Alejandro Inarritu interview: The Revenant, difficult shoots

Oscar-nominated revenge drama The Revenant is out in the UK. We talk to its director about its ice-cold shoot, modern filmmaking and more.

Freezing sleet stinging the tips of the ears. Icy north wind like sandpaper against the nipples. A problem with the underground left your humble writer traipsing in the grim January weather to meet Alejandro G Iñárritu, the lauded director of such award-winning films as Amores Perros, Birdman, and now a powerful survival-revenge drama, The Revenant.

The tribulations of Iñárritu and his cast and crew during The Revenant’s production make walking through sleet sound like a positive joy. This was, after all, a movie that saw filming take place in sub-zero temperatures, with lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio suffering from repeated bouts of illness. Last July, an anonymous crewmember told The Hollywood Reporter that the shoot – which took place in remote parts of Canada and Argentina, among other locations – was “a living hell.”

Yet through the cost overruns, grim conditions and unexpected problems, Iñárritu ploughed on, returning with perhaps his best film yet: an earthy, violent yet also beautiful film about death, survival and vengeance. So what prompted Iñárritu to go to such lengths to make The Revenant? How did he tune out the background noise of a rising budget and a press keen to sniff out whether The Revenant was a potential disaster in the making?

Those were the questions that were at the front of my mind as I headed to meet Mr Iñárritu. The precision of his camerawork, his desire to set himself increasingly difficult challenges – the flowing, seemingly unbroken take of Birdman, the punishing commitment to realism in The Revenant. What drives him to do all that?

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Here’s what the director had to say, as he spoke to me shortly before the announcement of The Revenant’s bountiful haul of Oscar nominations came through…

What was it like to shift from a very interior film like Birdman, to an exterior, expansive story like The Revenant?

The difficulty is, when you put the camera in those huge landscapes, out in the natural environment, it’s very… cinema, in the end, is about excluding the whole world and just literally finding whatever you want through a pinhole, right? But in those territories, you’re trying to concentrate on a tiny little thing but you get lost. Like, where do you put the camera? Because everything is massive!

To keep focus is very overwhelming. That’s the sensation: it’s very overwhelming. Not only because of the logistics, to arrive at those places and prepare them – the implications of shooting for 16 hours in exterior weather – tough conditions, low temperatures, all that. I would say dramatically, to really pin down an infinite horizon, it’s really hard to grasp.

When you shoot in a room, that’s a symmetrical thing that contains you. When there’s no contention, the sensation is overwhelming you. That’s a challenge, to do that. 

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Where do you think that comes from? That particular style of yours: the very mobile camera. It’s almost omnipresent, isn’t it?

I want the camerawork to fit the narrative and tell the story from the point of view of the character, but sometimes, to be interacting with the sensations of the story, you almost become like a ghost, you know? Like, someone that is floating, observing, not really judging what’s going on. The camera is a time-space trick.

So yeah, I want the fluidity. The flow of that, I think is important – to not be in any way pinned down to this fragmented, very familiar way of understanding an action. To experience film in a different way, you know?

Your career started in music – you were a DJ and you wrote music before you became a filmmaker. Do you think that comes from music, that flowing style?

Yeah. Music helps me, normally, to find the rhythm and the pace of a film. Rhythm is God. I think, without rhythm, you can’t create – there is no art. There is no writing, there is no dancing, there is no music, there is no architecture. The rhythm is the whole thing. The music really helps me to understand the movie. I had a pretty good idea of the rhythm early on – I felt comfortable in that territory. And yes, once you find the rhythm of the film, everything gets easier. Everything flows.

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Do you hear it in your head as you’re shooting?

Yes. Yes, I can feel very much when things have to be a little faster or where the transitions have to come. I have to find exactly where the transitions have to happen in terms of rhythm. Why? Because the rhythm creates the dramatic tension. If everything is the same or everything’s too fast or everything’s too slow, or the changes are completely incongruous… I think the rhythm is like your heart pounding. There’s a reason why the heart starts to beat a little more – you’re responding to something. So you have to be aware of that, and that is the flow of the film, the breath of the film – it keeps it alive. 

Do you think there’s a greater appetite for films that are shot in a real environment, not in a studio in front of a green screen? Do you think we need that kind of filmmaking now we’re in such a technological bubble of phones and laptops?

I would say it isn’t happening a lot. Or enough, I would say. I think, unfortunately, everything is becoming about comfort, you know? A comfortable way to tell a story. The comfortable way, so that the audience will never be lost. A comfortable way to produce a film with green screens or without a lot of physical effort or losing control because of the weather or physical locations.

Or they’re based on known material and franchises. So everything is about reducing risk, about control. I remember when films were done more in the tradition of, I would say, a valid artform, which is to get lost as you are doing it, metaphorically. Where you take a journey – as you are doing, you are finding out what exactly it is you’re trying to make. That’s exciting. Original material – producing something with physical things that can change, and you have to adapt. You find surprises. Or you fail. To surprise people with something that is unexpected or unpredictable…

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Everything is [being pushed] into this frame, this box. And everybody’s embracing that – from studios to directors to producers to opinionators on the internet. Film critics. When something’s out of their comfort zone, it’s a little bit disrupting – everybody’s… [mimes sitting up straight, as though electrocuted].

