The Power of The Dog: An Interview with Kirsty Cameron

The Power of The Dog: An Interview with Kirsty Cameron

Elizabeth: Hello Kirsty, The Power of The Dog was such a beautiful film, thanks to the beautiful wardrobe you created. Before we jump into the film, how did you get started in costume design?

Kirsty: In the nineties after art school, while making video installation work and being involved with an artist-run gallery called ‘Teststrip’, I also started styling for ‘Planet’ magazine (a seminal style and cultural publication), plus I was working with some stills photographers and then thrown in the deep end, I costume designed a series of films for NZ TV being directed by Niki Caro (Mulan), Jessica Hobbs (The Crown) and Fiona Samuel, a great writer from NZ. I realized that costume designing made perfect sense of my lifelong love of clothing and style, storytelling, psychology, and observation of people. Niki Caro’s first feature, ‘Memory and Desire,’ was also my first as a costume designer. Niki is very strong but trusting as a director, and she encouraged me, as Jane also does, to bring my own sensibility and trust my own instinct. 

Elizabeth: When researching the film, what inspiration did you take from Thomas Savage’s original novel?

Kirsty: There is much mention of clothing in the book and the script. The characters felt very visible to me. I did a kind of pitch for Jane as we hadn’t worked together before, based upon my reading of the script and book. This is from that document. 

“There are many wonderful opportunities for clothing to play a part in communicating and supporting the deeper meanings of the film. And there’s much mention of clothing in the script and the book. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK, JESSE PLEMONS as GEORGE BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Clothing as a construction of self is relevant to Phil, Rose, and Peter. There’s Phil’s everyday-man working outfit that hides his inner self-hatred or Rose’s dinner dress ups, or Peter’s donning of the cowboy outfit as part of his tricking Phil into trusting him, and there’s Phil’s mockery of his workers ‘cowboy’ purchases as trying to be something they’re not.”

Elizabeth: While the story took place in 1925, its location of a Montana ranch filled with nothing but cowboys makes the film seem like it’s set much earlier. How did you balance the usually glitzy world of the ’20s with the wildlife on the ranch? 

Kirsty: The 1920s was a fervent time of change, but I firmly believe the glitzy world of the 1920s was only one experience of this time and not a reality for many. Perhaps I’m actually more interested in workwear than glitz – its timelessness, its details and textures, and also the innate style of these men working on the ranches, their collars done right up, their high-waisted trousers worn with chaps. I’m also passionate about breakdown, and we worked hard to create the feeling these men really worked on the land, making a huge percentage of their clothing and dying it to get the palette of earthy muted colors. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R):BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK, GEORGE MASON as CRICKET in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Jane thought of the cowboys as the chorus, Phil’s gaggle in a sense, the cowboy version of the woman in the beaded bikini, and we see Jane’s sense of humor in the scenes of the boys bathing in the river. Phil is dismissive of the cowboy culture, thinking it phony, and isn’t interested in the fancy shirts and inlay boots they buy from the Sears and Roe catalogs. We shot the postman delivering these parcels, but in the film, we just see a couple of the boy’s ornate shirts that they wear to dinner in town, along with some striped knits we had observed the rodeo riders wearing in the 1920s. 

Elizabeth: One character firmly set in the past is Phil. How did his nostalgia and grief over what he lost inform his wardrobe?

Kirsty: Phil has kind of got stuck in time by his internalized grief and his anger at the world, which denies him his truth. He is a non-conformist who identifies more with the old-timers who line up to do the haymaking than with George or the Governor, hence the overalls, the plain workboots, the tattered hat. Phil has created a uniform of utility, pieces he’s held onto for a long time, and the challenge was to make them feel like they are a second skin of sorts. We made all of his shirts, actually all his clothes out of heavy canvas cottons and selvedge denim, and actually the first thing we started doing in the workroom was dying Phil’s fabrics to get the palette right, and so to allow us to start breaking them down to create a patina and wear. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG: JESSE PLEMONS as GEORGE BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Elizabeth: The differences between Phil and George are apparent, especially in their wardrobe. How did you choose George’s stylish wardrobe while still needing it to fit into the ranch life he shares with Phil? 

Kirsty: George and Phil are chalk and cheese, and it’s scripted that George wears a suit. He is a conventional man who identifies with the times, and with his wealthy parents, who initially moved from the East to the ranch, and then had moved to Salt Lake. I don’t think he’s a pretentious man, but his fur coat is associated with status, he wears a watch, and he drives the car. He engages with the world. Jesse is from Texas and grew up riding, so it was perfect to dress him in a suit as he could make it feel natural on the horse. I looked at photos of ranch owners and found some inspiring images of these men in suits and western hats – such a great look. I love how in an interview, Jesse said he had no intention to play Phil’s idea of George. 

Elizabeth: Peter seems to be living in two different worlds. The modern world of his school and the rustic world of the ranch. How did you balance those two in his wardrobe?

Kirsty: I think Peter is intrinsically modern in his understanding of the world, and he brings his whole, very particular self to the ranch without any compromise. All my references for him were very monochromatic and simple, and having worked with Kodi before; I knew he could pull this off and that it was about getting the details right. His runway walk in white plimsolls through the haymaking camp sets him apart from the world he is in, yet it still feels like the same person who was twirling the hula hoop outside the Red Mill. When he wears the cowboy hat with the jeans, it’s a version of his style in the form of a ‘costume,’ his ranch look, partly to seduce Phil perhaps, and then at the end when he is playing with the dog and wearing his plimsolls, while they are at the funeral, we know he has made his scrapbook come true. The simplicity of his costume leaves room for the mystery of his character. I’ve heard people say they covet his wardrobe. Always the greatest compliment.  

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Elizabeth: One character that is firmly in the 1920s is Rose Gordon. Where did you get your inspiration for her wardrobe?

Kirsty: Rose starts the film in slightly dusty dresses worn a little threadbare, with mended aprons, and on a trip to LA, I scoured the costume houses for this kind of down-home style dress to get a sense of texture and detail to put into the dresses we made. However, while Rose has little, Jane and I always spoke of her as having taste. We looked at The Conformist as a reference of a feel for her, not as a direct reference as it’s set in the 1930s, but we liked some of their nonchalant elegance and also that the women’s clothes felt relevant to now.

When she becomes Mrs. Burbank and moves to the ranch, her initial optimism is destroyed by Phil’s dislike of her, and then as it says in the book, “she began to look on clothes as costumes, disguises, to hide the useless and frightened self she was becoming.” So she’s dressing in outfits – the ranch outfit, the tennis dress, the dinner dress, where she feels like a fraud, until she just doesn’t get out of her negligee and slip, and has the Grey Gardens moment running outside in this and high heels. I study the feeling of the people of the time but look high, low, back, forward, and with a huge peripheral gaze. For example, there’s a great photo of Sarah Snook from Succession in a McQueen dress that was always an inspiration for the dinner dress, this feeling that all Rose wants to do is run and hide away from this sophisticated company. Still, she glows like a candle in the room in this dress that feels naïve yet too much. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG : KIRSTEN DUNST as ROSE GORDON in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Elizabeth: Kirsty, thank you so much. Congratulations on this amazing film!

Kirsty: Thank you for having me!

The Power of The Dog is now available on Netflix!

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