Ari Wegner is explaining how to shoot a sex scene. The Australian cinematographer was the woman wielding the camera on Jane Campion’s multi-award nominated revisionist Western, The Power of the Dog. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil, a volatile rancher in 1920s Montana who forms an unexpected bond with his sister-in-law’s bookish teenage son, Peter. At its climax Phil braids a rope from raw cow hide as Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) watches intently.
“We always called that scene ‘the Love Scene’,” says Wegner over Zoom, ruffling her bleached-blonde quiff. “There’s an electricity between them — a foreplay, extended gazing, these macro shots of hands touching objects, but they may as well be touching each other, because all of that erotic tension is in the hands. It’s in the rolling of the cigarette, in the way Phil’s braiding this rope, and lubricating it with his hands. The horn of the saddle is literally where your groin rubs against. There are so many charged elements, and that’s all by design.”
Wegner and Campion approach the Western — a traditionally masculine genre — from a feminine point of view. Wegner agrees that what the eye is drawn to reveals something about who we are, what we’re interested in and how we view the dynamics of desire. “What we look at is what we want to look at. It’s so personal, what interests you. It’s the totality of your life experiences up until that point,” she says. Those experiences, she thinks, are different for a man and woman, although she stresses gender is just “one of many, many elements”.
Wegner, 37, makes history at the Baftas with The Power of the Dog: she is the first woman to be nominated in the cinematography category since the award was introduced 53 years ago. She grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in an arty household, though cinema wasn’t part of her childhood. “We didn’t even have a VCR, we had a crappy old TV,” she remembers. It wasn’t until high school, in her media studies class, that she began to think about movies as art, not just entertainment. “I was already kind of obsessed with photography, and also reading, and writing fiction, so when I discovered there was this thing called a cinematographer, which is visual storytelling, I was sold.” She went to film school at Melbourne’s prestigious Victorian College of the Arts.
Wegner studied writing and directing, but always liked shooting best. When she’s holding the camera, she says, it becomes part of her body. “It’s kind of heavy, but I’m so in the moment during the take I don’t feel pain or heat or anything. I’m watching a movie that I’m controlling. It’s as close to acting or being in the scene as you can imagine.” In her career so far Wegner has shot films about disastrous road trips (Zola), Australian outlaws (True History of the Kelly Gang), Victorian murder (Lady Macbeth) and haunted red dresses (In Fabric).
In The Power of the Dog, Wegner’s handheld camera transforms Cumberbatch’s appeal. The actor’s onscreen persona is often stiff, mannered and a little too clean but Wegner shoots him with a new rawness. “Jane and I share the same aesthetic — if something feels too pretty or too clichéd or too perfect, there’s something we inherently don’t believe about it. Jane would say the hills [in the film] are very sexy. It’s like a body laying down, the rolls and the folds and craggly dry bits, when the light falls on it in a certain way. We looked at a lot of Lucian Freud paintings — real bodies, real faces, that’s the beauty of it. The sexiness comes from the realness, and the vulnerability.”
In one scene Phil sunbathes shirtless after a swim. A silk handkerchief he pulls from his trousers stirs a memory. “You’re watching a private moment and that is the whole entirety of the design — the location, the scarf, his physicality, the sun. This very animal, primal thing hasn’t been erased, despite the environment he lives in.” It’s a magic, lightning-in-a-bottle moment. It’s not surprising that Wegner, Campion and Cumberbatch have all received awards attention for their work.
Along with her Bafta nomination, Wegner is also up for an Academy Award. (The Power of the Dog has 12 nominations, including for best picture, more than any other film this year.) She is the second woman to be nominated for an Oscar in her field (Rachel Morrison was the first, for Mudbound in 2018). Those numbers, she says, don’t feel representative of the reality of the industry. “There are so many women working in the camera department,” she says. “The visibility is definitely lacking, or maybe the chance to be able to shoot films that are more visible. There’s an assumption made that when you’re shooting a proper movie, you want a proper cinematographer, and that’s a dude. Slowly, I hope that something like these nominations will start to rock this idea of what the cinematographer looks like.”
She doesn’t like to think of herself as special (although anyone who has seen her work will disagree). “There are hundreds of women out there who are just as capable as I am. You can’t prove that you can do it until someone lets you do it.”
The Academy recently revealed that it would not broadcast several of the craft categories at this year’s ceremony on 27 March. Cinematography, however, seems to have made the cut. Still, Wegner isn’t happy about what this means for her behind-the-scenes colleagues. “Film-making’s such a collaborative process. I shoot something, but it can only have power if it’s cut together in a way that works. They can’t be separated. It kind of sucks to think there’s a hierarchy, or that some categories are of interest to the public and some are not.” Still, she’s excited, and potentially poised for a historic win. “We’ll see if the world’s ready for a ceiling to be smashed.”