MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL

A Conversation with Cinematographer Ari Wegner

A Conversation with Cinematographer Ari Wegner

Written by Kaitlin Hill

What do Lady Macbeth, a trending Twitter stripper saga, and a rancher from 1925 Montana have in common? The answer is Australian-born cinematographer Ari Wegner’s talent for translating stories to screen. At just 37, Wegner’s resume is already impressive. She’s an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award Nominee (2016), British Independent Film Awards Winner (2017), and Toronto International Film Festival Artisan Award Winner (2021). During her first visit to the Middleburg Film Festival, Wegner presented her film “The Power of the Dog” and took home the well-deserved award for Distinguished Cinematography. Starting behind-the-scenes to the big screen reveal, Wegner shares her process for producing stunning films and how she and director Jane Campion bring “The Power of the Dog” to life.

When asked how she picks projects as different as “The Power of the Dog” (2021), a moody Western with a dark secret, and “Zola” (2020) a stripper’s story that starts in a Detroit Hooter’s and unravels over Twitter, Wegner says, “It’s really the combination of the director and the script … it’s a kind of alchemy or synchronicity of those two. Once I read the script and decide that it looks interesting, I’ll meet the director and see if there is chemistry.” 

For “The Power of the Dog,” Wegner paired up with writer and director Jane Campion to adapt the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name. Before learning the lighting of the landscape, framing the shots, and curating the color palette, Wegner starts new projects with a deep understanding of the director she is working with. 

“I love working with directors and really getting to know them,” Wegner says. “You find out how they see the world, what’s important to them, what interests them, how detail-oriented they are, and what details they will fixate on … I love to use that pre-production time to get to know [a director], and then be able to create a shot that, hopefully, they are going to love based on what I know about them.” 

In getting to know Campion, Wegner discovered a common interest in art and artists like American realist painter Andrew Wyeth. “Jane has a fine arts background, and my father is a visual artist,” Wegner says. “So, we both had a pretty good common language in art. And usually, one of the first things I do when I start a new project is look at art. It really is a color palette. Or look at the minimalism of Wyeth’s work, I really love that. There is a real simplicity and minimalism of people in rooms or people in nature.” 

Part-drama, part-romance, all-Western, “The Power of the Dog” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, tells the story of the Burbank Brothers and a twisted year of manipulation, intimidation, and gritty ranch work that takes place in the shadow of a menacing mountain which could fairly be considered an additional main character. 

Avoiding any spoilers, as relationships shift and minds unravel, Wegner shapes the story with captivatingly simple shots and obvious influence from Wyeth. Transitions take place through open windows with unobstructed views of the imposing mountain in the distance. And empty rooms minimally laid with color schemes seemingly straight from Wyeth’s brush increase the feeling of isolation, so crucial to the film. 

“We knew that we wanted to have a really restricted color palette … and Wyeth’s work really captured it,” Wegner says. “There is something in the atmosphere of his work that I like, the feel, the loneliness, or desperation. [His work] doesn’t romanticize the places. There is some kind of unease in his work that is hard to define.” 

More than nailing this color palette, for Wegner transporting audiences to 1925 Montana and creating believable characters was about understanding the landscape, thus creating a set that felt “lived in.” “The landscape, in this film, in particular, is more than just a setting because the characters, especially Phil, have such a strong emotional connection to the place,” Wegner says. 

Stills from Ari Wegner’s film. Photos courtesy of Netflix.

For Phil Burbank, the film’s lead played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the sprawling family is part of his personality. “We wanted [the landscape] to be beautiful, striking, and hopefully, iconic,” Wegner says. “And we were also really interested in tiny things that make up a place – whether it is a micro shot of the grass or a big wide shot of the house with the mountain behind it.” 

Beyond character and narrative development, Wegner’s blend of minuscule detail and big picture shots results in an audience experience that is immersive, captivating, and almost unnervingly real. This feat is particularly impressive, given the convincingly classic Americana Western was filmed in New Zealand. “Obviously, not all of New Zealand looks like Montana … It took some planning to make it convincing,” Wegner says, joking. “We did a lot of research and looked at photos of the landscape. I actually did a lot of driving around on Google Maps, just clicking along the road to see if this feels like New Zealand.” 

