Alejandro González Iñárritu looks set for another memorable night at the Oscars next month after his latest film The Revenant received 12 nominations, including Best Director and Best Film, both of which the Mexican won last year for Birdman.
The Mexican filmmaker’s latest picture has been hailed as a masterpiece, tracking the journey of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a crusade for vengeance across the unchartered American wilderness. With sheer will as his only weapon, the fur trapper and frontiersman, who was left for dead by his team following an attack by a bear, battles against harsh winters and warring tribes, and finally John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
Inspired by a true story, the Iñárritu both directed and co-wrote the film, the shoot for which has been hailed as one of the toughest ever undertaken by those involved.
And as the buzz around its credentials reaches fever pitch in the middle of awards season, we speak with Iñárritu, whose previous productions include 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, all of which received critical acclaim.
How did you first become aware of the story of Hugh Glass?
Well, it’s kind of a legendary story although without many known facts. There was a first draft of the script written by Mark Smith, which was interesting and I thought could be a great opportunity to really get into something, so that’s where it started for me.
Filmmakers sometimes use the expression ‘beat the page’ to describe how they aim to improve on a screenplay during filming. The Revenant is such a uniquely cinematic experience that it feels that phrase could really apply here.
This is the kind of a film that’s about show and not tell. It's not about words and dialogue, but about really showing things. Show it to me; don't tell me about it. This is like the original cinema experience. We filmed basically trying to homage the origins of cinema, which was to tell stories with images. I think this film was a great opportunity for that.
What research did you do?
I read a very good book called Here Lies Hugh Glass by a historian, Jon T Coleman, as well as many other books and diaries from the trappers of the period. They wrote diaries that are very interesting; the social and historical context of this time hasn't been explored very often, certainly in in cinema, but it is a very interesting moment in the history of this country. These were people in unchartered territory having real adventures. Not like us with our GPS and ‘Oh, let's have an adventure in India’. We don't have adventures anymore. We know where things are.
Although the film is set in the early 19th century, a lot of the themes it covers are relevant to today…
I think the context of the early 19th Century is extremely interesting and feel it has almost never been explored in depth because it was an unknown. There are literally no stories that have captured that period with accuracy. There was no photography. There was nothing. So everything from that period is still kind a bit of a legend. Even the Hugh Glass story. We know he survived a grizzly bear attack and sought revenge on those who abandoned him, but before and after that his life is unknown. Just to give you an idea of the background: the biggest income in United States at that time was the animal pelt. This is before the oil, before the gold, before the West. The only people that had crossed the nation were Lewis and Clark years before. The country was a melting pot of French and English and Canadians, French Canadian, English Canadian, Mexicans, Spanish, and Native American tribes. There was no law. These men really were the start of how man began relating with nature. Basically, they were ignorant. They were primarily about greed. They did not see nature as something to respect and they broke every rule and every deal they made with the native communities. It was brutal. And honestly, it's a very resonant theme because today we are doing the same. There was a lot of racism and slavery was legal – to have a different skin color was a big deal. So as a context that's really interesting. How complicated it was. Up until now, it has always been reduced to bad guys and good guys and the Indians with the Cowboys. But it's more complex than that.
What did you try and do with the representation of Native Americans in this movie?
The most important thing was that they did not become just the classic ‘Oh, the Native Americans’, ‘the Indians’, or ‘the bad guys’, or ‘the dangerous guys’, or ‘the mysterious guys’. My intention was always to give them very strong and very human motives, not to patronize them or make them the victims. I also didn’t want to make them simply pure and good either. I just tried to humanize them. They are not good. They are not bad. They are just looking for exactly the same things as anyone: respect, dignity, to be heard. And Elk Dog, who is one of the main characters, is looking for his daughter who was kidnapped by trappers. I took that from a real story.
The film appears to be uncompromisingly ambitious and artistic. As a filmmaker, how easy is it to make exactly the film you want, given the nature of the business and commercial demands?
I think I made the film that I wanted to make and that we all wanted to make, really. There were no secrets. There were no dirty games. It was very clear what kind of story it was. I spent years writing this, and there was nothing else. I have been lucky all my life to do the films that I want. So if you see anything in my films, then it is mine! [Laughs] You know? I can't blame anyone else. I had the support and the passion and the backing of the studio. They trusted in it. And so did the actors. It was a mutual trust that gave us the film we all wanted. It was uncompromising at every level and I feel extremely proud. In the context we are living now, to make a film like this is a privilege.
You shot the film using natural light, which greatly reduces the amount of shooting hours in a day. What was your thought process there?
I think it was a very obvious choice. You know, first of all, there is no way to light a forest! Having the sun, you know, that's enough light. And the complexity of that light and the beauty of that light can never be matched by artificial light. Because we were shooting in winter we knew that by 3pm it was dark. By 2.30pm there was no light under the trees. And the locations were often so remote that by the time we arrived we had to be ready: we would rehearse and rehearse so we were ready because we would just have an hour, maybe an hour and a half to shoot very long takes in a just a couple of takes. That was it. And there was really no choice. We were shooting with 40 millimeter lenses, so there was nowhere to even hide lights. How were we going to cable that?
