Iñárritu Delivers A '360-Degree Emotional Experience' In 'The Revenant'

Dec 24, 2015
Originally published on December 29, 2015 11:57 am

Last year filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu won the best picture, best director and best screenplay Oscars for Birdman. His new film, set to open Christmas Day, is already getting Oscar buzz. The Revenant is a Western, set in the American frontier in 1823. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as legendary explorer Hugh Glass. In the harsh, icy American wilderness, he gets mauled by a grizzly bear. A fellow fur trapper murders Glass' son and then buries Glass alive, leaving him to die. The movie chronicles the hero's struggle to survive, bent on revenge.

Iñárritu says The Revenant is about endurance, resilience and the love between father and son. He wants viewers to feel what it is to "be broken and isolated and be dead and reborn again."

Nature is also a main character in the story. Iñárritu says he shot his film chronologically, using only natural sunlight and firelight in remote areas of Canada and Argentina. "Every molecule of this film was absolutely difficult," he says. For 11 months they were "at the mercy of the low temperatures, and different conditions that changed seven times a day."

There was sometimes a 25-degree difference between the temperature in the morning and the temperature at night. The crew endured rain, snow, wind and sun. "We were submerged in the same odyssey that these trappers were," the director says.

Shooting the movie opened Iñárritu's eyes to climate change in a very real way. "I saw the difference between 1 degree — which is between ice and water," he says.

In an interview provided by 20th Century Fox, DiCaprio says Iñárritu wanted to "create poetry" in this story. He says he admires the director and his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki.

"I think what they quite uniquely achieve is this almost virtual reality, where you really feel like you're out in the elements with these characters," DiCaprio says. "You really feel immersed in their lives. But he's also able to have that camera move all the way through the wilderness, but stop at a very intimate moment with the character and then travel on. So you almost feel like some strange, delusional wanderer watching all this chaos ensue. And you get the visual perspective of a character in the movie, almost."

Sometimes DiCaprio's breath fogs the camera lens. Other shots are long scenes of the river rushing by, or wind rustling through the trees. The camera also weaves through battle scenes.

"We choreograph all this very meticulously," Iñárritu says. "There's this beautiful dance between the camera and the actor, and even animals, and avalanches, and mountains. ... These long takes are extremely exciting and it creates a dramatic tension."

The result is a "360-degree emotional experience," he says.

Iñárritu and Lubezki also played with the camera for Birdman, filmed to seem like one long, continuous shot. Michael Keaton played a washed-up superhero actor in that film. He told TV host Jimmy Kimmel that he admired Iñárritu for being a demanding perfectionist.

"He's an artist," Keaton said. "I joke — I call him a madman — 'cause he is a madman, but he's an artist and you want to follow guys like that into the jungle."

Iñárritu's first feature film in 2000, Amores Perros, was filled with the frenetic energy of his hometown, Mexico City. Director Guillermo del Toro says he helped out in the editing booth.

"Even back then, in his first film, it was quite evident to me that the guy was quite a brilliant filmmaker," del Toro says.

Del Toro says he, Iñárritu and another Oscar-winning director, Alfonso Cuarón, often collaborate behind the scenes. For a time, the "tres amigos" — as the three Mexican directors were known — had a production company called Cha Cha Cha Films. They've been outspoken politically, defending Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

In the time they've known each other, del Toro says, his friend Iñárritu has matured as a filmmaker.

"His first movies depended enormously on a chain of tragedies," del Toro says. "And I think with Birdman and Revenant, he is truly more curious about character. He is also very interested in the small moments. His sense of motion and action and his sense of place and character is almost like combat photography done by a virtuoso."

The soundtrack of The Revenant mixes beats with DiCaprio's breaths. Iñárritu says each of his films — Amores Perros, Babel, Biutiful, Birdman and this — have their own rhythm and tempo. It's something he first learned to appreciate as a radio DJ in Mexico City in the 1980s.

"I think there's a cosmic order, and everything is musical," he says.

When he riffs about making movies he sounds like a jazz musician.

"Cinema's an ocean," he says. "We filmmakers, we go out with our boats as sailors and we are just navigating a couple of waves. So you find a wave and you try to survive, then the next one. And every time you approach it different depending on the wind. ... How we can tell stories about humans in a cinematic spectacular way — it's a process. I'm still finding out."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last year, filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the Oscar for best picture, best director, also best screenplay for the movie "Birdman." Inarritu has a new movie. It's an epic called "The Revenant." It opens tomorrow and it's already getting Oscar buzz. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, "The Revenant" is a Western about betrayal and redemption. It's set in the American frontier in 1823.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "The Revenant" stars Leonardo DiCaprio as legendary explorer Hugh Glass. In the harsh, icy American wilderness, he gets mauled by a grizzly bear.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE REVENANT" FILM)

DEL BARCO: A fur trapper, played by Tom Hardy, murders Glass's son, who was half Native American. Then he buries Glass alive, leaving him to die. The movie chronicles the hero's struggle to survive, bent on revenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE REVENANT")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Hugh Glass) I ain't afraid to die anymore. I done it already.

