Editors note: Deadline’s Read the Screenplay series debuts and celebrates the scripts of films that will be factors in this year’s movie awards race.
Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog had been percolating for some time in the back of the brain of filmmaker Jane Campion, previously an Academy Award winner for writing the screenplay for The Piano. Eventually, she felt compelled to adapt it for the screen.
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“It intrigued me for many reasons: I couldn’t guess what was going to happen, it was incredibly detailed, and I felt that the person writing the story had lived this experience,” says Campion. “It’s not just a cowboy story from 1925 of ranch life. This is a lived experience, and I think because of that I felt a real trust for the story. I loved how deeply it explores masculinity and that it’s also about a hidden love.”
At the center of The Power of the Dog is Montana rancher Phil Burbank (played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch), a charismatic but unflinchingly cruel figure that dominates his ranch hands. When his gentler brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries, Phil levels his brutal, bullying sights on George’s wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But Phil’s toxic barrage disguises an agonizing inner struggle, which once exposed, could be his undoing.
“He’s so complicated and cruel but, as mean and unkind as he often is, he’s also the tormented lonely lover safe only by treasuring feelings from a long gone past,” says Campion. “He is in an impossible situation of being an alpha male who is homophobic and also homosexual. It’s incredibly painful and complicated. I found Phil moving and I found the mysterious relationship between him and the boy exciting and satisfying.”
“I saw the potential of this as material for Jane,” says producer Tanya Seghatchian, a frequent Campion collaborator. “It’s a rich psychodrama with extraordinary roles for the central characters, has an incredibly cinematic landscape, and a chilling and surprising ending that really works.”
“Our approach to the adaptation was to boldly fillet the book to make it tighter and more propelling for film, whilst honoring Thomas Savage’s vision, of course,” says Seghatchian. “Jane has an instinct for finding hidden notes and knowing how to intensify sensuality. One of her real gifts is making invisible emotions visible. We pinpointed themes and emotional gaps to explore more deeply and Jane crafted scenes only partially described in the book in a visual language. Jane is a master at highlighting desire and making it come alive cinematically.”
In an attempt to capture as much of the flavor and spirit of Savage’s work, the New Zealand-based Campion made a foray to Montana to gain a deeper perspective on the region. While there, she visited the Savage family ranch and soaked in as many details about the author’s life and lore from his descendants, further informing her take on the source material.
She also consulted with novelist Annie Proulx, who authored the short story Brokeback Mountain and penned an afterword to a 2001 edition of Savage’s book, discussing the iconography of the American West and Savage’s intensely masculine tale from the perspective of a female writer.
“I really do honor other people’s work, and I wanted to honor Thomas Savage with this film,” says Campion. “When I read a book like this, I don’t take the adaptation lightly. I want it to be as good as it can be. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, but I do like to do things really thoroughly!”
Click below to read the script for the pic from Netflix, which released Dog in theaters around Thanksgiving and launched it on the streaming site December 1. It has been one of the buzziest titles on this season’s awards circuit since its Venice Film Festival debut, where Campion won the Best Director award. It was named one of the films of the year by AFI among a slew of critics group honors, and took the Golden Globes’ Best Picture – Drama award. It has 10 Critics Choice nominations to go along with numerous acting noms for Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee, and directing and writing honors for Campion (though notably the screenplay is not eligible for the WGA Award).
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