Production designer Grant Major returned to working with Jane Campion on The Power of the Dog after first working with her over thirty years ago. In The Power of the Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as two brothers who own a cattle ranch in 1920s-era Montana. The early 20th century atmosphere required Grant and team to recreate period-specific buildings in an austere landscape. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, he digs into many aspects of the buildings used in The Power of the Dog and how each reflects the characters. He also talks about how IMDb can sometimes list you as an animator… even when you aren’t one.
Awards Daily: What was it like working with Jane Campion again? Was it different from when you worked with her on An Angel at My Table?
Grant Major: She was fantastic to work with 30 years ago; back then she hadn’t been too long out of film school. I think she had done one film prior to that, Sweetie. Many of the traits that she has now are even better than they were back then. Really smart, articulate, very good eye for knowing what she wants– particularly perfect for performances and things like that. This time around we are both a little older and wiser. She is a great collaborator and very sensitive to the needs of other creative people. I’m very interested in creating a creative partnership with the team around her. She tries to get a very collegial family-like atmosphere with a bunch of creative types all going in the same direction, which works particularly well for The Power of the Dog.
AD: Did the book that the film is based on give you any ideas for the structures you created for the film?
Grant Major: The book has a more expansive time period. So when we start our film we arrive at a situation that has already been set up in the book. We know the history of the Burbank Ranch and the house, we know the history of Peter and Rose coming to Beech–that her husband was a doctor and an alcoholic who had a falling out with Saul Burbank who was, by chance, in Beech. So there is an understated sense of history there between the Burbanks and Rose’s family. This also permeates into the design of the set a lot. The place we find ourselves is in 1925, but the Burbank ranch had its start in the 1880s when the parents first came out from the East trying to set themselves up as the social center of the Montana farming and ranching community. The parents also had a falling out with their sons during the time of “Bronco” Henry. So a lot of the story was to tell my way, through production design.
AD: When I was watching the film something that appeared to me was the manor house on the ranch, which isn’t creepy in any way. The tension is from the people in the house. Was that on purpose?
Grant Major: That’s a very interesting question actually because the house is a riddle with a lot of themes. It is not a haunted house. It began like I said before, with a lot of aspirational expressions of wealth. The Burbanks are the wealthiest ranchers in the whole of Montana, they have got scale to the house, it’s got a classic look to it that would have been respected on the East Coast so it’s very fashionable for the 1880s. Then to me it has a lot of connection with Phil, who is trained in the classics, he’s been to University, graduated with honors, has got this wonderful depth to his classic training, but he has also assumed the trappings of being a dirty ranch hand kind of guy. So the house is almost ignored. They live in it without any pretense of being in a huge expensive house. The parents have moved out, taking some of the furniture with them, so the place is big and echoey and Phil just stomps around in there with his riding boots. Phil ignores this grand house that they are in and George doesn’t have much effect on the house. He is bullied and sidelined by Phil, the alpha male who keeps it as he wants–casual. They live there, but they are not designers or architects, they are ranchers. So a lot of the detail comes from that.
AD: Speaking of the detail, Rose’s room has a subtle pink to it compared to the rest of the house. I was wondering if that was done on purpose to show her femininity?
Grant Major: Yes, it was on purpose. The room that Rose occupies we discovered just as Rose arrives at the house. We haven’t seen it before and it’s a very big house (there are probably rooms we never see). This room would have been made as a sanctuary for the parents who have moved out, but our guess is it’s the room they would have occupied when they would come down from their apartment in Salt Lake City. So this room is a little time piece in a way. It would have been made for the old lady as sanctuary for her on this ranch where the rest of the house is very masculine. The room itself is more heightened, the rose-colored wallpaper is loud and kind of unsettling, likewise the furniture in there is very heavy. Even though she holes up in that one room she’s really in despair. She’s a very brittle creature because she is trapped in that room and she can’t go anywhere, so the room has this overbearing Burbank ranch to it. It was all intentional.
AD: You have done large epic movies like Lord of the Rings and then smaller films like this one. What is the difference like for you in doing these projects?
