Editor Peter Sciberras on making ‘The Power of the Dog’
Acclaimed new film to get sneak preview screening in Aspen on Sunday
What: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ presented by Aspen Film & AspenOUT
Where: Isis Theatre
When: Sunday, 5 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15/Aspen Film members)
Tickets: aspenfilm.org (online only, not available at box office)
More info: Proof of coronavirus vaccination or negative test required
Post-production work on Jane Campion’s cowboy psychodrama “The Power of the Dog” began with the film’s editor in a two-week quarantine, doing initial cuts on it from a hotel desk while screen-sharing on video chat with the director.
“I’m not a really tall guy, so she could literally just see the top of my head for the first two weeks,” editor Peter Sciberras joked in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “We actually did get a lot of work done during quarantine because there really wasn’t much else to do.”
From those humble beginnings in Australia, following a pandemic-disrupted 2020 shoot in New Zealand, “The Power of the Dog” is now the most acclaimed film of the year so far, earning universal praise since its September premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. In these early days of awards season, it is topping many predictions lists for Oscar nods for everything from Best Picture to acting prizes for stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee and technical awards including Sciberras’s editing.
Aspen Film will host a special sneak preview screening of the film on Sunday at the Isis Theatre in advance of its December release on Netflix.
Set in rugged Montana in 1925 and based on a novel by Thomas Savage, the film tells the story of a pair of ranching brothers, the menacing, mud-caked and macho Phil (Cumberbatch) and the fastidious “fatso” George (Jesse Plemons). During an overnight stop on a cattle drive, they and their crew of ratty cowboys enter the orbit of widowed innkeeper Rose (Dunst) and her son Peter (Smit-McPhee). Phil begins immediately hazing Peter for his effeminate habits, and begins a cruel and extended psychological torture of Rose, which deepens as his brother falls in love with and marries her.
When mother and son settle on the Burbank brothers’ ranch, Phil improbably takes Peter under his wing — teaching him riding and roping — and this patient, perfect film begins exploring new and complex depths of gender expectations, sex and the toxic masculinity in cowboy culture, mountain living and other macho man spheres.
It opens with Peter’s voice asking: “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother? If I didn’t save her?” What he means isn’t clear until literally the last frame of “The Power of the Dog,” which at once breaks apart the narrative and clicks its jagged pieces into place.
The film offers a welcome dose of pure visual storytelling that respects the viewer to connect dots and challenges its cast to play living, breathing humans in shades of grey, with key plot points and characterizations allowed to play out visually without the explanation and over-explanation of so many contemporary films. Here, it’s the way Phil caresses and cares for an old saddle, a private smile from Peter, the slow and steady deterioration of Rose under the strain of progressive alcoholism that move the story along and tells us what its people are feeling. We see this world through several characters’ eyes and Campion puts us in each of their shoes, all discomfiting in their own ways.
Nothing on-screen is superfluous here, from shots of cattle to the snarled and shadowy hills of the mountains to the unflinching close-ups of Phil and Peter that ramp up tension and anticipation toward their collision.
“We don’t cut to things or objects or macro shots unless we really need them,” Sciberras explained. “They have to have a reason to be there.”
The film is broken up into five chapters, allowing the narrative to switch viewpoints or jump in time without losing the viewer. Scibberas identified the addition of the chapters, and the effect they had on the pacing of the film, as one of a handful of times working with Campion on early cuts of the film when he recognized that he was a part of something extraordinary.
Working alongside Campion, who was making her first film since 2009’s “Bright Star,” Sciberras saw the filmmaker work toward a vision that wasn’t reliant on the novel or on the canon of American westerns.
“Jane is incredibly attuned to her instincts,” he said. “And she trusts them in a way that I haven’t really seen before. She just trusts herself so much in a way that she’s developed over a really long career.”
The film is set to a memorable and effective Jonny Greenwood strings-based score that — by turns ominous, propulsive and hypnotic — is integral to the storytelling, tone and characterization in “The Power of the Dog.” Sciberras said he cut the film to some three-dozen cues from Greenwood, who composed music based on the script.
“We worked with it like it was another character,” he explained of the Radiohead guitarist/keyboardist’s work.
Based in Melbourne, Australia, Sciberras — whose also edited David Michod’s “The King” and “War Machine” — this week arrived in the U.S. for his overdue first run of in-person events for “The Power of the Dog” in advance of its Dec. 1 release on Netflix. He waited out COVID restrictions on international travel and quarantine requirements as the new film became the talk of world cinema.
“I’ve kind of been trapped on the other side of the world, getting photos of amazing events and Jane receiving awards,” he noted. “It was quite surreal to watch it all without being present for any of it.”
But the experience of riding through awards season in-person, he joked, may be yet more absurd: “Now that I’m in L.A. it’s even weirder because I am actually a part of it.”
Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new fall lecture series will run weekly from Oct. 20 through Dec. 6. The lineup consists of artists nationwide who will be spending one to three weeks at the ranch completing projects within their area of expertise and exploring new work in the studios.