Location scouting for a period film can be difficult, since you can’t always use the original location due to modern elements. Luckily production designer Grant Major was able to transform a small plot of New Zealand into 1925 Montana for The Power of the Dog.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as wealthy Montana rancher Phil Burbank in Jane Champion’s adaptation of the Thomas Savage novel The Power of the Dog. Phil runs a ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), whose decision to marry Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and raise her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) causes turmoil between the brothers as Phil torments the mother and son.
The ranch was the main setting for the film, and which was built from scratch by Major and his team. Since they built on an empty plot of land, they also needed to build access roads and kill the grass to give it a barren landscape.
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DEADLINE: Where did you draw inspiration for the ranch?
GRANT MAJOR: The movie of course is based on the book and the book itself has a longer time span than the film. So, being true to the source material of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog, I hunted through there for clues as to what the genesis of the house would be. Now the parents, the Burbank parents, they were a fairly well to do family that lived on the Eastern seaboard of America and quite cultured and got this idea that they would go out into the great wilderness of Montana and set up a cattle ranch. And so, they brought their east coast sensibilities and fashion sense. And they bought this style of house, which I would characterize as being fairly early craftsman style house, which is not uncommon in Chicago or sort of upstate New York, and brought it out into the prairies of Montana, which to me was a little bit of an uncomfortable sort of setting place for a craftsman style house, in this wild wind and weather-beaten place.
Now that we’re 40 years later after the house is being built, the house is looking fairly stark on the landscape, because it’s not a very easy place to plant gardens and trees and things like that or have vegetable gardens and what have you. I had a look at the Sagamore Hill house, which is Theodore Roosevelt’s house as a period of house and as a character style that suited the film.
We also needed to put down an organic desiccant which is sort of a grass killer, but it doesn’t kill the roots, just all the blades of the grass to make it look a lot browner and drier because the actual ranch was a sheep and cattle farm mix. So, you have to imagine that grass being green immediately before shot, because the farmer wanted that farm to be able to be working right up to when we filmed and we wanted it back again as soon as we finished. So we had to put this temporary desiccant onto the grass to make it appear dry and brown
DEADLINE: And what was the process of location scouting? Like how do you like what were you looking for in a location in New Zealand that made it feel like Montana?
MAJOR: Tanya Seghatchian, one of the producers and Jane [Campion] did go to Montana in the interest of shooting there, but they found that there was a lot of modern additions to the landscape, like agricultural ditches and farm machinery and the houses and things were not the same anymore, so they had to look elsewhere. And I think because it’s a New Zealand and Australian co-production, they did end up in New Zealand to make it. New Zealand is, you know, we’ve all seen it in Lord of the Rings, but we’ve also seen it as China, which I did in Mulan, and I’ve shot it as all different parts of the world.
So, actually, it can feel like a lot of different places and it could equally feel like Montana, if anything. It’s a very picturesque country, you put a camera anywhere and it’s very pretty to look at. So, it was about finding a location that had a workman-like presence to us. Rather than being pretty it also had to have a sense of place, you know, a feeling that even though it was barren it felt like the house’s nature to belong there. So, we chose this farm called Home Hills, which is in the south island, and it it’s dominated by a rolling, grassy mountain scape that appears behind the house. So, it was a terrific choice of location really because It didn’t have anything there. We had to build pretty much everything, including access roads. It was a perfect choice because it sort of had a sort of barrenness, but also this sense place.
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