This Oscar-Nominated Cinematographer’s Secret Weapon? Nonviolent Communication.
On film sets, tempers can run high. The Power of the Dog’s Ari Wegner helps keep them in check.
It’s kismet that Ari Wegner, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer for The Power of the Dog, would earn her first Academy Award nomination for a Jane Campion movie. It was Campion, after all, who inspired her career path: Seeing the director’s short films as a teenager “cracked open something for me, in terms of the possibilities of actually doing this as my own art form,” the 37-year-old tells Bustle.
Before that, Wegner had largely been raised on Disney movies and “crappy Australian kids’ television.” Though her parents were both infatuated with the arts — her father was a painter and sculptor, and her mother was also creative — “the one thing we didn't have in our world was cinema,” she says. Eventually, Wegner discovered indie darlings like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola on her own. But if Lost in Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums seemed like untouchable Hollywood productions, Campion’s small-scale, Australian-accented films bridged the gap between Wegner’s world and theirs. Maybe, she thought, movie-making was within her grasp. Even if becoming a cinematographer still seemed like a “crazy made-up dream” she likened to “being an astronaut or being in the circus.”
Wegner enrolled in film school at Australia’s Victorian College of Visual Arts because she simply couldn’t imagine pursuing anything else. Since then, she’s gone on to shoot an eclectic, visually distinctive mix of films including last year’s frenetic Zola and the period films The True History of the Kelly Gang and Lady Macbeth. With The Power of the Dog, she’s become the second-ever woman to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars. It’s safe to say she made her crazy dream come true.
Below, Wegner discusses her approach to on-set collaboration, working with stressed out directors, and sexism in the film industry.
You’ve spoken about how important it is to have the freedom to feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know, or I haven’t figured out yet” on set. Could you speak more to that?
It’s so liberating and empowering to see someone that you know is an incredible filmmaker and who you hold in such high regard say, “I don’t know” or “I was wrong.” “I’m tired” or “I’m sorry.” And when you surround yourself with great people that you trust, you can trust that between you, you’ll find a solution.
And there’s something really invigorating and something gets unlocked in people when you ask their opinion. You can be a strong leader and still ask someone, “What do you think, what do you think the best solution is?” Because chances are when you’re working with people that are really great at what they do, there’s a fair chance that they have something to say, but because of the hierarchy involved in a workplace, until they feel empowered to say it or feel the permission to say it, they might just assume that you know exactly what you’re talking about.
It sounds like The Power of the Dog was a great work experience for you. But have you had relationships with directors that didn’t go as well, and if so, how did you manage that?
Some directors are making a film every year, some directors might be making a film every decade or a few every decades. Maybe I’ve come onto this project a few months or a year before, but this could be a project that’s been in their life for years. In those kinds of situations, it’s very understandable that people can be not their normal self or not their best self. In many ways, something has to click in for a director to be a bit selfish in some ways, because they’ve got to protect their vision and their film. I can really understand why a director would find themselves in a situation where they wouldn’t usually interact with people in that way in their normal day-to-day life. You’re seeing a person in a state of fear, in a state of panic, in a state of not thinking clearly. I think it comes really down to communication and understanding. “What’s this person trying to express in what they’re saying and how can I help the greater situation?”
I discovered over the pandemic shutdown, because I was going down some deep internet rabbit holes, as you do, this thing called nonviolent communication. It’s a very simple structured way of communicating in a way that really honestly expresses your needs and forces you to really think about yourself and your part in it all. When you see someone communicating violently, you can find a way to speak to them in a way that really allows them to be heard and start finding tangible, actionable solutions. I think often it’s not even the content of what someone’s saying that’s difficult. It’s the delivery that can put you, yourself, in a state of panic or defensiveness and you stop listening. That’s not to say I’m perfect. Now knowing the nonviolent communication I can catch myself better.
Psychology is really fascinating to me. Even what changes in the body when you’re moving into a state of fight or flight or shutdown, I can see that often on set with directors. Everyone has a different reaction to perceived danger. I think the more I understand that psychology, the more empathetic I am towards everyone’s situation.
You’re the second woman to get nominated for an Oscar in cinematography, which I imagine is a very strange thing — on the one hand, obviously it’s very exciting, and on the other hand, that’s a horrifying statistic. How do you feel about it? Have you observed changes in the industry over the years?
It’s a really hard thing to tangibly pull apart. To be honest, I think I experience and see more sexism in my day-to-day, non-work life than I would on a film set. Maybe it’s because I’m really particular about the kind of people I employ, and hopefully the people I choose to work with also share those same values with me. In my personal experience — and I know it’s very depressing to say — I think I’m lucky. That’s its own kind of tragic statement. I feel like I’ve been very lucky in that I haven’t felt direct or experienced direct sexism in my film work. That said, there’s also this invisible bias. I don’t know the films that I didn’t get called for, because no one thought of me, or their ideas of who could shoot the film happened to be men.
I’ve noticed that successful creative people often have a specific kind of confidence. It’s obviously not the only thing that you need, but you do have to have this attitude, like, “Well, yeah. I’m just going to do it and it’s going to be fine.” Because if you don’t have that, then you’re definitely not going to get anywhere.
Yeah. When you find your passion, it really feels like there’s no other thing that you would consider doing. It’s really hard to decide to change what you like and don’t like. Being like, “I really dislike tomatoes and I'm going to decide to like them.” It’s a very internal thing. Also, the idea of working in the film industry or being a cinematographer, it already feels like a crazy enough kind of dream. Like being an astronaut or being in the circus or something. You’re taking such a punt against the odds anyway. It never occurred to me that I would have any less chance than anyone else of doing it, because why wouldn’t it be me?
What's the best advice you ever received?
I always stumble on that question. After film school. I actually did a film with my fellow nominee [for Dune], Greig Fraser. He was shooting a film in Australia and he wanted someone to kind of do a very discreet second unit. I remember him once trying to explain to me this kind of particular shot that he was imagining and then halfway through explaining, he stopped himself and kind of said like, "I don't need to tell you how to do it, you've got great instincts. Trust your gut."
That really stuck with me, I think, as someone who was probably in my early 20s. To have someone who was already very established, whose work I love, to say, "You know what you're doing. You've got good instincts." No matter where you are in your career or how much technical knowledge you have, your instincts and your taste are kind of in you already — whether or not you yet have the skills to kind of pull them off. There's something really grounding about knowing, trusting in that, if you follow your instincts, you're not going to make a mistake.
And the worst advice?
I wouldn't call it advice, but I definitely learned at film school the right way to do something. When you're young and don't know any better and someone who's a university lecturer tells you, “This is how it's done, and if you want to graduate and get employed, then you have to know how to do this in this way,” I think I was already skeptical of that. I guess any rule that anyone is kind of a fundamentalist about is terrible advice. There's always exceptions. And the most exciting work I think comes from when a rule gets broken.
This interview has been edited and condensed.