'The Revenant': Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's most challenging film yet
Issue: January 1, 2016

'The Revenant': Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's most challenging film yet

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu won three Oscars — Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay — for Birdman last year. That huge success capped off an amazing run since he directed and produced his acclaimed 2000 debut feature film, Amores Perros, which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film and received over 60 prizes, becoming the most awarded film around the world in that year. Iñárritu’s 2003 follow-up film, 21 Grams, which he conceived, directed and produced, won Oscar noms for its stars Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts. His 2006 feature Babel, starring Cate Blanchet and Brad Pitt, earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Film and Best Director, and his 2010 feature, Biutiful, won its star Javier Bardem a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Now Inarritu has taken his Birdman technical innovations and pushed the limits of cinema even further with The Revenant, a grueling, intense, harrowing tale of survival, endurance and revenge set in the frozen frontier of 1820s America, which he co-wrote. Loosely based on a true story, it follows guide and hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who barely survives a brutal bear-mauling only to be betrayed, abandoned and left for dead in the wild by the ruthless and mercenary fur trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who has killed Glass’s teenage son.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Iñárritu talks about making the film and his love of post and editing.

This is so different from Birdman. What sort of film did you set out to make?

“I wanted to make a very cinematic, pure, monolithic film that’s about this incredible physical experience that Glass went through, and it deals with what people can endure when they’re stripped of everything.”

You and DP Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who shot Birdman for you, worked with all natural light. Talk about the biggest technical challenges of making that happen?

“We decided early on to just use natural light and firelight, as light is the element that makes cinema. And if you have the right light, you have the right picture and right emotional impact. And the complexity of natural light is very different from the look of film lights, which are one-dimensional by comparison. They have one color and they’re harsh. Because of that, even choosing locations with the right sun direction was challenging, and we had over 100 locations, and the distances between them were huge and very tough in terms of getting cameras and all the equipment set up each time. And we had everything from huge cranes to trucks, campers and so on.”

You shot in Canada and Argentina. How tough was it?

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I started scouting locations five years ago, so it took a very long time just to find all that. We were shooting for seven months near Calgary, way out in the wilderness, the weather was brutal — 30, 40 below some days. The actors and crew were all freezing all the time, frostbite was a danger all the time, so it was as intense as it looks on screen. What you see is what we got. You can’t fake it. Then you’re also dealing with the very short winter days, and on top of that, it suddenly got too warm in Canada, which is why we had to move to Argentina for the snow.”

It’s the most beautiful film I’ve seen since Barry Lyndon. Tell us about working with “Chivo” Lubezki.

“We felt that while music inspired Birdman, paintings inspired this film, and for that reason we shot on film with Alexas and the brand new Alexa 65 with a lot of wide lenses to get more depth in the shots. We were the first people to use the 65 — it wasn’t even approved at that time. There was no insurance. But the images we got are just stunning. And to put the audience right in the movie, we shot with a lot of hand held and Steadicam, and mixed that with cranes. And we also shot it all chronologically, as I’ve done in all my films. That way, I feel the film tells you what it needs. Once you’re there, on the shoot, you start changing and transforming, especially on long shoots like this. You change as a person, your mind grows, and it all feeds into the story. And I think it’s some of the best work Chivo’s ever done. It’s really extraordinary.”

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

“We did it all at Lantana. We edited there and then did the sound mix at the Hitchcock stage on the lot at Universal. The post schedule was weird, as we suddenly had to shut down the shoot at the end of March as the snow disappeared in Canada, and so then I began editing in April. And then in August I went down to Argentina to shoot the climax of the film, and then we started up again on editing and working on all the sound when I got back. So it stretched over many months.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I really love doing post, especially all the editing, and it was so warm and civilized after all the freezing cold days of the shoot. For me, editing and adding all the music and sound is like adding the third dimension of making a film. Before the editing, the film is just all these pieces of film that don’t mean anything yet. So it’s only when you start editing that you basically get to finally rewrite your script and find the film. And I just love that process and finding out what the film really is and means. But it’s also very scary. When you do that first assembly you always have all these problems, but then little by little you begin to shape it and transform all the material you’ve collected. It’s a lot of little steps.” 

