Editor’s note: Deadline’s Read the Script series debuts and celebrates the movie scripts that will be factors in this year’s movie award race.
1967 novel by Thomas Savage The power of the dog had been percolating for some time in the brain of filmmaker Jane Campion, who previously won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for The piano. Eventually, she felt compelled to adapt it for the screen.
“It intrigued me for a lot of reasons: I couldn’t guess what was going to happen, it was incredibly detailed, and I felt the person writing the story had this experience,” Campion says. “It’s not just a 1925 cowboy story about ranch life. It’s a lived experience, and I think that’s why I felt a real confidence for the story. I loved how deeply it explores masculinity and that it’s also about hidden love.
In the center of The power of the dog is Montana rancher Phil Burbank (played in the Benedict Cumberbatch film), a charismatic yet unwaveringly cruel figure who dominates his ranch hands. When his sweet brother George (Jesse Plemons) gets married, Phil turns his brutal and intimidating gazes on George’s wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But Phil’s toxic barrage conceals an agonizing inner struggle that, once revealed, could be his undoing.
“He’s so complicated and cruel but, mean and evil as he often is, he’s also the tormented lonely lover who’s only sure to cherish feelings from a bygone past,” Campion says. “He’s in an impossible situation 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 in 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, an incredibly cinematic landscape, and a chilling, surprising ending that really works.”
“Our approach to the adaptation was to boldly round out the book to make it tighter and more propulsive for the film, while 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 his true gifts is to make invisible emotions visible. We identified themes and emotional gaps to explore more deeply and Jane created scenes partially described in the book in visual language. Jane has mastered the art of showcasing desire and bringing it to life in film.
In an attempt to capture as much of the flavor and spirit of Savage’s work, New Zealand-based Campion made a foray into Montana to gain a deeper perspective on the region. While there, she visited the Savage family ranch and soaked up so many details of the author’s life and the lore of his descendants, educating her more about the source material.
She also consulted the novelist Annie Proulx, author of the short story Brokeback Mountain and wrote an afterword to a 2001 edition of Savage’s book, discussing American West iconography and Savage’s intensely masculine tale from a female writer’s perspective.
“I really honor other people’s work and wanted to honor Thomas Savage with this film,” says Campion. “When I read a book like this, I don’t take adaptation lightly. I want it to be as good as possible. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, but I like to do things really hard!
Click below to read the photo script from Netflix, which posted Dog in theaters around Thanksgiving and launched it on the streaming site on December 1. It’s been one of the hottest titles on this season’s awards circuit since its debut at the Venice Film Festival, where Campion won Best Director. It was named one of the AFI’s Movies of the Year among numerous critics panel honors and won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. It has 10 Critics Choice nominations to go along with numerous acting names for Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee, and directing and writing honors for Campion (though notably the screenplay was ineligible for the WGA award).