Inspired by true events, THE REVENANT is an epic story of survival and transformation on the American frontier. While on an expedition into the uncharted wilderness, legendary explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is brutally mauled by a bear, then abandoned by members of his own hunting team. Alone and near death, Glass refuses to succumb. Driven by sheer will and his love for his Native American wife and son, he undertakes a 200-mile odyssey through the vast and untamed West on the trail of the man who betrayed him: John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). What begins as a relentless quest for revenge becomes a heroic saga against all odds towards home and redemption. THE REVENANT is directed, produced and co-written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Academy Award®-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu brings the legend of Hugh Glass to the screen with The Revenant, an epic adventure set in the unchartered 19th century American Frontier. Immersing audiences in the unparalleled beauty, mystery and dangers of life in 1823 America, the film explores one man’s transformation in a quest for survival. Part thriller, part wilderness journey, The Revenant explores primal drives not only for life itself but for dignity, justice, faith, family and home.
Known for such films as 21 Grams, Babel and the Academy Award®-winning Best Picture Birdman, The Revenant is Iñárritu’s first historical epic. He brings his distinctive mix of visual immediacy and emotional intimacy to a story that transports audiences to a time and place that have rarely been experienced through visceral modern filmmaking.
The film’s wilderness-based production mirrored the harsh conditions Glass and company actually lived through in the 1800s. Iñárritu and his whole cast and crew were up for all that was thrown at them, welcoming the challenges of shooting in Canada and Argentina, regions known for unpredictable weather and untouched wilds, in order to fully understand the experience of fur trappers in the early 19th century.
Iñárritu collaborated closely with Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award®-nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio in a one-of-a-kind role as physically intense as it is emotionally raw. Along with BAFTA-winning actor Tom Hardy and celebrated actors Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter, Iñárritu guided a diverse international and Native American cast into the unseen past. He reunited with Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubekzi to bring their distinctive camera style outdoors, with a camera that floats through the landscape – and gets so close-in at times the very breath of the characters is visually present. And Iñárritu consulted closely with historical advisors to authentically explore the territorial wars with Native tribes that would later become the stuff of myth.
Glass’s mythology began in 1823, when he was among thousands joining the fur trade, a driving new force in the US economy. It was a time when many saw the wild as a spiritual void that demanded to be tamed and conquered by the steeliest of men. And so they poured into the unknown, plying unmapped rivers, disappearing into impossibly lush forests, seeking not only excitement and adventure but also profits -- often in fierce competition with the Native tribes for whom these lands had long been home.
Many such men died anonymously, but Glass entered the annals of American folklore by flat-out refusing to die. His legend sparked after he faced one of the West’s most feared dangers: a startled grizzly bear. For even the most tested frontiersmen that should have been the end. But not for Glass. In Iñárritu’s telling of the tale, a mauled Glass clings to life – then suffers a human betrayal that fuels him to continue at any cost. In spite of tremendous loss, Glass pulls himself from an early grave – clawing his way through a gauntlet of unknown perils and unfamiliar cultures on a journey that becomes not just a search for reckoning but for redemption. As Glass moves through the frontier in turmoil, he comes to reject the urge for destruction that once drove him. He has become a “revenant” -- one returned from the dead.
Says Iñárritu: “Glass’s story asks the questions: Who are we when we are completely stripped of everything? What are we made of and what are we capable of?”
Adds Leonardo DiCaprio: “The Revenant is an incredible journey through the harshest elements of an uncharted America. It’s about the power of a man’s spirit. Hugh Glass’s story is the stuff of campfire legends, but Alejandro uses that folklore to explore what it really means to have all the chips stacked against you, what the human spirit can endure and what happens to you when you do endure.”
For Iñárritu The Revenant is a complete 180 from the interior world of Birdman. Having honed in on the neuroses of current times, Iñárritu now switched all gears into a grand-scale story from the American past, with its perpetual tensions between savagery and civility, serenity and ambition.
“For over five years, this project was a dream for me,” says Iñárritu. “It’s an intense, emotional story set against a beautiful, epic backdrop that explores the lives of trappers who grew spiritually even as they suffered immensely physically. Though much of Glass’s story is apocryphal, we tried to stay very faithful to what these men went through in these undeveloped territories. We went through difficult physical and technical conditions to squeeze every honest emotion out of this incredible adventure.”
Iñárritu was fascinated by how stark peril strips us down and allows us a glimpse into what sustains us; how it can unearth things that might have remained hidden if that door to mortality had never been opened. The mountaineer Reinhold Messner once said of facing the dangers of the wild: “We are not learning how big we are. We are learning how breakable, how weak, how full of fear we are. You can only get this when you [are exposed] to great danger.” Costume designer Jacqueline West echoes him, noting, “Glass is a character coming into touch with his own mortality, and that is a powerful thing.”
That confrontation with mortality also becomes entwined with an unusual father-son love story: that of a man who in his moment of loss becomes more devoted to life than ever.
“The Revenant is a story of harsh survival but also one of inspirational hope,” Iñárritu says. “For me, the important part was to convey this adventure with a sense of wonder and discovery, as an exploration of both nature and human nature.”
Producer Steve Golin observes: “Alejandro always brings truth to whatever he does. There’s a grittiness to his work, but there’s also a spiritual element to his work – and in The Revenant that makes for a potent combination we haven’t seen in this way before.”
20th Century Fox and New Regency present The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge and Duane Howard. The film is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and the screenplay is written by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu, based in part on Michael Punke’s novel. Producers are Iñárritu, Arnon Milchan (12 Years A Slave, Gone Girl), Steve Golin (Babel, True Detective), Mary Parent (Godzilla, Noah), Keith Redmon and James Skotchdopole (Birdman, Django Unchained); executive producers are James Packer (The Lego Movie), Jennifer Davisson (The Ides of March), David Kanter (Rendition) and Brett Ratner (X-Men: Last Stand). The filmmaking team includes two-time Academy Award®-winning director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC/AMC (Gravity, Birdman); production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood); editor Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E. (The Hunger Games); visual effects supervisor Rich McBride (Gravity); and costume designer Jacqueline West (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button).
