5 things you didn’t know about 'The Revenant' movie
From creating real avalanches to capturing natural light, this production was unlike any other in Hollywood history.
If you've seen "The Revenant" movie, you know it's almost pointless to define the survival epic with a single word. Gripping comes to mind, but then quickly gets pushed aside by gorgeous, haunting, moving and breathtaking. It's one of those rare films that not only leaves you shaken, but also in absolute awe of the effort it took to pull it off.
In that vein, we've rounded up a handful of the behind-the-scenes feats it took to create a film of this scope. As you'll discover, "The Revenant" isn't just a love letter to classical filmmaking, but a throw-down challenge to all those in Hollywood who dare to follow.
1. They created a real avalanche
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's commitment to using as little CGI as possible extended not only to the big moments, but also the small, beautiful ones as well. In one scene, Leonardo DiCaprio is walking through a valley as a thunderous avalanche unfolds in the distance. While other filmmakers might leave that natural force of snow to digital artists in post-production, Iñárritu decided to make his own. To pull off the feat, he arranged to have planes drop explosives on Fortress Mountain in Alberta, Canada, to set off a real avalanche where they were filming. The timing had to be precise. Only one take was possible. "We triggered that avalanche," he told Wired. "And then to coordinate it with cameras, with actors, with horses – it was stressful but thrilling."
2. It had the support of one of Hollywood's most prolific producers
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (left) and producer Arnon Milchan at the 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
In order for Iñárritu's vision to come to life on the big screen, it first needed the solid backing of someone who could embrace both the style and unconventional demands of the director's filmmaking. That support came in Arnon Milchan, a film producer from Israel, whose New Regency Productions has backed Academy Award-winning films from "Birdman" to "12 Years A Slave" as well as iconic films like "Pretty Woman" and "The King of Comedy." He's also worked with actors and directors such as Robert de Niro, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
As Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned in his Best Actor acceptance speech at the 2016 Golden Globes, Milchan is one of a kind when it comes to giving filmmakers the freedom to breathe life into their art. "There's no one in this industry who would stick with a film like this to its bitter end," he said. "You are the champion of this film."
3. The opening scene took one month of rehearsals
"The Revenant" is one of those films that wastes absolutely no time in making your heart rate soar. The opening sequence of the film, in which DiCaprio's character Hugh Glass and his fellow fur-trappers come under attack, is an expertly choreographed piece of beautiful madness. “Five years ago I knew I wanted to shoot a scene like that,” Iñárritu told ScreenDaily. “Most importantly for me was not only to make this scene a real experience but to submerge people in the emotional experience and ask whose point of view was this?"
Because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was committed to using only natural light to shoot the film, the window to capture a scene of this magnitude was extremely small. Should the entire one-shot scene go wrong or lose valuable light, the entire sequence would have to wait another day for just the right light. “To pull off these complicated sequences, like a ballet, movement needed to be precise,” DiCaprio added to Grantland. “When it came down to that nail-biting moment to capture that magic light, every day was like putting on a mini-piece of theater."
4. The film had its own meteorologist
If you're going to shoot a film set in winter with only natural light, having a handle on nature's mood swings in advance can be most helpful. To the end, "The Revenant" brought on Global Calgary Meteorologist Jordan Witzel to help provide invaluable input on shooting locations, weather conditions and the best place to find snow. His forecasts were a huge help in allowing cinematographer Lubezki to create visual consistency over the nine-month shoot. As he explains, it was more niche forecasting than anything he's had to do before.
"In my day job, I just say, ‘The cloud rolls in in the afternoon.’ For this, it’s more like, ‘The cloud rolls in at 2 p.m., but what kind of cloud is it? What does it look like?'" he explained to Canadian Global News. "It wasn’t like on TV, where I dump the forecast and if I’m wrong, the next day I explain why I’m wrong. It forces you to go back and confirm and verify how things are going to go every 15 minutes in your forecast."
5. The 'bear attack' remains something of a mystery
Even those who have yet to see "The Revenant" have probably heard of the dramatic sequence between DiCaprio's character and a mother grizzly bear. From the beginning, Iñárritu was determined to make the attack as natural as possible. "The research of how it happened is very important," he told the LA Times. "All the Hollywood films show bears as a bad guy or they have human emotions. ... I hate that. And this [bear] is just feeding her cubs. That's it. I wanted to understand how, what happened."
Before the six-minute, one-shot scene could even be choreographed, Iñárritu watched dozens of bear attack videos, consulted with experts and interviewed people who had experienced such horror firsthand. "It took a lot of rehearsals for me to understand how we were going to shoot it to enable the audience to share in the experience of being attacked by a bear,” he added to ScreenDaily.
As to how they created such a realistic attack, Iñárritu is holding that secret close to his chest. We know he shouted cues to DiCaprio to move and react, and that Industrial Light and Magic was involved, but little else. "Once we finished the choreography," he told the LA Times, "I will not tell you" how the rest came together.
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