The Oscar-winning craftsman has transitioned from The Lord of the Rings to the wilds of Montana.
New Zealand-born production designer Grant Major has helped create the cinematic worlds of Middle Earth — he earned an Academy Award for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) — and Imperial China (2020’s Mulan), post-WWII Japan (2012’s Emperor) and Depression Era New York (2005’s King Kong).
And now he has pivoted to 1925 Montana for The Power of the Dog, director Jane Campion’s acclaimed western drama that, not incidentally, has received multiple nominations for the Fifth Annual C&I Movie Awards.
What’s the movie all about? According to Netflix:
“Severe, pale-eyed, and handsome, Phil Burbank [Benedict Cumberbatch] is brutally beguiling. All of Phil’s romance, power and fragility is trapped in the past and in the land: He can castrate a bull calf with two swift slashes of his knife; he swims naked in the river, smearing his body with mud. He is a cowboy as raw as his hides.
“The year is 1925. The Burbank brothers are wealthy ranchers in Montana. At the Red Mill restaurant on their way to market, the brothers meet Rose [Kirsten Dunst], the widowed proprietress, and her impressionable son Peter [Kodi Smit-McPhee]. Phil behaves so cruelly he drives them both to tears, reveling in their hurt and rousing his fellow cowhands to laughter – all except his brother George [Jesse Plemons], who comforts Rose, then returns to marry her.
“As Phil swings between fury and cunning, his taunting of Rose takes an eerie form – he hovers at the edges of her vision, whistling a tune she can no longer play. His mockery of her son is more overt, amplified by the cheering of Phil’s cowhand disciples. Then Phil appears to take the boy under his wing. Is this latest gesture a softening that leaves Phil exposed, or a plot twisting further into menace?”
Grant, who last worked with Jane Campion on the award-winning An Angel at my Table (1990), recently spoke with me in the C&I Studio about the unique challenges he faced on The Power of the Dog — which was filmed largely in the Otago region of New Zealand.
The distinctive Burbank house, along with many other structures, were built specifically for the film — and Grant worked tirelessly with his team to get everything down to the paint job just right, with multiple revisions to achieve the perfectly imperfect worn look.
Grant was a good sport while sharing his secrets — and maintaining a straight face when my imperfect memory of the film (and his resume) was apparent on a couple occasions.