17 minute read

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog Ominous Love

An interview with Grant Adams, SOC by Kate McCallum

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

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The Power of the Dog is an upcoming internationally co-produced drama film written and directed by Jane Campion, and adapted from a 1967 Thomas Savage novel by the same name. In early 20th-century Montana, a embittered ranch owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) launches a campaign against a young widow (Kirsten Dunst) when she unexpectedly marries his brother (Jesse Plemons) and comes to live on the ranch. It also stars Thomasin McKenzie, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Frances Conroy. The film is released on Netflix.

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TRIVIA: This is the first Netflix original film from New Zealand.

Camera Operator: Jane Campion is truly one of my favorite directors. The Piano was a classic. Can you please share a bit about your background as a camera operator and how you got hired to work with her on this film?

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Grant Adams, SOC: From a young age I’ve always loved meeting new people, hearing what they have to say and giving them space to feel comfortable to share their narrative. I was passionate for various creative disciplines, however not drawn to studying them through the orthodox avenues. The academic side of high school took second place to photography, film, music, sports, and culture. After a friend suggested I try the film industry, I decided college wasn’t for me. After writing to various film production companies, I got a lucky break as a camera trainee on a TV show. It was a huge production for its time, we were filming 35mm (some days over 10,000 feet) on two cameras and a full-time Steadicam as a part of our kit. I spent three years on this show and got really inspired by watching our Steadicam operator, Peter McCaffrey, SOC. To me this seemed like an art form, a conviction, a reason to keep fit, a specialist craft, but also it was super badass and amazing to watch! It was then I was hooked! I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and I hadn’t even operated a camera at that point, but I was still young, and I had time. In 2000, I participated

in a one-week Steadicam workshop which was run by Garrett Brown in Umbria, Italy. This was a mind-blowing experience as there were a handful of the world’s top operators instructing, and we got to spend time with each of them as we rotated around in groups of four. What occurred to me was that there’s no right or wrong way of doing things, it was up to the individual to find a method which worked for them personally and one which would allow repeatability and give the best chance of quality work. Once I returned home from that workshop, word got around about what I’d done and, even though still an AC, I started getting offered Steadicam work on charity gigs, music videos, and low-budget TV dramas.

A few years later I had a chance encounter with Jane Campion, told her my story and how I’d purchased my own rig. She said I should put a showreel together because she was about to shoot a period feature film Bright Star with a young DP who she thought I’d get on with. This turned out to be Greig Fraser ACS, ASC. He watched my reel, we spoke on the phone, and I got the gig! Since then, I’ve been fortunate to make a career out of being a full-time operator and it’s taken me from New Zealand to Australia and Asia, and in 2017 my family and I moved to Los Angeles where we now call home. It’s Steadicam that’s bridged the

gap for me time and time again, and for that I’m forever thankful.

In the film industry it’s all about relationships, and striking the right chord with Jane meant I got asked back to work on Top of the Lake and, more recently, The Power of the Dog.

CO: Who else was on the crew and how did you find working together?

Adams: DP Ari Wegner is a crazily-talented cinematographer from Australia whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with on three occasions now, all of which have been immensely satisfying. It’s not just her sense of story—Ari’s always very well researched when it comes to script. It’s her brave and bold decision-making in a constant effort to create an aesthetic with an enduring poetic quality which I admire the most. Having established a solid game plan together through spending time in preproduction, she and I were able to navigate our way forward without the need for much fuss on set because we were already both completely on the same page about what we were trying to achieve.

In our camera department we had the following excellent folk who totally killed it: Daniel Foeldes, A Cam 1st AC; Ben Rowsell, B Cam 1st AC and A Cam 1st AC; Henry West, B Cam 1st AC; Nick Willoughby, A Cam 2nd

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From left, DP Ari Wegner, director/producer Jane Campion and Grant Adams, SOC. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

AC; Jimmy Bollinger, B Cam 2nd AC; and Bailey Mitchinson, camera intern.

