Peter Sciberras on power dynamics, second watches, and everything else that went into making “The Power of the Dog"

It’s early November, and I’m lucky enough to be watching Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed, new tension-fueled western, The Power of The Dog in a theater at Netflix. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, and Kirsten Dunst and is currently an Oscar favorite in almost every major category after premiering at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and winning the Silver Lion for Best Director. As the lights came on, in preparation for my discussion with its editor Peter Sciberras, I reflected on how being able to safely return to theaters this year has been transcendent. 

Peter Sciberras, who is deservedly receiving Oscar buzz, started as a commercial editor and then worked on films like The Rover, War Machine, and The King. Based in Melbourne, Australia, the jet-setting Sciberras was actually at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills while we talked over Evercast about editing The Power of the Dog, his career as a whole, and how unforeseen circumstances landed him isolated in a New Zealand hotel with the best accommodation internet speed he’d ever seen.

The following has been condensed, edited for clarity, and CONTAINS SPOILERS.

What initially drew you to editing? Was there a film or TV show that started it all? One that made you more than just a fan.

Interesting, that’s a good question. There’s an Australian film by Andrew Dominik called Chopper, which he did before The Assassination of Jesse James. That was a huge film in my late adolescence/early adult years. It was the first film of that type to come out in Australia, [as it] was all made in Melbourne. I’m from a part of Melbourne that’s not very well covered in the media or in movies, so that was an amazing film that also made me go, “Oh wow, I could do this. This is something that is actually happening here.

Also, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson–all of Dylan Tichenor’s work with him. I got obsessed with that early on, they were my favorites, like Magnolia and Boogie Nights.

Was there something about those films that specifically attracted you to the editing of them? 

Yeah, I think both filmmakers create different worlds but there is a similarity in the level of craft–just the level of preciseness of their work is really impressive. I always loved that kind of filmmaking. Also Sam O’Steen, he cut The Graduate and Chinatown. There’s something about a certain editor’s work that’s so crisp.

Chinatown certainly is one of the highest watermarks where a film feels so purposeful yet so effortless in how it flows. 

Totally, it’s one of my favorite things to watch. Sam’s a genius. Every cut works for the story. It’s all story, and it’s all so structured but effortless…I think all editors probably aspire to get to that.

What were your big breaks that helped get you to where you are? I know you’ve done work in commercials, were you doing commercial editing and then got into the feature world?

I started commercials in my mid-20s, but I also started cutting short films at the same time. I was always trying to do both worlds at the same time. I got to be fairly well-known in the commercial world in Australia, and then an indie feature came up called Hail by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, which was his first narrative feature, but he’d directed some really well-known documentaries in Australia. Working with him was a big break–I mean, I worked for free; it was a $500,000 indie, but it was the first film that got into Venice in ten years from Australia. Which is a big deal, and it was really well-received amongst filmmakers in Australia. 

Then that led to The Rover, which was definitely more of a big break on an international scale.

What was it like working on The Rover? It was during this interesting time where Robert Pattinson was trying to reinvent himself. What was it like cutting someone who turned out to be one of our most interesting actors?

I knew he was in Twilight, but it’s not the kind of stuff I watch, so I hadn’t seen him act in anything at that stage. I remember getting the dailies and thinking, “This guy is amazing. He is going to be whatever he wants to be.”

How did you end up getting involved in The Power of the Dog? Also, Jane Campion can change her style depending on the project, so what were your initial conversations about what the tone of this project was going to be?

We only really got a chance to chat when I interviewed for the job, which was a really long interview. Must have been between two or three hours. But we were going through the lookbooks and things like that, so I knew what they were going for. Though the main thing we talked about was tension–Jane said, “This needs to be a really tense film.”

She’d seen the work I’d done with David Michôd, which is how she got to know me because we’d never met before that interview. She also said she needed an editor to be able to take this to the very end and be very committed, and I was comfortable doing that.

Was there any discussion about scale? Obviously, she’s done epic movies before but The Power of the Dog feels like the first of her films to utilize beautiful wide shots in such a specific manner.

We didn’t really talk about that early on. I know it’s something Ari Wegner, the DP, and Jane talked about, especially in picking that location because it’s this wide-open plain that’s hemmed in by all of these gigantic hills. So the sense of isolation was definitely there. Though, we only used wide landscapes and wide shots in a story-based way, only using them when it was supporting a feeling or setting up a feeling on the way to a scene, like a foreboding or a tension, those kinds of elements.

