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After surviving his frontier odyssey, 'The Revenant,' Alejandro Iñárritu says 'never again'

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Leonardo DiCaprio, left, with director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu on the set of "The Revenant."
20th Century Fox
Leonardo DiCaprio, left, with director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu on the set of "The Revenant."

The director says making the period film was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but watching the movie now gives him post-traumatic symptoms.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu says he will never make a movie like "The Revenant" again.

Stories abound about how challenging it was to tell the tale of Hugh Glass, an 1820s animal trapper who is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his hunting party. Glass survives but his son doesn't, and he embarks on a 200-mile journey by foot to exact justice.

But "The Revenant" is much more than a revenge flick. Iñárritu was after a deeply spiritual story about a parent's love for his child, about the intersection of races and cultures, about survival.

But making "The Revenant" was largely about survival, too. Leonardo DiCaprio says it's the "toughest" film he's ever made. The cast and crew had to endure months of subzero shoots, scenes where they crawled in and out of freezing water, starvation diets, equipment malfunctioning because of the extreme weather — the ordeal of suffering seems endless.

The shoot even relocated internationally — from Canada to Argentina — to chase the snow as the seasons changed. And then the shoots themselves were frantic and urgent, squeezed into approximately 20-minute chunks per day, as Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki insisted on shooting only in natural light.

Iñárritu met with The Frame's John Horn to discuss the "once-in-a-lifetime" experience that was "The Revenant," and why he believes his creative exactitude was entirely necessary.


There were a lot of themes — the social and historical context of this moment in the United States 200 years ago — that I felt really keen to explore. And one of the things I felt very connected with on a personal level is the relationship of Leo DiCaprio playing Hugh Glass with his mixed-race son. He’s judged by the color of his skin. I am from Mexico City. I have a different color of skin. I am an outsider. And I have sons — there’s a reflection of that, many things on the social and political level that were great opportunities for me to explore.

Hugh Glass, Captain Henry, John Fitzgerald, Jim Bridger were all real people. They all existed. But in adapting Glass’ story, you and your screenwriter gave him a son, Hawk. You also create an Arikara warrior, Elk Dog, who’s looking for his daughter. How important was it to you as a storyteller to not make this simply a story about a man who is seeking revenge, but to make it a story about a parent and a child?

Well, I think I wanted to give context to this thing that happened to the real Hugh Glass. And then to understand who this guy was, to give him a personal, intimate story, [so] we can relate to him as a real person, not just as a legend. It’s a big mistake to judge people [and] characters without the context they were living in. In that time, there was a lot of ignorance, and most of these trappers were illiterate. They were poor people, young people, runaways that were absolutely exploited by these companies that were basically killing animals to profit from them.

This was  a time where the biggest income in America was animal furs. This was before the oil, before the gold, before the West started . . . Slavery was legal. Hundreds of native tribes were completely misunderstood. And the prejudice of people was so high, that I thought, Wow — this is not very different from today’s world. This is a theme that is very relevant now because this is the planted seed of the massive problems we are having now as humanity.

There are a lot of First Nation and Native American stories that are told in the film. There are tribes like the Arikara, the Sioux, the Pawnee, the Mandan. Was there something you wanted to depict about First Nations that you felt has been missing from the modern cinematic experience?

I think that the most important problem is how distorted their story has been portrayed. I come from a country where 10 percent of the population is indigenous. Every time there’s a film that talks about them, it’s always about how they are savages or [they're] demonized. Or they are sanctified and pure. I think that both notions are wrong. They are contradictory, they are as complex as all of us. And I want to give a fair and dignified dimension without one tendency or another. And to really give them the role of a father looking for a daughter that anybody can relate to, beyond cultural difference or the color of skin, to give them a very basic plot. It will be clear that this is about these two guys looking for the same thing.

You are making a movie that has an epic scale. This is a man alone in the wilderness, dragging himself for hundreds of miles. He is a small figure in a vast world. And yet, you’re also trying to get an intimacy especially with the camera. There’s a scene early in the film where the breath of Leonardo DiCaprio fogs the lens. Is that what you were trying to do — to be intimate even in this large landscape?

Certainly, accidents happen. And one of those accidents was that suddenly the breath was very visible — which I love, by the way . . . Suddenly, little by little, [DiCaprio's] breath started fogging [the lend]. Chivo and I just look at each other and go, Wow! It was a beautiful opportunity to go to kind of a faith, created by the whiteness of the breath. And then in the editing room with [Stephen] Mirrione we found this kind of aerial shot of the clouds, and it was a beautiful blending to get into his soul and his mind, as if he could suddenly get out of the pain. So anyway, it was one of those accidents that you take advantage of.

You chose to shoot this film as much as possible in sequence, and with natural light. At any point did you find yourself enslaved by those choices? Had they become both the opportunity and the burden of the film?

Yes and no. I think I was absolutely liberated, and it was no choice. I’m surprised by how surprised people are by [my] choice to shoot this in natural landscape. I can’t imagine David Lean justifying why he went to the desert to shoot “Lawrence of Arabia.” . . . Film light is very uni-dimensional. Normally it looks like shit. It’s not as beautiful as the ecstasy of the light at the end of the day. So that’s where really great painters did their best job. 

All my films I have shot in chronological order — always. And the reason is that, there’s a moment that the screenplay is the notion of the film. But when you start doing a film . . . the work itself starts being transformed and you have to surrender . . . You have to start to adapt yourself and let the thing dictate to you what it needs, and be enabled to transform it and get it better and better.

“The Revenant” is largely about survival and overcoming obstacles. And I would say the making of the film is, too. Do you think the film is more fulfilling to you because of the challenges?

Yes . . . When things cost so much, you appreciate it much more. And now that I see the film, I got some post-traumatic syndromes, because I remember how difficult it was, and I’m emotionally attached to all the physical problems — emotional, financial — all the fights that we went through, all the time spent, all the sacrifices. There was no one day or scene or molecule of this film that literally didn’t cost a lot. It was such an ambitious project. It’s scary when you have that dream that is big and everything was set to fail. So, yes, I couldn’t be more proud, more surprised, more shocked that we finished, that I survived. But I will never do it again. Because I am a crazy man, but not stupid. It [was] once in a lifetime, but that’s it.

"The Revenant" opens in limited release on Dec. 25.

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