THE LEGEND OF HUGH GLASS
For two centuries, the story of Hugh Glass has stood as one of the most astonishing tales of a man going beyond all expected limits of body, mind and soul. Born in Philadelphia in 1773, little is known about the real Glass’s early life, but it is believed he spent years at sea as a pirate. He journeyed west in his 30s, and in 1823, fatefully signed up for Captain Andrew Henry’s expedition to explore the Missouri River. It was when the expedition neared what is now Lemmon, South Dakota that Glass was mauled by a grizzly and abandoned by the men assigned to stay with him who assumed, incorrectly, he would soon die.
Glass himself left no writing behind, save a solitary letter written to the parents of a companion killed by the Arikara Indians. When he turned up alive, newspapermen of the day spread his tale across the nation. Since then, there have been biographies and novels – but in 2002, author Michael Punke published one of the most extensively researched accounts with The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. Intriguingly, Punke has a whole other career as a U.S. trade representative, but he also had a life-long fascination with mountain men that led him to comb every resource to give the most life-like rendering of Glass yet.
The book was praised by Publishers Weekly as “a spellbinding tale of heroism and obsessive retribution” and became a favorite of readers who thrive on high adventure. Three of those readers included Anonymous Content producers Steve Golin, Keith Redmon and David Kanter.
“I’ve always loved wilderness survival pictures, and we all thought this could an incredible and fresh adventure,” recalls Golin. “For David, Keith and me, it’s been a long journey, but we are really excited that it came together the way that it did with the extraordinary group of people that it did. It was not easy, but it was a dream come true in terms of the creativity the story inspired.”
Anonymous Content enlisted Mark L. Smith to pen a screenplay. Smith saw in the story a chance to give people an experience we can barely imagine in our 21st Century technological lives.
“Back in the 1820s, when you were left in the wilderness, you were left in the wilderness. You couldn’t pull an iPhone out of your pocket,” Smith notes. “Glass is thrown into nearly unimaginable experiences: from going over waterfalls to fighting wolves off a buffalo. His story is an adventure, but it is also a rich, emotional journey and I felt it could also be an amazing visual spectacle.”
That hope became a reality when Iñárritu came aboard, hoping to take audiences directly into a world that has long fascinated and beckoned – yet remained inaccessible. “This story is so different for Alejandro, I was in shock at first that he was interested in it,” Smith admits. “But once he began working on the script, everything came to life. He was so invested, so creative. It was a wonderful collaboration.”
New Regency was thrilled to work with Iñárritu. Says CEO and president Brad Weston: “We were fully committed to Alejandro’s vision – we understood the breadth and the scale of it and the need for flexibility and we saw it as a chance to get back to the roots of our company as a filmmaker-driven enterprise. We saw it as a very creative project but also a story with widespread commercial appeal.”
Iñárritu brought fictional twists to the already apocryphal stories of Glass, while continually diving further down to explore the resonant themes beneath the surface. “I was interested in exploring not only the physical paths of Glass and Fitzgerald but also their psychologies, their dreams, their fears and their losses,” the director explains. “The storyline was a great base, as in music, but what’s going on in their minds and their hearts are the solos, the trumpets and piano.”
For DiCaprio, Iñárritu’s stamp on the screenplay was unmistakable. “When Alejandro came aboard, it became an exciting prospect for me because he is such a unique filmmaker,” says the actor. “I knew he could give audiences that truly immersive experience. On the one hand, it’s a primal story of existential survival, but Alejandro brings in so many different nuances, it becomes something more.”
Because only the bare historical facts are known, the story demanded imagination, but two words underlined Iñárritu and Smith’s approach: cultural authenticity. “We researched everything from how frontiersmen spoke to their tools. We wanted to bring audiences into this world fully,” says Smith.
Iñárritu took to heart the responsibility of recreating a lost world. On the first day of filming, he assembled the production on the banks of Alberta’s Bow River – where the cast would soon wade into the icy waters for an action-packed scene. Each was handed a red rose. Blackfoot cultural advisor Craig Falcon led a ceremony aided by elders from the local Stoney tribe to bless the film, the creatures and the land. After the blessing, Iñárritu asked the 300 people to hold hands in silence. Then, in unison, they walked into the river, scattering their rose petals.
LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as HUGH GLASS
Leonardo DiCaprio has portrayed a kaleidoscopic array of characters – from Howard Hughes to Jay Gatsby to Wolf of Wall Street’s profligate Jordan Belfort – but the role of the Hugh Glass was an entirely new challenge, taking the actor into borderlands that few in our modern world have experienced. It is DiCaprio’s most intensely physical role and at the same time, an almost wordlessly raw performance.
“There are powerful themes for me in the film: the will to live and our relationship with wilderness,” explains DiCaprio of his immediate attraction to the story. “I’ve also previously played a lot of characters who were incredibly articulate in different ways and had a lot to say, so this was a unique challenge for me. It was about conveying things without words or in a different language. A lot of it was about adapting in the moment, about reacting to what nature was giving us and to what Glass was going through as we filmed. It was about exploring the most internal elements of the survival instinct.”
DiCaprio was also enthralled by Iñárritu’s aim to bring Glass’s story to life with a realism that would plunge audiences into life in primordial Western lands long before cowboys and outlaws. “I’ve never really seen this time period in American history put on film, so that interested me,” he says. “This was a unique time and place in the history of the American West because it was far more wild than what we think of as ‘the wild, wild West.’ It was like the Amazon, a completely unknown wilderness, a no man’s land where few laws applied. These trappers who came from Europe and the East Coast had to learn to live a life in the middle of the elements -- surviving like any other animal in the wilderness.”