Our glorious grip department comprised of these legends: Sam Strain, key grip; Simon Jones, dolly grip; Nick Flyvbjerg, grip; Chris Thomson, best boy grip; and Benaiah Dunn, grip assistant.

Other people on the crew I’d like to mention are Tanya Seghatchian, our brilliant producer; Chloe Smith, our out-of-this-world co-producer; Thad Lawrence, our fabulous gaffer; Kathleen Thomas, our superb script supervisor; Kirsty Griffin, our sensational stills photographer; and Jay Hawkins, our wizard VFX supervisor. These first-rate people helped and inspired me daily while working on this project.

CO: What equipment did you use on set?

Adams: For standard coverage we used two Alexa LF production bodies. Alongside these we had an Alexa Mini LF which was dedicated

for Steadicam and Ronin 2 gimbal builds. Using a Panavision cage system allowed us to change between modes quickly. We shot 4.5K Open gate at 24fps with 2.39 aspect.

Our “workhorse” lenses were a set of Ultra Panatar 1.25 x full frame anamorphic primes (System 65) consisting of 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm, 135mm, 180mm. These were mostly T2.8. Minimum focus wasn’t great but worked out okay for cinematic framing, with diopters used for close work.

Other lenses included a 200–400mm 70 series full frame zoom, a Leitz 90mm Macro (with 2x extender), and a set of 70 Series Primos for drone work and the occasional plate shot.

We couldn’t get a full-frame directors viewfinder with a 1.25 x de squeeze, so we used a normal super 35mm finder marked for 2.39 letterbox, then used two lightweight zooms (wide-angle and mid-range) that were marked up to match the hero lenses FOV on camera.

We had my PRO 2 Steadicam with M1 volt kit on for the job, which was utilized a great deal. For the odd handheld scene, I had my Ergorig with me, which was a welcome addition for my back considering the weight of the production camera lens package.

Grip tools we used were a Chapman Hybrid III dolly, two Original Slider systems (3' and 6'), a MovieTech movie jib crane and a custom-made rickshaw with a Flowcine Black Arm. We also used a Scorpio 23' telescopic crane for a shot inside the entrance of the Burbank ranch house.

CO: Where did you shoot the film and was COVID an issue during production?

Adams: The bulk of the exterior work was done in the Central Otago region of New Zealand. A major location where the Burbank Ranch scenes were shot was in Maniototo, Ranfurly. As the story was set in the state of Montana, United States, we utilized the distinctive landscape of the golden grassy plains

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TRIVIA: Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are a couple off-screen and have two sons.

From left, Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank and Jesse Plemons as George Burbank. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

for the ranch house and smooth, painterly Hawkdun range as a background to sell it as being somewhere up near the Rocky Mountains. This location also served us for the Haystack, Indian camp, and the Township of Beech scenes.

Other locations we shot at included Poolburn, Bannockburn, Queenstown Hill, Lindis River near Tarras, Manuherikia river near Alexandra, Oamaru, and Dunedin. These are all situated around the lower South Island of New Zealand. Temperatures were at times hugely variable and weather conditions often extreme but thanks to production, locations, and the spritely attitude of the crew, we were able to depict and investigate these awesome places despite what mother nature brought along.

Upon wrapping the South Island portion of the shoot, we took a one week shooting hiatus and moved production to Auckland where the remainder the film was to be shot in the studio. Throughout this time the threat of

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COVID had been becoming a reality around the rest of the world. None of us had any idea of how this would impact us or the production, we just wanted to get this story told. On day two of our studio shoot, news came through that the virus had spread into the community in New Zealand and the entire nation was placed into a “level 4” lockdown. A snap crew meeting was held, and we were informed that filming was to cease immediately, we were to make safe on our kits, and return to our home till further notice. This was a very surreal moment for us all—the word “unprecedented” got used a great deal and we walked away wondering if we’d ever get the chance to complete the film. The good people at Netflix came through with financial support for the crew from the Hardship Fund, which was a welcome surprise considering such an uncertain time. Thanks, Netflix!

