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'The Power of the Dog' is Jane Campion's first film in 12 years


Jane Campion has directed her first film in 12 years. "The Power Of The Dog" is a Western shot in New Zealand about two brothers - one conspicuously kind, one a bully and a lout - who run a ranch in Montana of the 1920s, where there's riding, roping, drinking, gelding, bleeding and scheming, but not always where you're looking. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

And Jane Campion, the Academy Award winner and nominee who's already won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival for directing this film, joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

JANE CAMPION: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Film's drawn from a 1967 American novel by the late Thomas Savage. What drew you to this story?

CAMPION: I think what most impressed me was that it was clear that Thomas Savage had lived on a ranch, that this was his life. This was not writ large and some sort of romantic version of the West. Thomas Savage moved to a ranch with his mother, which is the story which is really told in the film as well, and the brother of the man that his mother married was talented - like, great chess player and, you know, went to Yale, et cetera - but also, like, a really hardened cowboy and terrible bully.

What I loved about it was the cowboys (laughter), which, you know, that's always been a big thing for me, cowboy life. But, you know, I guess the honesty, the truth of it and the fact that it had a narrative that just grew more and more interesting and exciting. And, you know, I really didn't know where I was with it. Like, what's going to happen? Who's going to be hurt? Something's going to go wrong, I just know. And it really surprised me at the end. I had to sort of go back and check it.

SIMON: Boy, yeah. Well, that - the film does that. Where does your love of cowboys come from?

CAMPION: Well, as a young person, probably 9 or 10, we used to organize vegetable boxes to be like horses and then sit on them and ride and pretend that we were riding across the West (laughter).

SIMON: The American West?

CAMPION: American West. Oh, yeah (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, mercy.

CAMPION: And also, I had a horse, too, growing up. I love those animals, and my parents had a farm for a while.

SIMON: Benedict Cumberbatch plays the bully of a brother, Phil. He ridicules his kind brother, calls him names, and he ridicules the young son of Rose, the innkeeper.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) All right. Now, gentlemen, look, see, that's what you do with the cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh.

KODI SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) It's really just for wine drips.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh. Got that, boys? Only for the drip.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Now get us some food.

SIMON: I have read that Benedict Cumberbatch stayed in character for the entire shoot. Was he insufferable?

CAMPION: I was so happy he had the guts to do that. And I think it really made a difference to the way he - or the depth that he managed to get to in playing the character. So, you know, I was just happy as hell that he was being Phil. I mean, sometimes we would have little arguments, and there was a lot of Phil there. And I would have to, you know, go like, OK.

It's really difficult for someone who's actually as likable as Ben, who's actually a bit of a people-pleaser, to take on this character and keep dipping in and out of them. You know, like, then you become critical of them or you - that's, you know, not the way to go deeply with a character. I mean, what you want to do is - or what we try to do is set up a situation where it was too cheap and easy to just call somebody, you know, unpleasant or horrible. He's good, she's bad, you know, or whatever. Well, what I'm really interested in is the complexity of humanity. Like, what's inside a person and, you know, making you ask questions as to, you know, what happened? Why is this happening like that? Why is he this way?

And, you know, with Benedict - I mean, actually, what I did say - it was at the beginning of the shoot. OK, everybody, this is Benedict Cumberbatch. He's playing Phil, and you'll meet Ben at the end, you know (laughter)?

SIMON: Halfway through the film, you begin to ask yourself, is Phil putting on this show of what we would now call toxic masculinity because he is fighting something he's realized about himself?

CAMPION: Yeah. I mean, I think he's - that's true. I think it's a bit of both. And when we start to know that he is - actually admires the, you know, the life and way of men and despises any show of weakness or femininity or lies or pretense. But we begin to understand there might be a deeper reason for it.

SIMON: Yeah.

CAMPION: That the secrets that Phil have had - have to be kept. You know, it makes his life kind of marginal. And I think what was nice in the story was that Thomas Savage takes him to this place, which we call the secret place, where - it's down by the river and where he swims. And when he's there, you can suddenly see, oh, this is the relaxed man. You know, like...

SIMON: Yeah.

CAMPION: ...He's like an animal that's just calm and at ease.

SIMON: And tell me about Peter, because he certainly surprises too, doesn't he?

CAMPION: (Laughter) Well, Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Peter. And to be honest, I think he is more interesting than the Peter as written in the book - deep, adult, thoughtful in the same way that I think Peter is. I think the part was a real gift for Kodi and also for Thomas Savage's character, Peter. He's probably the most confident of all the men (laughter)...

SIMON: Yeah.

CAMPION: ...In the film. And even though his behavior can seem - it's - I think they call it, in the old-fashioned way, camp, he is strong. And I think a lot of people who are outsiders, who have been bullied at school, et cetera, they can get a very deep inner strength because they don't depend on other people's good opinion. They sort of build a world of their own. And, you know, in some ways, it's a kind of Peter and Goliath story, you know? Sorry.

SIMON: Oh, wait.

CAMPION: David and Goliath. David and Goliath story (laughter).

SIMON: But I got what you meant when you say Peter and Goliath too, though, yes.

CAMPION: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: Absolutely, without giving anything away. Yeah, absolutely.


SIMON: What interests you about a project? I'm going to guess you've got something the size of a sequoia in terms of people trying to interest you in projects piled up to the ceiling. What makes you say, let's take a look at this?

CAMPION: I never know. I never can guess. And it's something that - it feels like a part of me I don't really control decides. It's almost like my dream world. The psyche decides it. And it's like, if I can't stop thinking about it, if it keeps feeling true and interesting and I'm still curious about it.

After, like, for example, reading this book, I was haunted by it. I kept thinking about the themes of the book and the characters and just feeling the truth of it in a way. Like, it was something you could really lean on. And that's a really, you know, great feeling. And it's a sort of level of excitement and that the excitement comes from a deep enough place that it's not going to, like, fizzle out in, you know, six months.

SIMON: Do you hope people walk out of "The Power Of The Dog" shaking their heads going, wow, I never saw that coming?

CAMPION: I know they do (laughter) because they told me. No, I know that people enjoyed the fact that it had surprises from right to the end. But I don't try and calculate exactly what they're going to do. I guess in this case, I got a thrill from the way the narrative was controlled from the novel. But more, I guess, I'm hoping that they will have the same sort of recall experience feeling that I did about thinking about, you know, the characters and their lives and what people are to each other and the impacts of having to have secrets and love.

SIMON: Yeah. Jane Campion has directed "The Power Of The Dog," in theaters now. Then streaming after it qualifies for Oscars. Thank you so much for being with us.

CAMPION: Thank you, Scott. Nice to chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "PRELUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.