Understanding ‘The Power of the Dog’: How Picture Editor Peter Sciberras Assembled Jane Campion’s Masterful Narrative

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A frequent collaborator of director David Michôd (The Rover), editor Peter Sciberras (War Machine) was immersed in director Jane Campion’s cinematic vision while assembling The Power of the Dog. Campion’s adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage, which gets its title from Psalm 22:20, depicts the wrath of 1920s cattle rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). While Phil holds everyone around him hostage with his malevolent personality, COVID-19 was being a disruptive force in the real world. “Getting to New Zealand was the hard bit, as I had to spend two weeks of hotel quarantine cutting on a tiny desk that had just enough room for the keyboard to be in front of the iMac. There was still so much of the shoot to come when we got shut down,” recalls Sciberras. “There was a lot of time spent cutting during our first lockdown in Australia and New Zealand. What I did do was string together whole assembles up and until that point and put in title cards for all of the things that were missing.”

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon

Demonstrating the devastating impact of the psychological abuse that Phil is inflicting upon Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) is the scene where he easily plays the banjo behind a bedroom door while she struggles to perform a song on the piano downstairs. “That was a fun one to cut and it was shot in two different parts over two days,” states Sciberras. “The way that Grant Major [King Kong] built the sets was ingenious because you could be upstairs and look down, but the upstairs room wasn’t actually the same set. You had the stairs on one side and stairs on the other. It was like a jigsaw puzzle! The performances were great to start with which makes your life so much easier. We used almost every shot on Rose’s side. As for Phil, we had a lot of him in the room playing and he slowly got to the door. There were hours that we didn’t use. We chose to play it from Rose’s point of view and play Phil offscreen until we reveal exactly what he is doing.”

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon

Phil slowly obliterates what little confidence Rose had in her ability as a musician. “It’s his moment to show how superior he is,” continues Sciberras. “We had nine to ten long takes of Kirsten. The camera started out wide, and while she played, it always pushed in and then stopped. She would listen. It would push in again and stop. Kirsten was amazing. We had other angles of Kirsten, but we chose to stay on the whole way because it had such a great vibe to have those moves built in. It was a dance between them. You could feel the camera take off when she played and stop when he played. To have a moment to watch her. When we cut upstairs, I love that angle down the stairs. We chose to only show film when he cracks the door open in an ominous way. Then you see the boots, which was one of my favorite shots of the coverage, as they become such a haunting sound. You know where Phil is at all times, these spurs on floorboards. We worked a lot on the sound in the edit so when we got to work with supervising sound editor Robert Mackenzie [Hacksaw Ridge], he had a good blueprint.”

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon

One of the hardest sequences to put together takes place in the barn at night. “It really starts at the daytime barn scene right before it when Phil blows up and Peter Gordon [Kodi Smit-McPhee] comes in,” reveals Sciberras. “That was one of the more energetic dialogue scenes. Where that became fun was finding that big pan over the hills that we’ve been looking at constantly at a distance and getting close into the shapes and shadows. We were able to use that as a texture rather than a big landscape shot. It felt so right coming right off the rotating camera around Phil and Peter. Then we go to the incredibly close cigarette rolling, which belonged to a previous scene when George finds Phil in the barn when he is supposed to be at the dinner party but hasn’t washed up. We wanted the audience to know that scene was headed into sensitive close terrain. When Peter drops the bucket, turns, and looks at Phil, there is a little bit of trickery. We wanted that look to be measured precisely and extended it by not having an eyeline shift. We transitioned by using some closeups of the rope coming up, almost like a marionette. Then there is a beautiful and hypnotic shot of Peter watching the rope being woven. We had a blink that we loved which was five seconds too early, so we shifted the blink back five seconds because there was such an internal rhythm to it.”

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) & Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

The scene when Peter walks into the campsite and is called over by Phil went through the most iterations. “Geographically it was challenging with Rose on the other side of him,” states Sciberras. “We also had a lot of options. There were close-ups of all of the extras watching Peter walk through. It was about reduction.” Moments of levity are important as the means to provide a release from the dramatic tension. “The film is human. It is trying to get to the core of human behavior. Humor is everywhere, even in the darkest moments. It gives it light and shade. Peter is quite a funny character in a lot of ways. Each chapter has a different flavor.” It was important that the landscape shots remained dramatic. “We used them as a way to set up the atmosphere into a scene or to extend a moment and let the audience sit with the feeling. Jane is so in tune with atmosphere, and landscapes for her have an inbuilt feeling.”

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon

Shots were repurposed. “It’s years of practice and solving problems,” laughs Sciberras. “It’s also about recognizing what certain shots have that you might need in other places. A lot of the ropemaking we figured could be used wherever it was needed. It didn’t have to belong to the scene it was shot for. There are one or two shots in the final barn scene that were shot for the first barn scene which were daytime, but I gave it an Avid grade to see if it worked and Trish Cahill in the real grade made it seamless. A lot of the macro stuff like cigarette rolling we could pepper in as a mood builder throughout.” The shot of the dog on the hill went through the most alterations when it came to visual effects. “Just to get the timing and look of that right, because it gets revealed by the sun being in the right place. Jane wanted the feeling of clouds coming over the mountain and there was a pull focus in the middle of it. It was quite a tricky shot to get right atmospherically and for the dog not to be too easy to spot.”

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Even though Phil is the antagonist of the narrative, he still had to come across as being three-dimensional. “After the big opening when Phil bullies Peter, burns the paper flower, and is obnoxious to everyone around him, there is a scene where he is sitting alone in the saloon while all of the boys are having a great time,” remarks Sciberras. “Then he is looking for his brother George Burbank [Jesse Plemons] upstairs. It was such a lonely sequence. It was a sequence that we got a few notes on. It would be an easy cut to get the front going quicker. You try everything. Taking that sequence out was when it felt like Phil was on 11 the whole way. Those moments show that there is a vulnerability, weakness, and a loneliness which balances out the way he lashes out at everyone around him. Phil is incredibly fragile. It humanized him in a powerful way where you want to understand him more.” The story begins as an emotional divide is beginning to take shape between the Burbank siblings. “We needed a feeling that there is a history between them, and Phil has always dominated George in a particular way. But with George meeting Rose, Phil is losing his grip on a tightly ordered world that he has managed to keep secure as a place of comfort; their relationship is explored in the first two chapters.”

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch)

“I love the cuts to the chapters and those chapter breaks were in the script,” states Sciberras. “We added them along the way to help the audience jump in and out of these major time jumps.” The power of the film is its ambiguity. “The challenge overall was managing that and allowing the audience the space to think within and in-between scenes but never too much where it gets to be boring. It’s such a psychological film and there’s so much going on between these characters. You have to really get inside of these characters’ heads. I remember one thing in particular with the daytime barn scene when Phil locks the door in Rose’s face and in essence tells Peter, ‘I’ll teach you how to be a man and we’ll go off riding.’ You don’t know if Phil is going to drop him off a cliff or if there is something else going on here. We play most of that on Phil. Then Peter asks an unrelated question, ‘Do any of the calves get taken by wolves?’ It is played offscreen because we wanted to see how Phil is disarmed by the question. All of a sudden this is not going the way that Phil wants it to go. There are all of these subtle shifts in these scenes. We did so much structural experimentation to get these shifts and dances happening.”

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Netflix

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