Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner on the brink of Oscar history

Ari Wegner recalls a life-changing phone call from Jane Campion during a sweltering Christmas in 2018.

“I finally braved the heat to go to the supermarket and looked down at my phone and Jane was calling me,” the Australian cinematographer said from New York. “I hadn’t spoken to him in quite a while and really thought it must have been an accidental call.”

But rather than just a pocket watch, Campion wanted to know what Wegner would do over the next two years. She had a western – The power of the dogit was called – she was planning to shoot in New Zealand.

“It was just the call you dreamed of,” Wegner says.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner shoots The Power of the Dog with director Jane Campion. Credit:netflix

Four years later, she gets a chance to make history at the 94th Academy Awards on Monday, with a Best Cinematography nomination alongside fellow Australian and good friend Greig Fraser (Dunes). No woman has won the award at the Oscars and only one has been nominated before – Rachel Morrison (muddy) in 2018.

Wegner, 37, grew up in a creative home in Melbourne – his father Peter won the Archibald Prize last year – with an interest in photography. This came to film when she watched Campion’s 1983 short Moments without passion.

“It was the first movie I think I’ve seen that looked like something a normal person could do,” she says. “That a story can be really small and make a big movie.”

Ari Wegner, 37, grew up in Melbourne.

Ari Wegner, 37, grew up in Melbourne.Credit:Ben King

The two had filmed a banking commercial together, getting along well, as Wegner rose through the ranks with a series of boldly creative films – Lady Macbeth (2016), Wander (2018), Fabric (2018), The True Story of the Kelly Gang (2019) and Zola (2020).

While women have been woefully underrepresented, Australian filmmakers have an impressive Oscar track record.

In addition to six wins, this is the third time the country has had two nominees in the same year.

Both times before, an Australian won – Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) by Don McAlpine (Red Mill!) in 2002 and Russell Boyd (Master and Commander: The Other Side of the World) by John Seale (cold mountain) in 2004.

A third Australian cinematographer shares the glory of this year’s Hollywood Awards season, with Peter Levy, who won the Emmys for Californication and The Life and Death of Peter Sellerswinning the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Lifetime Achievement Award for Television.

Other Australians have also excelled in Hollywood, including Mandy Walker (hidden numbers, Mulane, Elvis), Adam Arkapaw (real detective, Assassin’s Creed), Oscar winner Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha, Gemini Man, The little Mermaid) and Toby Olivier (get out, Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar).

So why, dating back to Oscar winner Dean Semler and other pioneers of the 1980s, have Australian cinematographers been so successful in Hollywood?

Wegner thinks it’s possible they’re easy to use.

“Australians shake things up a bit too,” she says. “We treat everyone the same. And maybe coming from the Australian film industry, we don’t always have the biggest budgets and we don’t have all the toys that you’ve heard of in American cinematographer so there is a kind of ingenuity.

Wegner believes that training on small-scale films that are always pressed for time and resources makes them problem solvers who don’t assume the solution is money.

Fraser, who was in London preparing for the shoot Dune: part twodescribes cinematography as “part practice and part art”.

“We’re committed to turning something that’s on paper — which is intangible — into something tangible,” he says. “I think Australians are very practical as people. We’re pretty good at getting down to business – head down, buttocks – and get going.

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“Cinematography needs that level of plowing. But a lot of that is artistic, which we do very well too.

Levy trained in filming documentaries – like many pioneers – before moving to the United States. He thinks Australian cinematographers are used to making things work with what they have.

“Generally in Hollywood you can get whatever you want,” he says. “If you can afford it, it’s here to be had. In Australia, we had to improvise and get these big results with smaller facilities. I guess that’s a skill that translates well to working in America and filming drama.

Many Australian cinematographers also have the ability to stay calm on a frantic film set.

“What works for Australians – and I hope I have it too – is a low bullshit tolerance,” says Levy. “We tend to want to cut to the chase. Don’t be distracted by pointing fingers, let’s find the solution.

Seale, who shot George Miller Three thousand years of nostalgia last year, thinks Australian cinematographers “give it their all” and are easygoing.

“When I went there in the early 80s with Peter Weir to do Witness, America was always in the middle of this very formal atmosphere on set where the cinematographer ruled,” he says. “He – and there were not many [female cinematographers] at the time – was involved in wardrobe, coloring, makeup, lighting, movement, shots…

“We didn’t have that in Australia. Our own style of filmmaking in Australia was a lot more laid back, where the wardrobe, the makeup, the hair and working with the director on what shots would work to get a good edit became a nice team effort.

A clipping from the Bulletin when the Australian cinematographer won an Oscar in 1951.

A clipping from the Bulletin when the Australian cinematographer won an Oscar in 1951.

Seale thinks the Australian pioneers who shot on film before digital became the norm had an advantage: they knew exactly what the labs would do with their negative.

“It was kind of scary to go to America and find that the labs weren’t in control,” he says. “They were actually printing out every shot what they thought it should look like. As a result, I found a lot of the cameramen to be very uncomfortable.

“There was a lot of ‘I’m the cinematographer and I know what I’m doing’, shouting and shouting. I always thought it was the insecurity of what the lab was doing to their negative.”

So who will win at the Oscars? Levy thinks the story suggests Wegner.

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“The Oscar likes ‘small’ liberal causes, he likes period films, he likes set films,” he says.

Wegner knows a win would be historically significant.

“It will be a very important step for cinema in general and for women,” she said. “What’s most important is the normalization of women making big movies.

“It’s not like there aren’t women doing it; it’s that at a certain level of budget or at a certain scale of film, there’s a perception that you need a guy, a male cinematographer, for a big movie proper.

Wegner and Fraser, friends since working together on the 2009 Australian film Last roundenjoyed going through awards season together.

She won the British Society of Cinematographers Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards; he won the BAFTAs and the ASC Awards. They also both caught COVID-19 on the awards circuit, with Fraser being stuck in his hotel room during the BAFTAs and Wegner subsequently contracting bronchitis.

“I love him and I love his work,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing that two kids from Melbourne are putting on their good going out clothes.”

Fraser loved watching Wegner’s career blossom.

“If Ari were to win, there would be no one happier in this audience than me,” he says.

The 94th Annual Academy Awards will air Monday on Seven and 7plus, live from 11 a.m. and rebroadcast at 7:40 p.m. Follow our blog live from the red carpet and the ceremony starting at 11 a.m.

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Email the writer at gmaddox@smh.com.au and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.

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