The Revenant: Shooting Under Extreme Conditions


Unpredictable and extreme climate conditions can be the bane of most film productions. But none were more challenged than “The Revenant,” one of the films nominated this year for a Best Picture Academy award. Practically the entire movie was shot outdoors – with natural light no less – so great care went into not only ensuring the safety of the cast and crew on set but maintaining continuity as well. However, this does not mean that “The Revenant” did not experience its fair share of problems during the shoot. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the uphill battle this was constantly confronted with.

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu and actor Leonardo DiCaprio on location for "The Revenant." Photo credit: 20th Century Fox.

Putting behind the scenes gossip involving difficult directors, crew defections and actors put in harms way aside,it boggles my mind that no one knew what they had signed up for. Two-to-three months (and longer) spent in some of the coldest, most isolated locations imaginable with only a few hours per day to catch the light needed for each shot. Compounding the issue: it was a period piece set in the very early 1800s. Sets, costumes and makeup had to accurately depict the limited means of the time. Far from home for those accustomed to the creature comforts of a warm hotel, trailer and electricity, it didn’t help not having access to the recourses one usually takes for granted that make life a lot less difficult.

The decision to shoot with natural light gave way to some impressive visuals like the mountain vista depicted above. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox.

It all begins with a script. Developed back in 2001 after optioning the manuscript for the yet to be published Michael Punke novel “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge,” the project went through many hands before it landed on the desk of filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu. It depicted the true story of fur trapper Hugh Glass, a man who was left for dead by his companions after a near lethal bear attack who then found himself trekking almost 200 miles to reach civilization. Glass’ amazing tale was filmed once before as the rather low budget “Man in the Wilderness” (1971) starring Richard Harris and John Huston. But in order to approach its subject properly, locations needed to be found that were not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but were absent of any modern tropes like buildings, phone wires, cars, or any passing aerial devices. Not only that, but the shooting schedule had to be carefully organized to accommodate the weather as it may unfold on camera. In other words if you initially shot hours of footage with snow appearing in the trees and on the ground, then you have to maintain the consistency of that look.

According to an article posted on Indiewire, five locations scouts were sent to find the right river alone. This led the crew to various states in the Pacific Northwest. “Location is everything,” explains Location Manager Douglas Dresser. “The most challenging aspect was to find a white water river, a waterfall, 'virgin' landscapes and geology and fauna (or lack of) that would match the established wilderness." For a key scene depicting Glass’ escape from a tribe of Native Americans, the production settled on a river in Montana. But that was one of the few locations shot stateside. A majority of the production would film in British Columbia and Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina.

Scoring the perfect outdoor location is one thing. Dealing with the weather is a whole other kettle of fish.

In an interview with Indiewire’s Anne Thompson, Inarritu describes the two most difficult moments. “We were expecting not to have a lot of snow yet, but it came in a storm at 4 degrees below zero, one of the worst storms ever, it destroyed the set,” Inarritu explains. “The weather was so bad, we couldn’t even move on, it was at a moment in the story with no snow, so we were basically screwed and had to stop the whole thing.” The second moment was antithetical to the first, “in February, the warm weather started melting the ice, on a location where we were expecting snow. We ran out and had to stop again without any B plan and no possibilities to finish the film in any way possible.”

This also motivated the decision to shoot chronologically as the story starts in the fall and ends in winter. According to Inarritu, “92% of the locations are exterior. When there’s a storm in the state, you can’t pretend it's autumn with red leaves covered in snow.”

Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki sets up his shot while actor Forrest Goodluck waits for his close up.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki felt the conditions were necessary. In Variety Lubezki states, "we wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral. The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening." No doubt this decision proved fortuitous as having to lug additional gear like lamps, stands, cables and generators would have yielded an additional burden. But this was not the first time a modern movie was shot with natural light. In 1975's "Barry Lyndon," director Stanley Kubrick also chose to work without electric powered illumination. To such an extent he had special lenses manufactured by NASA to take in as much light as possible. As for Lubezki, he felt the only way to go was with the digital Arri Alexa 65 since film stock "didn't have the sensitivity to capture the scenes we were trying to shoot, especially the things we shot at dawn and dusk."

"Barry Lyndon," a film directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1975, also made use of natural light. Photo credit: Warner Bros. 

Working under these conditions was never a simple task. To benefit the shoot, it would take weeks to properly rehearse and map out the staging of complex scenes. This had as much to do with the limited amount of available light. Lubezki: “On ‘The Revenant’ sometimes it was eight hours, but we were shooting only five. So they were short days but they were very strenuous because of the weather.” Lubezki goes into greater detail in an interview on Deadline, “we’re seeing expanses of land that are so big it would have been ridiculous to try to light them or light the faces of the actor but not light the background. It would have looked terrible.” As for how the cold weather affected the camera itself, “The camera didn’t have any problem because digital cameras run warm, so they actually like the cold.” Lubezki continues, “But the monitor did freeze a couple of times, and cables froze, and the batteries would last a very short time compared to what they would last in other places.”

"The Revenant" star Leonardo DiCaprio risked hypothermia and then some while in production. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox. 

Since the actors had to be dressed up in period garb, this eliminated the use of on camera protective clothing like fleece jackets or UGG style winter boots. If you watch “The Revenant” there are a lot of sequences (and I mean a lot) where actor Leonardo DiCaprio stands in what looks to be some very cold water. “The hardest thing for me was getting in and out of frozen rivers,” says DiCaprio in an interview with Wired. “Because I had elk skin on and a bear fur that weighed about 100 pounds when it got wet. And every day it was a challenge not to get hypothermia.”

Ultimately, in attempting to confront the elements, “The Revenant” did go over budget and over schedule. It’s par for the course when taking on a project of such magnitude. Yet the results were worth it. Released to favorable reviews, “The Revenant” has already earned a Best Picture Golden Globe and is nominated for an Oscar. It seems that Alejandro Inarritu has had the final word exclaiming, “"When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say ‘wow.’”

Here is a behind the scenes featurette on the production design of "The Revenant."