I think you guys did a very good job–either it’s isolating them or setting the tone and space of where you’re at.

Yeah, and we had great Jonny Greenwood music, so sometimes it was just about extending a moment and sitting with a feeling and with Johnny’s music. Just really letting the film sink in. 

His score is incredible. At what point did you start getting music from him? Was there ever temp music or was he doing pre-production tone music for the film? 

Yeah, it was pre-production tone music, essentially. He delivered us 36 queues within the first month of the edit. So we had it from the start and then it was our job to put it in the right place and react to it.

Was that the first time you’d done that, or had you done something similar with David?

I’d never done that with David. David’s got a great musical knowledge, so he works with a lot of avant-garde composers that I’ve very rarely heard of, and he brings in a giant collection of stuff he’s been listening to while he writes and things like that. So it’s different. We’ve always got music to start with and often it becomes the score, like Colin Stetson in The Rover was like that. But I’ve worked this way once before, on my first film Hail. We had a very similar collection of music that the composer had done, and it’s by far my favorite way to work.

Did you meet Jane in person for the interview? Because shooting was right before Covid hit, was it a while before you [two] were actually in the same room?

I landed the job four or five months before shooting started, so I met her for the first time in person at the See-Saw offices in Sydney, and then once again before they headed to New Zealand for proper pre-production.

What was your experience using Evercast to edit the film? Where were you located versus where most of your collaborators were? 

They were shooting in New Zealand, and I was in Melbourne, because that’s where I live, working on an assembly. Then Covid hit and there was a three-month gap where we didn’t do a lot of remote editing. I just put an assembly together of what we had with slugs for each scene that wasn’t there, which was a terrible assembly with about a million black holes. But then I actually had a kid right before the shoot got started again.

Congratulations! What a year.

Thank you, it was a crazy year. So we first got started with Evercast just after the shoot finished. I was in Melbourne, and Jane was in New Zealand. I needed a little bit more time before I could leave Australia because of baby stuff. So we did about two weeks over Evercast, which was great to have the time to figure out how to set it up because Melbourne was also in a Covid lockdown, so I had no assistance and had to be able to do it all myself.

So were you acting as your own AE then?

Mostly, though all of the dailies had been done already, thankfully. But then getting out of Melbourne was really difficult, and getting to New Zealand included two weeks of quarantine. So my assistant, who was in Sydney, flew ahead to test the hotel internet where I would be quarantining so we could set everything up. But right as I was about to fly out, New Zealand changed their rules so you couldn’t pick the hotel you could stay in. I just landed in a hotel that I hadn’t tested the internet in and crazily it had the fastest upload speed I’d ever seen in a hotel and it worked seamlessly. So yeah, I was in two weeks of quarantine and we cut on Evercast every day. It was amazing, so seamless. It was like “this is a miracle.” 

So after the quarantine were you able to edit in person? New Zealand was open by then, right?

New Zealand was open at that stage, so we did cut in person, but Evercast stayed quite a big part of our weekly routine because Tanya Seghatchian, one of our producers, was in London and she works quite closely with Jane and was really close to the creative process. She would jump on Evercast to chat every time we’d have a review. We’d also do a weekly Evercast go-through with Jonny Greenwood to talk about score, play through scenes, play through music. Evercast became the review system between everywhere in the world, including the effects team.

What do you think is the biggest upside of having the ability to access remote working? 

I mean, there were so many. There are quite a few on a convenience level because sometimes it’s not going to be a long session and no one needs to travel in to spend half an hour looking at stuff or doing quick reviews, like checking something on an iPad quickly to cut for a minute. But also, you’re always traveling in this industry. I’ve only cut one film in my hometown. I could see that being a real benefit–to either be able to extend stays at home or actually be able to cut at home, because the amount of work we got done over Evercast was surprising. I was surprised at how efficient it actually was; it was exciting.

How was it balancing how and when you shifted the perspective of who the story followed? Did it evolve as the film came together? Because it was really deftly handled.

That was in the script and comes from the book, I believe. I haven’t read the book. I try to make it a rule to not know the source material and just deal with what’s actually in front of me. What happened was the chapter titles weren’t in the script, that was a device we used to give the audience a strong indication that things are changing and there’s a time jump here, and that’s more dramatic than a dip to black. 

