The Montanans played key roles behind the scenes of the powerful new film, “The Power of the Dog,” which opened on November 24 and looks set to earn a few Oscars.
Critics were particularly impressed with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the dark and sinister Montana rancher Phil Burbank.
Her performance is called “the definitive best career … both terrifying and terrified”.
And it’s directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Jane Campion, who won acclaim for her 1994 film, “The Piano.”
“The Power of the Dog” is based on the novel by Montana writer Thomas Savage of the same name and is considered Savage’s best work.
In the film, Phil Burbank, a brilliant, angry and charismatic breeder, inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother George brings home a new wife and his son, Phil torments them. The film gradually reveals the tortured role he plays.
The opening night film preview on November 24 at the Myrna Loy featured short talks by three people – Randy Rieman, O. Alan Weltzien and Scott Hibbard – all of whom were involved in the making of the film or helped Cumberbatch to immerse himself in his role as a cowboy.
And there was a surprise video message to the audience by Cumberbatch, which was played before the movie.
He admitted that he was glad he wasn’t in Montana that night because he was nervous that the “experts” in the room would spot things that weren’t quite Montana, because he was nervous. been filmed in New Zealand.
“I am delighted to speak to you,” he said in his video, and thanked people for “the hospitality, inclusion, support and the… great time you showed me”.
He particularly thanked Randy Rieman and his wife, Jenn Swanson, who run an equestrian operation near Choteau, for “taking care of a city dweller in a new world”, for accommodating, feeding and transporting him.
“Randy, as you know, is quite extraordinary…. They are both incredibly talented and intelligent and lovable human beings to spend time with.
Rieman, acclaimed cowboy poet, horse expert and master rawhide braider, is known for his skills in teaching horseback riding, working with horses and handling cattle. He gives workshops all over the country and in Europe.
He had been contacted by Montana film commissioner Allison Whitmer in 2018 asking him to take on Cumberbatch’s tutoring in the art of the Montana cowboy – from western riding and roping, to tagging. and the castration of the calves, through the braiding of the reatas.
“Everything was pretty quiet,” said Rieman, who reported that when he picked up Cumberbatch from the Great Falls airport, “people were stunned by his presence.
“He’s a very keen observer and very interested in understanding all aspects of how our lives work on the ranches,” Rieman said. “He was really trying to figure out what it was like to be a breeder.”
It was essential for Cumberbatch to look and feel both like a 1920s Montana cowboy to immerse himself in his role.
“It was a privilege to work with him. It’s nice to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained over the past 40 years, ”said Rieman.
He wanted to be comfortable on a horse and mark and tie and braid a rope.
“We talked a lot about his job and how he invests in the character. He really immerses himself in things.
Cumberbatch was not starting from scratch. He knew how to ride, but it was the English style.
“We worked and worked and worked,” Rieman said.
“We worked on horseback riding. We roped up. We marked the cattle, three different styles. He became competent to castrate calves.
Rieman took him to three different ranches: the Sieben Live Stock Company, the Two Dot Cattle Company and the J Bar L.
“Benedict was courteous and open. We took him to our little old house which was under construction, we camped in a tipi, we slept in horse trailers.
Cumberbatch took it all in stride.
“He learned a lot,” Rieman said. “He made himself proud.
“He was good at everything he did. It’s a good hand.
“I was flattered and honored and so surprised,” Rieman said of Cumberbatch’s video message. “We’ve always known he was a world class actor, but he’s also a world class human being.
“We have a friend. He helped decorate our souls, and we helped decorate his soul. “
Another key behind-the-scenes role was played by Weltzien, who is Savage’s prominent scholar and wrote Savage’s biography, “Savage West”.
“I’ve been his cheerleader for 20 years.
The writer and professor emeritus of English at UM-Western and his wife, Lynn, hosted Campion and producer Tanya Seghatchian for a weekend in 2018 and introduced them to the wild country.
“We showed them all the home ground – his life in Dillon and his life in Horse Prairie.” They also introduced them to Sandy James, Savage’s nephew.
Weltzien is thrilled the movie is out and is so good.
Although Savage claimed he never wrote an autobiography, he actually wrote his family history in his novels, Weltzien said. Dillon is written over and over again.
Savage had a photographic memory. He remembered everything: the voices, the gossip, the facades of buildings.
Benedict’s character, Phil, is based on Savage’s own uncle Bill.
And Rose, whom Phil torments, is based on Savage’s mother, Beth Brenner, who was an alcoholic.
Bronco Henry Williams was also real, Weltzien said.
Although deceased, Bronco Henry has a leading role in the film. In real life, he was a renowned cowboy from Lemhi County, Idaho, with several places named after him, Weltzien said.
Savage had no patience for a romantic approach to cowboys, according to Weltzien. His point of view was that ranches destroy people.
Weltzien hopes the film will spark a renewed interest in Savage and his other works, restore his reputation as one of Montana’s best writers, and also spark interest in filmmaking in southwest Montana.
Hibbard Cooper’s son and Cooper’s wife Ashley Wertheimer hosted Cumberbatch for several days at the Sieben Live Stock Company outside of Helena.
Hibbard and family friends set up a tent camp as part of an annual rally, and Cumberbatch came out and joined them around the fire.
“He’s an absolutely delicious guy,” Hibbard said. And, apparently, Cumberbatch stepped in to help with the dishes during the visit.
He was also involved in the tagging and castration of calves, which is not a pleasant thing to do, Hibbard said.
These tasks are not easy either.
Cumberbatch’s hands were shaking when he started working with the calves, but he learned to get used to it for his role.
And speaking of roles, this is something Cumberbatch has a knack for.
Hibbard recounted that Cooper and Ashley were talking with Cumberbatch, when he suddenly became Randy Rieman before their very eyes – his voice, his gestures, his inflections, his body movements, his posture.
“It was Randy.
“It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. “
And then he became Benedict again.
“Absolutely a lovely guy,” Hibbard said. “Authentic. Down to earth. Humble. Brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant.