Unpacking Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s Vision and ‘The Power of the Dog’

The director of photography is only the second woman to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar

Unpacking Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s Vision and ‘The Power of the Dog’
Ari Wegner attends the 2021 AFI Fest – Official Screening of Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 11, 2021 in Hollywood, California Photo:Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic (Getty Images)

When this year’s Academy Awards nominations were announced, Ari Wegner became only the second woman to be nominated in the Best Cinematography category for her lens work on the Jane Campion frontrunner The Power of the Dog. (Mudbound’s Rachel Morrison was the first in 2018.) How does Wegner feel about the achievement? It’s complicated.

“I’m just really happy, I guess. I’m really proud of what we made,” said Wegner in a Zoom conversation with Jezebel this week about her nomination. But! “You think about it deeply and it’s slightly depressing,” Wegner continued, regarding being only one of two women nominated in a category that’s almost 100 years old. “But then, it’s progress, so I don’t know what you call that.”

Putting aside the question of whether women behind the camera are being adequately recognized for their work (they most certainly are not), there aren’t a lot from the academy to choose from in its honoring. Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film quotes a Celluloid Ceiling study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, which found that between the years of 1998 and 2019, the percentage of women cinematographers grew a measly point—from 4 percent to 5 percent in 22 years. Despite women’s accomplishments in the field (Ellen Kuras shot classics like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Bamboozled, Maryse Alberti did The Wrestler and Creed, Charlotte Bruus Christensen did A Quiet Place, among several examples), they remain nonetheless rare. Wegner has some theories as to why.

“I think what it really is a lack of is that kind of visibility,” said Wegner. “I think there are actually a lot of women who are DPs [directors of photography—a term often used interchangeably with ‘cinematographers’]. It just like at a certain level that is a kind of assumption that for really big movies, if you want to like a proper cinematographer, you’re going to get a dude… There’s kind of a ceiling.”

A complicating factor, she says, is that the period in one’s career in which she is ready to ascend beyond assistant roles often coincides with decisions that need to be made about reproduction. “That’s kind of where I’m at now,” said Wegner. “I definitely delayed starting a family… It is an industry where there’s kind of a glorification of sacrifice. I really hope that’s going to change and I think it will. It’s not really sustainable.”

Wegner said that she discovered film “late” (in her teenage years), but nonetheless studied film at the University of Melbourne, during which time she gravitated to cinematography. Perhaps it was youthful naïveté that allowed her to pursue shooting without being affected by the field’s wild gender disparity. “I had no idea that it wasn’t a thing that women did,” she said. “It genuinely didn’t occur to me that [DP names] were all men’s names. It was only a bit later in film school that I started hearing about female cinematographers and was like, ‘Ah? Yeah. I guess there aren’t…any.’ No one ever told me that it was unconventional. By the time I realized, I’d already shot a bunch of shorts. There were a really great group of guys and girls that were directors in my class that I was shooting for and maybe none of us knew any better so we just kind of went from there.”

“There could well have been plenty of opportunities along the way that I wasn’t considered for that I don’t even know about,” she continued. “But hey, here we are. Something seems to have gone right.”

Wegner’s feature work includes varied pieces like 2016’s severe Lady MacBeth, 2018’s lush In Fabric, and 2021’s Florida-neon-hued Zola. “I wouldn’t say I seek really different projects, but the projects I’m attracted to generally take place in a kind of pocket universe,” said Wegner. She prefers a director with a strong vision—she is, after all, a director’s surrogate eye.

The Power of the Dog’s look is a product, in part, of “hundreds and thousands of conversations and emails and decisions and choices and late nights and early mornings” Wegner and Campion had about adapting the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name. They planned for about 10 months before shooting in rural New Zealand, though the story takes place in 1920s Montana. “It was a pleasure to have something so gorgeous around you” she said of the location. “If you choose an incredible location, there’s a responsibility to capture it, to feel as gorgeous as it is standing there. It’s not always a given that you will if you don’t pay attention to the actual shots you’ve captured. It can be so overwhelmingly gorgeous, just being there, you still have to make sure you get it somehow in the in the totality of the shots.”

On storyboards, Wegner said that she and Campion went back and forth and their combined vision was so meticulous, they often planned the duration of each shot down to the second. “It needs a really delicate touch to keep putting yourself in the mind of a viewer sitting in a cinema who’s seen a series of shots and this is where they’re at now…If a shot’s designed to hold for 10 seconds, the way you present information is going to be different than if a shot’s designed to hold for 20, 30 seconds,” she explained. This was particularly important during the movie’s climax and resolution, when a scheme enacted by Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter finally takes down his former oppressor, Phil (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). While the plot is laid out deliberately, it is not over-explained. Campion and Wegner favor subtlety over explication. “We have to fall into the same trap that Phil does. As a viewer, we need to overlook and underestimate Peter,” explained Wegner. “We need to be looking elsewhere in our minds, when he’s planning and executing his plan. Being in the Phil point of view is quite helpful in that you are in many ways blind to the possibility that someone like Peter would have the audacity to do what he does.”

The Power of the Dog is about many things—queerness, addiction, second chances, neurodiversity before that phrase even existed—but among its chief objectives is to get under the skin of the Western form and survey truths of performed masculinity. With that in mind, I wondered what Wegner makes of the concepts of “male gaze” and “female gaze,” and whether it’s a coincidence that she and Campion happen to be women who are X-raying manhood.

“It’s more complex than just gender,” said Wegner of gaze. “It’s your upbringing, what your current obsession is, what troubles you, what disgusts you. It’s also what you can’t look away from. It’s not always positive.”

“For me, gaze is what interests us,” she said. “Whether that has a gendered element, it’s hard to say because I’ve only ever been myself and been interested in the things I’m interested in.”

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