The Mexican director tells how he decided to shoot in extreme conditions to capture “this magical moment when God appears”.
On Sunday night, France 2 will premiere The Revenant , Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s three-time Oscar-winning film, Best Director, Best Picture (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio). We republish this interview to wait until the broadcast of the film.
“He is in the best period of his life,” said Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of DiCaprio, extolling the passion of his actor, his determination, the sovereign freedom with which he leads his career. He talks about Leonardo, but he could just as well be talking about him. The gifted Bitches loves , the world poet of Babel , the Cannes subscriber, the man who composed globalized mosaics in the 2000s, became without realizing the new darling of the Academy of Oscars. The absolute incarnation of the contemporary super-author. True to his obsessions but eager to mutate, to change his style according to his artistic encounters (screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga yesterday, the chief op ‘ Emmanuel Lubezki today). Able to turn a stroll in a Broadway theater with a star in arty triumph ( Birdman ) or to go to the North to resurrect the ghosts of a triumphant and visceral cinema. Inarritu is in full possession of his means, “in the best period of his life” , yes, as evidenced by the serenity with which he organized the chaos of The Revenant .
There is in The Revenant an image that freezes the blood. That of this trapper hung by Indians, with a sign around his neck on which one can read, in French: “We are all savages.” In the context of post-Charlie, post-November 13th, it provokes a real stupor …
Yes, I see what you mean. This image does not come out of my imagination: during my research, I came across a picture with this man hanged, this sign … It was really shocking. Early on, as I began to work on this story, I was fascinated by the contemporary resonance it could have. In the United States, in the middle of the 19th century, there were Frenchmen, Canadians, Spaniards, Mexicans … It was really a multicultural society. I had never considered this time like that. Before, when I thought about the Indians, I associated it with cowboys, with saloons …
A Western imagery …
Yes. But The Revenant speaks of the time before. Before the conquest of the West, before the gold rush. The only ones to have crossed the territory at that time were Lewis and Clarke, 20 years ago. The country’s biggest source of income was the fur of animals. Thanks to her, we made clothes, hats, for European women. Which means that the daily life of these men was to kill animals, to negotiate with the Indians who owned the land. There was no rule, slavery was legal, racism reigned supreme. Trappers have remained in the American imagination as border men, superheroes, the pioneers of individualism. But the truth is that they were young, poor, illiterate, illiterate, exploited by the big companies that employed them. This world is the cradle of modern capitalism. This crazy and blind relationship to nature echoes what we know today. So, of course, to answer your question, I did not think about Paris, the attacks, by making the film, but the idea of the contemporary resonance of this story has always been there.
The Revenant belongs to this tradition of cinema, very vivacious in the 70’s, who wants to shoot a great movie, you have to know how to put yourself in danger. Go to the other end of the world, play big, risk losing everything, and come back with a masterpiece if you have the chance to come out alive. Coppola with Apocalypse Now , Herzog with Aguirre , the wrath of God , Friedkin with Sorcerer … You are completely involved in this mystique.
But this tradition goes back much further than the 70’s: it’s the essence of cinema! To grab a camera, to go on an adventure to bring back images of the world, it was the ba-ba of the cinema at the origin. That’s what I wanted to find with this film: the truth of things, the essence of the medium. Because reality is bigger and more beautiful than anything filming sets or blue backgrounds can offer.
But does that imply that you have to suffer to make great movies?
I do not know … I think it depends on your artist temperament.
Let’s talk about your …
My feeling is that we are too spoiled. We complain when we have a cold, or because there is no wi-fi on the plane. It is pathetic. We have become unable to live like the creatures we are. So, yes, the filming of The Revenant , it was a lot of problems, very little comfort. I knew where I was going. I knew it was going to be very hard. The whole team was in tune, it was the deal, there was no question of spending a quiet day at the office. That said, there is a gulf between knowledge and experience … The reality was much harder than I imagined. I was mentally prepared, yet I can not count the times when I thought:”Whore, what are you doing here, what did you get into?” But that was the idea, precisely. This is the subject of the film. The story of a man who faces nature. Nature hurts him, then heals him, protects him, and tries to kill him at the same time. In making this film, we lived the same thing as the characters. Their odyssey became ours. There is the method acting . Let’s say that, it’s method directing !
That’s exactly what Coppola was saying about Apocalypse Now : “We went to the jungle to make a film about Vietnam, and little by little, this shoot became our Vietnam.”
Ah ah ah! Here ! That’s it ! We were like being attacked by a bear every day. This is a thing we often said with Chivo ( nickname of the chief operator Emmanuel Lubezki ): “This bear wants to use our balls as a snack.What he has against the Mexican balls? ” Hey, hey, hey! Nature always has the last word. But if you come out unscathed, then it’s wonderful. A delight. People could not believe it when they saw the images that were being reported. Yet everything is there, at your fingertips. Just grab these beauties in the right way, at the right time of the day.
How did the decision to shoot all the film in natural light take place?
