Editor’s Note: “The Revenant” is now available to own on Digital HD. The movie will hit 4K Ultra HD Disc, Blu-ray and DVD starting April 19
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” has earned its place in the canon of hellish production stories. Like the legendary Sisyphean productions that were “Fitzcarraldo” and “Apocalypse Now,” Iñárritu’s epic tale of 19th-century fur trapper Hugh Glass has endured impossible challenges. Snow storms, brutal cold, crew defections, a distended budget and being forced to edit a film with no beginning or ending were only some of the stressors Iñárritu faced. The beleaguered film has mirrored its source material; like Glass, the crew was in territory uncharted by humans, every day at the mercy of nature. In fact, that’s exactly how Iñárritu wanted it.
At the 2015 Produced By: New York Conference, Iñárritu and three producers from “The Revenant” endeavored to tell the story of their massive undertaking. Steve Golin, Mary Parent and Brad Weston of New Regency, the film’s production company, Skyped in Iñárritu from LA, because, according to Parent, “He literally cannot leave Los Angeles because he’s frantically editing the end of the movie.”
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When Iñárritu’s computer connected to the audience in New York, he said, “Now I know how Matt Damon felt shooting ‘The Martian!'”
Here’s what we learned from the visionary director about his strenuous and uncompromising project.
1. Shockingly, it was an easy sell.
“The Revenant” would have been a no-go under anyone else’s name, but a few very important people had faith in Iñárritu’s vision.
“About 10 years ago, we were passed along this book that dealt with the historical story of Hugh Glass,” recalled Golin. After developing a first draft with a writer, “Alejandro looked at it and was at first a little hesitant based on what the idea was, in terms of the Native American aspect of it. But he told me he was very interested because it wasn’t what he had expected.” Golin, who is a personal friend of Iñárritu and had previously worked with him on “Babel,” strolled into the director’s office and handed him the script. “He read it right away and had so many smart things to say about it,” said Golin.
“The main thing that attracted me was that you have, on the surface, a story of resilience and human spirit surviving incredible, tough conditions physically and emotionally,” said Iñárritu. “Very little is known about Hugh Glass as a real guy that existed 200 years ago, except that he was attacked by a bear, betrayed and left for dead, and has to survive in the winter. I said, ‘What really drives a human to survive those conditions?’ It’s something improbable, and I think a filmmaker’s duty is to make the improbable probable. I also wanted to discover how I — and the crew, all of us — would be transformed by this journey.”
Golin took the project to Weston at New Regency. Though Iñárritu intended to shoot exclusively with natural light and in remote regions entirely untouched by civilization, his vision was palatable to the company. “They really admired Alejandro,” said Golin. “It was perfect timing when we got involved,” added Weston, President/CEO. “We were going back to the roots of Regency, which was a filmmaker-driven company. We met with Alejandro right after ‘Amores Perros.’ It’s a creatively challenging project with mainstream appeal, and that is the definition of the movies we make. It was a very easy decision for us. We actually read the script overnight and met with these guys at lunch that week and committed to it right away.”
2. Leonardo DiCaprio was the only casting choice.
“Leo was the first choice because he is one of the greatest actors alive, and he has shown that with an incredible career,” said Iñárritu. “He was also the perfect age for the character.” DiCaprio’s natural charisma and ability to captivate without words was of chief concern for Iñárritu. “It’s a very epic, ambitious film, but I didn’t want to lose the intimacy, details, or emotion,” he said. A surprising element of the decision to cast DiCaprio, though, was the actor’s penchant for environmentalism. “Leo responded incredibly well to the historical context of this film and what it means for him personally, regarding the connection with nature,” said Iñárritu. “All the elements coincided to make Leo the best choice. And we were right — he delivers something that people will be incredibly surprised and moved by.”
“Landing an actor like Leo on your project is a huge coup,” added Golin.
3. “The Revenant” predated “Birdman.”
“I started developing ‘The Revenant’ before ‘Birdman,'” said Iñárritu. When DiCaprio went off to shoot “The Wolf of Wall Street,” production was stalled on “The Revenant,” which turned out to be beneficial for Iñárritu in the long run. “I’m thankful that we got put on hold,” said Iñárritu, “because a lot of the things I learned from ‘Birdman,’ that I wanted to do differently next time, were a part of ‘The Revenant.'”
4. It was shot chronologically.
“Every film that I have done since ‘Amores Perros,’ I always have shot chronologically,” said Iñárritu. “That’s the way I shoot and the only way I understand the story.” Iñárritu’s process is predicated on the idea of growth; he believes the cast and crew should evolve with the production’s own narrative. “I leave the story room to grow into what the movie is driving me to do,” continued Iñárritu. “The emotions of the actors are better when they understand the chronological factors that are adding to the story.” Much of the time, this process requires Iñárritu to submit to the will of his creation. “As a filmmaker, sometimes you are God, and sometimes you are a creature of the thing,” he said. “You have to be humble to hear what’s going on and what transformations the story is requiring. Sometimes the film takes power in itself that you have to observe and serve.”