In addition to pre-production research, onset framing was essential too. “We definitely needed to choose angles that worked,” Wegner says. And where others might lean on green or blue screens, Wegner took a different approach aimed at achieving authenticity. “We actually ended up printing these billboard-sized backdrops of photos that we shot on location. We printed them, stretched them out, and had them in the studio.” Filming with the printed backdrops, “allowed me to be riskier with my work because I knew what the final [look] was, versus having to be a bit safe because I couldn’t visualize what was going on outside the windows,” Wegner says. “That was something that started as a challenge, but ended up being incredibly satisfying and also just a super cool optical illusion.” 

Perhaps optical illusionist is a better job title for Wegner, as her work on “The Power of the Dog” is nothing short of true movie magic. She pairs her razor-sharp vision with a willingness to let a film “reveal itself,” resulting in immersive viewing experiences that stay with her audiences and almost implore them to watch her films a second, if not third or fourth time. 

“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,” she says. “I start to plan and then it starts to reveal itself even as I am shooting it.”

Though her next project is yet unknown, her success at the Middleburg Film Festival with “The Power of the Dog” (available to stream on Netflix starting December 1, 2021), it is a safe bet that Wegner’s talent will only continue to “reveal itself” and she is certainly a cinematographer worth watching. ML

This article first appeared in the November 2021 Issue.

Notable Moments From Middleburg Film Festival 2021

Notable Moments From Middleburg Film Festival 2021

Written by Kaitlin Hill

Photos by Shannon Finney

Celebrating its ninth year and a return to fully in-person screenings, the 2021 Middleburg Film Festival did not disappoint. Passholders and ticket buyers were treated to celebrity appearances, fascinating Q&As, special spotlight events, well-deserved tributes to some of Hollywood’s finest, and, as always, a wonderfully diverse set of films with something for everyone. Here is a look back at some of the highlights from the mid-October weekend hosted by Sheila Johnson. 

Left: Women in Film luncheon hosted by Greenhill Winery with Red Rocket cast, Brittney Rodriguez, Suzanna Son, and Bree Elrod. Right: Women in Film luncheon hosted by Greenhill Winery with composer Kathryn Bostic, songwriter Diane Warren, actor Ann Dowd, and composers Lesley Barber and Amie Doherty.

BIG NAMES HEADLINE THE WEEKEND

Past Middleburg Film Festivals have always hosted their share of celebrities, and this year was no exception. Day two of the festival opened with a screening of “The Lost Daughter” at The Salamander Resort and Spa, followed by a tribute to lead actress Dakota Johnson. During the tribute and conversation, Johnson was awarded the actor spotlight award for her role opposite Academy Award winner Olivia Colman.

Also on-site throughout the weekend was actress Ann Dowd, perhaps best known for her role as the brutal Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Dowd attended the film festival as a representative of the film “Mass,” which debuted Friday afternoon at The Hill School. Dowd not only attended the post-screening tribute to her, but she also mixed, mingled, and posed for photos at the Women in Film luncheon at Greenhill Winery.

“Capote” (2005) and “Star Trek” (2009) fans will have recognized actor Clifton Collins Jr. who showed up to present his new film “Jockey” in which he plays the main character, Jackson Silva. In a post-screening conversation with Clayton Davis from Variety, Collins Jr. delighted viewers with anecdotes from filming on a live track with real jockeys. “I got there a week and a half early to hang out with the jockeys – spending all day with them, helping them with the horses, whatever I needed to do,” he says. “I didn’t want to be ‘the actor.’ I told [my producer] I don’t care if my house has burned down. I don’t want to know until I wrap because I have to be here.” His dedication to the project earned him a standing ovation as the credits rolled and the distinguished performance award.

Left: Lead actress Dakota Johnson “The Lost Daughter” at The Salamander Resort and Spa, MFF.
Right: Post-screening conversation with actor Clifton Collins Jr. from “Jockey.” 

A highly anticipated appearance of the weekend was that of actor, director, and five-time Academy Award nominee, Kenneth Branagh who came to Middleburg to showcase his autobiographical hit “Belfast.” “Belfast” was the sold-out centerpiece film of Saturday night with moviegoers eager to view the film following its success in Telluride and hear from Branagh in the subsequent Q&A session. Branagh also greeted festival attendees Sunday morning on the Salamander Resort Middleburg Terrace for a well-deserved and illuminating tribute. Those up early enough were treated to an artfully crafted highlight reel of Branagh’s best work from “Othello” to “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Additionally, Branagh sat down with festival advisory board member John Horn for a conversation covering Branagh’s life and career where he described his latest project about childhood in Northern Ireland as “tender.” He also regaled the crowd with some of his favorite on-set moments with cast members Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Gerard Horan, and Jude Hill. For his work as the film’s director, Branagh was awarded the director spotlight award by Sheila Johnson.