You’ve previously worked with Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione on several of your films – Birdman, Biutiful, Babel, which won him his second Oscar nomination, and 21 Grams. How does that relationship work?

“He came on the set with us and spent some time, and we start assembling while I’m shooting. I really love working with him because I think he’s not just a very smart, accomplished editor with incredible technical skills, but he’s also a very sensitive guy and has very good taste, which is also very important in an editor. And we work well together. That’s very important when you spend so much time together in a small room — more than with my wife sometimes (laughs). You get to know someone very well and what each of you likes and doesn’t like. We always agree about the real meaning of a scene and what’s valuable to save in a performance. And that’s crucial, I feel. You hear stories about directors and editors who fight a lot, and I will not even consider that. I edited Amores Perros myself, and it took me eight long months and it was very difficult and lonely and torturous, even though I love editing. So for me, I find it far more enjoyable when I can share that time with someone else in a dark room and all my thoughts about how to put it all together — all the infinite possibilities. I was so relieved to find Mirrione, who’s also very calm and pragmatic. It’s not easy to find someone with all his qualities.” 

Tell us about the visual effects and how you used them, especially in the soon-to-be-famous bear mauling scene?

“That sequence was definitely one of the hardest to do and get right, as it had to look completely realistic or it’d take you out of the whole movie, so we used a mix of visual effects and special effects. I don’t want to give away all our secrets, but we applied all the available technology — it wasn’t just one thing. And a lot of it was real — the real thing, which we combined with a lot of other elements, including stunt men, prosthetics and make up, and CGI. And we wanted it to be like one unbroken shot, which makes it even more intense. [VFX producer] Richard McBride, who did Gravity, was also on the set all the time, which helped a lot. ILM, Cinesite, MPC and others worked on it and we did a lot of clean up for snow, and lots of little stuff to do with the animals that had to be held. My aim was always to use any VFX for as much rigorous realism as possible, and the fact is, using VFX for realism is far more difficult than when you use them for fantasy. Then you have a license to create anything you can imagine. But when it’s something like this, audiences know what reality looks like and how it behaves.” 

It has a great score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nikolai. How important are sound and music to you?

“The music was crucial and they’ve collaborated for a long time as a team doing electronica, and we used sounds of nature blending with electronic sounds and with strings and silence. I love the score, but the Academy just announced that they’ve denied Ryuichi eligibility for an award, as they cannot allow two composers to do the score, which is outrageous, as they’ve done six albums together. I think they should reconsider the rules. It’s a real shame. Anyway, for me it’s hard to overestimate just how important music and sound are to my films. I think there’s a dictatorship of the image in all films, and I really like to challenge that. For me, sound is even more important than what you see on screen, in the way that it hits you. The emotional chords are much more sensitive to sounds than images, because they’re more abstract, and like smells they can trigger a much deeper understanding of things. When you see images, they’re very concrete. When you hear them, they’re abstract in the way they trigger your own emotional baggage. So I spend a lot of time looking for just the right sounds and textures for my films, and again I worked with sound designer and editor Martin Hernandez who’s designed all my films since we were at college and then the radio station together. So he knows exactly what I like and want, and in this case we really pushed the sound design even more — and we always push it.”

Where did you do the DI?

“At Technicolor in LA, with Steve Scott. I’m involved, but it’s mostly Chivo. He’s the master of light and the DI’s a very delicate thing as you can go crazy with it, so you must control yourself and not overuse it, as then you can lose the natural look of light. And they did an amazing job.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“I have to say it did, and I’m very proud of it. Every time I see it I get a kind of post-traumatic syndrome and remember just how hard it was. It was a hugely ambitious film with a lot of risk of failing on every level, but thanks to the efforts of 300 people for nearly a year, I feel we succeeded.”

What’s next? The Revenant  — Part 2?

“(Laughs hard) No! Never again. I’m a little crazy, but I’m not totally stupid. I’m going to go to my cave like a bear and sleep for six months. I want my life back.”