It has oft been said that it takes years to become an overnight success. For Ari Wegner, that certainly rings true. In 2021, the thirty-something cinematographer has seemingly been everywhere, with two vastly different films: Zola from Janicza Bravo and The Power of the Dog from Jane Campion. As the awards season ramps up, the name Ari Wegner is on everyone’s lips, but her sudden fame and acclaim comes from years of work and study, honing the skills that make her one of the most exciting cinematographers working in the industry today.
Wegner is an enthusiastic artist when it comes to the art of filmmaking, but she shies away from talking much about herself. The Australia-born cinematographer is very open and generous when speaking of her collaborators and partners, sharing the wealth of praise with those around her.
A QUICK START FOR A GIFTED ARTIST
Wegner studied cinematography at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television. During her final year at school, she won the VCA Award for Cinematography, and also had the opportunity to attend the Budapest Cinematography Masterclass, part of the Budapest Film Academy. In school she got started the way most do, with a variety of short films. Upon graduation, Wegner further built up her portfolio with commercials and music videos.
Wegner shot her first feature length film, The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark at the age of 21. Then her first major taste of success came with the short film Night Shift, directed by Zia Mandviwalla. The 14-minute drama about a cleaning woman working at the airport was selected by Cannes in 2012 and was nominated for the Palme D’or for Short Films. It screened at other festivals too, including New Zealand’s Show Me Shorts Film Festival, where it won four awards including one for its cinematographer.
Following the success of Night Shift, she signed on to the feature Ruin, co-written and co-directed by Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson. She had known the directors socially, and through some early documentary work before this opportunity came along. Ruin was filmed primarily in Cambodia, and its journey through European and Australian film festivals began in Venice where the film received a Special Jury Prize.
ON THE LARGE AND SMALL SCREENS ROAD TO AWARDS
From Ruin, Wegner signed on to The Kettering Incident, which would become the award-winning miniseries. The season was filmed in Tasmania and she described it in an interview for Screen Australia as “an amazing experience,” crediting, “such a great energy on the shoot.” The series earned seven nominations from the Australian Academy of Cinema and TV Arts, including one for Wegner’s cinematography.
As it happens for many in this industry, one project leads into another and Wegner’s career began to take off as she moved on to notable films like Lady Macbeth, In Fabric, and The True History of the Kelly Gang. She also continued to work in television, too, including nine episodes of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. She has worked with many different creators and in many different styles. In a recent conversation at the Middleburg Film Festival, she said, “I think I can adapt to any style because I can break down the elements of something and pull them apart … but the really interesting part for me is knowing what image I want to create and then to create it. I start to plan and then it starts to reveal itself even as I am shooting it.”
In 2016, Wegner described her experiences on set, saying, “When you’re shooting a film, it’s a time and a place and a group of people, it’s a magical kind of alchemy that can happen. When I’m really into a project I’m all in. Nothing else matters.”
That is a passion Wegner continues to bring to her work today. Earlier this year, the world finally got to experience Zola, a stylish, genre-blending film that began life as a series of tweets about two strippers, a terrifying manager, and a crazy weekend in Miami. Wegner shared what it was like working with director Janicza Bravo in an interview for British Cinematographers. “Janicza thought about every detail. It feels very designed, but she has a way of making it feel like it’s not just design or design for design’s sake, it’s design for the story and character’s sake.”
Zola presented an exciting challenge for the DP: the opportunity to shoot in 16mm instead of digital. “Embracing digital would have been the obvious choice,” she explained, “16mm was something Janicza was really set on from the get-go.” She described the use of Super 16 as “magical,” which certainly came through in crafting a film that has a certain magical-surrealism to its true story.
Zola premiered to enthusiastic praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, where it was bought by the studio A24 and scheduled for a spring release. As has so frequently been the case in the past two years, Covid had other plans and the movie was moved to June 2021, just as excitement was beginning to build for Jane Campion’s new Netflix film.
Which is how 2021 has become such a monumental year for Ari Wegner. Even before its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, The Power of the Dog came with huge expectations. Produced by Netflix, Jane Campion’s first feature film in over a decade is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and boasts an impressive cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Wegner has said that she was drawn to the project because of Jane Campion, and because of her love for this profound and beautiful novel. There was also one very exciting expectation. “When Jane first called to ask if I’d be interested, one of the things she had as a condition was she wanted someone to be able to start straight away, which is a real dream, really, for a cinematographer. I often feel like there’s not enough time to prepare. There’s a rush once everyone’s in the same place, the decisions can feel very pressured. Jane wanted this film to feel relaxed and not be rushed into any decision.”
Preparation took months, from searching for locations to plotting camera angles, finding the right lighting, and all of the other decisions that go into shooting a film of this scale. Production took place in New Zealand, even though the story takes place in 1920s Montana. This gave the team opportunities to get very creative, and gave Wegner the chance to challenge herself, becoming something of an illusionist with photographs as landscape backgrounds on the soundstage, rather than relying on green screen and computer images.
As The Power of the Dog continues to make its way through audiences of critics and industry professionals, excitement for it keeps building. There’s been awards talk from the beginning, but that conversation has recently turned to a potentially history-making achievement for Wegner, who may become only the second woman ever nominated for the Academy Award for Cinematography. And what’s more, many in the business are saying she stands an excellent chance of winning. This would be a tremendous moment for her career, as well as the growing number of women who are picking up cameras and choosing cinematography for their careers.
WHY WE CHOSE HER
While she won’t speculate on her own awards prospects, Ari Wegner recently told me how happy she is to see the way women are now being more welcomed in the field of cinematography. She hopes this will continue to increase as female DPs start to see the recognition that has eluded them for so long. She discusses both the art and science of filmmaking with such a degree of passion and poetry, that her love for the medium is contagious. She is a leader, a champion, and a gifted artist, giving the world not only beautiful images, but a sense of hope and fascination too. — Karen Peterson