How Leonardo DiCaprio's 'The Revenant' Shoot Became "A Living Hell"
Crew defections, brutal cold, a global search for snow and even a naked actor dragged on the ground — 'Birdman' director Alejandro G. Inarritu responds to critics of his ambitious methods: "When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, 'Wow.'"
A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Veteran crewmembers who have toiled on director Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant say the director's follow-up to Birdman could turn out to be epic and Oscar-worthy. Some also say that making the film has been by far the worst experience of their careers — "a living hell," as one bluntly puts it.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as early 19th century explorer Hugh Glass, Revenant went into production in September and was supposed to wrap in March. But cameras still will be rolling into August as the budget has climbed well past $95 million, with insiders predicting it will reach or exceed $135 million. Crewmembers say they have seen huge turnover, including many who were fired and others who quit. They say the behind-the-scenes drama led Inarritu to bar producer Jim Skotchdopole, who worked with him on Birdman, from the set.
Inspired by real events, Revenant follows DiCaprio's character through deep snow and ordeals including battles with Native Americans and a near-fatal mauling by a bear. Inarritu, 51, made the unusual choice to shoot the film in sequence, using only natural light. While the plan was to film DiCaprio's trek entirely in Canada, the weather did not cooperate, so the filmmakers now are headed to a location at the tip of Argentina in quest of snow.
"We had weather challenges," admits Brad Weston, president and CEO of backer New Regency. "This was a tough movie. We always knew it was a tough movie. And the movie's great." New Regency — extended financially between Revenant and the costly upcoming Assassin's Creed — backed the past two best picture Oscar winners, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman. Brett Ratner's RatPac is contributing about a quarter of Revenant's original budget and is sharing some overages; Empyre, a fund based in Abu Dhabi and Brazil, and Chinese company Alpha Pictures also have small pieces. 20th Century Fox will distribute.
Crewmembers often complain on difficult shoots, but on some films the noise reaches an unusual pitch. Seated in production offices in Santa Monica, Inarritu says he normally would not give an interview with his film still months from its Dec. 25 release. But the Oscar-winning Mexican auteur says he wants to set the record straight about what widely is rumored to be a troubled production. "I have nothing to hide," he says. "There were problems, but none of them made me ashamed."
Yes, some left the crew, he says, "but as a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra." And while acknowledging that the film has gone over schedule and over budget, he says he is "obsessed" with making movies at a price: "I'm absolutely, even stupidly conscious about it."
While some insiders say Inarritu is needlessly difficult, their harshest criticism is aimed at Skotchdopole, who is blamed for planning poorly and failing to communicate problems to Inarritu, who would then take out his frustrations on the crew. "You've got to let the director know: 'We can't do that. We have no money or time in the schedule,'" says one. Crewmembers recall a seemingly deal-breaking clash between Inarritu and Skotchdopole in April after they took a helicopter ride to a forest location that turned out to have the wrong light.
Inarritu remembers venting frustration over a wasted morning but says Skotchdopole was not barred from the set but rather redeployed to a trailer to wind down the production in Canada. Still, Inarritu acknowledges that problems had become so evident that a planned two-week hiatus in December was extended into a six-week break, prompting issues with actor schedules. In January, Tom Hardy was forced to drop out of Warner Bros.' Suicide Squad to accommodate the protracted shoot. During the break, the director asked veteran producer Mary Parent to help get the project on track. Ultimately, she took over on-set duties; Skotchdopole, who did not respond to requests for comment, has moved on.
While weather undeniably was a huge obstacle, several crewmembers say a threshold issue was a failure to understand, as one puts it, "what a period film outdoors on this scale was really going to cost." Given cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki's decision only to use natural light, there was a short window each day when the production could film. Inarritu is making extensive use of the tracking-shot technique that he deployed to dazzling effect in Birdman, so changes in weather could mean trouble. "It's 4 o'clock, and you've got an hour and a half of daylight, and it's not the light he wants to shoot in," says a crewmember. "If you want to seamlessly stitch [the footage] together, it's not going to match."
To take advantage of the window of light, the production built in a great deal of rehearsal time with a full crew and cast (except the principal actors) in place. But insiders say Inarritu often changed his mind. "We'd never shoot what we blocked," says a crewmember. Echoes another: "Everything was indecisive, whether it was this particular actor for this particular role, this costume, this makeup." Inarritu acknowledges shifts but says, "That's part of the process. … It's about incredible precision. … It's not easy. You have to be sculpting, sculpting, sculpting until you have it."
As fate would have it, when the production was counting on snow, it was so warm near Calgary that even attempts to manufacture it or truck it in failed. Later, temperatures dipped to 25 degrees below zero, or minus 40 degrees with the windchill factor. But since the action at that point was set in the autumn, actors were asked to go without hats and gloves. "Everybody was frozen, the equipment was breaking; to get the camera from one place to another was a nightmare," says Inarritu.
Multiple sources say the film started to spin out of control early on, as a major battle scene was shot over two weeks. Originally it was going to involve about 30 trappers and about as many Native Americans, but it expanded to 200 players. Leaving little time for the crew to prepare, Inarritu decided that a naked character should be dragged along the ground. The director remembers being concerned about the actor's genitals and laying down plastic sheeting to protect him. "I asked him several times, 'Are you fine?' " says Inarritu. Each time he asked, he says the actor replied that he was prepared to try another take. "I was super considerate because he was a nice, 22-year-old guy," says Inarritu. While crewmembers say the actor was in pain, Inarritu dismisses that as "a lie."
The director says safety always was a priority and no serious injuries occurred on set. An actor who was immersed in freezing water had a broken dry suit, volunteers Inarritu, "but he was taken care of 10 minutes after he was done." A crewmember says some necks of the dry suits were cut off so they wouldn't show on film, but first assistant director Scott Robertson denies that and says just one actor's dry suit had the neck cut, and it was only to aid him after he reacted adversely to the cold water. Overall, Robertson says, there was a great deal of rehearsal and planning to protect the cast and crew. "We had a safety meeting every day of the movie, sometimes multiple times," he says. "No one got hurt on the film with all the crazy shit we did."
Weston says he and New Regency owner Arnon Milchan attribute the challenges during the shoot to the ambition involved in the filmmaking. "We were in uncharted territory," Weston says. "Everyone who came aboard this project, cast and crew alike, understood this going in, and we all support Alejandro and his vision. The performances are extraordinary and the film is great. Arnon and I would be honored and lucky if Alejandro made his next film and the one after that with us.”
Still, some crewmembers believe a lot of misery could have been avoided — and money saved — if at least some parts of the movie had been conceived with computer-generated effects. "That's exactly what I didn't want," counters Inarritu. "If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit." Revenant is about survival, he says, and the actors and crew benefited from having to make it in nature.
"When you see the film, you will see the scale of it," promises Inarritu. "And you will say, 'Wow.' "