Writer-director Jane Campion and star Benedict Cumberbatch said Paul Newman was one of the previous stars who tried to adapt Power of the Dog before them, relating the history of their new film based on Thomas Savage’s book during Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles panel Sunday at the DGA Theater.
“The book had been optioned five times before,” Campion said. “Paul Newman apparently optioned it at one point.”
Cumberbatch stars as wealthy Montana rancher Phil Burbank. He runs a ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), whose decision to marry Rose (Dunst) and raise her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) causes turmoil between the brothers as Phil torments the mother and son.
“Hey, if it’s good enough for Paul Newman, who am I to shy away from the opportunity?” Cumberbatch said on the panel that included Dunst and Smit-McPhee. “Every time I hear that I go, ‘Damn, I wish I’d seen that film.’”
Campion admitted she did worry about “the voodoo on this story” with its five previous attempts. However, the complications within Phil were too juicy for her to resist.
“It’s such a complicated, interesting and personal story; I felt I’m reading somebody’s life here,” Campion said. “Sure enough, in afterward by Annie Proulx, she pointed out so many parts of the story mirrored Thomas Savage’s life.”
Cumberbatch did go to Montana to learn Phil’s ranching skills. The actor said he needed that aspect to be accurate, but was drawn to the turmoil within Phil.
“Just looking at the raw material, you have the ingredients of being able to carry a deep secret and also reveal a deep secret,” Cumberbatch said. “That’s quite rare to be able to do both. Everything about him, how he brings the outdoors in, how he has such command over the world that he’s in, everything in this movie is a ticking bomb to him losing that and revealing himself.”
Dunst plays George’s fiancée, Rose. Rose moves in with Phil and George, thus bearing the brunt of Phil’s rage.
“Rose is someone who doesn’t speak up for herself,” Dunst said. “She’s trying to be polite and keep the peace but in doing so she’s swallowing everything and turning to alcohol just to be able to exist in the house.”
Campion lightened the mood with a double entendre after Dunst’s comment.
“That’s never really worked, has it, swallowing it, for the ladies,” Campion said.
Smit-McPhee plays Rose’s son, Peter. In a clip shown, Phil mocks Peter for making paper flowers and carrying a rag over his arm like a proper waiter or butler.
“His complexity is extremely internalized,” Smit-McPhee said. “I saw as a great challenge.”
The Power of the Dog opens in limited release November 17 and premieres on Netflix on December 1.
Check out the panel video above.
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