You collaborated again with Emmanuel Lubezki, who you worked with on Birdman. What does he bring to your process?
Chivo [Lubeski] is a master of light. Not only does he have an incredible technical knowledge of how light works and what is the complexity of light and how you can use light to your benefit, but I think we have a very similar point-of-view of how things work. For this project we decided to apply many things that we’d learned together in Birdman and use them here in a very different way.
You also shot the film in sequence.
Yeah. I want to learn as we are shooting, you know? Shooting in sequence allows me and the actors to keep finding opportunities to adapt, to rewrite, to polish and find beautiful things that can be added as the journey's going on. You are a different person after one year and this was one year. I think it was great to have the opportunity to be discovering and understanding the film as we were going.
Sometimes a film is made in the camera, sometimes in the edit. With The Revenant, how many decisions did you make when you were editing and how much was already locked in from the long shots you took?
It's a combination with this kind of approach to filmmaking. You decide a lot of things in the rehearsals and in the notion of it. This is a film that is meticulously rehearsed and when you are doing these long shots, you are designing the camera movement, POV and everything. You are editing, and the pace and the rhythm have to already be there, so there aren’t many choices. Now structurally you have to find the internal rhythm you want and then you help it in the editing room, of course, so in that way it's no different.
How did you rehearse for the shoot?
Well, you have to choreograph a lot. If it’s a 360 degree scene where nobody can be seen with a huge amount of action and a lot of danger and technique involved, then it needs rigorous precision, almost like a clock. So I storyboard everything and then start to rehearse with actors to find the exact rhythm, the pace and what the experience will be for the audience. I think about how I can shoot a battle between trappers and Native Americans in a way that people haven't experienced before and how to really put people in the shoes of somebody in the middle of a very chaotic battle, as I imagine these battles between two different cultures were.
Why did you choose such remote locations to film in?
I started scouting locations five years ago, because I knew that it would require close to 100 locations. And it’s not like shooting in a city where you can say, ‘Okay we need a bar, we need a building, we need an apartment, we need a taxi’, you know? But when you have a film that is in an autumn and a winter, and it goes from deep woods with huge trees to the plains, and ends up in the Rockies, and then in the middle of a valley… the distance between those locations, the logistics involved in simply going from one little hill to a creek with snow are massive, and are even more difficult with a crew and camera and cranes etc. And then every location, in a way, has to be in the right place to shoot with the right light, at the right hour… [laughs]. What I’m saying is it was complex, but I knew that the landscapes and these locations would not be just locations, they would basically be characters in the film that will embrace the character, or damage him, or transform him, or give him shelter, or give him a nightmare, or protect him or threaten him. The landscapes would be a huge part of what the submersion of the audience will be, so I knew that I needed very special landscapes, very remote, untouched, that didn’t look like you had seen them in other films. It was incredibly challenging, but absolutely worth it, I think.
It’s a great performance from Leo. How did you find working with him?
It was a fantastic experience. Fantastic. He was great collaborator, and he thinks like a filmmaker too. He was present, supportive, sensitive, brave, and intelligent. Everything you can expect from an actor of that scale. I got it and I couldn't be happier with the relationship and the experience we went through together.
It’s a very physical role...
Leo is one of those actors that with the body can give you everything, and you can understand everything from his eyes. He performs with his eyes. And in this case, because there's very little dialogue, he has to make you feel fear, cold, sadness, rage and many complex emotions simultaneously only with his body language and his eyes, and that's a very difficult task. I found it fascinating, not only how he really got inside his character, but how he related to the character physically and transmitted that.
Obviously, his nemesis in the film, Fitzgerald, is played by Tom Hardy, but despite doing despicable things, he’s not quite an ‘out and out’ baddie. He still feels quite human. Presumably that was always your intention.
Absolutely. Because these kinds of people are not bad people, they are just ignorant. They are victims of their own ego, of their own blindness. They can't see otherness. They are afraid of it. There is no empathy. But that ignorance doesn't mean that he's bad. Fitzgerald is a pragmatic guy and he's a survivalist in his own right. But there is nothing noble about it. There's nothing that can be not about him. There's no compassion. And so all those elements make him a very interesting person. Again, those kind of people are more and more in the world today, because it's a disease. When you identify with some thought or some idea or some judgment that comes with an emotion and you can't see yourself apart from that you become that.
What do you think motivates Glass to take on this journey, to live, to seek out Fitzgerald?
I think that there are two levels. One is revenge. Somebody took from him that which he loved most – his son. But I think behind that there is a love story about his son, which represents the most valuable thing for him, and with the person that he loved and lost, his wife. And I think that love, to have known that deep sense of life and meaning of life, is what keeps him going. So behind the surface of revenge, what really motivates him is to create what he lost and the meaning of that. That's how I see it. How he finds that. Because for me I don't have the answers, but what I wanted him to find is that question: ‘What is after revenge?’ It never brings back what you’ve lost. You never get back what you want. So if revenge is the meaning in your life, once you accomplish it then there is no meaning of life and the emptiness of that I just wanted to explore. What is after that? And I think he has something more than revenge, which is love.
Alejandro González Iñárritu took part in this interview from Mexico on December 3, 2015.
Images courtesy of Getty and/or The Revenant official movie website