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Alejandro G. Iñárritu on Leading Oscar Nominee ‘The Revenant’: “This was a film that easily could kill you”

Alejandro G. Iñárritu on Leading Oscar Nominee 'The Revenant': "This was a film that easily could kill you"

Whatever challenges Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu faced while directing “The Revenant” on location in wintry Canada and Tierra del Fuego, he always felt good about the film he was making, and with good reason—the film led the field with 12 Oscar nominations Thursday, including Best Picture, Best Director Iñárritu, Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and Best Supporting Actor Tom Hardy.

He starts building a dream of a movie in his head, puts his departments and cast together and painstakingly plans the production, which in this case, would have completely fallen apart without a very specific road map based on extensive rehearsals and intricately executed camera moves in an hour-and-a-half of natural light per day. This was tough on the actors, who had to find their characters while moving in perfect sync with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s pre-choreographed cameras. 

The filmmaker and Lubezki (“Gravity”) learned a lot while making Oscar-winning “Birdman” that they were able to apply to “The Revenant,” but this film marked another order of magnitude in terms of epic scale and budget. Almost all of the digital movie was shot outdoors with the new and unproven Alexa camera, as they shot the story chronologically from fall to winter to intense snowy conditions. That meant utter reliance on weather, which did not cooperate.

So the $135 million shoot—totally financed by Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, which co-financed back-to-back Oscar-winners “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman”—took place under freezing cold conditions in rugged back country, as Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy as 19th century fur trappers hunted by Native Americans hauled their cold bodies through snow and in and out of icy water, warmed after every take by an octopus-tentacled heater that blew hot hair on their chilled limbs. The entire production had to shut down when snow melted, eventually restarting again in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. 

Whether or not “The Revenant” makes its money back, this stunning visual poem about frontier survival is now an Oscar frontrunner in several major categories, including Best Picture and Best Actor, as four-time acting Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, may finally take a gold man home. He earned this reward with a virtually silent performance— he ate raw liver, for Chrissake!

I interviewed Iñárritu on the phone as well as attending a cast and crew Q & A moderated by Elvis Mitchell. I edited several of those relevant quotes into this narrative. 

Anne Thompson: Were there days where you felt like Francis Coppola or Werner Herzog, where you asked, ‘Is this impossible? I can’t do this?”
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: Absolutely, every day. I felt the Hell I went into. One thing was the idea of it and the other is the reality of it. That spurs any possible imagination you can have. So every day, literally this was a film that can kill you. I was talking yesterday with Leo, I think I died many times, and was reborn many times. I’m a ghost. This was a film that easily could kill you.
What was your lowest point? 
Two of the toughest pivotal moments production-wise—one was during a two-week shooting schedule on a location, we were expecting not to have a lot of snow yet, but it came in a storm at 4 degrees below zero, one of the worst storms ever, it destroyed the set. The weather was so bad, we couldn’t even move on, it was at a moment in the story with no snow, so we were basically screwed and had to stop the whole thing. It had a huge impact. And then, the next one, was suddenly in February, the warm weather started melting the ice, on a location where we were expecting snow. We ran out and had to stop again without any B plan and no possibilities to finish the film in any way possible. Every day we had challenges on many levels, but these were the most crucial and crushing moments, when we had to make big decisions. 

Who backed you up financially to make the trip to Tierra del Fuego possible? 