Grant Major: Essentially they’re very much the same to me. Big, small, micro, everything takes one hundred percent effort, there’s no half doing any of this. Just because there is more money to spend on the likes of Lord of the Rings there are more expectations just because it consumes more money. There are more jobs to do but the crux of my job as production designer is to bolster and help tell a story through design. So the job description is just the same. I may not have as many tools in my toolbox to use on a small film but the tools I have I use to the nth degree. The scale of Lord of the Rings was that we had three years to make it while The Power of the Dog was done and dusted in about eight months. They’re all just swings and roundabouts that there is no “easier” job on a smaller film, believe me.
AD: We talked a lot about the manor house. Was there something about the other structures, the barn and the restaurant where Rose works, that stood out for you?
Gant Major: They’re both as integral to the storytelling as the manor house. The barn particularly. This is the symbol for Phil Burbank on the ranch; it is his place when he gets emotional. It stands squarely on the landscape as a strong shape against the rest of the mountain range behind, just like Phil Burbank, masculine. Inside it has a lot of the details that are suggestive of the internal character of Phil himself. He is very articulate with his hands and he has these workshops where he makes these furniture pieces, he has the blacksmithing shop, he has stables for the horses. But there is also a shrine to Bronco Henry at its heart with his saddle, it’s a very important piece of dressing there. So when Phil invites Peter into the barn for the first time against the pleadings of Rose, purposely closing the door on Rose, and inviting Peter into his world and showing him how to make a lariat, it is a very potent symbol to me. Likewise the restaurant. It’s a battered-about and empty place that to me is very much a lower strata sociologically than the Burbank’s wealth and grandness. Rose got it already battered, and in a prior life it was probably some other kind of building. In the book it was the same building where her husband had his medical practice, so it is kind of maudlin that they’re still living in the same building where her husband hung himself. Its off-white interior is quite contrasting to the darkness inside the Burbank’s house. All these sorts of things help to tell the story.
AD: I saw on your IMDb page that you were an animator for a movie in 2014 called Dragon Nest: Warriors’ Dawn. How did you get into doing an animated film, and is that something you’d like to do in the future?
Grant Major: That’s an interesting question, the reason being I am not really an animator. On that particular project I visited China for other reasons and I visited a production house where they were making it and I did a tour for an afternoon in the art department, really just talking about being a production designer and the sort of things I’m looking for, and all of a sudden my name appears on the credits. It is not really IMDb’s fault; it’s a Chinese production company that leveraged my name. To be fair to everyone, I was not really involved with that project.
AD: Has this Oscar race been different from what you were involved with with Lord of the Rings and King Kong?
Grant Major: It is similar in many ways. The Netflix publicity people Margaret and Chloe are very gung-ho about it, and I salute them for that and setting up all these interviews. There’s a lot more investigation and talk about the production design process for this film. Which is great for me because there is so much in it and it’s an absolute pleasure talking about it, because the design and the movie worked particularly well and we all have good chemistry. I think it’s a fantastic film; I think it’s the best one I’ve ever worked on.
AD: Do you have any new projects coming up?
Grant Major: Yeah, I’m always working. There is nothing I can really talk about, [and just FYI, it’s not terribly important, but I need to stay close to home because I got some health things,] so I’m not going to be able to fly off overseas and do more cowboy movies, at least for now. But I’m always up for a challenge. I’m always up for creative work and very very keen to keep working at this level. Another aside: The Power of the Dog size was very good for me. I like that kind of project because we all relate on a very personal level, whereas the very big things tend to be more on the industrial scale. I just love the dynamic of this particular size film.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
Grant Major: One thing that I have been thinking about a lot, even when I woke up in the middle of the night last night, is to do with stories, and storytelling. We all relate to each other a lot by telling stories, and storytelling is integral to human culture. The ability to tell stories, not just on a verbal level and not just on a written level, but using images to tell stories is very much what production design is about. So I just encourage people, all your readers, to look at The Power of the Dog narratives that the visual side can bring. Locations, the activities of interacting with props, the set design, and the dressing–it’s a very powerful medium to tell stories. I love doing that.
The Power of the Dog exclusively streams on Netflix.