RECOGNITION OF WOMEN IN FILM

Another bright spot of the weekend was the attention given to women in the film industry. Saturday morning’s Women in Film Music Conversation at the Salamander Resort Middleburg Terrace highlighted four talented film composers and songwriters including Kathryn Bostic (“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”), Dianne Warren (“Four Good Days”), Lesley Barber (“Manchester by the Sea”), and Amie Doherty (“Spirit Untamed”) in a panel hosted by Jazz Tangcay, Variety’s Senior 

Artisans Editor. Women took the spotlight again at the Women in Film luncheon hosted by Greenhill Winery. The afternoon event was attended by Britney Rodriguez, Suzanna Son, and Bree Elrod from the film “Red Rocket,” as well as Ann Dowd from “Mass” who shared with attendees the realities of being a woman in the business.

Beyond luncheons and panels, notable women dominated the screen in the films on dock through the weekend. “Spencer” and “Julia” told the tales of real-life icons Princess Diana and Julia Childs. And “Passing,” “Prayers for the Stolen,” “Petit Maman,” and “The Lost Daughter” centered around female figures as well, powerfully sharing their stories.

But the theme of powerful women perhaps most notably extended to the awards granted throughout the weekend. In addition to Dakota Johnson’s actor spotlight award, Ann Dowd was recognized with the Agnès Varda trailblazing film artist award, and “The Power of the Dog” cinematographer Ari Wegner was awarded the distinguished cinematographer award.

Left: John Horn, a host on KPCC and a member of the festival’s advisory board, with Kenneth Branagh on stage at Salamander. Middle: Tim Gordon (from DC Radio/Keeping it Real with Film Gordon/co-President of the Washington Area Film Critics Association), Benjamin Price from Kids First! and Washington Post Chief Film Critic Ann Hornaday. Right: Filmgoers at MFF.

A HEARTWARMING WINNER

As always, attendees were given the chance to rate each film with one, two, three, or four stars immediately after viewing by ripping a slip of paper and returning it to one of the festival’s many helpful volunteers. Of the 34 films representing every genre, including documentaries and international entries, Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” was awarded the audience’s highest honor of top narrative prize. The film, which was sold out for both screenings, documents Branagh’s Northern Irish upbringing through the character “Buddy,” played by Jude Hill. Set in the 1960s, at the beginning of The Troubles, the black and white film blends meaningful humor with moments of tense violence, for a well-rounded film deserving of every laugh, tear, and standing ovation it received.

The crowd cheers at MFF for the Belfast Q&A with Kenneth Branagh. 

Branagh described the film best in his Sunday morning conversation with John Horn. He said writing this story was, “something riddled with pain and difficulty and loss, but through which there must be some way to find hope and a future. The film seems to be opening a portal for other people’s experiences of their own childhood. And that is the big thrill.” ML

This article first appeared in the November 2021 Issue.

Your Favorite Fall Festivals Are Back

HERE THEY COME:

YOUR FAVORITE FALL FESTIVALS ARE BACK

Written by Chelsea Moore

The return of fall ushers in a few of our favorite things: pumpkin spice lattes, apples, and fall festivals. Your favorite events are back this fall with some fun, new twists. We’ve compiled a list of a few you shouldn’t miss.

LOUDOUN ARTS FILM FESTIVAL SEPTEMBER 10-19
50 West Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., and Artistic Fuel in Leesburg, Va.

In its second year, the Loudoun Arts Film Festival is shaping up to be a favorite fall event. The festival is hosted by the Loudoun Arts Council, 50 West Vineyards, and Artistic Fuel.

The 10-day, in-person event, offers four days of film screenings at Artistic Fuel in Leesburg and six days of drive-in showings at 50 West Vineyards, along with an art show, food trucks, wine, live music, and red carpet events.

“It’s a mixture of local and regional talent,” Kaeley Boyle, the festival director, said. “At the heart of it is the local business community coming together. It’s a collaboration between local businesses to get this off the ground, and it speaks to the community support in Loudoun County.”

Last year, the festival hosted anywhere from 70-100 guests per day. This year, they are prepping for significantly more attendees.

Boyle’s favorite part? “For me, it’s the community,” she said. “Last year, it was nice for us, with everything going on, to have something that was completely safe when we all needed something to look forward to. To see all the different films and build a sense of community around the arts is something I absolutely love.”