Iñárritu was gratified to find DiCaprio ready to explore limits, as Glass had. “Leo is extraordinary in every detail, in every aspect of human behavior and observation. He’s a natural at nuances and rhythmical movements and everything that makes a character feel fully alive. He’s collaborative and very smart, always questioning what makes a scene more powerful. And he brought his own deep personal connection with nature. What he delivered on screen was not only moving but surprising.”
The director emphasizes that DiCaprio faced tests no actor could fully prepare for in his performance. “Leo was working in the toughest of conditions, under a challenging wardrobe, in extreme make-up, going to the most emotionally uncomfortable and dark places. But no matter what he is going through, something immediate comes to life when Leo is in front of the camera. There’s an incredible power,” Iñárritu observes. “The way we were shooting demanded an enormous amount from him in terms of rhythm, timing, momentum and silence, yet Leo makes it all work because he is so present.”
In turn, DiCaprio says he gave Iñárritu his full trust. “What I really love about Alejandro’s approach is that he’s an old-school filmmaker who believes in the art of creating something on the screen -- and he’s also kind of an outsider, even though he works on the inside. He understands the industry as it is now, but he’s been influenced by an entire lifetime of studying cinema history and developed his own uncompromising style that is now synonymous with his name. There are very few filmmakers out there who can escape the Hollywood mold and yet accomplish a film like this one on such an epic scale.”
The bear attack that threatens to end Glass’s life immediately took DiCaprio into a mano-a-mano struggle with one of nature’s most skilled predators. “The bear attack was incredibly difficult and arduous,” DiCaprio recalls, “but it’s profoundly moving. In the film, Alejandro puts you there almost like a fly buzzing around this attack, so that you feel the breath of Glass and the breath of the bear. What he achieved is beyond anything I’ve seen. Glass has to find a way to deal with this full-grown animal on top of him. He’s at the brink of death – and you are fully immersed in this moment with him.”
Iñárritu and DiCaprio had intensive conversations about Glass that deepened what is a non-stop kinetic performance. He notes that Glass’s fictional Pawnee wife and son already set him apart among the trappers. “Glass is someone who has already immersed himself in nature and kind of left behind the trappers’ more material world,” he observes. “He has faced a unique set of challenges as a father in this environment, and that is a constant undertone in his character. There’s a sense that he and Hawk are already isolated and alone, so their father-son bond is a very powerful force that drives him throughout.”
DiCaprio did many of his own stunts: he was buried in snow, went naked in minus five-degree weather and jumped into a frigid river, each moment bringing him more in touch with Glass’s will. But as he makes his way, Glass does not just abide – he also changes profoundly, something DiCaprio reveals in a multi-hued range of subtle details that add up to the film’s stirring climax.
“Throughout, there’s that question of whether some kind of revenge is ultimately the thing that will quench Glass’s thirst at the end of the day. But the need to continue on becomes something more to him…it becomes a kind of spiritual endeavor,” he concludes.
TOM HARDY as JOHN FITZGERALD
The dark mirror to Hugh Glass’s journey of survival is John Fitzgerald’s journey into paranoia, recrimination and haunted bitterness. To portray Fitzgerald, who both betrays Glass and becomes his spark for enduring, Iñárritu cast the English actor Tom Hardy who has come to the fore in vastly contrasting roles, from the dream-world character of Eames in Christopher Nolan’s Inception to the one-man tour-de-force of Locke. Iñárritu says, “As Fitzgerald, Tom plays a man full of prejudice. Yet he’s a wounded soul who has fears of the other because he is not capable of opening up to and understanding otherness. Tom has a finesse to him that is difficult to find,” Iñárritu continues. He is so handsome, so well built, so powerful and strong, but at the same time, can be extremely fragile, and that is what makes him so unique.”
Hardy made for an incredible nemesis. “Fitzgerald is a very interesting character because you understand his motivations so well. Here he is a man with nothing who hoped to be in a lucrative business, and all his future plans disappear in one second. So he goes into this ultimate survival mode where it’s kill or be killed – and Glass is the person in the way of that,” says DiCaprio. “Fitzgerald is also a survivor, but he finds a very different way from Glass. He chooses to be cutthroat.”
He continues: “Tom is someone I’ve worked with before and I’m an incredible fan of his work. I think he’s one of the most dynamic actors out there, and his commitment to creating this character was incredibly exciting to watch. He has a raw savagery that is so genuine; and that was absolutely, fundamentally needed to contrast with my character. He’s not your typical villain. These two men show strength in two entirely different ways.”
For Domhnall Gleeson, playing the role of Fitzgerald’s disappointed Captain, it was thrilling to go up against Hardy as Captain Henry realizes he has been duped. “Tom has brought an edge to Fitzgerald where you never know which way he’s going to go,” Gleeson says. “My character feels beaten down by Fitzgerald, but then he starts to hold his ground – and it was really exciting to go toe-to-toe with Tom.”
FUR TRAPPERS – THE ORIGINAL WESTERN ENTREPENEURS
The history of the American fur trade is brief, yet pivotal, full of tales of daring but also grave destruction. Though the fur trade forged the romantic image of the mountain man – idealized loners purportedly as rugged as the wilderness they felt beholden to tame -- the fur trade was also very much a business. In a sense it ushered in the first emergence of the archetypal Western entrepreneur, the visionary iconoclast who forges ahead answerable to no one but himself.
“This era was the start of industrialism at play in the West. Even before the discovery of gold and oil, the fur trade was a massive, lucrative business,” explains DiCaprio. “You had trappers going into pristine landscapes among indigenous populations to extract resources – and the question that comes up is: at what cost? Glass is caught in the middle of that question and it’s a powerful theme in the film.”
