With a full beard and a flintlock rifle that he learned how to load and shoot, Leonardo DiCaprio had the outer trappings needed to play 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass in director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Yet as the film’s trailer suggests, what this isolated-in-the-wilderness character would not be given, for many minutes of screen time, would be words to speak.
“It was a different type of challenge for me,” DiCaprio says, “because I’ve played a lot of very vocal characters. It’s something that I really wanted to investigate — playing a character that says almost nothing. How do you relay an emotional journey and get in tune with this man’s angst … without words?”
As he speaks on the phone, DiCaprio is days away from heading south — way, way south — to Ushuaia, in the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina, chasing the snow and cold necessary to shoot the film’s final scenes. He will not need help packing. “I’m quite used to dressing warm,” he says. “Been doing it for nine months, so” — he chuckles — “I’m very well equipped. I’m prepared for that weather.”
Weeks of wintertime shooting with Iñárritu in the Canadian Rockies northwest of Calgary, amid vast landscapes still untouched by commercial structures, will do that. It was there that the Birdman director brought DiCaprio to star in The Revenant, a survival adventure fused with what DiCaprio calls “almost an existential journey” that tells the inspired-by-real-events story of Glass, long an exalted figure among American outdoorspeople.
An expert hunter and fur trapper along the Upper Missouri River, Glass would be mauled by a grizzly bear within what is now Perkins County, South Dakota, in August 1823. The two men assigned to look after him — or to bury his mutilated remains — left him to die, alone. Glass would refuse to do so. His successful struggle to make his way hundreds of miles to the southeast would transform him into a mountain-man legend. As reimagined by Iñárritu, with fresh layers of meaning and a host of interior crises as well as physical ones, that struggle takes on new dimensions, as does the character of Glass.
“He was attacked by a bear, he was abandoned, and he had to go 300 miles to get revenge — this was what is known about him,” explains the 51-year-old Iñárritu, sipping something warm in the Santa Monica offices where he’s begun editing the movie. For him, the raw facts of Glass’s life were just the beginning, an opportunity to see Glass “as an example of the relentless possibilities of the human spirit against so many challenges: racial, physical, spiritual, social. I took that opportunity to create my own Hugh Glass: my interpretation of who he could have been.”
That interpretation drew DiCaprio to the project. “I tried to capture — or emulate on film — a different type of American that I haven’t seen on film very often,” DiCaprio says. “This [was] an unregulated, sort of lawless territory. It hadn’t been forged into the America that we know yet. It was still sort of up for grabs.”
That cold, though.
Shot only in natural light by two-time consecutive Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — known as “Chivo” — The Revenant is populated with performers playing Caucasian fur trappers and people of native tribes such as the Arikara and the Pawnee, all of them filmed amid the same brutal conditions as their 1820s counterparts.
“There was something very positive about shooting in those conditions, to understand what those guys [from the 1820s] went through,” Iñárritu says. “We don’t have adventures anymore. Now people say, ‘I went to India … it’s an adventure.’ No: We have GPS, a phone, nobody gets lost. Those guys really were in a huge physical, emotional adventure in the unknown territory. After you see what these guys went through, you understand what pussies we are: Our apartment is not at the right temperature, there is no ham in the fridge, and the water is a little cold … When did that happen?
“Actors were not in sets with green screens and laughing,” Iñárritu says. “They were miserable! And they really feel the fucking cold in their ass! They were not acting at all!”
Neither was their director, who, like his cast and crew, would spend last winter trudging a half-hour on foot in subzero temperatures to reach otherwise inaccessible set locations. “We had a blizzard that was 29 degrees below,” he says, “and the water was coming from the river, full of snow. I was trying to get my phone, to take a picture — and if I take off my glove to take a picture, 40 seconds, I couldn’t feel my fingers. There were moments when you said, ‘What the fuck are we here for?’”
And yet, those conditions notwithstanding, The Revenant’s shoot would run out of snow. “The snow melted down, literally, in front of our eyes,” Iñárritu says. “We experienced global warming; we were planning to shoot the ending scene in a location that supposedly will have snow …” he laughs. “[But there were] bees. So we had to shut down.”
That six- or seven-day shoot near the South Pole looms in the near future — Fox’s Christmas Day release date isn’t so far off, either — but Iñárritu appears anything but stressed out. “I am a pretender,” he says with a smile. “It’s been a challenging period of postproduction, editing, and preproduction, which is weird. Nonstop. Honestly, nonstop.”
You may have noticed: Not many of these kinds of films get put into production these days. Says producer Steve Golin, CEO of Anonymous Content, “Having a star as big as Leo definitely gave us the ability to make the movie at the scale that we made it.”
For DiCaprio, now 40, The Revenant marks a new scale of sorts; it’s a performance that could make him part of the Oscar conversation once more. “Honestly, Leo, he’s attacked by a bear, and after that, he becomes almost like a silent character: a lot of things going on, but no words,” Iñárritu notes. “That’s for me the essence of cinema: not to rely on the words, but images and emotions.”
“The preparation was really more being completely in tune with my surroundings,” DiCaprio says, “and doing my best to pretend that no one was around, because it is so much about this man’s isolation and his will to live — somebody that’s lost everything. And all that … needed to be translated with very [few] actors around me.
“So I was intrigued by the challenge and in particular with this group of filmmakers.” He chuckles again. “If nothing else, I figured it’d be an interesting journey.”
From the sound of things, The Revenant has been just that, a long-in-gestation project that teams the Academy Awards’ reigning Best Director with the world’s most sought-after actor. “[I’m] very much director-driven,” DiCaprio says, explaining how he chooses what projects to do. “I really believe that filmmaking is a director’s medium. And although the screenplay, the character, is important as well, the execution of that screenplay can only be done in the hands of the right director — especially something like Revenant.”