Want to find out more? Visit loudounartsfilmfest.com

ROUND HILL APPALACHIAN TRAIL FESTIVAL
SEPTEMBER 11-12
B Chord Brewing, Round Hill, Va.

Back for its second year, the Round Hill Appalachian Trail Festival celebrates Round Hill’s designation as an Appalachian Trail Community by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

With over 1,000 people at the festival’s inaugural event in 2019, this year’s festival has expanded into two days, making it an entire weekend of fun and education.

“The idea is to get people to care about the outdoors and green spaces and be more aware of them,” said Jody Brady, the festival’s director, and a Virginia Master Naturalist. “We do a lot of things that promote and protect the Appalachian Trail.”

There are 40 Appalachian Trail communities along the trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. Others include Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., Berryville, Va., and Front Royal, Va.

“I believe in sustainability and being environmental stewards,” Brady said.
“What I love about [the festival] is the sense of community and the crosssection of people it brings together, everyone from people who have never walked on a trail to hikers.”

The festival is filled with live bluegrass music, food and ice cream trucks, non-profit organizations and workshops with topics like tick safety, trail cooking, and hammock camping. Attendees can play games, such as trail bingo and Appalachian trail trivia, and participate in a scavenger hunt and raffles. Kids will enjoy a giant inflatable slide, nature-inspired crafts, pony rides, and coloring pages.

Learn more about the festival at roundhillat.org.

BLUEMONT FAIR SEPTEMBER 18-19 Bluemont, Va.

The Bluemont Fair, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is back for its 51st year. This family-friendly event will feature live music, Colonia reenactors, a. petting zoo, craft and farming demonstrations, local art and authors,
a wine and beer garden, a blacksmithing demonstration, antiques and collectibles, a pie-baking and pickle-making
contest, and so much more.

This year’s theme is “farmers’ markets,” which is designed to honor Western Loudoun’s rural heritage. The fair takes a “green” approach, encouraging recycling and reusable shopping bags. Recycling receptacles are placed throughout the fair, and recycled materials are used when possible.

A favorite event amongst locals, the Bluemont Fair serves as a welcome to fall. Step back in time and enjoy this day with both the young and old in your family.

Learn more at bluemontfair.org.

GOOSE CREEK ASSOCIATION’S FALL FESTIVAL
SEPTEMBER 19
Aldie Mill Historic Park, Aldie, Va.

Celebrating over 50 years of the Goose Creek Association, this new family-friendly festival will

have a little something for everyone. With a variety of environmentally based exhibits, live music, food trucks, and children’s games, attendees should come ready to learn and play.

For kids, the festival will host a face painting station, pumpkins, and educational wildlife exhibits with birds and reptiles. For art lovers, there will be a local art show and sale. For the foodies, there will be two food trucks, Hammerdown Barbeque and Nomad Provisions, and an ice cream truck.

Don’t miss this fun and free event to celebrate the Goose Creek Association, which is dedicated to protecting and preserving the environment in the Goose Creek Watershed in Fauquier and Loudoun counties. The event will run from 12– 4 p.m.

For more information, visit goosecreek.org.

Aldie Mill at Goosecreek Fall Festival
Aldie Mill at Goosecreek Fall Festival

MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL OCTOBER 14 – 17
Middleburg, Va.

Middleburg’s own film festival is just around the corner. With four days of films and conversations with filmmakers and actors, this event is not to be missed. “This year’s festival will feature a carefully curated slate of films including ‘Oscar buzz’ films, international features, fascinating documentaries, and independent gems you might not otherwise get a chance to see,” Susan Koch, executive director of the festival, said. “As in the past, there will be an emphasis on film music with concerts featuring renowned film composers and a conversation with women composers and songwriters.”

The festival will look the same as previous years, with a few differences.

“One holdover from last year’s hybrid festival will be the pop-up drive-in in the lower parking lot of Salamander Resort,” Koch said. “Films will also be shown at various venues throughout the town of Middleburg. Conversations and special events will take place at Greenhill Winery & Vineyards, Boxwood Winery, and Lost Barrel Brewery.”

Proof of vaccination will be required for all attendees, and additional safety measures may be required (such as masks, reduced capacity at screenings, and proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours) to strictly comply with the CDC and State of Virginia health and safety protocols.

The schedule and film slate won’t be released until the end of September when individual tickets will be available. Advance ticket packages and passes became available in late August.

To learn more about the festival, visit middleburg film.orgML

This article first appeared in the September 2021 Issue.

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