Fur trading began in the late 17th Century, as indigenous tribesmen exchanged their wondrously warm pelts for European’s metal tools. By the early 19th Century, as demand for fancy fur hats soared in Europe – and prices for beaver pelts reached $6/lb. -- the fur trade became a boost to the American economy, responsible for new trade routes that would set the stage for development of the West to come.
By the 1820s, the fur trade had reached the Rocky Mountains and become intensely competitive, with traders battling one another as well as Native tribes. Hugh Glass worked for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, then newly on the scene. The company utilized the “rendezvous system,” which meant they built no cabins or forts. Instead, their trappers were expected to hunt their own food, build their own shelter and fight their own battles, enhancing their stoic reputations.
Yet the romanticized myths of the heroic mountain men have belied some of the era’s darker realities. Many trappers spent their lives in debt, while owners of fur companies grew fabulously wealthy. And while trappers lived amid nature’s rhythms, their relationship to the environment was often adversarial – resulting in species being hunted to the brink of extinction and profound impacts on both the natural environment and the Native American cultures entwined with it.
To recreate this world in all its authentic shadings, Iñárritu recruited experts, including historian Clay Landry, who is affiliated with the only two U.S. museums devoted to the period: The Museum of the Mountain Man in Wyoming and Museum of the Fur Trade in Nebraska. Landry notes that among historians, the Hugh Glass story is Mountain Man 101. “If you study Rocky Mountain fur trade history, one of the first things you’ll learn is the Glass story. It’s that epic,” he muses.
Throughout the production, Landry provided advice on trapper’s mindsets, tools and survival skills. He gave the cast a personal taste of all this in a “Trader’s Boot Camp” -- where the homework included drawing bows, setting beaver traps, skinning [fake] beavers and throwing tomahawks.
“At Boot Camp, the actors really dug in,” says Landry. “We taught them everything a trapper would need to know. Of course, they were shooting blanks and not truly fending for themselves, but they still got the feel of it. The cast and crew wanted to know everything they could about the era.”
Adds Arthur Redcloud, who plays Hikuc, the Native healer Glass encounters on his journey: “The boot camp didn’t just take place on a physical level; it gave us something on an emotional and spiritual level as well. For me, it wasn’t just about reconnecting with the past. It was gaining a new vision.”
LAND OF THE ARIKARA
As The Revenant begins, Captain Henry’s fur trapping expedition comes under attack from a band of tribesmen already settled along the banks of the Missouri River. These are the Arikara – dubbed simply the Ree by trappers -- whose historic offensive against the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company would forever alter their fate. An oft-ignored yet integral part of Glass’s story, Iñárritu felt compelled to bring the Arikara’s presence to the fore in his telling of the tale.
Known among their own people as the Sahnish, the Arikara were so named by other tribes for their feathered headdresses. They had populated the plains for more than 1000 years as semi-nomadic farmers with a rich culture before Europeans arrived. In 1804, Lewis and Clark had encountered the Arikara, and found them peaceable. Yet by the 1820s, having been repeatedly displaced, they were in full-scale hostilities. An attack on fur trappers drew a response from the U.S. military, which decimated the tribe in the first of many brutal plains wars. The Arikara’s dwindling numbers were then reduced 70% in an 1830s smallpox plague and ensuing conflicts with the Sioux. Yet, the Arikara survived, settling in North Dakota, where the last speakers of the endangered Arikara language have kept it alive.
It was so vital to Iñárritu to authentically portray the Arikara people, that he brought in adviser Loren Yellowbird Sr., an Arikara historian, anthropologist, and Chief Interpreter and Ranger at the Fort Union Trading Post in North Dakota.
For Yellowbird, it was exhilarating to see the Arikara finally become part-and-parcel of this story. “A lot of people have never even heard of the Arikara, so this was a chance to show another perspective and to bring this world to life,” he says. “I appreciated it greatly, because I think being able to capture the Arikara language and to bring some of their traditional culture to light in this time is very important.”
Yellowbird notes the period seen in the film represents the last moments of the traditional Arikara lifestyle. “Arikara villages had been there for hundreds of years … They had a strong trading culture and an intricate ceremonial culture that was not altered yet.”
That would rapidly change as the fur trade grew. “These trappers were coming in and were not respectful from our perspective. They were coming into other people’s territory and taking things. There was no negotiating. The trappers just took what they wanted,” Yellowbird describes.
Following the attack, the Arikara developed a reputation as lethal warriors, but Yellowbird says there is a larger context. “Traders started to fear the Arikara. Yet, the funny thing is, Arikara women were still marrying traders,” he points out. “So if you came to the Arikara respectfully, there was peace. But I believe they were treating the trappers and military they way they felt they were being treated.”
It was the beginning of a near-collapse of the tribe’s way of life. “At that point, our way of life was being taken so fast, we had no way to stop it,” Yellowbird laments. “We were lucky we had smart chiefs -- visionaries who thought about the future and asked what can we do to assure our people survive. I still follow that path. While making this film, I was thinking about what I can do to make sure that my great-great-grandchildren have these things in place: our language, our culture, our songs and our customs.”
Yellowbird is especially excited that some young Arikara may have an opportunity to hear the language and see how their ancestors lived for the first time when they see The Revenant. “I’m a guy who has an iPhone but I still follow our traditional paths because I think it is good for us to respect our ancestors. This stories show all the hardships they went through so we could live today,” he concludes.
While Yellowbird was the only Arikara involved with the production, some 1,500 Native Americans and Canadian First Nations appear in the film. Yellowbird was gratified by their openness to learning about the Arikara. “The cast was interested in representing this world in the most vibrant way. It humbled me to see that,” he says. “If I was portraying someone from another tribe, I’d do the same.”