They all call it a pipeline now. They don’t call them films. It’s a pipeline! They call it content in a pipeline! Which is to say [chuckles], it must be used to sell something. So when there is no content…

So anyway, what I’m saying is, I’m very privileged that we were able [to make The Revenant]. That we were supported to do something like this.

It reminds me of that period of filmmaking when you had Werner Herzog making things like Fitzcarraldo or Coppola was making Apocalypse Now. They’d take on these great risks. Pushing the boat up the mountain almost became a metaphor for the movie itself. Is that how you felt?

Yes! That’s what I’m saying. These great directors took that chance. To get lost in that sense, and to find something extraordinary. Even when Apocalypse Now came out, it wasn’t actually very well reviewed because people thought it wasn’t real, that it was too self-indulgent, and too long. [Laughs] Now it’s considered one of the greats, but that’s because people have had the time and perspective to understand that great art goes through a process. It was unpredictable – it was wasn’t told in the way people wanted a war film to be told. It wasn’t in the box of comfort, or made to be easily understood or whatever.

But Coppola was great, because he let himself get lost in something. He didn’t let himself be dictated by I don’t know who – the fucking cinema gods – he went and made something that was beyond everyone’s imagination. When you don’t do that, then yes, you might get what you want, but it will be in the box. When you’re out of the box, that’s fucking risky. I think yes, those films are extraordinary in that sense.

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I’m not saying I achieved that! I think time will tell whether this film is great or not. What I like is that I allowed myself to do that. 

What motivates you to set yourself those challenges? When you made Birdman, didn’t people try to dissuade you from trying to shoot it as though it was all one take?

It’s not about taking risks stupidly or rashly. I think Birdman and this film, there’s a very intrinsic reason to tell the story that way. And for me, I think, deeply, that… there are two points. One, I feel it’s the best way to tell that story, and it will serve a purpose, the dramatic tension. It’ll feel different if the story’s told that way. And it will reveal something else. Or at least, I’ll try it – even for me as I’m doing it, I’m attempting something that I’ve never seen done, to see what comes from that. It’s important to push yourself and push boundaries

Even if I’ve failed with both of them – time will tell, I don’t know. Nobody can tell me now. I wouldn’t believe somebody if they told me [Birdman and The Revenant] were great or they were shit. I think there hasn’t been enough time to really know it. But, at least for me as an artist, I think it’s important for me to play with things, like a kid. If you don’t allow yourself to do that, then everything becomes about succeeding.

I think, at this time, there’s a lot of punishment of artists – there is no support of a career. They want success, not a career, you know? If you don’t allow yourself a process of exploring, and sometimes losing one or two years of your life, you’re just getting something that is already proven… and that won’t really get us anywhere. 

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Do you think of yourself as an obsessive filmmaker?

[A long, thoughtful pause] I don’t know if I’m obsessed. I think I’m very rigorous, you know? I’m very… maybe both words are the same, in a way! [Laughs] But yeah. There’s a rigour when I’m making something that will be on the screen forever. I think it has to be right, because you just have one time to do it.

So yeah, maybe when you’re writing a page, you’ll correct it many times because you cannot allow yourself to have something printed that has some fucking mistake on it or something. I don’t like to do that.

While you were making the film, there were lots of reports about the budget going up. It was understandable why it did. But how do you tune that background noise out?

The budget?

I mean the climate surrounding the film. Like Apocalypse Now, I suppose. While that was being made there were loads of reports coming out that it was a difficult shoot, that kind of thing. It sometimes feels as though the press are willing certain films to fail. How do you deal with that as a filmmaker?

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I don’t care, honestly, because that’s my business. I’m not worried about how a dentist is running his office, do you know what I mean? Whether or not he’s mad with his assistant! I don’t worry about the painter because he’s using too much paint for some fucking thing, or a writer, that he’s throwing a lot of pages into the trash because he can’t get the first page right. Oh my God, look at the amount of paper he’s used!

The problem is that, only in cinema, it costs a lot of money. Unfortunately. But I can tell you, writers, painters, musicians, they try many times, they fail many times. They leave a lot of things. The difference is, that doesn’t cost money. It’s not that I’m irresponsible – every film that I’ve done has been responsible. Every other film I’ve done has been in budget. This one has not, because, as you’ve read many times, the weather and the conditions were absolutely out of my control. Everything that was in my control was absolutely planned. And thanks to that plan, the film was finished. Without that rigorous plan, the film could have never have been finished.

Now the [press] and things like that? Suddenly somebody wants to take the narrative of the film in that direction. They want to hurt you, they want to punish you, they want to judge you without having the information right. They’re picking out the point of view of handful from 300 people and trying put that out. That’s something you can’t control. They’re looking for drama? Okay, you want drama? Here. There’s drama in everything I do. But I was just making the film.

How do you think you’ll push yourself in the next film? What challenges do you think you’ll set yourself next time?

I don’t have a next film. I have a life in front of me. I would like to become very ordinary! [Laughs]

Alejandro Iñárritu, thank you very much! 

The Revenant is out now in UK cinemas.