In an exclusive interview after becoming the first female film-maker awarded the "Nobel Prize for Cinema" in France, Dame Jane Campion talks to Joanna Mathers about toxic masculinity and her brooding new Western, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst.
As a young woman, Jane Campion explored her family farm on a "fizzy" part-Arab pony called Juno. The farm's hills and valleys, the moody, storm-ridden skies, were rich fodder for a fertile imagination.
Such brooding landscapes would become a recurring motif in her work: wild beaches of Auckland's west coast in The Piano, the majestic stillness of Central Otago in Top of the Lake. And now, 10 years since her last feature film, another New Zealand landscape is capturing the world's attention, courtesy of her new psychological thriller-slash-Western, The Power of the Dog.
Set in Montana in 1925, but filmed in the Hawkdun Range, Central Otago, The Power of the Dog is a searing exploration of the forces that underpin toxic masculinity. And it's already been lauded by the arbiters of filming excellence - Campion, 67, was awarded a Silver Lion best director award at the Venice International Film Festival in September.
On the phone from Lyon, just days after being awarded the Lumiere Prize, one of France's most prestigious honours, dubbed the "Nobel Prize for Cinema", Campion explains that her time on the family farm gave her some insights into the rancher's life explored in The Power of the Dog.
"I do understand that world to an extent," she says.
Campion was introduced to the written version of The Power of the Dog (a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage) by her stepmother, a teacher and avid reader, in 2017.
She'd just completed work on the television show The Top of the Lake ("there is this talk of me having not made a movie for 10 years, but people forget I made the equivalent of six features in that time," she sighs) and was exhausted. But the book made a strong impression on her.
"It had great bones, great shape, a lift or crisis at the end. And the themes in the story just stayed with me."
While she didn't envisage the book as a film while reading it, "the book's themes and story kept resonating".
She then discovered that the book had been optioned by Canadian producer Roger Frappier, who'd had an adaptation in development for some time. And once they met at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, The Power of the Dog was a living beast.
"Frappier is a great producer, things just kept moving."
Netflix agreed to fund the production (which cost in the realm of US$30 million), and most of which took place in New Zealand in 2020, in Covid-19 lockdown.
Severe, brutal, and handsome, Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is The Power of the Dog's protagonist. He's a wealthy, well-schooled rancher; an alpha male, adept in the art of psychological torture.
Phil's brother George (played by Jesse Plemons) is gentle and stoic; when he brings home a new wife, the widowed Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst), and her enigmatic son Peter, Phil's brutality starts to warp and spiral. And then, suddenly, a small softening in Phil; a filmic junction to an unknown destination.
Westerns are a male-dominated genre, inhabited by gritty men, drenched in bravado and myth. Campion explains that she, like most people, enjoyed the wild adventure of genre, but was aware of the horrors that lay beneath the surface.
"There is that other untold story, how these people were stripping indigenous communities of their rights and their dignity."
The Power of the Dog is set at a time when the Western mythos had just been established. In the mid-1920s, cowboy catalogues selling "sheepies" (sheepskin chaps) and cowboy garb were common.
Phil wears these "sheepies" in the film; appearing as a satyr, half-man, half-animal. Campion says that this was an intentional nod to a particular ideal of masculinity, and to Phil's barbarism.
"Although he is well educated, has been to boarding school and the proper universities, Phil is at home in the wild, in the world outside of society," she says. "This concept of 'man in nature', of man being at his most 'pure' in the natural world, is an almost-universal theme."
Campion is celebrated for her portrayal of "tricky" women. Was this brutal man, such a departure from her "typical" protagonist, difficult to navigate?
"I actually really enjoyed the experience," she confesses.
"If I met him [Phil] I would be afraid of him. He's an alpha, he's intimidating and hurtful. At the time the film was being made, the United States had an alpha for president, a similar type, and this was sitting in the background when I was making the film."
Beneath the "male" and "female" archetypes, Campion says that her protagonists are "people first".
"I think that gender is often overemphasized. My characters have bigger lives than their gender."
Now that The Power of the Dog is complete, Campion has her eyes set on a new challenge: a "pop-up film school in New Zealand". She has backing from Netflix and the NZ Film Commission, and hopes it will take place next year.
"I want this to be a year-long course, in which students can explore their creativity properly, without worrying about bank loans," she says.
Details of the school remain slightly vague, and before it happens, she needs to get back into the country.
"I'm on the road at the moment," she says. "I've not been successful in getting back into the country with the Covid-19 restrictions at the border."
She's hoping that the school will allow her to qualify for an exemption but is unsure of her chances.
"If I was a rugby player, I would definitely get in. But as it is, I don't know. I will keep trying."
There's hope that Aucklanders will get to see her film in cinemas before the end of the year but, if not, the small screen will give Campion's many fans the chance to view her latest offering from the beginning of December.
The Power of the Dog will open the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, screening in Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin, before opening in cinemas nationwide from November 11 and launching on Netflix on December 1.