Craig Falcon, a Blackfoot cultural educator specializing in Native American/Aboriginal Awareness, also came aboard, with a special interest in horse and war paints. The cultural authenticity Iñárritu sought was a huge draw. “In Native America, we want to see truth,” says Falcon, “not like the old movies where you’d see Ricardo Montalban dressed as a Native! The Revenant hits true authenticity with the language, with the way horses are painted and with its portrayals of each tribe.”
Arthur Redcloud, who grew up on a Navajo reservation and plays Hikuc, says: “The film is a special gift, and we wanted to pour the heart and soul of our people into it.”
Domhnall Gleeson on Captain Henry
Domhnall Gleeson, the rapidly rising Irish actor who also stars in this year’s Brooklyn, plays the role of Captain Andrew Henry, a real-life historical figure who was one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Trading Company and a leader of the expedition up the Missouri River.
Gleeson notes that the script gives Captain Henry a fictionalized arc beyond what history knows of him. “The real Andrew Henry was quite respected, whereas in this story you see him as an uncertain man learning to be leader. He goes on a journey, growing into the man he was said to be,” he explains.
From the start, Gleeson understood the film was going to be a purposefully challenging experience. “Before we even started shooting, Alejandro said he wanted it to be a tough experience for the actors – and he was true to his word. We were put in unusual circumstances and challenging conditions but it was exciting because it was so different,” he comments. “I certainly have never done anything like it before. There’s an exhilaration to making a movie in a way that people just don’t make movies anymore.”
Gleeson says the roughness of the shoot enriched the performances. “My character is meant to find his circumstances horribly difficult, he’s meant to feel out of place and so I poured everything I was experiencing into the performance,” he explains. “You hope that ultimately the size of all that these men contended with --- the desperation, the madness and uncertainty -- will feel present in the movie theater.”
Will Poulter on Jim Bridger
Rising English actor Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) stars as Jim Bridger who went on to become one of the West’s most legendary guides. In The Revenant, he is seen as a mere boy -- but one who must confront his conscience after he and Fitzgerald leave a mortally injured Glass behind. Poulter was thrilled by the richness of the role. “It’s an honor to play a real living person who has been celebrated for his mountain man skills in a time and place when life expectancy for everyone was so low,” he says.
For a young man new to the frontier, it would have been a life-altering experience. “I think Alejandro wanted to draw from Bridger this idea of innocence facing up to some of life’s toughest situations, and the conflict between the boy he is and the man he’s becoming. Jim has to step up, he has to learn to stifle his fears finally, to do the right thing,” says Poulter. “He’s in situations that men like Glass and Fitzgerald and Captain Henry have experience with – but he has to grow up instantly just to survive.”
Initially, Bridger is an apprentice to Glass. “Glass may be the closest thing Jim has in the wild to a father figure,” observes Poulter. “I think he idolizes him as one of the best navigators and shots around. So when things go wrong, the consequences escalate for him.”
Those consequences mean making a pact with Fitzgerald. Poulter worked closely with Tom Hardy to explore Bridger’s mix of horror, anger and fear towards the man. “Our dynamic is less than friendly but with that being said, it’s not as simple as us being enemies either,” he notes “It’s a muddied, complex relationship. At its core, I think there's an understanding that we both need each other to survive.”
Like his cast mates, Poulter found the way Iñárritu and Lubezki shot the film deeply alluring. “I've never had to perform so intimately with the camera before. I've never had to introduce the camera’s presence in my consciousness this way. It was an incredible thing. You almost feel as if you are no longer acting. You have to really believe you are your character.”
Forrest Goodluck on Hawk
Sixteen-year old Forrest Goodluck makes his big screen debut as Hawk, Hugh Glass’s fictionalized son by a Native woman. A member of the Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian Native American tribes who lives in New Mexico, Goodluck endured a lengthy audition and rehearsal period to win the role.
The complexity of a character torn between two worlds inspired him. “Hawk is half Native, half white,” says Goodluck. “At a young age, he was taken from his village, lost his mother and was burned very badly in a fire. He turned inward, and suffered mental trauma, what we would call PTSD today. But I think Hawk is strengthened by everything he goes though. He is a strong yet fragile character. He has a kind of bi-polar mentality, because on one side, he’s not entirely accepted by white culture, and on the other, he’s not entirely accepted by his own culture.”
Yet Hawk cannot deny his deep, loving link to his father, Glass. Goodluck says, “Our relationship is one of quiet respect. There is a silent connection, but living in that time you couldn’t be soft, so it can look like a hard love between Hawk and Glass, but it’s a deep love.”
Duane Howard on Elk Dog
The powerful Arikara warrior Elk Dog, who is in search of his captured daughter, Powaqa, is portrayed by Duane Howard, a First Nations actor who hails from Vancouver Island, Canada. He says of his character: “Elk Dog is a kind of authority figure and when he speaks, people listen. Even when he stands, even when he’s not saying anything, people listen. He gets that kind of respect. And in turn, he is someone who would give his life for his people.”
Yet, as the Arikara raid the trapper’s camp, Elk Dog is on the emotional edge witnessing the death and destruction surrounding him. Recalls Howard: “I really had to open myself up. I had to make myself very vulnerable and there were a lot of emotions during the battle. It was an intense experience.”
For Howard The Revenant was a deeply personal event during which he learned the Arikara language and culture as if it were his own. “The Arikara language is very different from my own Native language and it was really challenging and interesting to learn more about it,” he explains.
Howard was inspired by the film’s reverence for authentic cultural representation. “I commend the whole team because they truly did their homework. Every little thing in the film, from the face paint to the clothing has a meaning, as it did in those times,” he summarizes.
Arthur Redcloud on Hikuc
A resonant character amid the tapestry of The Revenant is Hikuc, a solitary soul encountered on the plains who becomes Hugh Glass’s unexpected savior. He is played by Arthur Redcloud, a Navajo who describes the character as “a man who finds himself ready to take on a new challenge and destination.”
