Oscar season is nearly here! We've seen a host of Oscar-worthy films come out this year, but one in particular has the pedigree to blow the competition away at the Academy Awards--The Revenant.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, The Revenant tells the chilling tale of frontiersman Hugh Glass, who after being mauled by a bear, is robbed and left to die by his fellow travelers. DiCaprio portrays Glass, and Hardy is the treacherous John Fitzgerald, who leaves him to die in the wilderness of the Dakota Territory.
The Revenant is about one man's thrilling story of survival, and a journey across the freezing and harsh landscapes of wilderness that lies beyond the American frontier. But what makes The Revenant a sure Oscar candidate isn't just the harsh journey we'll see on screen--it's the harsh journey that we didn't see, behind the scenes, that makes this film a contender for multiple Academy Awards.
The Revenant film owes its existence to one man—Alejandro González Iñárritu. It's a name that many recognize from last year's Birdman, a movie that was a huge hit during awards season. But Iñárritu has been making films since 1999 and has been in Oscar conversations since the very beginning of his career. His first film, Amores Perros, was nominated for the Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and his second, 21 Grams, scored nominations for both Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro. Iñárritu wouldn't get his first win at the Oscars until his third film, Babel—but by the time this film came around, Iñárritu had already proven himself by making unique and interesting stories with some of Hollywood's top talent.
Much of Iñárritu's success can be attributed to his desire to constantly push the boundaries of filmmaking, challenging the complacency of both the viewer and filmmaking community alike. He has truly blazed a trail on his way to extending the limits of filmmaking throughout his career.
'The Death Trilogy'
Alejandro Iñárritu's first three films were known collectively as 'The Death Trilogy'. All three films feature stories told through interweaving storylines, something that wasn't necessarily an innovation at the time. But what made 'The Death Trilogy' so unique and incredible was the way it was filmed: The first film, Amores Perros, was filmed in Mexico City, where a lot of directors did not want to work at the time. This was due mostly to the fact that crime, violence, and poverty were prevalent in the streets of the city, making it a difficult and dangerous location for filming.
Wanting to capture the real-life drama of Mexico City, Iñárritu made sure his film featured some pretty heavy themes. Elements of inequality, domestic violence, and animal cruelty are seen in the film. Because of this, Amores Perros was met with a ton of controversy. When asked about the themes present in the film by The Guardian, Iñárritu stated that violence was just the harsh reality of the City:
When you live in a city, as I do, where violence is really in the streets and people die every day, there's nothing funny about it. We try to show that violence has a consequence - when you create violence, it turns against you.
You can see a clip from Amores Perros below, but quick warning: It's a little graphic.
21 Grams, the next film in the trilogy, also featured interweaving storylines. Like Amores Perros, Iñárritu filmed 21 Grams in a very unique way with a hand-held camera. The hand-held style is all the rage today with the found-footage genre, but 2004 was definitely not a time where this was normal.
For Iñárritu to film the movie in such a style, with a hand-held camera and with non-linear, interweaving storylines, was something that was nearly unheard of at the time. With the movie being such a gamble (its particular filming style could easily have devolved into a hot mess), and with Iñárritu still being a relatively inexperienced director, you would think that the film would feature a cast of unknowns.
Yet despite being at such an early point in his career, and the film being incredibly experimental, Iñárritu was able to get some of Hollywood's A-listers to join him for 21 Grams. Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn all starred in Iñárritu's second feature film.
Check out Benicio and Iñárritu talking about the film for a better perspective on Iñárritu's directing methods:
The third and final installment in 'The Death Trilogy' is Babel. Featuring four non-linear storylines, Babel was actually filmed in four separate countries: Mexico, Japan, USA, and Morocco. Iñárritu had to work on the film with different crews in each location, all of them speaking different languages.