After two months of strict lockdown measures, it transpired that the virus had been eradicated and New Zealand was completely

COVID-free. Some swift action from Jane and her production team came next, and The Power of the Dog returned to the studio in mid-June 2020. A month later we finally wrapped, and to celebrate, a dinner was put on for the cast and crew in the ground floor Burbank ranch house set with table service, speeches, and dancing!

CO: How was it working with Jane and what did you notice about her particular approach to telling this story?

Adams: Working with Jane is always an experience to behold. Kind of like embarking on a journey where you know the destination will be so fantastic but, in terms of coverage, you’re never certain of how you’re going to get there. Along the way the path differs, sometimes it’s the tried-and-true one you embrace, often it leans to an unconventional route—it’s always open to finding emotion in the details and textural ways of moving the narrative forward.

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From left, Phil Jones, associate producer/1st assistant director, and Jane Campion. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

Jane grew up in the world of New Zealand theater, her parents Richard and Edith Campion founded the first New Zealand theatre company, and this clearly shines through in her process. Central to this is a desire to capture the “spirit” of a scene. What this means in a practical sense is that even though the technical grammar may not be completely perfect, she executes the right to move on from a setup if she perceives the performance or action has moved the viewer to have felt that spirit. Of course this is where the magic is, and it’s the challenge of achieving technical perfection and flawless visual language—when there’s perhaps limited attempts allowed for it—that I find the most challenging and rewarding. I’ve often heard her say that it’s about finding the joy or love in the composition of the frame. It’s with this mantra in mind that I try to filter what is going to be a useful frame or one that she’ll love and use.

She’s a lover of the best things in life: nature,

fine art and photography, poetry, music, storytelling, and psychology, and she loves to laugh and be playful. One of my favorite things is to sit with her and listen to what she has in mind for a scene and study her beautifully hand-drawn storyboards. Although you can tell every idea has been thought through and almost meditated upon, she’ll still have the courage on the day to scrap the plan if it’s clear to her a better solution has been realized.

On The Power of the Dog, Jane activated a very down-to-earth and respectful tone on set. Although the crew footprint was small, there were scenes which involved tens, sometimes hundreds of characters (including humans, horses, dogs, and cattle). These were ambitious setups—tricky to wrangle—but brought a culmination of rugged authenticity and drama to the screen, which I think was her plan all along.

She’d create opportunities for spontaneity by allowing improvisation or nature to take

its course within a scene. This allowed an element of humorous realism and, when this was combined with the majesty of the mountains in the background, or the exquisitely designed sets, really created a believable feeling of being there with the characters as you devoured the story.

It could be said that Jane has one of the richest and most lyrical bodies of work behind her of any director, and it’s my feeling that with this film she’s added a major jewel to that crown.

CO: I personally have a soft spot for period films. The costumes, props, set, and look and feel. Who was the production designer and how do you think this story translates to today’s audience?

Adams: This story, set in 1925 in rural Montana, is no ordinary cowboy’s tale. It has complex psychological elements to it which needed to be portrayed and balanced perfectly along with accurate set design, props, and costume and makeup to be sincerely digested.

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TRIVIA: Jane Campion had long been a fan of Kirsten Dunst and had attempted to work with her on a prior project. Dunst revealed that Campion wrote her a letter around 2001 that she has kept in her possession.

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

Grant Major (our production designer) and his team did a breathtaking job, in my opinion. As did Kirsty Cameron (costume designer) and Noriko Watanabe (makeup designer). All three of these key people approached their craft with such a delicate sensitivity that when their work was combined with the performances and locations, all delivered an elegant, timeless appeal.

CO: Did you have any particular challenges you had to problem solve on this film? If so, how did you do so?

Adams: Nothing out of the ordinary comes to mind apart from a worldwide pandemic, which was quite the curveball. In the end I think that the two-month spell of downtime worked to our advantage. It allowed an opportunity for everyone to regroup, rest, and reflect on what had been shot already. Upon our return to work from lockdown, there was such a collective feeling of excitement on set, we

all just felt so happy to be there. There's no doubt in my mind the picture benefited from that.

CO: How was it working with such an amazing cast? And do you have any particular insights or wisdom you’d like to share about how you work with talent?

Adams: As a camera operator, it’s essential to create rapport with the cast members you work with. This helps them because they know there’s a point of contact and someone that has their back behind the camera. It helps you because invariably there’ll be occasions where you must give them notes about positioning or eyelines and you want them to listen to you and trust what you say. An ensemble of cast members like the one we had on The Power of the Dog is a dream to work with. Each of them brought bucketloads of talent, experience and seemingly not a shred of ego.

Benedict’s approach was a method one, it

was explained to us beforehand that this had been agreed upon between him and Jane. As his character in the film was dark, manipulative, and cocky, this meant his demeanor remained that way the whole time he was at work on set. This could come across intimidating, but it wasn’t long before you could see the twinkle in his eye as he dished out the odd snarky comment and you could tell it came from a good place. He would always find space to work with us technically whilst devoting the rest of his efforts to his character portrayal. We never heard him speak in his native English accent once—until the night he wrapped and gave a speech to the crew!

Kirsten and Jesse were delightful from the get-go. Such lovely, friendly people, and as they’re a couple in real life, having them play a married couple on screen made finding the chemistry between them an absolute breeze. They were both happy to be there, easy to work with and total troopers!

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Kodi is a smart, sensitive, and deep guy who I’ve had the pleasure of working with before. He showed integrity, was always focused and from my perspective so generous with the amount he’d be open to trying for perfection.

On set we tried to allow as much freedom as possible for the characters to disclose themselves. This worked for us because actors of that caliber seem to already know what works, and it felt like we were all in sync under the

spell of Jane’s master plan.

CO: Curious what the title of the film and novel means to you? The Power of the Dog?

Adams: The meaning is slightly ambiguous to me, but it could be as simple as the dog qualities in humans and the power associated with that.

CO: What are you doing next? And what do you dream of doing that you’ve yet to do?

Adams: I have just finished working on the TV series The Lord of the Rings (Season 1) for Amazon, which was also shot in New Zealand. Next, I’m working on the reshoots for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent feature for Lionsgate to be shot in Los Angeles, California.

It’s my desire to continue to work with visionary people who continue to push the boundaries of their craft.

TECH ON SET2 Alexa LF & 1x Mini LF bodies Preston, WCU4 remote focus systems Cine RT rangefinder systems Ultra Panatar 1.25 Anamorphic Primes (35, 40, 50, 65, 75, 100, 135, 180mm) 200-400mm 70 series full frame zoom

From left, Alison Bruce, Jane Campion, Grant Adams, SOC, Peter Carroll, and Jesse Plemons. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

GRANT ADAMS, SOC Grant Adams, SOC, has been working full-time as a camera operator and Steadicam owner/ operator since 2008. Having worked extensively on feature films and TV productions in Australia, Asia, and the UK through the majority of his career, Grant is now based in Los Angeles, California. Grant’s credits include films such as The Power of the Dog, I See You, Mission Impossible 6, The Nightingale, Hotel Mumbai, and Bright Star, and TV series The Lord of the Rings (Season 1), Reprisal, DEVS, Top of the Lake, Ash V’s Evil Dead, The Kettering Incident, Gallipoli, Devil’s Playground, and The Slap. He is a husband and a father of two girls and when not working he enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with them.

Photo by Louise Hyatt

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Grant Adams, SOC, and Jane Campion. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

Kodi Smit-Mcphee as Peter. Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

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