The origins of The Revenant date back to 2002 and the publication of Michael Punke’s novel about Glass; Golin optioned the book and commissioned a screenplay from Mark L. Smith, best known for his work on the Vacancy series. “It had all the elements,” Golin says. “Man against man, man against nature, it has a revenge angle … it’s just an appealing story.”
When the project landed at New Regency, Iñárritu was drawn to the deep-in-the-wilderness story for personal as well as professional reasons: “When I started scouting, which was four or five years ago,” he says, “I was in a period of my life [where] I wanted to live a year in nature.”
With its long trek in search of the men who ditched his mangled body and fled with his effects, Glass’s story has long been framed as a revenge tale; for Iñárritu, that seemed insufficient. “Revenge is a feeling [that] when you commit it, it leaves you empty. It’s not a wholesome emotion, and it’s not satisfying.” His stakes-raising solution was to create a son for Glass, named Hawk, by a relationship with a Pawnee woman: “I thought that a father-son relation, a filial relation, is much more complex and fulfilling — more empathy.”
DiCaprio says he came on after his initial meeting with Iñárritu. “I had read the script — I think it had been floating around for quite a while. But it was really his passion for the material and wanting to tell this story. You know, it’s not your traditional revenge film, [what] with him finding the keys to survival … and also really a deeper understanding of why he wants to be alive. That intrigued me.”
“He was always the first choice for me, and I think I was completely right,” says Iñárritu, dating his interest in DiCaprio back to 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The strong characters DiCaprio has played since spoke to his capacity as an adult actor, but, says Iñárritu, “at the same time, I knew that he has this very tender, noble, fragile, fractured quality.” It was the combination of the two that the director sought for Hugh Glass. “I didn’t want to make the film of a — boom! — powerful man. The complexity of that, I thought, would be great to explore with Leo.”
DiCaprio expressed his interest but then headed off to do The Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese. The project came back together during Birdman’s postproduction. As it all coalesced, there were conversations with Sean Penn about playing the role of Glass’s antagonist and betrayer, Fitzgerald; according to Golin, Penn dropped out in hopes of directing a project of his own, and Tom Hardy signed on. “He’s really in a class of his own,” says producer Mary Parent of Hardy.
Like other members of the production, DiCaprio began work by reading accounts written by trappers from the same era and Upper Missouri River location as Glass. “When I read these journals,” he says, “there was a real sense of pride and optimism about — not necessarily what the country was, but the landscape of America at that time. It was kind of like the Amazon of America.”
In the script, Glass “integrates himself, like many of these mountain men did, not only into [the] wilderness, into [the lives of] these indigenous people. But he is still pretty isolated. By having a son that is half-indigenous, that son is even more isolated,” he says. “Really, it’s a journey of a man who starts off incredibly lonely and becomes more and more so.”
“The first scene is just temporary, I’m still doing some things — we spend hours here, more than my marriage … ”
In the editing bay, with Birdman editor Stephen Mirrione behind the board,1 Iñárritu is preparing to show some footage from the film.
Near the film’s beginning, a brook is seen … and as the camera moves upstream and pulls back a bit, showing rocks and trees in rich chiaroscuro, a gun pokes into frame. It is Hugh Glass’s gun. Summoning his son, Hawk, he spots an elk at the river’s edge, loads and raises his gun to his cheek … and pulls the trigger.2
The scene moves to a trappers’ settlement, the look of the men and their encampment as messy, random, and reeking as production designer Jack Fisk hoped it would be. “Film cleans everything up so much,” Fisk notes. “I wanted to be able to smell their environment, and Alejandro wants that grit and reality.”
Suddenly, there’s an attack from Arikara swooping down from a nearby hill, the scene likely based on an actual 1823 battle that followed the rape of an Arikara woman by a drunken trapper, according to Loren Yellowbird, another of the production’s advisers. What follows is bravura filmmaking of the Chivo/AGI school, plunging audiences into the scene’s mayhem, fear, panic, and rage with the sort of rhythm and swoop and drive that is both viscerally thrilling and keeps viewers aware of what they’re seeing at all times, as the routed trappers flee for their boat.
The sequence’s flow and vitality are the product of The Revenant’s shooting approach, in which lengthy preplanning led to hours of rehearsal … and then efficient shooting in the precious few hours of light the upper Canadian location offered. “To pull off these complicated sequences, like a ballet, movement needed to be precise,” DiCaprio says. “When it came down to that nail-biting moment to capture that magic light, every day was like putting on a mini-piece of theater. If we lost that one hour, if we didn’t accomplish what we had to accomplish, we were there the next day. And oftentimes many of these locations were very remote. So it was a very intense set, because we knew we only had one shot every single day. Otherwise … we would be back there again.”
Later on, as Iñárritu shows scenes of DiCaprio, he marvels at what he sees. “He hits so many notes,” he says. “He’s not just an incredible actor, maybe the best I’ve ever worked with, but as a filmmaker — the way he understands camera, I think he is one of the smartest people I have worked with.” He laughs. “And the way he conveyed what’s going on inside — by his eyes, his physicality, the body language — I think he did an amazing job.”
“You are really at times within this character’s head,” DiCaprio says. “You are experiencing what he’s experiencing, as an audience member. It’s really a unique film, and I don’t think it’s something people have ever seen before. [Iñárritu] pulls off some pretty astounding techniques. If you can have the audience submerge into a completely different reality, you’re accomplishing something pretty profound.