Babel was obviously very time and money consuming. Just listen to what Rodrigo Prieto, the movie's cinematographer, had to say about the biggest challenges of working on the film in an interview with Studio Daily in June 2006:
The first would have to be the logistics with all the different locations, crews and languages. Technically, combining all these formats and making it one movie was also a challenge. It was important that it didn’t feel so different that it looked like different films spliced together. I wanted a different texture and feel for each part, but for them to be part of the same film. I did many, many, many tests to determine what films stocks would feel better.
The time and resources it took to make this movie made it a serious financial risk, and if it hadn't done as well as it did, Iñárritu's filmmaking days could have been numbered.
Not only were the filming method and locations a challenge, so was the minimalist style of the storytelling. Cate Blanchett, one of the stars of the film, had this to say about her role in an interview:
It was very challenging for me on the level that I had a very small amount of dialogue, in which Alejandro wanted me to convey an enormous amount.
You can watch more of the interview, and hear more about the film here!
The Seasoned Vet
After 'The Death Trilogy', things were quiet with Iñárritu for a few years. In 2010, he returned to the scene with Biutiful. Biutiful told the story of Uxbal, a sweatshop owner with a conscience. He shows sympathy for his workers and is considerably nicer to them than his associates. After being told that he's got only a few months left to live, Uxbal goes on a journey to get his affairs in order—all the while communicating with the spirits who are coming to claim him.
Iñárritu returned to his Spanish filmmaking roots with this one, making it entirely in Spanish - something he had only done once before, with Amores Perros. Despite it being entirely in the Spanish language, the film did incredibly well in the US. It even earned Javier Bardem a number of accolades for his efforts as Uxbal. His performance was the first entirely Spanish-language performance to be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars!
Like Iñárritu's previous films, the director did something differently when it came time to film the movie, filming the scenes in chronological order. Usually scenes aren't filmed in the order they appear on screen in order to accommodate the weather or actors schedules. The finale might be the first thing filmed, while the beginning scene could be the last, depending on which scene is the most ideal to shoot at the time.
But the reason the movie was filmed in chronological order was because Iñárritu really wanted to show the audience how Uxbal's condition was slowly draining him with each scene.
For the director, this was more than just a movie, it was the story of a human being who is slowly withering away. And Bardem agreed. He explained what it was like to win the lead role in Biutiful with Vanity Fair back in January of 2011:
So he hands me this huge red script and that was scary. I read it several times, because I think we usually tend, the actors, to not be able to read what’s on the page in the first or second or third reading. Because we want it to be good, we want it to be fleshy—we put our wishes there. And we don’t really see what’s on the page. So I read it like four times, and after the fourth time, when I actually saw what was in there, then it hit me. Big deal! And I called him and I said, 'Man, I don’t know, I want to do it, but this is a different proposal—this is not a job. This is something you are asking me to do with you, along with you. It’s a journey.'
He went even further into it, talking about how intense the filming process was:
This is not a movie you can go to the set to have fun. You enjoy the process because you think you are with a very creative team, and you are doing something that you feel that is worth it because of the issues and the themes. And as an actor, it’s amazing the material that you have. But the weight of it all—it was big, it was big for all of us.
Four years after making Biutiful, Iñárritu would release his most ambitious film yet: Birdman.
Starring Michael Keaton as a fading actor struggling to adapt his play and get back in the spotlight. It was a comedic and dramatic tale of one man's battle with himself—one that very nearly wasn't made. Like any director, Iñárritu was stubborn when it came to making his film exactly as he envisioned it. Unfortunately, he envisioned it as being filmed in a single take, one-shot style. Iñárritu wanted this particular filming style simply because "we live our lives with no editing."
But making the film in such a way meant dealing with tons of complications. For one thing, the one-shot style largely affected the writers. Filming in that style meant that no scenes could be edited or taken out, so the writers had to be absolutely sure of what they set down on the page.
