to be a near perfect silhouette of what Major had in mind, with a few cosmetic fixes imparting it the exact architectural style and statement of the era and zone Campion wanted to base the story in. Another remarkable instance of cinematic masking of locations is how the town of Oamaru, “frozen in time”, stands in for the town nearest to the Burbank Ranch, in stark contrast to its rurality.
Describing the house as having a very masculine energy, partly reflected in the twin single bed arrangement of the brothers' room, and partly in the sparsely lit interiors, Major construes the architectural and design narrative in a fictional history of the family home, ruminating that the Burbank family moved to the ranch from the east in the late 19th century, and brought a number of stylistic influences from that part of the country with them. The family dynamic has since experienced a rupture, leading to the parents having moved away, leading to an unspoken tension between Phil and George. The wealth of the rancher siblings however, is reflected in the rather regal furnishings of the house, doused in literal and metaphorical darkness, meant to convey an eerie sense of unkempt. The house becomes Phil’s sanctum, echoing with his Banjo - and he won’t change a thing about it - until Rose’s piano occupies the floor. In a number of ways, Phil’s resistance and brute force to project his toxic masculinity stems from this instance in the house. Phil’s emotional heart though, revealed during the course of the film upon peeling back strata, is his makeshift shrine to Bronco Henry in the stables. Comprising his late mentor’s, and presumably lover’s saddle propped up against rough milled logs, also constructed by Major, the shrine becomes his prime spot of interaction with Peter, and the exposition of his vulnerability. It is in these tangible manifestations of the tension and familial drama where Major finds the catharsis and essence of his production design.
What further makes the production design so layered is how enriching the references Major cites are. A major influence for him and Campion on how the visual style of the film developed was the work of photojournalist Evelyn Cameron, who captured the west and the people inhabiting it in the contemplative isolation I stated earlier. Another interesting reference emerged in the form of a study from the archives of Time magazine, eliciting the hands and facial features of ranchers, and other people engaged in physical handiwork in the sun. This is a particularly interesting revelation when it comes to understanding the scope of production design extending well beyond the physical, spatial confines of the film. What Major and the team thus sought to do was let the architecture and set design willfully subsume backstage when viewed from the intensely emotional microscope Campion places her characters under. A sensitive deconstruction of the male psyche, insecurities, sexuality, and toxic masculinity, The Power of the Dog by Jane Campion is currently streaming on Netflix.
Watch the full interview by clicking on the cover video.
Mise-en-scène with STIR:
In a series of conversations with this year's Oscar-nominated production designers, STIR attempts to decipher the genesis, visualisation, and the process of breathing life into fantastical cinematic landscapes. From the dusty depths of Arrakis, to the uncanny concrete landscape of Inverness, the rustic barns of the West, and a dubious fever-dream disguised as a carnival, discover new worlds in stimulating conversations with Oscar winner Patrice Vermette, and his fellow nominees Stefan Dechant, Grant Major, and Tamara Deverell.