5. The film’s original budget was way too low.
When Weston and the New Regency team hired lawyers to negotiate the film’s budget, they didn’t do their homework. “We said the film would get made at $60 million, but it wasn’t based on any reality,” said Weston. “No one had done a schedule; no one had scouted. It was just lawyers making a deal.” When the team eventually went out to scout locations, the budget nearly doubled. “We ended up settling on a number which was tens of millions higher than the contractual number on the film, and we did it with open arms,” said Weston. “We believed in the film, we believed in Alejandro’s vision, and we knew the scope and scale of this epic picture. It was a living, breathing movie.”
6. In subzero temperatures, a Chinook saved the movie’s life.
Weather was unequivocally the film’s biggest challenge. “93% of the film happens in exterior locations, so we knew we’d be at the mercy of the weather,” said Iñárritu. “We tried to really make a production plan, but we knew in advance that no matter how well we planned, those things would change. And they did.”
When the team got to Calgary, the cold was more brutal than expected. But that was a variable they could control. The production encountered real trouble when they realized the capricious nature of Calgary’s weather patterns. “We used to joke about the weather issues, but we didn’t know actually what was going to happen,” said Weston. “Sometimes the weather would change seven times a day in Calgary,” said Iñárritu. “It’s the worst place for any producer to shoot a film. But it’s an incredible landscape, so we didn’t have a choice.”
One day, the crew was scheduled to shoot a scene in the bare landscape. Of course, a snowstorm rolled in. But then Iñárritu heard a Chinook was on its way. “It was a stunning situation,” said Golin. “Alejandro called me up and said we’re going to grab some weather when a Chinook comes in. I said, ‘What the hell is a Chinook?'” Chinooks, highly unusual weather phenomenons native to Calgary, cause an otherwise freezing day to warm up within hours. “I said to Alejandro, ‘Are you full of shit? Really, we’re planning to schedule a shoot based on winds coming?'”
“I’d never heard of a Chinook before,” said Parent. “That morning, I came in, and there was three feet of snow. I walk out three hours later and there was no snow. It felt supernatural.”
The crew shot the sequences, and the problem was solved — for that day, at least. “Ultimately, the snow issue became a really big problem we couldn’t solve in Canada, or even in the Western hemisphere,” said Golin.
7. Every day of production was the most difficult day of production.
“There hasn’t been one day of ‘The Revenant’ that hasn’t been difficult or challenging,” said Iñárritu. “Nothing has been ordinary in this project. This is the most ambitious project I have ever done in my life.”
“The minute I walked on to set it was completely different than any other set I’ve ever been on,” said Parent, who previously produced other ambitious projects such as “Godzilla” and “Pacific Rim.” “It felt relatively small and intimate because of Alejandro’s vision to shoot with all natural light,” said Parent. “This whole movie felt like a bull’s-eye to hit. It felt like something incredibly special. As a producing team, we spent all day anticipating how things are going to go awry, and in this case the weather was unbelievable.”
Beyond the weather, daylight was the crew’s second biggest issue, as Iñárritu was determined to shoot with natural light. This seems fair enough, except for the fact that it gets dark in Calgary at 3PM in winter, and the crew had to travel two hours each day to reach their remote shooting locations. (“I wanted locations that really felt untouched by human beings, that you felt the wilderness as it was two hundred years ago,” said Iñárritu.) Sometimes long-take scenes had hundreds of extras. The crew rehearsed for weeks until they reached a state of streamlined precision; Iñárritu compared the preparation process to that of staging a massive play.
“We knew we had just one hour and a half every day to shoot,” he said. “The demands that we set for this approach were really, really high. Every crew member had to be involved because we were shooting real-time, 360 degrees shots where everyone has to hide and run. The nerves were really high. Then, suddenly, the sun comes out, or suddenly a tree falls on set and you’re screwed. Or you arrive to that location two weeks after rehearsal, and it’s flooded. It was crazy. You have to adapt and change, but you cannot lose precision.”
The director remained vehemently opposed to utilizing green-screen. “The results would not be the same,” he said. “The physical experience permeates the images. We were going through the same odyssey that these trappers went through. To the actors and the camera, there’s a truthfulness that comes through.”
7. Iñárritu edited the film without a beginning or an ending.
After running out of snow in Calgary, the crew was at an impasse. “We had to make a big decision to wrap principal photography without the ending of the movie,” said Weston. This meant they’d have to find another location to finish the film. And at this point, with a premiere date in winter 2016, the timeline was getting tight.