The actors were also largely affected by this style, which mimicked that of a stage play. Emma Stone, who portrayed Michael Keaton's daughter in the movie, had to make sure that every scene she acted in was spectacular. In an earlier interview with At The Movies, she talked about how difficult, but rewarding, the process was:
I know Alejandro is very adamant about kind of keeping the rabbit in the hat and not being super specific about how it was shot, but I will say it took a lot of rehearsal and it was very specific... There was no luxury of cutting away or editing around anything. You knew that every scene was staying in the movie, and like theater, this was it, this was your chance to live this scene.
Because of these behind-the-scenes complications, Birdman might have been Iñárritu's riskiest film yet. But as risky as Birdman was, Iñárritu hadn't even begun to showcase how dangerously risky he can get! The boundaries will be pushed to the limit later this year, when The Revenant hits theaters.
The Future Auteur
For Iñárritu and the rest of the cast and crew, The Revenant is more than just a film—and making it perfect meant far more than just hard work.
Iñárritu has pushed the envelope with his films before, but with The Revenant, he absolutely pushes the boundaries of filmmaking and creates something truly worthy of being called art. Working on this film was so difficult and challenging for Iñárritu and his crew that some working on it have called their time on set a "living hell." Ironic, considering they were filming in one of the coldest places in North America.
The Revenant was filmed mostly in the freezing cold location of British Columbia—"freezing cold" being an understatement in this case. If you've seen the trailer for the film, you may notice how Leonardo DiCaprio looks impressively cold and panicked. That's because he actually is. In order to get the absolute best out of DiCaprio, Iñárritu put his main star through quite a ordeal. DiCaprio told Yahoo:
I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. Whether it's going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.
Not only was DiCaprio freezing his assets off half the time, but he also had to endure sleeping in (likely very smelly) animal carcasses and eating raw bison liver! Needless to say, none of it was pretty—especially considering Leonardo DiCaprio is a vegetarian. But don't worry about missing any of the action, because according to Leo, Iñárritu kept everything in:
I certainly don't eat raw bison liver on a regular basis. When you see the movie, you'll see my reaction to it, because [director Alejandro González Iñárritu] kept it in. It says it all. It was an instinctive reaction.
Leo's less-than-sanitary eating habits aren't the only insane things going on behind the scenes of The Revenant. For one thing, members of the crew actually quit or were let go during production. This left gaps in the crew and filming was a pain due to weather difficulties.
But even having perfect weather wouldn't have made filming go by much faster, because Iñárritu only filmed in short bits and pieces during the day. This is because, in yet another brilliant but incredibly challenging directing choice, Iñárritu decided to film The Revenant only using natural lighting—meaning if it was too dark, or if there was a camera-blinding blizzard, there'd be no filming at all. The director explained this decision in an interview with Deadline:
It was planned this way, to be little-by-little jewel moments; that’s the way I designed the production. That was both to create intensity in this moments, as well as the climate conditions. We are shooting in such remote far-away locations that, by the time we arrive and have to return, we have already spent 40% of the day. But those locations are so gorgeous and so powerful, they look like they have never been touched by a human being, and that’s what I needed. The light is very reduced here in winter, and we are not shooting with any electrical lighting, just natural light. And every single scene is so difficult — emotionally, technically.
Check out the trailer for The Revenant below!
With the intense filming locations and harsh conditions Iñárritu put his cast and crew through, it's lucky that no one got hurt. Thankfully, safety was the first thing on everyone's minds, with assistant director Scott Robertson stating: "We had a safety meeting every day of the movie, sometimes multiple times. No one got hurt on the film despite all the crazy shit we did."
Still, The Revenant was an incredibly risky film to make. The filming conditions, the style of the filming, basically everything that went into making this movie is something no one's ever done before. Or, at least, not all at the same time!
The Revenant hits theaters nationwide on January 8, so we won't know for sure if all of Iñárritu's hard work pays off until then. But the risk-taking director isn't worried in the slightest. Iñárritu walks with his head held high and has one thing to say about the movie for those who can't wait to see it: