Revenant, The (2015): DiCaprio’s Most Physical and Spiritual Journey

the_revenant_poster_2The Revenant, directed by the brilliant Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Birdman this year, is one of the artistic highlights of the year.  Our rave review will be published next week.

Most Difficult Shoot–Ever

DiCaprio: I have done a lot of extreme situations in my life, whether it be scuba diving or sky diving and I have told those stories. But after seeing this movie you could certainly never compare the struggle of what it would be like to live out in the wilderness that these men endured.


There was a great journal that I used a lot for reference, it was called The Journal of a Fur Trapper, because this was really this whole era in history, it was not historically documented and so this was one man’s plight through the fur trade and how they had him do a lot of this.

When I left the movie, I was just shocked and amazed of the human spirit and the triumph of the will to live and how these men endured such tough circumstances and in a lot of ways.  The truth is that they don’t make such movies anymore and we had lots of people on set that were giving us tons of advice and I learned everything that I possibly could. But, at the end of the day, I got to go home to a hotel room, and I don’t know how I would have ever been to endure what these men did.  I have been in a lot of situations where, sort of near death experiences but I sort of have a knack for that, but nothing like this, no.

Inspirational Movie

the_revenant_2_dicaprioAs a young actor, one of the most transformative films for me was Taxi Driver, and to watch that film as a young man, was one of the more immersive experiences in the psyche of another individual and at that age, actually being completely tricked at one point into thinking that he wasn’t having a sort of a breakdown because you so identified with that loneliness and that longing of Travis Bickle, and then he ultimately betrays you.

To me it was one of the transformative and to me it is still one of the greatest independent film ever made. For The Revenant, there were a lot of different movies and Westerns, and Tarkovsky came to mind and films of that nature, but this was so unique and I knew what director Alejandro wanted to pull off here was this epic sort of cinematic poetry and it was a very linear streamlined story. It was one man’s struggle against nature.  It was a revenge story that turns into something more existential as he finds this will to live and the reason to live after he has lost absolutely everything.

I knew it would be a unique journey so it was hard to compare it to anything that had ever been done and that is part of the reason why we wanted to go on this adventure was because to see what this movie became because the script was terrific but at the end of the day, what Alejandro filled the gaps with is what you saw.

The shoot was nine months of being out there and connecting with what our surroundings were and really being instinctive with the brilliance of this character.

Fight for Survival

the_revenant_5It’s interesting, because this whole era of American history is undocumented, so in a lot of ways it was like doing a science-fiction movie reconnecting with a part of America that was not yet America. It was very much like the Amazon and it was like a lawless territory where you had French and English fur trappers and indigenous native people fighting over these resources.

We had to piece together what this world was like and how these characters would interact, but at its core, the movie is obviously about a man surviving in nature. A lot of the things that are in the underbelly of it are important and pertinent today. And things that Alejandro and I discussed to great length, whether it be after the Industrial Revolution, this great surge out West to extract the resources of the land and therefore compromise and create a virtual genocide to the native people

You had whale oil and the Gold Rush, but during this time period, you had this fur trade and it about extracting the resources and it happened with the Bison and it was about the relocation and the sacrifice and the people and their lands.

This was the sort of first surge in American history of this territory.  To me that was very pertinent because I think while we are doing this film, I was also doing a documentary on climate change and you go all over the world whether it be the  Canadian Tar Sands or South America or  Indonesia, the same story is happening, and we are doing it for oil, and mining, but we are kicking native people off of their lands and sacrificing their entire culture to extract these resources.

I love the way that Alejandro courageously portrayed the native American people without making them a caricature or a stereotype and we have seen traditionally in Hollywood one extreme or the other, the wonderfully kind hearted Native American or the savage Native American as we have seen in so many Hollywood Westerns.

I thought he brought a great humanity to these people and the diversity of the tribes and the difference between the tribes and the whole story to me is about all the different characters that are striving to live and survive and that’s very thematic today all around the world.

Intimate and Epic–David Lean Style?

the_revenant_7I have never worked on a film quite like this, and I don’t know if Alejandro cued everyone into the process of this movie, but it was very unique and unlike anything I have ever done. I have done extensive rehearsals but I think what Cheevo (Lubezki) and Alejandro succeeded in bringing this massive, epic scope with a frame, weaving in very intimate character moments with the camera, the breath, the feeling, and the sweat of these characters, and then also panning off to a David Lean style wide shot and then bringing you right back into the soul of the characters.

