Oscar Nominee Editor Peter Sciberras, whose previous work includes David Michôd’s The Rover and War Machine, is already receiving considerable attention for his tension-filled editing on Jane Campion’s Netflix Western The Power of the Dog.
The film follows the wealthy Burbank brothers; brutally beguiling Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his quiet brother George (Jesse Plemons), who have taken over their childhood Montana Ranch when George brings home his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son from a previous marriage, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil, overcome with fury and cunning, revels in taunting Rose and mocking Peter until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Sciberras captures the tension beautifully, working closely with Campion to preserve the characters’ subtle nuances and relationships while building momentum and psychological pressure. Having long admired Campion’s Academy-award winning film The Piano, Sciberras was excited to collaborate with the auteur director with her understanding of demonstrating the human experience.
“We’ve all been in situations where we can’t quite figure out what the other person is thinking. It’s tense and awkward, and maybe a little exciting,” shares Sciberras. “[Jane] understands what it means to be a human so well, and she’s so excited about those kinds of human experiences that you don’t get to see very often in film.”
Sciberras spoke with Awards Focus about drawing out the psychological tension between Phil and Rose, knowing when to leave key scenes on the cutting room floor, and subtle psychosis induced by Phil.
Awards Focus: You’ve already received considerable awards recognition for your editing work on The Power of the Dog. When it comes to the craft of editing, what does that recognition mean to you?
Peter Sciberras: I think editing is one of the tougher crafts to single out and praise because you’re kind of invisible. This has actually been quite a learning curve doing these types of interviews, but it’s lovely. You sit with the director for a long time trying to solve every problem, and these situations make it feel like you achieved what you set out to do. It’s nice to know that people appreciate the work and the film.
AF: How did you come to the screenplay, and what stood out when you first read the material?
Sciberras: I’d never met Jane [Campion] before but was a big fan of her work. The Piano was one of the first arthouse films that I’d watched from this part of the world, and it blew my mind. The script was exciting, and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a real page-turner in the sense that you thought it was going in one direction and it would go in another.
AF: In the film, Phil feels like a disease to Rose, and when she moves into the mansion, her mental stability shifts downward. Were there specific characteristics you wanted to emphasize to draw out that psychological tension in editing the film?
Sciberras: Interestingly, they don’t have many scenes where they’re face-to-face. She witnesses what goes down at the Red Mill with her son Peter and knows this guy is not particularly nice. Phil essentially makes her cry the first time they encounter each other, so it was crucial when they arrive at the ranch that first night that he was just so cold and inhospitable.
We actually had a line that we cut later where he called her a “cheap schemer,” which wasn’t originally in that scene. We brought that line into their first meeting because we just knew we needed to plant that seed of psychological terror and the dominance from the beginning to help Rose’s downward spiral and start it off on a solid note. It was just dismissive and not quite as pointed enough when that line wasn’t there. Rose is from a working-class background, working with her hands in the kitchen, and Phil and George are wealthy ranchers. She’s out of her depth in a class sense, so that line adds to the insecurity.
Then there’s that banjo scene, which further shows Phil undermining her place and her abilities and just showing up at every turn to tell her she’s not good enough. It was really fun but took a lot of very detailed work just to make sure it was all there, and just being patient with the cut and not trying to rush through those moments.
AF: What were the conversations around the banjo scene with both Jane and cinematographer Ari Wegner about combining the shots to get inside Rose’s head?
Sciberras: The team did an incredible job. That whole staircase is designed around that scene that they made so that you could get a view from the top all the way down to the piano. Everything was designed to make that scene work. I thought the coverage was excellent, and just these push-ins helped me find a rhythm for the back and forth.
The scene itself was shot over two days, so I had a lot of time to work, and I felt pretty strongly about how much Phil to show and when to bring him in. So then Jane and I went through the same process and landed in a very similar place. We had one more back and forth, but part of our discussions was how long we could sustain this tension. We knew that the less we saw of Phil, the more effective he would be and playing instead from Rose’s point of view in her mind within her anxiety.
AF: Was there any scene left on the cutting room floor that you wish had made it into the film?
Sciberras: There’s a lot of great stuff on the cutting room floor, but I feel when you get to the end, you’ve come to terms with everything that’s been done for the greater good. There was a lot more with Phil’s and George’s parents, who were fascinating characters. Still, it burdened the film too much, especially when they arrive in the scene when Rose is about to do the recital, and it was a jump into new characters that just felt like the wrong place to be shifting focus when the focus should be on the triangle of Rose, George, and Phil.
We had to lose some great scenes with Peter and Phil mainly because it brought them too close together too soon. We needed to stretch that out. Just before the final chapter begins, there is a great run when Phil sees Peter and runs off up a hill. Phil actually chased him naked and caught him in a dry river bed [laughs], and there was an altercation. The actors committed so fully to it, and the scene was great. I mean, Benedict [Cumberbatch] running barefoot and naked through a forest is pretty full-on. But it just brought them too close together, and the exchange they have instead in the barn was less potent than the anticipation of them coming together at a later stage. So when there’s a great reason to lose something you don’t miss it, because, you know, it just makes the film.
AF: Speaking of that barn scene, can you talk a bit about developing that sexual tension, notably when Peter shares his cigarette with Phil?
Sciberras: Their relationship was really interesting. It’s essentially the final chapter of the film when they bond. So much of the sexual tension was in the performances. Their relationship starts with Phil being the dominant power, and by the end, in the shot you’re talking about, Peter has the front foot of power.
We talked a lot about a second viewing and how you could spot what Peter was doing. So much of it is in the structure of those scenes, particularly how you want to play it. You could shift points of view in the middle of those scenes by building these looks and glances and lingering on a shot just a little too long. The dialogue isn’t telling you what’s going on in their scene, it’s all happening in their body language, and it’s really about being incredibly attuned to the human condition.
We’ve all been in situations where we can’t quite figure out what the other person is thinking. It’s tense and awkward and maybe a little exciting. It was playing into those feelings, how that feels, and it’s something that Jane does so beautifully. She understands what it means to be a human so well, and she’s so excited about those kinds of human experiences that you don’t get to see very often in film. It’s hard to portray, and I just think she’s a master at it.