That was really helpful to signal and give a solid structure to help audiences cope with a changing point of view in a direct way. Then, it was also being mindful of when we were changing points of view–how far we could go without seeing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and how Phil always had to be present in the story, even if we were with Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) or Rose (Kirsten Dunst) as they were brought into the story. That took a lot of balancing and a lot of time. That was one of the biggest things in getting this cut right, balancing those points of view and Phil’s presence in the story.

Phil was like the sun, and while you might be following a planet, that planet is always revolving around the sun.

Exactly. It all needs to be about Phil. Even when he’s not in the story, you need to have a sense he’s not far away and will be back very soon, like things are going to come to a head. In doing that, you keep the tension alive because early on when you went too far into Peter or Rose’s story, Phil would recede and you’d feel the tension flatten out.

How was the device of breaking the film into five chapters discovered? And as you were massaging it, did the ins and outs change at all?

They didn’t change so much because the script was broken up into those five chapters–it just wasn’t formally in the script. There were some dips to black, and you could feel where the breaks naturally were. It was really about just embracing the structure and making it clear that this is the structure we’re working with.

The chapter breaks help add a, no pun intended, novel feel to it, like it’s a dime store novel western you’re discovering. One where the pages might be a little yellowed but also has a story that blows you away.

Yeah, totally. It was really about embracing the origin of the material in a way. It just felt so right when they were there. Sometimes there are ideas where you’ll think they’ll be helpful and then you try it and you say, “Oh no, we can’t do that.” Whereas this felt right from the first time we tried it.

What was it like finding the balance of the performances, because everyone is totally unique while still being in the same movie?

That was really fun. We had such great material to play with. It was a joy. Jane and I talked a lot about just letting the performances shine while trying to get as much depth as we could without overloading it. That was the balance. Let their performances be the guiding light and try not to force things too much. 

So the struggle you were hitting was more about how much to involve each character in each chapter, like how much to have someone like Peter be front and center?

Yeah, Peter arriving in chapter four was probably the trickiest because there’s a lot going on. We had to strip a lot back from his arrival. There was a scene where Peter and George (Jesse Plemons) are carrying furniture out of Phil’s room into his new room, then Phil sees it and blows up and they have an argument on the stairs. It was a great scene but that was an example of bringing these two characters too close [together] too early, and it sucked the life out of the rest of the film. 

There’s that duality where you don’t realize they’re the two people circling each other until the ending, which is the prestige of the movie.

It becomes a two-hander in the end, essentially.

And you need to have the effects of what Peter is walking into so you feel the emotional hit more.

Totally, and you need to get to know Pete well enough because we’ve only really known him from the start of the movie. So you need a lot of him without having too much, which was a juggle. And actually, the opening scene used to be the castration. We moved that for time because beginnings are always too long, and also it just felt right to bring in one of the more “macho” feeling scenes right before Pete arrives.

There’s a lot of sleight of hand in this as well. We always talked about a second watch and how different it is once you know the story.

How aware are you when you’re editing that, watching a movie like this is going to be forever different once you know the ending?

We did actually talk about the second watch a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about a second watch with a director before. But, yeah, when that key unlocks the story at the end, it’s forever different. And it’s on Netflix too, so people can watch it a million times very easily. There are a few particular looks where just as Phil is putting his hands in the bucket of rawhide that Pete’s delivered the last time where there’s a sexual tension building between these two men. It turns a potentially dangerous situation into more of a romantic situation, but also just as tense in a different way. There’s a shot of Peter looking down at Phil, working on the rope, and the first time you watch it there’s a sense of longing for this kind of thing to happen. The second time you watch it, it’s a horror shot.

Was it hard deciding how much to foreshadow the ending and how much to show? Because what happens is never explicitly said, it’s just shown, but it’s done in a way that treats the audience as intelligent. 

We knew in a sense it would be hiding in plain sight because we weren’t going too far with the clues or subplots happening while you’re watching it. I mean the great hope was that this relationship between Peter and Phil [would be] captivating enough that [it] would take up so much of your focus, that these smaller things happening in the periphery would stay with you but not take over. 

We actually beefed up Pete cutting the anthrax cow’s hide off. We re-used the shot, punched in on it so it felt like a new shot, and did a bunch of stuff to sit with it a bit longer. But yeah, as we showed it to people, we realized Phil and Pete’s shifting power dynamic and weird developing relationship was enough to be the perfect diversion.