Redcloud himself had studied to be a medicine man on a Navajo reservation under the tutelage of his beloved grandfather. Once cast, Redcloud spent a lot of time contemplating the scene where Glass comes upon Hikuc feasting on a fallen buffalo carcass. “In our culture, the buffalo is not just an animal, it is a symbol of strength, healing and compassion, so when you see my character eating the buffalo it is not just about sustenance for the body but for the mind and soul,” he offers.
Working with Leonardo DiCaprio intrigued Redcloud more than it intimidated him. “For me it was about having a fantastic chance to learn from him. And it was also about really trying to see him. A lot of the time I was just staying still and trying to read Leo’s heart and who he is, and I felt I was able to see that. It was a blessing just to share ideas and learn about the craft from a master. Glass and my character go on a journey from being potential enemies to being brothers, and we went on that journey together.”
Redcloud especially enjoyed the creative back-and-forth with Iñárritu. “He is part mad scientist, part painter,” he muses. “Every detail is important to him. He wasn’t interested in just taking our Native stories; he was interested in understanding what makes the stories so powerful.”
Rounding out the main cast is an international group of both established and up-and-coming actors, each of whom notes that The Revenant was a stand-alone experience. Canadian Brendan Fletcher who plays the trapper Fryman remarks: “I’ve never had any acting experience like this, being in the raw elements while shooting such long, meticulously detailed shots. It was amazing to watch Alejandro bring his eye for honesty to everything.”
Norwegian star Kristoffer Joner, who plays Murphy, adds: “This way of working was all new to me, moving with the camera. Alejandro told us: ‘The camera is like a moving train and you just have to hold on to the train and see what happens.’ And that’s a scary thing. Some days it was really fun, some days it was tough, but it was always unlike anything else.”
Joshua Burge, who plays Stubby Bill, says the physicality of the actors’ work on The Revenant led to a close-knit camaraderie. “The cast came from all parts of the world, but an incredible bond formed by going through hardship together. And that’s what it was really like for the trappers -- these guys were out in the middle of nowhere faced with unpredictable adversity and had only themselves and one another.”
PAINTING THE REVENANT
Coming on the heels of Birdman, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu takes his passion for seamless filmmaking to a new world with The Revenant. He and his long-time cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, made several key decisions early on that set the rules for the production. First, they decided to shoot the film chronologically, to maintain the natural flow of Glass’s journey. Second, they committed to shooting the film relying on only the sun and firelight, bringing in no artificial lighting from later centuries, and working with the light of nature in creative ways. Finally, they wanted to explore the long, fluid, continuous shots they’ve become known for to a very different kind of effect than in Birdman.
Iñárritu always envisioned the look of The Revenant as a chiaroscuro painting, full of light and shade, come to visceral life. “Much as Birdman was inspired by music,” says Iñárritu, “this film was inspired by painting. Chivo has played an incredible role in creating this film as a visual work of art.”
Working with the cutting-edge Arri Alexa 65– the brand new large-format camera from the pioneering digital camera company -- Lubezki utilized a range of wide lenses, spanning from 12mm to 21mm, to create extreme depth. The flexibility of the system lent itself to camera movements that often go from extreme close-ups to panoramas in synch with the film’s action, dreams and emotions. The team mixed three approaches -- telescoping cranes, Steadicams and hand-held work – to allow Iñárritu to later sequence the visuals like a choreographer with Academy Award®-winning editor Stephen Mirrione.
Bringing long shots to a wholly unpredictable wilderness shoot was completely new for everyone. The challenges were mind-boggling in the beginning. Because the crew was in wintry Calgary where daylight hours are already preciously short, the window of opportunity for shots was brief and extremely high pressure. For any shot, no one could ever be sure if a second or third take would be possible.
“We had to choreograph all the beats and rhythms, find the right time of day and then pray weather conditions would hold,” says Iñárritu. “It was challenging and fun but it took a lot of time, thought and rehearsal to get it right. There was a certain patina and atmosphere we wanted to sustain. The conditions we established were so specific, we had to be very patient or push it and create it. I think we became trappers in our own way – trappers of circumstance.”
The Revenant took Lubezki not only into the West but also into the dreamscape of Glass’s subconscious mind. Iñárritu explains, “During Glass’s journey, when he is alone with his body collapsing, the only way to know who he is as a man is through his visions and dreams, which inform us of his state of mind and his past.”
All of the actors were enthralled by Chivo’s photographic style, which pushed them further. “Chivo’s photography is intrinsically a part of Alejandro’s process,” observes DiCaprio. “Together, they completely immerse themselves in the material and then work with the actors to coordinate incredibly complex movements and shots. What they quite uniquely achieve in this film is a virtual reality where you really feel like you’re out in the elements with these characters. You get Glass’s visual perspective to the point that it feels almost like you are part of his subconscious.”
Where Bad Is Good: The Production Design
To capture the world as it was in 1823, Iñárritu collaborated with Academy Award®-nominated production designer Jack Fisk. Fisk is no stranger to epic productions having worked on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but this period was new to him.
Fisk was thrilled by the era’s unmitigated rawness. “I love this period,” the production designer says. “People were limited as to what they had out there, so it was pretty much axes and knives and very few amenities. We’ve tried to replicate that as much as possible so that you can truly get lost in it. Alejandro wanted everything gritty and shitty and aged, so that was our aim. You have to keep in mind that these trappers often went months without bathing, and each man ate about 10 pounds of meat a day, so it would not have been pretty. The grittiness and aging help us understand how difficult life was.”