DEL BARCO: Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu says "The Revenant" is about endurance and resilience. But at its heart, it's also about the love between a father and son. And nature is a main character in this story.

ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU: I think it's a film that I want the people to feel the cold, to smell the fear, to remind how a tree sounds when there's wind and become the hero and be broken and isolated and be dead and reborn again.

DEL BARCO: Inarritu says he shot his film chronologically, using only natural sunlight and firelight in remote areas of Canada and Argentina.

INARRITU: Every molecule of this film was absolutely difficult. We were basically 11 months at the mercy of the low temperatures and that different conditions that change seven times a day. So sometimes 20, 25 degrees difference between the morning and the night and with rain and the snow or storms and then sun and then Chinook, which is these hot winds that come from the ocean and suddenly melt all the snow in one hour in front of your eyes. We were submerged in the same odyssey that these trappers were.

DEL BARCO: Inarritu says shooting the movie opened his eyes to climate change in a very real way.

INARRITU: I saw the difference between one degree, which is between ice and water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICAPRIO: What Alejandro wanted to do was create poetry in that story.

DEL BARCO: In an interview provided by 20th Century Fox, DiCaprio says he admires the director and his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Chivo Lubezki.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICAPRIO: I think what they quite uniquely achieve is this almost virtual reality where you really feel like you're out in the elements with these characters. You really feel immersed in their lives. But he's also able to have that camera move all the way through the wilderness but stop at a very intimate moment with the character and then travel on. So you almost feel like some strange delusional wanderer watching all this chaos ensue. And you get the visual perspective of a character in the movie almost.

DEL BARCO: Sometimes DiCaprio's breath fogs the camera lens, which he stares directly into in extreme close-up. Other shots are long scenes of the river rushing by or wind rustling through the trees. And the camera weaves through battle scenes.

INARRITU: We choreograph all the scene very meticulously. There's this beautiful dance between the camera and the actors and even animals and avalanche and mountains and the epic scale and then trying to get always to the close-up to the ice. And these long takes, it's extremely exciting and it creates a dramatic tension and a beauty that make you feel 360-degree emotional experience, you know? It's a very experiential film in that sense.

DEL BARCO: Inarritu and Chivo also played with the camera for "Birdman," famously filmed to seem like one long continuous shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BIRDMAN" FILM)

DEL BARCO: Michael Keaton played a washed up superhero actor in "Birdman." He told TV host Jimmy Kimmel that he admired Inarritu for being a demanding perfectionist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL KEATON: I joke, I call him the madman because he is kind of a madman. But he's this - he's an artist. And you want to follow guys like that into the jungle.

DEL BARCO: Inarritu's first feature film in 2000, "Amores Perros," was filled with a frenetic energy of his hometown, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF "AMORES PERROS" FILM)

DEL BARCO: Director Guillermo del Toro says he helped out in the editing booth.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Even back then is his first film it was quite evident to me that the guy was quite a brilliant filmmaker.

DEL BARCO: Del Toro says he, Inarritu and another Oscar-winning director, Alfonso Cuaron, often collaborate behind the scenes, three Mexican directors who have taken over Hollywood with their unique visions. For a time, the tres amigos, as they were known, had a production company, Cha Cha Cha. They've been outspoken politically, defending Mexican immigrants in this country. Del Toro says his friend Inarritu has matured as a filmmaker.

DEL TORO: His first movies depended enormously on a chain of tragedies. And I think with "Birdman" and "Revenant" he is truly more curious about characters. He is also very interested in the small moments. His sense of motion and action and his sense of place and character is almost like combat photography done by a virtuoso.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE REVENANT" FILM)

DEL BARCO: The soundtrack of "The Revenant" mixes beats and breaths. Inarritu says each of his films - "Amores Perros," "Babel," "Biutiful," "Birdman" and this - have their own rhythm and tempo. It's something he first learned to appreciate as a radio DJ in Mexico City in the 1980s.

INARRITU: I think there's a cosmic order. And everything is musical. And if you don't have rhythm in that sense you can't create nothing.

DEL BARCO: Like a jazz musician, Inarritu riffs about making movies.

INARRITU: Cinema is an ocean. We filmmakers, we go out with our boats as sailors and we are just navigating a couple of waves. So you find a wave. You try to survive, then the next one. And every time you approach it different, depending in the wind. The earthy kind of feeling and textures and emotions and the timing. And everything that is not just quick pac to pac with pixels. Like, how we can tell stories about human in a cinematic spectacular way, it's a process (laughter). I'm still finding out.

DEL BARCO: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, writer and director of the film "The Revenant." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Previous audio and Web versions of this story incorrectly stated that Michael Keaton won an Oscar for his performance in Birdman. He was nominated for Best Actor, but the Oscar was awarded to Eddie Redmayne for his performance in The Theory of Everything]. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.