The 19th-century survival tale has endured a litany of challenges on its way to the big screen
“There are no adventures anymore,” says Alejandro G. Iñárritu, sitting in an editing bay in Santa Monica. “When my wife says, ‘Oh, we are going to go off and have an adventure,’ I say, ‘We don’t have adventures, we have GPS. We will never get lost.’ ” To compensate, he has become the most outward-bound, off-the-grid director of his generation. For Birdman, which won four Oscars earlier this year including Best Picture, Iñárritu, 52, deployed a high-wire act of extended tracking shots that thrilled critics but challenged the endurance of his cast and crew. In an effort to create films unlike anything that’s been seen before, he’s eager to propel himself to the furthest edge of what’s possible.
His new film, The Revenant, out on Christmas Day, is inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a 19th-century hunter and fur trapper who was attacked by a bear and left for dead by his comrades (Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson), only to will himself across hundreds of miles of winter terrain to safety—and redemption. “Those guys were real men,” Iñárritu says. “Not p—–s like us.”
Iñárritu wanted to re-create the hard reality of those men’s lives, and that meant no faux settings or heated soundstages. With his Birdman cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki by his side, he and his cast and crew trekked into the wilderness outside Calgary, filming in locations that few humans—and no movie cameras—had ever seen. Using only natural light, they shot for seven months in frigid conditions that demanded hours of rehearsal for brief moments of camera time.
“I was cold basically every day, especially my hands,” says DiCaprio. “After almost every take, I couldn’t feel them. There was one particular warming machine on set, which was like an industrial-size dryer with eight black tubes extending out of it. I nicknamed it the octopus. It was my savior.”
That brutality was just what they all needed, according to Iñárritu. “The conditions, the weather, made the actors better. They were feeling the cold, and they were really into it,” he says. “They were not acting, they were f—ing miserable.”
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Perhaps a little too miserable? The approximately $100 million film lost multiple crew members, either because of terminations or defections. The director says he’s grateful to those who stuck it out. “I could not be more proud and thankful for the work, art, and support of more than 300 people who traveled to the end of the world—literally!—to work together for this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says.
They’re still at it, by the way. When the weather warmed up prematurely in Calgary, the production decamped to Patagonia, Argentina, and in early August was still shooting. “This movie is The Forever-and-ever-and-ever-nant,” Hardy jokes. “We’re in a big old battle sequence now, and me and Leo will be kicking 10 bells of s— out of each other, and then it’s all done and dusted. But it’s really, really special, what [Iñárritu] is coming up with. It’s all worth it, you know.”
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