To me, I have never quite seen anything done like. It’s almost as if they were trying to achieve a virtual cinematic reality. They took months and months of rehearsals and every single day was like a little bit of theater because we would rehearse all day long and of course you have to find what you do as a character and improvise within that shot.  It could feel constraining at times but it’s actually not and it’s actually quite liberating.

Magic Light

the_revenant_4But at the end of the day, we would have this magic hour where there is this magic light that they would only shoot,  Every day was like waiting for this magic piece of light and it was a mad scramble to get the shot off and it was a mad scramble for everybody to work like a Swiss watch. There are so many things that were happening behind the camera and so many people working in coordination with one another, but they achieved this incredible intimacy, these close-up sort of moments with these characters that make you feel like you are really immersed in this movie.

Connection with Other Actors

I was separated from a lot of them, but all of them were wonderful to work with as well as Kristoffer. and it was for me, the movie was either me on a gurney, (laughs) being pulled by them or alone with my son or completely alone in the wilderness with Donald or Arthur and I wasn’t really part of it and that’s how I wanted my character to be as well and I wanted him to be within and without, and he is an isolationist and he has a son who is half Native American and he knows implicitly that he can’t be part of this group and there is an inherent hate and racism there and they just need to disappear.   They are all wonderful actors, and to me there is not a false performance in this movie.  But I did try to isolate myself away from them a lot.

Spiritual Journey

There were certainly moments in this movie where it was so incredibly difficult that you had to pull from some other imaginary place, because this was the hardest film I have ever had to do and I think most people would probably say the same thing. Being out in nature for that long and especially for me not having most of the movie many characters to play off of. Alejandro and I both knew that we sort of wanted this to be an existential journey. I don’t know if I articulated it correctly, but the screenplay is brilliant, but it’s a very linear story.  A man that gets screwed over and loses his son and then he goes to attack the dude that screwed his life up.

the_revenant_6To us, it was these great bookmarks for what would happen when he and I started to figure out the poetry of who this character is and what he goes through and being influenced by everything that happened in nature, is all up on screen. We had to adapt to every different circumstance that you can ever think of and a lot of our own internal struggles and making the movie with the frustration of the weather changing and the budget and the complications.  But you can see all of it up on screen. And none of that is really faked. It was this sort of existential journey for both of us, and it was spiritual in a lot of ways but I think that was our intention.

Film’s Hardest Scenes

I have a penchant for doing films that have extreme violence in them, so I don’t know if I am desensitized to it, but for me this film is an accurate depiction of that time period, so without getting into what it means on a social level or anything like that, I just like these types of films and I think they have to be authentic.  This was well handled and had the perfect sort of fusion of violence and beauty at the same time, and it’s portraying the savagery and the beauty of nature.

the_revenant_poster_1There were so many difficult things and I don’t even know where to begin.  Recently I said that I had to sleep in dead animal carcasses and I wasn’t referring to myself going home at night and sleeping in dead animal carcasses.  I was referring to Hugh Glass, the character having to do that, but the real challenge was the cold and it was a constant struggle and I think they even had to invent machines for the actors not to get hypothermia after every single take that we did, because it was that extreme and it got down to 40 below.  Sometimes the camera actually couldn’t operate and the camera’s gears didn’t work because it was so cold. So you could imagine how our fingers and face, and that’s what every actor is going to talk about, is the hands. I mean the hands were a constant source of pain and we had machines that were on set and one that I titled “the octopus.” because it was like a giant hot air dryer with eight tubes that would warm our hands.


I don’t want to say fun, but it was part of the intent of making the movie to experience that as closely as we could, and without having done what literally these fur trappers did, it was very difficult.

Character that doesn’t speak, the opposite from the Extroverted in Wolf of Wall Street

That was the exciting part about it to me, and when I read the script I actually kept urging director Alejandro to take more lines out. I wanted less dialogue because that was the exploration of this character.  How to portray someone’s emotional journey without words, and any time he did speak I was like, alright, let’s cut it down to the point of everything. Hugh Glass is a man that does not mince words and he gets straight to the point of what he wants to talk about because I don’t think he necessarily wants to communicate with that many people. We see what he experiences through his eyes and we experience this whole story without words.  That to me was very exciting and one of the main catalysts for doing this movie because I have done so many articulate characters that babble throughout movies  This was a new experiment for me and something that in the preparation, with every movie I read up as much as I can and I went to specialists learning about survival tactics, and read as much as I could about the time period but I really wanted to have it rely on the instinct of this character and what I am going through at that immediate time. So a lot of it wasn’t pre-planned, a lot of it was seeing what nature gave us and trying to react as honestly as possible.