Early on, Iñárritu sent Fisk a copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to give him a sense of the roughhewn design he had in mind. “I immediately got what kind of film he wanted to make,” Fisk recalls. Fisk was also made aware of the decision to use only natural light, which meant a never-ending hunt for locations that would get the right light at the right times of day. “We had to constantly deal with whatever nature threw at us,” says Fisk, “but that became an important part of the creative process.”
One of the centerpieces of Fisk’s design is the sprawling Fort Kiowa set, hand-crafted in an old gravel pit in Spray Valley Provincial Park near Canmore, Alberta. Determined to echo history, Fisk’s team constructed the Fort using actual materials and designs from the 1820s, utilizing all found lumber.
“I really wanted this Fort to be authentic to the period -- which makes it a place you’d never want to live today,” Fisk laughs. “Instead of making it charming, we made it inhospitable because these men’s lives were rough. Also, they weren’t carpenters, so we really used that idea of not doing things too well. I would get upset with the carpenters whenever they did something too nice. Our motto for the fort became: ‘Good is bad, but bad is good.’”
Aging the sets became an artform all its own on The Revenant. “We had the agers hit the Fort hard. One building was just too square so I had them pick it up a couple of times with a forklift and drop it just to shake it into a bit more dilapidated shape,” Fisk recalls. “We spent as much time aging as building.”
To accommodate the need for natural light, Fisk even built two mirror-image fort buildings – one facing east for morning shoots and one facing west to take advantage of the afternoon sun.
Fisk built the Pawnee village on a Los Angeles soundstage using authentic materials and techniques from their culture. “We simplified some of the steps for the winter village but the small houses are all out of wood and mud and straw as they would have been,” he says.
While most of the sets are historically based, Fisk also designed dream-like elements, including the towering mountain of buffalo skulls and the husk-like ruins of a European church. Another atmospheric set is the trapper’s camp attacked by Arikara in the opening battle. As the scene begins, the camp is dressed with makeshift tents, lean-tos, campfires and busy trappers skinning beaver and bundling pelts. Fisk even built a period keelboat, which becomes a major part of the action. “I love that the boat is fully authentic,” he says, “except that it has a 450 horsepower engine hidden inside so we could get it upstream!”
Fisk is known for building sets that can be photographed from any angle and The Revenant was no exception. He says, “I like sets to be shootable from 360 degrees – and a director like Alejandro takes full advantage of that. If you give that to him, he will always find the most inventive angles,” he muses.
PRIMAL AND AUTHENTIC: COSTUMES
The mountain man look has become an enduring icon of Americana, but for The Revenant, two-time Academy Award®-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West (Argo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) wanted to go beyond the clichés.
She notes that the Glass legend is one she grew up with: “I know the story of Hugh Glass because I have a ranch in South Dakota, and he's a mythical character up there. These trappers were the real pioneers,” West points out. “Yet, the script felt as much like a Russian novel as a Western to me. I'm obsessed by Dostoevsky, Chekov and Tolstoy, so the psychological side of the story really lured me.”
Diving in, she drew her influences from a broad range of artists, including paintings and sketches by two renowned artists of the period: Alfred Jacob Miller, who headed to the Rocky Mountains in the mid 19th Century and was one of the few to capture life there as it unfolded; and Karl Bodmer, a Swiss painter known for his portraits of Native Americans, especially the Mandan tribe of South Dakota.
One particular painting became the inspiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s look. “It’s a painting of a Native hunter all bundled up for the woods in a very simple, hooded frock coat,” she describes. “Alejandro loved it when I showed it to him. He like things to be humble, not self-conscious at all. He likes the person to come through the clothing. The hood comes from an image that Alejandro always had for Glass as spiritual and monk-like. His shirt is very practical, made of long flaxen linen he’d have bought at the local fort. There's nothing showy about him. His clothes keep the elements at bay.”
She continues: “Alejandro had the very poetic idea that Leo would wear the bearskin left behind when his fellow trappers abandon him. It's such a lyrical image, and there’s an irony that the thing that almost killed him saves his life. It keeps him warm, protects him and gives him buoyancy on the river.”
West contrasted Glass’s look with his nemesis Fitzgerald. “I see Fitzgerald as being almost completely driven by fear,” she explains. “So I incorporated lots of animals into his wardrobe, with full otters lining his coat and a beaver hat.” (West emphasizes that all furs and skins utilized in the film were sourced “from Pacific Fur Trade who gets everything from the Parks Department, all humanely taken.”)
Each trapper has his own distinctive look. “Jim Bridger was a farm boy, so I made his outfit homespun but with that amazing buffalo coat. Stubby Bill’s look I took from a painting of a trapper in striped pants and blue coat. Murphy was more European and I figured he would have traded with the French for his capote coat. I gave each person a backstory that made their outfits totally different.”
Captain Henry’s clothing is based on real artifacts on display in Nebraska’s Museum of The Fur Trade. “He’s the one I had the most visual information on. His leggings were terribly inconvenient, but those are the real gaiters he wore. And the cut of his coat is also very famous, so we had to mirror that.”
As with Jack Fisk’s work, West found herself constantly aging and darkening. “We used as our theme song ‘Paint It Black,’” she laughs. “We did shredding, sanding and cutting. Everything is grimy and weather-beaten; yet I find it beautiful, because the eyes of the actors just glow in the contrast.”
West was especially excited to have the chance to display Native American clothing of the period. “Native men often wore what was called a ‘war shirt,’ which is two skins usually decorated by their wives. We also worked to keep the tribes distinct looking,” she explains. “The Pawnee have cottons and wools because they were closer to the trading post, while the Arikara, Mandan and Sioux are in leather.”
For Elk Dog’s war shirt, West used one of the most potent Arikara symbols: a piece of corn. “Corn symbolizes that if you die in the battle, those kernels will be planted with you into the earth, and something new will grow from that. It's a form of taking the earth into battle with you,” she explains.
