In early 2017, writer-director Jane Campion, having just finished filming the second season of Top of the Lake, received a copy of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog from her stepmother, Judith. Campion was enthralled by the book and began hunting for its film rights. She and producer Tanya Seghatchian eventually obtained the rights from Canadian producer Roger Frappier after meeting up with him at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. According to Campion, the novel had been optioned at least five times prior but never made. Paul Newman was among those who had tried to adapt the book.
While working on the script, Campion maintained correspondence with author Annie Proulx, who penned the afterword to a 2001 edition of Savage’s novel. After completing her first draft, Campion visited Savage’s ranch in Montana, met with members of his family (the author had died in 2003) and consulted with an expert on Savage from the University of Montana Western in Dillon. Campion was unable to film in Montana due to budget concerns, and opted to shoot in her native New Zealand instead. Cinematographer Ari Wegner and production designer Grant Major eventually landed on a location in Central Otago in New Zealand’s South Island, months before the film’s early 2020 start date.
It was announced in May 2019 that Campion was to write and direct the film with Benedict Cumberbatch and Elisabeth Moss cast to star. Paul Dano entered negotiations to join the film in September. He would be confirmed to star the next month, with Kirsten Dunst cast to replace Moss in her role. However, by November, Dano also dropped out due to scheduling conflicts with The Batman. Jesse Plemons, who was originally offered the role before Dano, was cast to replace him. In February 2020, Thomasin McKenzie, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll, and Adam Beach were confirmed to be cast in the film.
Campion had Cumberbatch in mind for the role of Phil Burbank. He first caught Campion’s attention in the 2012–2013 BBC drama Parade’s End. To prepare for the role, Cumberbatch did research into the Lewis and Clark Expedition and worked for a time on a cattle ranch near Glacier National Park in Montana. He attended a three-week boot camp to learn horse-riding, rope-throwing, castrating bulls and playing the banjo.
Over its first five days of digital release it was streamed by 1.2 million U.S. households, 92,000 UK households, 37,000 German households, and 16,000 Australian.
The Power of the Dog became the first film directed by a woman to receive more than ten Academy Award nominations, and Campion became the first woman to receive more than one Academy Award nomination for Best Director, her first being for The Piano.