Behind it all was the hero Arnon Milchan. In the context we are living, with the kind of films being made, on many of them everything is subordinate to the profit, how economically smart they are. I’ll say Arnon Milchan didn’t flinch one second, he and Brad Weston at New Regency absolutely understood the situation, not only giving us what we wanted, but they got the whole picture of what the film needed, how good the material was. They knew how much we were fighting for what we needed. No decision was made irresponsibly or blithely, but they were brave enough. Hopefully every film producer will be like that. 
Why did you have to shoot in chronological order, didn’t that make things more logistically difficult? Did you have cover sets and alternatives?
That’s an easy answer. The story starts in autumn, moves into winter and ends in deep winter. 92% of the locations are exterior. When there’s a storm in the state, you can’t pretend it’s autumn with red leaves covered in snow. There’s no cover, there was no cover set at all. Every location was specific: when you shoot, if you have a specific creek, plan a battle, train the horses three months in advance, you can’t improvise in a situation like that. With a company of 250, you need pre-planned precision for so many technical needs.
How do you make the transition from holding a vision in your head to communicating to other people and losing control as you shoot the film? 
In this kind of project you start as a God of your universe and little by little you end up as a creature of it. What I’m saying is that, when you create a universe so complex, it’s so vast and epic in that sense, you have to have a very good prepared plan to make it happen. Now when weather and nature start playing with you, there’s no negotiation, you will never win that. You have to stop resisting and give up and adapt even in those circumstances, contrary to what you planned. But thanks to an incredible preplan you have, you can apply that to other circumstances without being so precise. Without that advance planning, we would not survive, anyway. You have to be specific and flexible at the same time in order to apply them. I let it go. But I was really clear what I wanted or it would kill me.

I was so privileged, so lucky to get Leo, because he was carrying the film alongside Tom Hardy. I didn’t have any doubt. Not only have I been a big fan of Leo’s since he started his career, but, honestly, after meeting with him, we shared the vision of the mission. Both were excited for the right reasons, for the right things — and I share that excitement, knowing he was Glass. Then, every actor that I met, most importantly for me, beyond the craft of what they’ve done, I’m not only looking for the physical appearance that has to fit with what the character requires. There is an element that I call the ‘interior life,’ when you see in somebody’s eyes that they have something inside, and you know that that is the emotional baggage that he will have to use to get through many things he hasn’t explored. He hasn’t. He will just have to practice and get that out. I think you see every actor in this film has a very deep, profound, beautiful depth of existence in his eyes. That, for me, is very important in the actors and actresses. I’m privileged to have their trust. 

Since before finishing the film, as the whole story of the production came out, I can’t imagine David Lean justifying why he went to the desert to shoot ‘Lawrence of Arabia!’ I was very surprised. People have been doing things in the pixel world so much, they suddenly have forgot that the reality is still available for us and it’s much more interesting and complex than the pixel world we have created. People are surprised, in shock. ‘You shot real locations, with natural light?’ They can’t believe. They’re used to going to the supermarket, where the big red apples look incredible but when you buy them they’re tasteless. When you get an apple that is real, it looks more suspicious and not as perfect but then we taste it: it’s incredible, it’s a really real apple!

But you do use pixels, to create the bear attack for example.

Of course! This film makes homage to the filmmakers who went to shoot the real things and didn’t create everything with pixels. But we used many of the techniques available, we are talking about guys 200 years ago on a planet that is now disappeared, now we are surrounded by concrete and there are no animals anymore. We are human objects detached from nature. We are doing a story about nature shaping human beings. My duty as an artist and filmmaker is to get that right!
I understand that as beautiful as is the digital material you shot on location, you improved it in post-production.

Yes, you work with color correction, all of what you can to make it the best most beautiful thing and wrap things nicely, but the essence is everything that is there. We shot with the format 65mm Alexa, the first in the world, it was not allowed, there was no insurance, no test cameras. The studio backed us. There was no certainty that it was perfect. The secret is not in the format. If the lighting is shot it looks like shit. It’s bigger and more clear, but the secret is the light, shooting when God speaks, when everything at that time of day is like seeing Caravaggio in a museum, you are experiencing a beauty in your body and soul and eyes. Painting is that way. The light is everything. The cinema is light and space and time.

