There is so much left unsaid or held back in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. It is truly a masterpiece in the exercise of restraint. When costume designer Kirsty Cameron read the script, she immediately sensed that control. “I just got a really great sense of the gravity and all of the story and the depth of it. I got the restraint and the sense of space. All of that is in the script,” Cameron said.
Instead of focusing on certain pieces, I elected to talk with Cameron about her approach to these characters. How they connect and spar is so key to the overall sense of the story, and there is so much that she was able to infuse into the costuming.
For Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil, I immediately felt how dirty his clothes would be. He wears them for weeks on end and almost revels in the smell of them. He feels like a real man when he’s outside, and his boots and clothes are like a second skin on him. When Peter catches Phil bathing in the river, Phil chases after him, because he is literally naked and vulnerable. Cameron noted that Phil was still yearning for that time he spent with Bronco Henry.
“He’s caught in a bit of a time trap, because he’s still loving this romantic time that he spent on the ranch with Bronco Henry. That was a fervent time in his life, and I don’t know if you call it a coming of age. He really rejects the modern and he rejects how the cow hands want to embrace that modernity, in terms of a lot of the accessories and the sort of consumerism that was starting to happen then. He consciously, I think, he has identified with this classic a man of the land. A simple man of the land. The the cow hands would never wear Dungarees like he does. They are from an earlier time and yet he just embodies this wisdom with a sort of ferocity which I love. His boots are not cowboy boots–they are work boots like what someone would have been wearing in like the late 1800s. His have spurs on them, and I love that combination and they also create heavy sound on the stairs that was really important when he’s in the house.
We worked really, really hard to create all of his clothes. His shirts are made out of a decent denim or canvas cotton that we’ve dyed, aged, and grated and sanded and dyed again and rubbed in the mud. His clothes carry a sense of protection as an armor of sorts. Jane [Campion] talked about the dirt being second skin. It was creating a character you can’t really pin down. I think Phil is just truly himself. They broke the mold after they made Phil, you know? He needs to really own everything he wears. Phil wears the furry chaps in winter and then leather chaps in the summer. When you’re dressing people against landscape and, particularly on horses, proportions are really important. It’s important on every film, but with this film we had to get the pants really sitting high enough and to get the extension of the legs and fulfill this shape.”
Kodi Smit-McPhee brings a particular energy to the role of Peter. I was never sure what the character was going to do next, but, like him and his mother, he knows people are looking at him. There are several instances where ranch hands or workers will react to him in a negative way. It happens in his first scene when he is serving in a crowded restaurant, and then it happens on a larger scale when he is walking outside in his pale shirt with seemingly oversized hat.
Peter represents a type of young man who is seen very often in a traditional, American narrative. He’s quiet but not ordinary. He is a gentle presence but not unimpressive.
“Jane and I discussed how he would be wearing his dad’s old pants and maybe his dad’s old shirt. His father has killed himself some years before, and I think that really translates. He has such a particular personality, and he’s probably on the spectrum somewhere. Peter is precise and full of intent whether he’s catching a rabbit to kill it, or whether he’s making paper flowers. He’s one of those people that is freely focused and much stronger inside than the audience is led to believe. There is a minimalism about him. He’s clean and tidy and very organized, and there’s a sense of restraint and common sense. But he’s also of the contemporary world, you know, so he naturally gravitates towards the Santo’s sneakers, and tennis shoes when they are in the shop because they’re kind of contemporary. He replicates them with the jeans and a new cream or beige shirt, and I feel like it’s the same with his choice of the hat. There’s a particular-ness about it and the way he dresses. He’s precise enough not to get dirty. When he finds the calf, he pulls on the surgeons gloves, which are probably some old gloves of his father’s to cut the calf open. His clothing sort of represents his approach to everything.”
Kirsten Dunst’s Rose brings the most color to Campion’s film. She is often one of the only women on screen, but her life changes dramatically throughout the film. When she is running her kitchen, Rose will wear pants and her top has some feminine, lacy accents. When she marries, George, however, she is quite literally unaware of what to do with all that money. She buys dresses because they are expensive and she is not expected to work. In a way, she is one of the story’s loneliest characters. Unlike Phil, she doesn’t keep people at a distance, but she feels like those close to her and being pulled away.
“Rose has the most beats to her. In the book, he talks about once she has this expense account and she is living on the ranch, she is out of kilter and unsure of how to be that person. Phil just wants to get rid of her and when George is away, she starts to order and buy all of these dresses and accessories. It’s not an armor, but it’s a front for her desperation and her unhappiness. When we are seeing her driving with the car with Peter and seeing her coming back is a symbol of the great upgrade in shopping that she does. The rodeo shirt when they are at the haymaking cam–the satin shirt–was one that we dyed and made with the jodhpurs and the boots. That is her idea of being Mrs. Burbank on the ranch, and she’s clutching at straws, in a sense. What’s very interesting is that she is very much at sea in that scene. Not only is she tipsy, but she’s unsure of how she is presenting and Peter just owns it. Peter owns wearing those jeans and that hat. Rose brings color into the story when the rest of the film is reasonably subdued. We did talk, pre-shoot, about having a reduced palette in every scene. We would only have five colors in every scenario. I was very aware of making that work. There is a scene when Rose is gardening when she has on that pale yellow and beige, chiffon dress. That works with the hills. The pink is the only color in the haymaking camp amongst the beiges and browns of the men and the paleness of Peter. At first, she’s optimistic of playing piano and that quickly shatters until she spends time in the pink room in her negligee and her silk robes. I was very aware with Rose of being inside and outside. The dimness of the house and the brightness of outside. She would be in the pink room and then running around outside, and I would always be taking that into consideration. The red cardigan goes inside and outside. The negligee does too.”
One of Rose’s most striking outfits is the yellow dress she puts on at an important dinner. She fails to impress the guests, and there is a shot of Dunst in the foreground while the others chatter away in the background. She looks like a candle burning out.
“We made a lot of dresses for that scenario. We shot all the exteriors first and that particular scene we shot after we got back to the sets. That was a dress that I actually found in a cupboard and the set dresser had found as dressing. It spoke to me with how simple it was. She feels overdressed but at the same time wrongly dressed. It’s not ostentatious. It just feels a bit wrong and unsophisticated.”
One of the items that Cameron made was the scarf that Phil covets. The item had to feel forbidden and almost perverse to look upon.
“We made it. We see Bronco Henry’s initials on it, and we tried out different fonts and things. We made the scarf out of a silk satin and dyed it and aged it to give it the intimacy of Bronco Henry who wears it down his pants. This is something that no one else really sees. It’s very much kept secret.”
I asked what Cameron would take for herself if she could put something in her own closet. I know many people, myself included, are clamoring or Peter’s white hat, but Cameron would take something else.
“I would take Phil’s shirts. I just love them so much. I work wear with the buttons and the canvas print. Maybe Bronco Henry’s scarf too. I gravitate towards a lot of the pieces that we broke down and dyed. We dyed almost everything in the film but some of those work shirts have a real sense of time and energy to them.”
The Power of the Dog is available on Netflix.