The simple but authentic garments for the Native healer, Hikuc, with their links to the past, moved Arthur Redcloud. “I felt like my costume became part of me and I developed an emotional attachment to it. Regalia clings to you when it wants to. I felt my costume had chosen me and I wore it with honor and great respect,” he says, “not just for myself or the film, but for my ancestors.”
FROSTBITE, BEARDS AND BLOOD: HAIR AND MAKE-UP
Make-up designer Sian Grigg has been collaborating with Leonardo DiCaprio for 20 years since they first worked together on Titanic, but The Revenant required the most intensive make-up DiCaprio has ever undergone. From the moment Glass is mauled by the bear, Grigg notes that he transforms into someone almost unrecognizable. “No one expects Glass to survive, so his injuries had to look horrific,” she says. “You have to believe he can’t possibly live, which meant a staggering amount of make-up.”
The process began with analyzing what a bear attack can do to a human body. It was a particularly dynamic make-up job --- for as Glass slowly begins to heal, then sustains new wounds, his face, hair and skin constantly change. DiCaprio’s bruises mottle and his infected gashes morph into a map of scars.
“Everything Glass endures had to show on screen,” says Grigg. “But the advantages of shooting in chronological order were tremendous for our work. It meant we could do really subtle make-up changes every day to reflect Glass’s physical state.”
Even before the mauling, DiCaprio transformed into a woodsman living without a mirror or bath. He grew a bushy, unkempt beard – and received a daily layering of dirt over his face, body and fingernails. Later, DiCaprio’s body was covered in post-mauling prosthetics created by special effects make-up designer Duncan Jarmon. It was a painstaking process, with each piece sculpted, painted and layered with hair. Each individual wound had to be seen in various stages of recovery and also had to be capable of being stitched shut with needle and thread.
“It’s rare that makeup is as integral to a story as this,” says Grigg. “To have the opportunity to tell a story partly through make-up is a gift.”
DiCaprio’s hair stylist, Kathy Blondell, worked in tandem with Grigg. Through much experimentation, she came up with a mixture of glycerin and grit to give the actor’s hair the strange texture of a man who has no means of washing the blood and dirt from it.
Meanwhile, Robert Pandini, head of department hair, prepared looks for the trappers. “They would only go to a fort maybe every few months to get cleaned up, so the reality of that is lots of grit,” says Pandini. “Alejandro asked me to give a back-story to every trapper. Some had powder burns that took off the sides of their hair, others had lice so they’d scratched out patches.”
For the Native American characters, Pandini let their hair down. “I left it very natural and humble. It might not be period true for all of them, but the look tied together,” he explains.
Graham Johnston, head of department make-up, took on the same mandate. “The feeling of the entire film was grime, it was dirt, it was real,” he sums up. “With every frame, every character grows more weather-beaten.”
SURVIVING THE REVENANT
Shooting outdoors in Canada and Argentina, in snow, wind and often at high altitude, the cast and crew of The Revenant faced remnants of the same dangers and conditions that people living in the South Dakota region of 1823 would have faced. This was by design to further inspire an authentic wellspring of storytelling and to put audiences into the very center of a wilderness, which is not a park but a zone of mortal peril where survival is not guaranteed.
“Today, we’ve really lost touch, or we’ve lost the intimate kind of contact with the natural world that these trappers had then. Yet the wilderness is always a part of us -- we are clouds, we are rivers, we are formed by the same elements. I think when you see these places, there is a connection there that reminds you where you come from and where you are going. One of the blessings of the film was being able to bring environments that do that to the screen,” says Iñárritu.
Simply finding landscapes and weather raw enough to replicate the American West of 1823 was daunting. “It took five years to get the locations right,” Iñárritu explains. “I was very interested in the film presenting locations that hadn’t been touched by human beings so we searched for locations that would be almost that pristine. There was something pure and poetic about them.”
There was also something harrowing about them – and this gave the cast and crew insight into men for whom life, death and nature were irrevocably entangled. “The great thing was that as actors we were actually reacting to the elements,” says Will Poulter. “When you're scaling a mountain in minus 20-degrees there's nothing better from an actor’s perspective to get you fully in the moment.”
Dangers ranged from avalanches to bears - the production even had a Bear Safety Coordinator on set every day. (While cast and crew had a justified concern about local bears, no actual bear was used in the grizzly attack sequences. That was one of the few places Iñárritu utilized CGI.)
Another major threat, as it is for Hugh Glass in the story, was weather. At one point, a blizzard brought minus-27 degree temperatures, and the need for crewmembers to keep an eye on each other for the signs of frostbite. “I have learned that there is no bad weather, there are only bad clothes,” Iñárritu jokes, but he notes the intense cold gave the film a shivery reality shooting in tepid conditions could not.
Typical of the film’s extremes, a record-busting hot spell (the warmest Canadian winter in 23 years) turned the filmmakers into snow diviners. “Alberta is very susceptible to radical climate changes,” says Iñárritu. “You can have seven different kinds of weather in a single day. In the beginning, we struggled with low temperatures and blizzards. Later on, we struggled with no snow. It was a winter of record high temperatures, and we went from chasing Chinooks to chasing ice.”
At times, teams of men armed with shovels were sent to a nearby mountain to bring back the precious, temporary stuff. Ultimately, the production headed for 2 weeks to Tierra Del Fuego, at the very Southern tip of South America, to capture the winter conditions needed to complete the film.
The film ultimately came full circle. On the last day of filming, Iñárritu assembled cast and crew just as he had in the beginning. He said to the group, “To make a film like this is the journey of a lifetime. It’s been a journey of wonder with challenging moments and tough ones and beautiful ones. I feel honored, thankful, humble, happy and sad that we achieved what we achieved. What we achieved is amazing. Every single day of the production was difficult, but I think this has been the most fulfilling artistic experience of my lifetime.”
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