Alejandro Iñárritu has a lot to be pleased about when we meet at Claridge’s to discuss his latest film, harrowing frontiers survival epic The Revenant. The visually spectacular film is the tale of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead in the frozen wilderness, who somehow dragged himself hundreds of miles in pursuit of survival – and revenge.
Fresh off the back of the film winning three Golden Globes, we met just hours before the Academy announced a whopping 12 Oscar nominations, and expectations are high that Iñárritu will become the first director since 1950 to win Best Director in two consecutive years, after taking the statuette home last year for Birdman. Despite the buzz, the Mexican-born director seems unfazed by the attention and expectation. Dressed in a simple black suit and T-shirt, and steadily working through a fresh coffee as we talk, he shrugs off award show pressure and an infamously troublesome shoot as he explains why it couldn’t have been any other way.
Famously, you and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki insisted on shooting with exclusively natural lighting throughout. Given that you’re obviously open to artificiality in other aspects of the film, such as the CGI bear attack, why was it so important that the lighting be so authentic?
Well, every different area of the film requires different things. You cannot have a fundamentalism about some things. What one area requires, maybe another area doesn’t require that same thing. In terms of lighting, there was no choice. It was an aesthetic decision, of course, to get these landscapes talking that way as characters, with the power that that implies. Obviously there were some scenes that require some technical things that imply analogic methods, very early days of cinema tricks, plus one of the most incredible tools of cinema, which is digital. I tried to subordinate myself to serve every area in the best way possible.
Using natural lighting limited the film’s shooting schedule, and you’ve also spoken in the past about have to fight with the studio to use certain shooting locations. Was there ever the temptation to back down and take the easier route?
I would not change anything. I think the film is what it is by those decisions. For the good or for the bad, I don’t know, but if it is what it is it’s because of that. I think the film would have been absolutely a different film if I would not do it that way or if I would be flinching, or changing something just for the sake of fear or control or whatever. I think I would have screwed the film badly. Once you make a decision like that, you have to be rigorous and it has to be integral to the whole thing, you cannot break it. So I would not change it.
How early on did you make the decision to commit to natural light?
Since the beginning! Conceptually I knew that if there was a chance that this film would be, at least for me, exciting to do, would be to try to tell it, or express it, or achieve it, in a very different way than many other films have been done, with fragmented time, and artificial light. I wanted to explore it in a way that it would be a much more deep and cinematic emotional experience to audiences. Even with the risk of failing, you know – and that was a reason I wanted to make this film, and try at least.
As part of shooting in those conditions, the actors had to go through a lot – shooting at subzero temperatures, eating raw meat and more. What do you think that adds to the performances?
Well, it’s funny that people say, ‘You put those actors in those conditions.’ I didn’t put them there. I think the process, the film, needed that. So in a way, it was not like, again, people were slaves, with guns. The process needed that since we read the script, and the reason we all wanted to do it was because of that. We all knew that. If I invite you to the North Pole, you’ll not say, ‘Should I take a jacket?’ Of course! It will be cold. ‘So you put people in cold.’ No! The North Pole is cold.
So that was the process, and I didn’t have to remind the actors to pretend to be cold, they were fucking cold. And that was amazingly beautiful, I think. All the resources were very helpful for everybody to get things right.
It lets them focus on other aspects of the performance.
Exactly, yeah, And using that in your advantage. Emotionally, and physically, and everything. So it helped the performances. The real deal.
I think it’s fair to say that this role is against type for Leonardo DiCaprio. What made you think of him?
Because I knew that he has that. I think he has a very powerful body of work. That is absolutely indisputable. Then, obviously, when I met him personally, a couple of years ago now, I think I knew what kind of person he is, the baggage that he has. He as a person, you know? And we shared a vision, and a mission, and what excites me is exactly what excites him. We saw the same opportunities in the film, so I didn’t have any doubts at any moments.
There’s been a lot of discussion this year about whether DiCaprio might win his first Oscar. Do you feel any pressure thinking that so many people are attaching those hopes to your film?
No. I don’t know if he has pressure or not, but I don’t have pressure over him getting the Oscar. I would be very happy for him, and I think he deserves it. But that’s something that’s not in your control, so to be stressed about that is a little bit useless. That’s why I don’t get stressed about that. If that happens it’s absolutely appreciated, but you can’t get stressed about that. It’s like if I get stressed that Mars is a little bit colder than yesterday. I will not be able to do anything.
The Revenant is based loosely on a real historical figure and real events. How did you go about adapting the story, about which there’s very little known, and why did you add in elements such as Glass’ Native American partner and son?
The truth is that nothing more than that Hugh Glass was attacked by a bear and he survived, and he went almost 200 miles and arrived at Fort Kiowa is known. That’s it. Nobody really can prove nothing more, before or after. Everything is built on legend. So the novel by Michael Punke [2002’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge] is absolutely made by him, the way he wants this guy to be, so since the first draft that [screenwriter] Mark L. Smith wrote, he loosely based it on only the anecdote and the title. Then when I rewrote it and I worked on it, I added a lot of things that I wanted my character to be. Honestly, I have a huge license, and nobody can tell me that what happened didn’t happen to him. It could have happened! He could have had a family, most of these people had a family. Most of these people had kids. A family, or a Native American woman. I read a lot of journals and a lot of stories that recreate some things that are incredibly interesting that I applied to him as a possibility, and I wanted him to be that guy. I took a lot of chances to make him the way I wanted, what I imagined him.
What was the interest to you in him having a Native American family, which puts him between two worlds?
I think it’s just the story of [the United States]. I think the story of this country is a lot of immigration, a lot of misunderstandings, and a lot of prejudice. I thought it would be a very difficult situation for a white trapper to have a mixed race kid. As it happens today in the United States too, you know what I mean. I think the prejudices that were ruling that time, they still are now. So if I’m talking about the origins of the United States, I think that has to be integrated into the story.
Did you feel a pressure in how you represented the Native American people in the film, given that Hollywood has a shaky track record in that respect?
I think the same mistake has been made over and over again. They are demonised, and they are the savage guys and the bad guys, or they are just absolutely angels, and they’re patronised by being pure. Both approaches I think have misunderstood them. They’re as complex as any human being. They have good and bad things, as we all do, and I wanted to be at least true to what I understood about those tribes, the reason they were struggling, and more than portray them as the good guys or the bad guys, but to give them the same reason as the main character, as parents. This guy is looking for his daughter, and the main character is looking for his son, and that, beside any colour of the skin or any cultural difference, makes you exactly the same. That’s why I took that decision – to portray them fairly.
Words by Dominic Preston