Editor Peter Sciberras says that when he first read the script for The Power of the Dog, he was immediately compelled by characters and relationships that he found to be “so well drawn” and “interesting.”
“It’s these secret relationships that are happening all around, with this great amount of psychological tension and threat of violence and danger,” he explains in the latest edition of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “It was just one of those scripts where I was totally in there, and totally fascinated by the humanity of it.”
Netflix’s Western drama from Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion is based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. It centers on Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a charismatic rancher in 1925 Montana that inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Sciberras was first exposed to Campion’s 1993 classic The Piano in his late teens or early 20s, and vividly recalls the film “blowing [his] mind,” coming to her latest project as a “big fan” of her work. He connected with her for an interview by way of her friend David Michôd, the renowned Australian director with whom he’d collaborated on acclaimed films including The Rover, War Machine and The King.
“When we first met…I think we sat down for about three hours,” recalls Sciberras. “Jane’s quite a towering figure in cinema all over the world for sure, but in Australia and New Zealand, she’s like an extra few feet tall again. So, those meetings are always a little daunting.”
Still, he says, the filmmaker was “lovely” to speak with, and they chatted early on about Savage’s book, as well as a lookbook she’d assembled for her adaptation. “The main thing that came out of that meeting, other than just trying to get a feeling of, ‘Will we be able to sit in a room together for eight, nine months?’, was talking about the tension in the script and really trying to build a momentum with an elegance, and how we’d go about that,” says the editor,” and her approach to shooting it, and the formal nature, but with this ratcheting of tension that hopefully…just builds and builds, until the barn scene at the very end.”
From Sciberras’ perspective, there was no shortage of memorable scenes to work on in The Power of the Dog. “The banjo-piano duel [between Phil and Rose] was an absolute joy to work on. All the barn scenes were really fun to cut,” he says. “I love cutting weird dialogue scenes, and this film’s got some great ones.”
As is the case on many films, one of the most challenging areas of Campion’s to nail down was the first act, which needed to set the right tone and be “all about efficiency.” Here, scenes would be compressed, refined through ADR or cut altogether, such that all necessary information could come across in as little time as possible. And while a scene involving bull castration was initially intended to be part of the film’s opening, that would need to be pushed till later on, as it set the film off tonally “in a really sharp direction and created a platform that we then had to get off.”
The culmination of the first act was a “big set piece” setting the stage for Phil’s dynamics with Rose and Peter which saw cowboys arrive for dinner at the Red Mill. “All the characters come together and that felt like, ‘We just need to get there as smoothly and seamlessly as possible, and without wasting precious time,’ which is always the first 10 minutes of a film. So, there was a lot of shaping,” says Sciberras. “It was probably one of the sequences in the film we spent the most time to get it right. We kept revisiting that one right till the very end.”
Sciberras was recently stunned to learn he’d landed his first Oscar nomination for his work on The Power of the Dog, along with ACE Eddie and Critics’ Choice Award nominations and other accolades. “It’s surreal. I’m still in Melbourne cutting another film right now, so apart from a bunch of lovely emails and text messages and calls from people, it really hasn’t sunk in, in a real way,” the editor admits. “I think I’m coming to L.A. in a few weeks, and I think that’s when it’ll really be, ‘Okay, this is actually happening.’ But it’s insane. It kind of feels like an unobtainable thing, especially all the way from little, old Melbourne.”
While Sciberras “absolutely loved movies” growing up, his study of film growing up was informal. “I grew up in a kind of area where being creative was not really fostered or encouraged,” he shares, “so I’ve actually got a marketing degree, believe it or not, that I’ve never used, and then I was studying illustration.”
Though Sciberras initially considered working in the art department, given his penchant for illustration, and got some experience on set early on, he quickly came to the realization that life there was “too chaotic” for his liking. He realized editing was a craft he’d like to try his hand at while rifling through behind-the-scenes DVDs, first getting a chance to do so on the music videos of his friend and housemate. “I always loved drawing as a kid, so I kind of feel that there’s that same kind of focus, that you can really get into that mind frame and that level of concentration on one thing,” Sciberras says of editing. “It’s so fun because kind of the second you start doing it, you’re making the film, rather than collecting the material. So, that’s essentially why I like it so much.”
Once Sciberras decided to give editing a go, he never looked back, learning to cut films all on his own, which resulted in a sense of freedom and fluidity in his creative process. “I quit all my jobs and just started interning,” he says, “and really focused a hundred percent on just that for the last 15 years.” While there is a major film industry in his native Australia, he found it was easier to get his foot in the door in the world of commercials, finding a mentor there in editor Jack Hutchings. Cutting commercials for the company The Butchery led him to meet “some really great directors,” which in turn led to work on short films, and eventually to Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s low-budget indie feature, Hail.
“It was so low budget that you had to work for free, essentially, which really narrowed the field and allowed me to get a credit. It’s a film I’m really proud of, and that was kind of my university, in a sense,” says Sciberras. “It was so crazy and so ambitious, and it did really well. It was the first Australian film in Venice, I think for 10 years at that stage, and it did really well on the film festival circuit in Australia.”
Sciberras connected with David Michôd via Hail producer Michael Cody, and it was at this point that he reached another level in his career, cutting bigger-budget films featuring a wide variety of well-known actors. While his first outing with Michôd on Cannes title The Rover, starring Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson and Scoot McNairy, felt “pretty daunting” and like a “big deal” for his career, he has also found that ascending in the ranks as an editor has been a bit of a “slow burn.”
“It doesn’t happen overnight in the same way maybe it does in other crafts and areas of film,” he reflects. “I feel like it’s a kind of slow, gradual building of a career, of a body of work that then illustrates maybe what you’re capable of.”
Up next for Sciberras is Garth Davis’ sci-fi thriller Foe, starring Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal and Aaron Pierre, for Amazon Studios. While the editor has mostly cut “medium-sized films” to this point, his goal is to one day do “something huge,” and to be able to work with such directors as Bennett Miller Andrew Dominik and Paul Thomas Anderson.
At this stage in his career, he appears more invigorated than ever by the prospect of engaging with the filmmaking process, and with film as a medium. “A big part of the job for me is collaborating with directors that essentially become great friends. They’re just smart people with good ideas, and it’s good company to keep, and I just have so much fun in the process of working with a director and really getting into a film, and really going deep into another story and world,” says Sciberras. “It’s just the thing I do. It’s the thing I really like to do, so I guess I’ve never felt like I needed to keep passionate about it. I’ve just been passionate about it from the start.”
The Power of the Dog made its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, with Campion winning the Silver Lion for Best Director. The film hit U.S. theaters in limited release on November 17 and debuted globally on Netflix on December 1. The decorated drama will also contend at this year’s Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Cumberbatch), Supporting Actor (Smit-McPhee, Plemons), Supporting Actress (Dunst), Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography, Original Score and Sound.
Check out our entire conversation with Sciberras above.
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