If there is a genius in this area, it’s Chivo. It is a hundred cubits above the others. He’s not just an artist, he’s a wizard. A magician of the technique. Very quickly, this aesthetic bias became our obsession. We wanted to seize this magic moment of the day when God appears. When all the leaves of the trees seem to start talking, when we can see the sun reflected in each snowflake, when we perceive every detail of the skin, all the shades of the blue of the sky, the texture of the trees, the forms Changing clouds … Suddenly, it’s as if the world is illuminating. Beauty is everywhere. Transcendental. We thought of painting, of course, at Caravaggio. Then, once you have defined what you are looking for, add to that very pragmatic considerations. It was a three-hour drive from the nearest town. The time to arrive and set up, it was noon. At 3 pm it was dark. How to light an entire forest? It’s impossible. So we would repeat, we would repeat, and we were only allowed a few shots. Prohibition to miss. It requires a very complex, very meticulous choreography. It’s scary. But we had no choice.
You have become a different director since Birdman and your association with Lubezki. Was this reinvention a conscious choice or was it by chance? You wanted to explore new territories, or was it Chivo who took you by the hand?
It’s hard to know where these things come from. And it’s good that this whole process is a bit mysterious. First of all, I did not meet Chivo like that, bim, overnight. I’ve known him for 25 years, we did a short film together for the Cannes Film Festival, we worked on pubs when we were younger. We have always been very close to him, Alfonso ( Cuaron, director of Gravity, who won an Oscar in Lubeszki) and me. He has naturally emerged as the ideal partner for Birdman . And it’s true that this movie released me. Artistically, I do not see it as a break, rather as a natural transition, as when the fall succeeds the summer.
These two movies, these two mental odysseys, Birdman and The Revenant , you think of them as two sides of the same coin?
In terms of visual grammar, yes. But in terms of the experience itself, it’s day and night. I shot everything Birdman in a unique, beautiful setting, a hot coffee at hand. Every detail of each plan was checked. I was God. On The RevenantI’m a creature again! This film is the next step. The most complex I have ever done. As I told you: a tribute to pure cinema. With the least possible dialogue, and the idea that it is the action that guides the story. A great adventure in the lineage of London and Conrad, but told with cinematic means.
When you go to work with Lubezki, the New World’s chief op and The Tree of Life , is it also a way to engage with Terrence Malick ?
But The Revenant is so different from Malick! At home, now, everything is fragmented, very cut, with this voice off which is the link between the images. It’s more of the essay, the expression of a thought made in the form of a whirlwind. Honestly, when you say that my film is “Malickien”, all because Chivo has made the picture, it makes me laugh. Nothing to see.
Anyway: this camera that “floats” like weightlessness, the use of wide angle, the obsession with nature and beyond …
No, no, no. Look closely at the latest Malick: there is no plan that lasts more than five seconds. We are not looking for the same thing, him and me. All the better. Cinema is an ocean. Malick goes over here, me there (he holds out his two arms in opposite directions). We are carried by different currents. We are on the same sea. The sea of cinema. But we do not face the same waves.
The key plan of The Revenant , the one that synthesizes all your approach, is this moment where the breath of DiCaprio fogs the screen. You had it in mind long before the shoot?
No, it happened by chance. A happy accident. It was so cold … When I saw that, I encouraged Chivo to get closer. It is risky because at that moment, we clearly break the fourth wall, we wink at the audience by reminding him that he is in the cinema. But I love it, because suddenly, it sends the viewer back to his own existence. He realizes he is breathing. And this irrepressible need to breathe, to fight until his last breath, is what connects us all to each other – except the terrorists, unfortunately.
What can you do after this double? What is the next step?
Oh oh, no idea! I am exhausted, I have the impression that I have just run two marathons in a row. Birdman was still in the mix when I started the pre-production of The Revenant . I had never done that. Usually, there are three years between each of my projects. I’m not a “filmer”, I do not shoot on command. I want to live, not to make a career in Hollywood. So, what I need is to go home, to meditate, to walk in the forest, to relax. To spend some time with myself.
How come, by the way, that you shot these two movies one after the other?
The Revenant is an old project. I started scouting five years ago. Then Leonardo suddenly got the green light for The Wall Street Wolf , which he had been fighting for years. I shot Birdman until he was available again. But it was very good, because it allowed me to approach The Revenant a little more mature, a little more seasoned. And, incidentally, to escape the promo tour of Birdman !
And the Oscar? You started to feel the concrete effects on your life as a director?
Cabron ! I did not even have time to think about it! The next day, I left on the set of The Revenant . And the same evening, when we won, it was one of the worst moments of the filming of The Revenant . One of our sets were flooded, I spent the entire ceremony receiving emails that informed me of all the disasters happening, equipment damage, the delay we were taking on planning … I was completely schizo, my Oscar in one hand, my smartphone in the other, shared between joy and panic.
From Birdman to The Revenant , we often see people fluttering through the air in your films …
Realism interests me less and less. What is reality, if not an interpretation? The way we dream about life, which we remember, is what I want to talk about. We do not know much about Hugh Glass , only a few very concrete details, very down-to-earth, very “physical”. Therefore, we can hang what we want on its history. I was very happy to instill this spiritual dimension. To explore the idea of memory, dream, transcendence. To hunt down the ghosts of unconscious perceptions. And to express it without words, there is nothing better than cinema.