Was there always the opening voiceover? I know you said the beginning changed.

It changed quite a lot, actually. Originally there wasn’t a voiceover of Peter. That came out on one of the last days of shooting. Jane emailed me about it, and I could totally see that working but we didn’t actually try it until we were quite close to the end, maybe two months from locking off picture. We needed Peter’s flag planted firmly in the front so you know, even at a subconscious level, that he’d be coming back and be a really important part of the story. Also, to give the first five minutes a different flavor because he has such a different flavor than Phil and George. It started off far more philosophical with Peter talking about life and the way he sees things. It used to run all the way over the opening montage but we got the sense it wasn’t staying people the way we hoped it would. It was too airy. So then during the final mix, Jane wrote the final one.

Sometimes simple is the loudest.

Yeah, the first time I heard it, I knew it was it.

Was that the hardest sequence to crack?

There were quite a few tough sequences. One of the toughest was the haymaking camp, where George and Rose arrive at the worker’s camp and Pete sees the bird’s nest. It’s Pete and Phil’s first big moment together since Phil burnt the flowers at the beginning of the film. That was really tough because it’s a tricky dialogue scene. It’s a balancing act to get just the right structure where Rose is present but not cutting to her too often to not break the momentum between Phil and Pete.

It’s like the movie is reflecting how the world is treating this person, moving her aside.

Yeah, totally. And where the gaze of the film is heading because what Phil is doing is both about Pete, but it’s also about Rose and shutting her out. In the very next scene, he literally closes the giant barn door on her and locks her out. It’s all of these subtle visual cues. And I feel like it is such a visual film and all of the dialogue is essentially people not saying what they mean.

Well said. I wanted to congratulate you again on the film’s reception. What has it been like doing the awards circuit? 

It’s been interesting. Also, I’ve been in a Melbourne lockdown for five weeks and just got out of that and into the LA award season and press Q&As. Which I haven’t done a lot of because I’m definitely an editor that is far more comfortable in the edit suite.

Well, you’re doing great, so far.

Thank you. I’m getting used to it and it’s really lovely to be asked about your work; it’s a pretty rarified experience. I’m just trying to enjoy it and take it as a blessing. 

What’s your favorite part of being an editor?

Definitely collaborating with the director. Just about every director I’ve worked with are some of my closest friends by the end of the process. It’s such an intimate, and at times scary, process. It’s pressurized, like going to battle together but it’s also incredibly fun working problems out. And the directors I choose to work with or who choose to work with me are usually quite unique human beings, which I love. Jane, David, and Amiel are the three main collaborators I’ve had in [features], and they’re all interesting, unique human beings, which I really love.

Do you have a favorite scene or moment from anything you’ve cut you’re especially proud of?

The Power of the Dog is freshest in my mind, so I’ll go with something from that. Probably the cut from Pete with the cigarette in the barn at night to the horses in the daylight. I love when  film is allowed to enter the slightly abstract and allow an audience to enter a space that’s not literal and can be read many different ways. It also has a great atmosphere that I think is what film does better than any medium. It can put you in a headspace that is unusual and interesting, and that cut I really love, especially coming after a scene I’m really proud of. That’s the most fun part of the job, where it gets away from the structural problem solving, analytical kind of stuff, and into creating feelings.

Is there a piece of advice you’ve learned that’s been especially important for you as a storyteller that you hang onto?

The first thing that really struck me that I’ve definitely carried ever since is a really simple idea… Whose point of view? Point of view is literally everything and sometimes you can forget it, so it’s always good to have that in the back of your mind with every single thing you do. Without a point of view, things are very boring.

As a fan, have you been watching, or watched anything recently, old or new, that stuck out to you as especially well-told or cut?

I’m loving Succession. That’s such a pleasure. The dialogue is so sharp. [There are] so many interesting points of view in that show, so many interesting characters–it’s like a perfect ensemble show. Everyone’s interesting. There are no boring subplots. It’s like one hour of joy every week.

The Power of the Dog is in theaters and available to stream on Netflix now.

[Peter Sciberras photo by Rhett Wade-Farrell.]

Create together remotely, in real time

Securely stream work sessions in up to 4K, video chat with your team, and collaborate live—all in one place.
Watch demo video

Don’t miss a beat

Subscribe to receive updates straight to your inbox.