Jane Campion has not made a feature since 2009, but after a few years working in television she found herself drawn back to the romance of the two-hour story.
Campion’s grand return to the form is the period piece “The Power of the Dog,” a sweeping but intimate family drama set in the isolated hills of 1925 Montana. The film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, premieres Thursday at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.
The story is based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel about wealthy rancher brothers whose thin bond is strained further when one (Plemons) marries a widow (Dunst) with an adolescent son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Campion said Thursday at a news conference in Venice that although she rarely finishes novels these days, she found herself immersed in “The Power of the Dog” and profoundly impacted by the world Savage had created and the characters he’d drawn.
“As a creative person I don’t really calculate. I read this book and I just thought this is an amazing piece of literature,” Campion said. “Scenes and themes from the book kept coming back to me and I couldn’t forget it. I realized it was a really deep piece.”
Soon she realized she wanted to make a film again and went off searching for the rights holder. The return was exciting, although she said she also loved working on the “Top of the Lake” television series.
“Two hours is very beautiful. Two hours is like perfect. I notice myself on Netflix, on my viewing platform, choosing to watch features more than ever,” Campion said. “The discipline and the rigor of those two hours was something I was excited to go back to.”
“The Power of the Dog” is competing for the Golden Lion at this year’s festival. Campion previously won a Silver Lion in 1990 for “An Angel at My Table,” based on the memoirs of Janet Frame.
The production was a massive undertaking that brought Campion and her cast to New Zealand — the only place they thought would approximate the desolation and beauty they needed.
“It would have been hard to find 1925 Montana in Montana,” Campion laughed. “There’s parts of new Zealand that really are so empty … beautiful, forgotten landscapes.”
The high winds, though, made it “devastatingly difficult to build.”
“Sometimes we had trouble standing up,” she said.
Campion was joined Thursday in Venice by Dunst and Cumberbatch. Plemons, who is Dunst’s partner in real life and in the film, was not in attendance.
While filming, they largely remained in character with Cumberbatch as brilliant and cruel rancher Phil Burbank and Dunst as Rose, a self-conscious mother who finds love from Phil’s brother George (Plemons). Phil and Rose clash from their first meeting and Phil continues to be unkind and exploit her insecurities.
Campion told the crew on day one that “you’ll meet Benedict at the end of this shoot,” Cumberbatch said.
“Benedict and I didn’t talk to each other on set at all,” Dunst added. She said they even felt guilty saying brief hellos.
“Rose is a little bit representing all of the pain that’s inside him,” Dunst said.
Campion, whose films often focus on female characters, said she was interested in amplifying Rose’s role, but she also didn’t want to make her a heroine. Dunst said she loves Campion’s films for their sensuality and depiction of women that “feel like real women.”
“The kind of acting and the kind of performances (in her films) are the kind that I aspire to as an actress,” Dunst said.
Phil’s character is a bundle of contractions under a hardened mask of antiquated and sometimes even sadistic masculinity.
“I can understand him, I can look into it and appreciate it. I don’t condone it,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s part of who he is, it’s part of his flaw.”
“The Power of the Dog” was produced by Netflix, and so after a brief theatrical run, will be available globally on the streaming platform in November. Campion said Netflix values artistry and gives filmmakers like herself budgets of a size she hasn’t previously gotten the chance to work with.
“It’s like working with the Medicis,” she said.
Campion’s return to the film stage comes at an interesting time for women filmmakers, when strides are being made but there’s still a ways to go to equality. The 67-year-old was the second woman ever nominated for best director at the Academy Awards and the first woman to receive the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Both nods were for “The Piano,” from 1993.
When asked about parity for female filmmakers, Campion she said thinks, “the women are doing very well” and referenced Chloe Zhao’s Oscar success for “Nomadland.”
“I think once you give them a chance there’s not going to be much stopping them,” she said. “But there’s not enough feminine voice in our narrative.”
“Since the #MeToo movement happened, I feel the change in the weather. It’s like the Berlin Wall coming down or the end of Apartheid for us women,” she added. “People can see how unequal it is.”