We shot everything in natural light, because the beauty of it… when you shoot it at the right time, every location was the right direction. We rehearse and have one-and-a-half hour to make it happen. Shots completely choreographed. We go from the landscapes and these macro shots of the ice, changing the point-of-view…The light at that time revealed itself, the beauty of the plants and the shine of the water. Everything feels real. We’d have been so lost not having that access. That cinematic experience is impacting the characters and all of us. In the right light, you go to another, transcendental level, discovering nature in that moment. You have been witness to that. In some sense, you get ‘high,’ naturally high. That’s what we intended, and there was no other choice.

READ MORE: How ‘The Revenant’ Changed Emmanuel Lubezki’s Life

Why did the Academy Music Branch reject the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto?
That was sad news. It was also tragic to deny Antonio Sanchez for “Birdman,” it was devastating and unfair, which I complained and appealed. They thought the drums were not emotional, did not carry the emotional power of the film. What?! This time, ‘Wow!’ We are appealing. They said the music was incredible, the tapestry was so cool, but they didn’t understand who did what, it was very confusing. This was the plan, to blend the sounds of nature and the complexity of nature with no way to understand what is what. The complexity of that tapestry in concert is not accidental. The percentage was more than 56% Ryuichi, what it needed to be to be eligible.

I’m in the strange position that filmmakers, we are just, like, dragging ourselves while musicians are so liberated — they’re sort of flying. So I love music, in that sense, and I think have developed an ear and eyes. This film was honestly a beautiful opportunity to work with Martín Hernandez. We’ve been working for 30 years in sound, so we understand the code of that, and Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner, that trio became a weird guacamole of music. 

The Academy is demanding that the way young musicians approach making music for film is narrow. That’s super sad, they should be exploring new ways. Music is so powerful, that’s an undeniable shame. This is the second time they are not doing it right for colleagues in the work. And this is scandalous. Ryuichi sent a beautiful letter to them. I hope they reconsider this. It’s a serous threat for musicians. It’s the wrong message to send to everybody, it will paralyze anyone who seeks to try something different. I respect every branch who may think we are doing something wrong, but if it’s about understanding the tapestry let me and Ryuichi clarify, and they will understand a new way of doing music. 

Elvis Mitchell: Tell me what the first day of shooting was like. 

Oh, my God. The first day of shooting, we started with the battle scene, one of the hardest things to start with. We have the great opportunity to rehearse for months in advance, and that scene was prepared for three weeks, we rehearsed every detail. We prepared for that whole scenario.
We start with the introduction of Tom Hardy… We start with all that scenery: the animals being cut. We established the world in that scene. And always the first day is scary, because you establish all the language, all the things, all the values — that’s the first step…

Here, the landscape of nature was an incredible character that the narrative has to tell a story out of. What the characters do were affected by the locations and the conditions that we were finding every day. So all those challenges, you have to be solving things, and so, in that sense, you’re in a situation where I never knew how difficult it would be…Now that I’ve seen the whole process, it’s the gift of going through this kind of challenging thing. The odyssey of making this film became sometimes even bigger than what these guys were going through. Suddenly, the challenge, in a way, was about resilience and endurance and about hope, and to be fighting, as he said to his son. “As long as you have breath, you have to fight.”

I compared making this film to rock-climbing without a rope: once you establish that you’re up there and you’re in the middle, what we face as filmmakers, there’s a moment where there’s no way down. You have to go up or you die. There was no choice for us; you have to find solutions. That’s the feeling I was interested about. There are things here, and the context, socially, of the United States in that period of time, is the start of capitalism as we know it. All the contexts we were going through, all of us surviving that kind of situation was the state of mind we were in, and I hope that it was real. It was mental acting and mental directing.

Producer Mary Parent: Having become used to green screen and sound stages, the natural beauty of the environments became sort of surreal. It was really cool. For 360 degrees you could see nothing but nature with very little equipment. It was really cold!