“Alejandro had to edit a film without a beginning or an ending,” said Parent. “We went halfway around the world to get it. And now, we’ve had very little time to actually edit. The weather did more than just challenge us on a daily basis. Everybody put their all into this movie, and to feel that there was this battle that was completely out of our control…. There was no way around this. Nature wins, every time.”
Meanwhile, DiCaprio had to maintain his wild beard while he waited to finish the movie. “I remember someone talking about the lice in Leo’s beard,” said Weston. “But at that point, we had seen the footage. We trusted Alejandro completely, and we knew we had to finish the picture correctly. We made a big decision to finish the picture in what turned out to be Argentina.”
8. The budget doubled — and New Regency was on board every step of the way.
“We were happy to make increases in the budget,” said Weston for perhaps the first time in production history. “I’ve worked with Alejandro on this for over 3 years now and there hasn’t been one cross word between us. I can confidently say that every single creative ask that he had made the picture better. He’s never asked for something extraneous.”
“Alejandro has these brain dumps that are incredible,” said Parent. “He’s like, I thought about this last night and I have this idea! And you wish he’d pitch something that wasn’t good so you could say no.”
“Without the support of these guys and their trust, this film couldn’t have been made,” said Iñárritu. “I felt fully supported. Every decision was thoughtful. We analyzed every single aspect of a conflict, and we all passionately believed we had to give the film what the film needed. Not what I needed.”
“You can only work with someone like Alejandro if you’re making something where you feel like all of the efforts are worth it,” said Parent. “At the end of the day, you want to feel like your blood, sweat, and tears are going into something that the director is also completely committed to. This is the kind of project you dream of. You’ve got to bring your A-game. But in the hands of anybody lesser, it would not be a particularly wise endeavor, to put it mildly.”
“Great movies get made by great directors,” added Weston. “Executives don’t make great movies by themselves. It’s as simple as that.”
“Alejandro is on a journey of discovery during the movie,” said Golin. “He’s experiencing it along the way with the actors. You have to know going in that Alejandro’s not going to make it easy. He’s on a desperate quest to make a movie that’s truthful and honest. He’s completely unrelenting in terms of what his vision is for the movie, and he does come up with a lot of great ideas along the way that are not necessarily on the page. You have to stay on your toes, and that’s why it was so great working with New Regency, who was on board completely. We were lucky.”
9. There were no reshoots, and nothing was added to the script.
According to Iñárritu, there are three reasons a film can go over budget. In one instance, a director doesn’t know what she wants and gets lost trying to find it. Alternately, a director knows what he wants but has no idea how to get it; he tries everything, and the costs multiply. “But in this case, we all knew what we wanted,” said Iñárritu. “We knew how to get it. The problem was that every obstacle was in the way. There was no single reshoot. Nothing was added to the script. We were making tough decisions based on what the film needed, with a very conscious mind to get the budget as low as possible but without compromising what we thought would be an epic film.”
“Sometimes we could have made easier or cheaper decisions,” admitted Iñárritu,”but that would have affected the spirit of the authenticity of the film, and ultimately the value of it. When you embark on a boat in the middle of the ocean, there’s a moment where you realize you cannot go back. You just have to fight and risk everything. If not, you die. We were trying to survive this bear attack. I feel very proud about it.”
10. Admittedly, they were all “a little crazy” making this movie.
“Stanley Kubrick said the ultimate truth about directing and producing a film,” said Iñárritu. “He said that it’s the same as trying to write a poem as you’re riding on a roller coaster. You’re trying to do poetry, honor your artistic vision, but at the same time production is a rollercoaster that is very physical, absolutely uncontrollable, and you have to be riding it.”
“As humanity, if we pretend we are the masters of nature, we’ll hit the wall,” continued Iñárritu. “The same goes for producers. If we think we can control the beast completely, then we become just toothpaste producers. If I’m not challenged — if I don’t have an incredible fear of failure — I feel that I should not do the job. My job is to try to find the answers I don’t have through the process.”
For all of his strong convictions, Iñárritu remains self-aware. “To do what we’re doing, I truly believe we have to be a little crazy,” he said. “Most likely you will fail, but if you can invest everything, you can get a little bit of the beautiful mess that is transporting people to another level of consciousness. If one of the films I’ve made gets to a mystery, or reveals something in a different way to any audience in the world, it’s worth it. But that costs money. It costs your life. You have to get out of your family, your comfortable zone. All of us did a lot of that.”
“Let me tell you, nobody will go to a film because the guys were on schedule and on budget,” said Iñárritu. “It’s how good the film is. I’m not saying that you have to be irresponsible. But mission and ambition should never be compromised. Never surrender.”