Ahead of the DVD release of The Revenant on May 18, we speak with its mesmerising star, Leonardo DiCaprio.
What drew you to this project and this role?
What first drew me to this project was the prospect of working with [director] Alejandro [Inarritu]. He’s a great visionary, and there are very few filmmakers like him who can make a poetic, existential epic piece. Here, you have a linear story which is somewhat of a campfire legend of American history: the American survivalist, the fur trapper, the mountain man mauled by a bear, then traveling hundreds of miles through the harshest conditions, driven by instinct. But through Alejandro’s eyes it became something much more than that. It tells a story of triumph, of the human spirit and what it is to overcome massive obstacles. It became less of a revenge story and something, I think, much more profound than that.
Let’s talk a little about the film’s premise. How does Hugh Glass end up isolated?
This film is based on the true story of Hugh Glass as he leads this fur trapping unit through the wilderness, or rather its remaining survivors because a Native American tribe, the Arikara, attacked their base camp and killed many of its members. Along the way he went out scouting and came across two bear cubs and ends up mauled by a fully-grown mother grizzly bear. Nearly dead, he becomes isolated from his group.
The ‘bear scene’ has come up in a few conversations as being an incredible sequence.
This scene is one of the most incredible cinematic experiences I think audiences will ever have. It was a difficult and arduous sequence to put together, but it ended up profoundly moving because of Alejandro’s ability to put the audience in the middle of the scene. They will see it as if they are a fly buzzing around the attack. They will practically feel the breath of the bear. It’s almost like another sense is awakened – fully immersed in this moment. It really takes your breath away. I think that what he achieved is beyond anything that I’ve seen in movie history really.
The period in time this film is set in is not particularly well-documented. That must have created challenges.
That’s right. Making this film was almost like making a science fiction movie because there was little historical information to work with. Not only do cinema audiences not know much about this time period, expert historians don’t either. This is really because America hadn’t become America. This region was a wilderness at that time, like the Amazon is today. It was inhabited by indigenous people and the period depicted in the film saw the first infiltration of the white man into this untouched region, and how it was manipulated that for capitalistic purposes. The fur trade was before the gold rush, before the oil rush, it was the first bit of nature that could be extracted and exported to Europe. So, here you have the French, the English, the early Americans, all instilled in what is the American Amazon of that time. And this was before Lewis and Clark, before we sent explorers out to understand what this new landscape was like. It was truly nature in every sense of the word.
So how did you research the period?
Much of our research was done using the actual journals of the fur trappers of the time, because there were no novels, no writers or journalists going into this wilderness. There was nobody there at all! It was just men who were hunting. There were no photographs, so there were etchings and drawings or stories from American Indians about what it was like. We had to create this world. Like I said, in a lot of ways it was like creating a science fiction film.
Was the shoot as tough as we’ve heard?
Hell yeah! [Laughs] We all worked incredibly hard. The entire crew dealt with extreme circumstances. Whether it was constant extreme weather, or cameras not working because it was 40 degrees below zero, or the snow melting in unprecedented warming period because of climate change in the territory causing the entire landscape to go dry and barren within five hours. At one point, we shut down for weeks. Everyone involved was committed to this movie, committed to making this vision a reality – but we all knew these elements would consume us. I think that, honestly, if I can bring climate change into it, it made it even more difficult. It was unprecedented, the weather events that occurred.
When productions are physically challenging, it could be easy to get disheartened or lose perspective. Did you ever have times where you thought, ‘Man, I didn’t know it was going to be this hard?’
Absolutely. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the challenges that this movie gave us. It threw at us every possible challenge you could imagine. But the great thing about making movies is what you’re documenting. You’re documenting struggle and you’re documenting all the things that you went through in making it. To me, this is the closest thing I’ve ever done to a documentary even with C.G.I. elements in the movie – because there are certain things that we could have never done with animal work. If you watch the bear sequence, mark my words, you’ll never see anything like it in cinema history. You feel it’s almost like there’s another sense that’s arisen in you as an audience member. It is so powerful what Alejandro and Chivo achieved together.
Is it true that you kind of had to kind of go to boot camp, you and the cast, and learn a bunch of new skills?
That’s right, I had to learn survival skills, and there was a lot of detail embedded in the script. We worked with specialists to learn about the muskets we used, which take a minute to reload. And the bear fur I had to wear, which is this carcass of an animal that nearly kills me in the film and that all of a sudden becomes my means of surviving the elements. I learned how to start fires using the elements, how to eat, or how to survive cold temperatures. We needed to learn all of this, and the journals that fur trappers wrote gave us a sense of the difficult conditions they lived through. These men were incredibly tough, a different era of men, so to speak. I love nature, do environmental work which exposes me to the wild all the time, but by no means would I ever be able to say I’m a Bear Grylls-type! I couldn’t do what these men did.
Do you think this is a political film? Whether overtly or not, it does appear to touch on a lot of issues about commerce and the environment.
I think those elements are there. Personally, I’d love to find a film about the environment that’s even more literal. To me, this is done for the poetry of it. This is done through the idea of what happens when we have gone into untouched territory and tried to manipulate that environment. And that’s what is still systematically happening all over the world. Oil companies go into Papua New Guinea or the Amazon or Canada and kick the native indigenous people off of their lands or poison their lands and cut down their trees. This is an age old story, and to me this film is set at the beginning of that in the history of America. This is the first time that we’ve gone to these territories and started to extract things for capitalistic reasons. So yes, there is that theme embedded underneath the film. I don’t think it’s overt. And it’s hopefully something that people can pick up in the way the story is told.