Revenant Director Alejandro Iñárritu Talks Survival, Nature, and Reality vs. Fantasy
After The Force Awakens, this season’s most-anticipated film might just be the survival epic/Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Revenant. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the movie is set in the American West in the 1800s and tells the true story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman and explorer, who is mauled to the edge of death by a gigantic grizzly bear. If that isn’t bad enough, he’s then left to die by his friend and confidant (Tom Hardy). Driven by revenge, DiCaprio truly claws his way back to health and hunts down the man who abandoned him. It’s an intense, gorgeous epic that could not be more-different—in subject and in execution—than Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year). Yet, like Birdman, it’s a movie that sticks with you, a film that you find yourself thinking about days after you have seen it.
“In some ways the movie seems like a departure for me,” the director says. “But it really is of a piece. It deals with themes I have always thought about: survival; trust; family.” Iñárritu, who started his career as a radio host in his native Mexico City, is among the most ambitious and inventive story-tellers working in movies today. He’s also a guy who seems to never stop moving, as we learned for this interview—conducted on the phone as he was walking through an airport.
WIRED: In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio literally goes silent; he loses his voice. He becomes a man who loses the ability to use words and instead becomes a man who is responding and reacting physically to his world. And it strikes me that this is something at the heart of movie-making: action and images are stronger than dialogue; showing is stronger than telling.
Iñárritu: Well, you are correct. This is an idea that effects me very much as a filmmaker — this is cinema itself: images over words. This is the true power of cinema: visual story-telling. And this is something I wanted to deeply, truly explore with this movie. Not just on a big level, but for myself as a moviemaker. I was fascinated, too, for example with Leo and how his character needed to and did convey complex and deep emotions with only his body. With only the ability to act physically. And, as I say, this is the very heart of moving-pictures as an art. It is the ability to convey universal emotions without the need of translation.
This film is so much about one man’s struggle. Or, struggles. In a sense, your last film, Birdman, was very much about one man’s interior struggle. It was man versus self. This film is very much about one man’s external struggle: man versus nature.
Well, it is man versus nature, but also versus himself. I have always loved Fitzcarraldo: Burden of Dreams. That is a story of man versus nature. But it is also nature versus man. I wanted to make a movie that explored those themes.
Talk to me about man versus nature.
Well, we all truly lived it to make this film. For 11 months we were in some of the most remote locations we could find in Canada and elsewhere—places where we could find truly primeval, raw wilderness. It was a real odyssey, making this film. But that is for us in the real world. Inside the film, inside the story, at the bottom of the whole thing is a father-son story. And that is something which is in all of my films. Here, it is given an extra twist because it is a father with a mixed-race son.
You have to remember that the United States at this time was basically a jungle. And I wanted, too, to see the spirit of this time and place. How nature can shape us. There were big themes here. In the 1820s, no one had crossed the continent except for Lewis and Clark. Only nature and animals ruled the continent. And Native Americans, of course. There was no Western law on the frontier. It is a world that is rarely explored in cinema. This raw world. And yet it is also in America the very beginning of capitalism. I am fascinated by that time and those men. And in the movie, nature represents the mind of the characters. So, to tell the story in an intimate way it is about fathers and sons. It’s Biblical, universal.
You see, you are a son forever. That defines you. You are someone’s child forever. And inside this story you have to remember it is a story of a man—Leo—losing his son, his child. Then then there are echoes of that. You have the chief—a father—searching for his daughter. And then you have the bear who attacks Leo and what you have to remember there is she attacks Leo for a reason: because she is protecting her cubs, her children. So, there are many strands here of sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.
You worked, as you said, in the most-traditional of film-making ways: on location. And on location in raw, difficult conditions. Shooting without tricks. Part of the reason it took 11 months to shoot this is because you wanted to shoot seasonally, and not use CGI to create snow or other natural conditions. But you did use some tech advances to make this film—for instance, the bear attack. What else, from a tech vantage, enabled you to make this film?
Well, as you said, I wanted to shoot this film in the most traditional and original of ways: to go to the place. To go to the place and make the improbable probable. I used every trick to get this made and shot. But at the same time, we used every technical advantage we had, like a 65mm digital camera that allowed us to shoot super-fast and capture all the light possible in the shortest time. When we were shooting in some of these mountain locations, you can lose the light very early in the day, especially in the winter, when it goes behind the mountains early. So, we needed to make the most of our time.
But there were other moments that were entirely non-tech and non-CGI. For instance, the avalanche was all real. That’s a shot where you get one take. We triggered that avalanche. And then to coordinate it with cameras, with actors, with horses — it was stressful but thrilling.
You are so good at working, as I say, with myths. And it strikes me that the other big film this season is, of course another myth: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Why haven’t you taken a shot at directing Star Wars?
There is something about me—I don’t have the capacity to see fantasy. To me, there is a difference between fantasy and imagination. Something about my brain does not capture or connect with fantasy. It’s not prejudice about the other way. It’s just the reality of my own brain. I am obsessed with what is here. What we have here, in this world. For me, imagination embraces reality and stretches it. Fantasy, on the other hand, rejects reality.
I don’t know how to create fantasy. I admire those who do. I am just not wired that way. I am fascinated by reality. I don’t need to go to space. To me, reality—and, really, nature—is the greatest invention of all. We cannot invent anything more impressive than what reality—what nature—has already given us. To me, the bear in this movie is more fascinating a creature than anything I could ever create in a fantasy. And I think we have fallen out of touch with nature. I wanted to restore some of that feeling of awe we all once had for nature.
We’ve read and heard a lot about the bear attack on Leo. People even say the bear is raping Leo.
Under the skin of a story, there is always another layer. It is easy to be distracted by the bear ‘rape’ scene. Or the action, which is relentless. But there is a spiritual element in this film. This was my quest, to look at the spiritual. At big themes. Like revenge. This is not a film about revenge. This is about the hollowness of revenge. Showing us all that after you accomplish revenge, well, what is left of you? Of your life?