Filmed over nine months in remote locations and only using natural light, frontier tale The Revenant is the antithisis of a green screen movie, which was director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intention all along, he tells Alistair Harkness
It’s been almost a year since Alejandro González Iñárritu won three Oscars for co-writing, directing and producing Birdman, but that doesn’t the mean the Mexican filmmaker behind heavyweight dramas Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel has a handle on what it really means for his career. “Birdman was a very experimental film,” he says when we meet in London a couple of weeks before Christmas. “It was a small film, very personal, so the way it was recognised was fantastic. But aside from that, I was working so hard when the Oscars were happening I haven’t had time to really understand what it means.”
What he is clear about is that all the awards hoopla had no bearing on the project that was the source of all that hard work. If winning an Academy Award sometimes gives filmmakers carte blanche to plunge into their next magnum opus – think Coppola using the cachet of The Godfather Part II to make Apocalypse Now – when Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture, Iñárritu was already five months into production on his most challenging film to date: a brutal 1820s-set tale of frontier survival entitled The Revenant.
Inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper whose survival following a savage bear attack in the North American wilderness became the stuff of frontier legend, The Revenant casts a typically committed Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass and follows his hardscrabble efforts to exact revenge on the man who left him for dead (he’s played by Tom Hardy) after killing his son. If that makes it sound like another print-the-legend-style piece of Hollywood myth-making, the poetic realism Iñárritu deploys to bring it to the big screen imbues it with a certain real-world plausibility. “It was a very improbable event,” says Iñárritu. “But to make probable the improbable is the duty of art and I thought this could be very interesting story in that sense. The real anecdote is simple and primitive and very clear, which I like in a way. It gives room for cinema to take over and explore all the internal things: how as a human he is transformed by the experience. That was the thing I wanted to explore: how nature is able to interact with human beings.”
He’s not kidding on this last point. In a digital age in which so many aspects of a film can be augmented or replicated with computer generated effects, Iñárritu was adamant about shooting the film in the wilderness and took his 300-strong cast and crew to the wilds of Canada and Argentina. Shooting in sequence in arduous conditions for nine months using only natural light, he added to the logistical challenges by collaborating once more with Birdman’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot many of the film’s complex exterior scenes in extended, real-time takes in order to really submerge us in the harsh reality of the world as experienced by the characters.
Needless to say, this all made it a tough shoot and, according to an article in the Hollywood Reporter last summer, not an especially harmonious one, with talk of budget overruns, delays and crew members quitting. Iñárritu is sanguine about the negative implications of those reports, though. “You have to be a little crazy to make a film like this,” he says, with a smile. “And not everybody’s crazy and I respect that. In some cases we had 300 crew in high altitudes and low temperatures, making incredible scenes that require incredible precision and rehearsals. But a few people asked to step out because they were not getting to the level that the film demanded and some others – very few again: I’m talking less than ten – had some other commitments or wanted to go to TV sets and film sets with green screens and warm coffee.
“And that’s perfectly fine,” he says, adding that the majority of people who worked on the film enjoyed the challenge despite the struggles. “That’s the nature of any human collaboration, you know? Things work out and sometimes they don’t work out. I don’t know why there is so much drama about that.”
This last statement seems ironic given that Birdman was very much about the behind-the-scenes drama of a creative endeavour. It was also pretty astute and funny about the need to bleed for one’s art. Did he not have a secret desire with The Revenant to test himself as a filmmaker in this way?
Iñárritu laughs. “It was a condition of the film. Art is difficult not because it wants to be difficult: it’s difficult because it wants to be art. I’m not saying this in a pretentious way, but when you try to be truthful about something, the process can be difficult and challenging. If there were no challenges, I think it would not really be worth it because it would be very ordinary.” He does concede that there was a thematic link. “It’s about endurance and about surviving and we have to go through that.”
For all his advocacy of capturing on camera all the spectacle that nature has to offer (the avalanche that fills a background shot late in the film was real, not CGI as most people assume), he acknowledges that the bear attack that’s the heart of the movie wouldn’t have been possible without advances in digital technology. “That’s the trigger for the whole drama so it had to be done perfectly,” he says. Nevertheless, the way the sequence is put together with such sustained intensity, ferocity and realism (particularly in the relentless way the bear – nicknamed Judy – appears to savage DiCaprio as it attempts to protect her cubs) is a real testament to Iñárritu’s understanding of the medium and all it’s tools. “Again I wanted to do it in one take, to put the audience in the place of the guy who is attacked. It’s a cinematic experience to let us understand that nature does not care. We need nature and we can be devoured by it. That’s how it is.”
A few people asked to step out because they were not getting to the level that the film demanded and some others – very few again: I’m talking less than ten – had some other commitments or wanted to go to TV sets and film sets with green screens and warm coffeeAlejandro González Iñárritu
• The Revenant is released on Friday