Anonymous Content producer Steve Golin: We had extensive rehearsals of the battle scenes, and the choreography was so complex, so detailed, and precise that if one person in the background made a mistake, it would screw up the whole take. You’re up there without a net. That scene in particular went very smoothly, because it was rehearsed so extensively and it was so elaborate. That was one of the few points on the movie where the weather cooperated. Later, we ran into significant weather: it might be too hot or too cold. But that scene went without a hitch, just because I haven’t been involved in something so big before, and so extensive. The choreography of the effects and the horses, all that. So it was really an amazing experience. 

Will Poulter: For me, that first day, I was knee-deep in water, and I remember us having our first experience of what became a common ritual on set: you rehearse these scenes in great detail and apply all this choreography to what we’d be recording..I started from square one, but, yeah, that was an amazing introduction, beautiful, cold, into this entire process…

I found it incredibly difficult…initially: this notion that you had to be so conscious of the camera and consider the camera movement more than you normally would. There are times when the camera is so intimate with you and so close to you that you have to allow it to be part of your process, which is a tough thing to do, initially. The rehearsal process, for me, was all about trying to dance with the camera, trying to work out the choreography, that your movements were aligned with the operator and Chivo. When it came to actually shooting it, it was about working backwards and relying on what you learned about those movements: having them in your subconscious and responding to the emotional stimulus of the scene. It was like you couldn’t really apply the motion until after you’d laid those foundations, and the rehearsal was perfect for that. And, by the end of it, I fell in love with the challenge of that process. It was totally unique and very enjoyable. 

Leonardo DiCaprio: It was jarring for all of us, but the truth is that, pretty soon, I felt a great comfort in it, because I’ve done quite a few films now and a lot gets lost in translation. A lot of the intent of what you want to portray in a character can get lost in the sauce of a million different elements — or, quite simply, the camera not being there. So to orchestrate that beforehand and say — especially in a film like this, where I knew it would almost be like a silent-movie performance, in ways, to communicate Hugh Glass’ cathartic journey for most of the movie — “This is a key moment we need to capture. Let’s all be in coordination with each other.” That stuff evaporates and you get to the core of what you’re supposed to be doing as an actor. So, to me, it actually became incredibly beneficial, because you feel like all the key things you want to display as an actor have been discussed, and you can be present in the moment. 

To tell you the truth, I had a beautiful time…this was such a unique process for all of us as actors, to come onboard a film that was very much like performing theater every single day — you have to rehearse meticulously, and there was this mad, intense scramble to capture this hour-and-a-half of beautiful, lustrous Chivo light. So it became very much like an unhumorous “SNL” situation. It was fascinating, because you’d think that organizing these shots like a Swiss watch, where every department needs to work in unison, limits you as an actor, but, for all of us from the onset, that allowed a certain freedom, when you knew what was going to occur. You’d be settled into that character, and you also felt an intensity and unity with the entire crew that you had to grasp this shot, this day, and that became this perpetuating thing that translated into the actual movie — this intensity, this tension we all felt every single day making this movie. It was a completely unique experience for me…

As much as we’ve rehearsed meticulously, you get Alejandro and Chivo out there in the wilderness, and they become these young filmmakers from Mexico running up a mountain and filming ants and, all of a sudden, you find yourself in a 360-degree shot where the entire 200 people are rotating around you. It’s like independent filmmaking. Those were some of the most exciting parts for me as an actor, to participate in that. And be really creative, because a lot of what this story was for Alejandro, when I first met him, was hard to articulate, why he wanted to go into the heart of darkness.

To me, he wanted this cathartic experience. This is a very linear, straightforward, brilliantly simplistic screenplay about a man trying to avenge the death of his son and trying to find redemption — but, along the way, we wanted to find the poetry in-between that. I knew that’s what Alejandro wanted to achieve. It wasn’t just about what’s on the page. It’s about finding that in nature, and putting ourselves as close as we could to those people…It’s the most difficult film we’ve ever done, and a lot of that is on the screen. It’s in the narrative.

You can close your eyes and listen to so many of his movies. There’s something about this combination of sound and music.

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