“Nobody’s going to go to a film because the guys came in on time and under budget,” Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu told an audience of young filmmakers Saturday at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By: NY conference. Speaking via satellite from Los Angeles, where he’s in post-production on The Revenant, Iñárritu said, “Your mission, your ambition should never be compromised. Never surrender to that.” The Birdman director drew applause as he answered questions put to him about the film, in which Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an early 19th-century frontiersman who sets out on a bitter journey after being mauled by a bear and left for dead. In front of the director, seen on a big screen at the Time Warner Center, the panel included the film’s producing team of Steve Golin (Anonymous Content); Brad Weston (New Regency); and Mary Parent (Godzilla, Noah). The PGA’s Vance Van Petten led the questions.
“Now I know how Matt Damon felt shooting The Martian,” Iñárritu joked as he dealt with the slight time delay and responded to questions about the making of the already famously difficult film, which was shot primarily in Calgary, Alberta Canada, during what turned out to be the warmest winter on record.
The director explained that he agreed to make The Revenant before Birdman and that he was able to use some of the techniques used on the urban film in making what is possibly the ultimate wilderness film. Primarily, however, it was the story that compelled him to sign on for the project, in its way utterly different from a body of work that also includes Amores Perros, Biutiful and Babel.
“The main thing that attracted me was that it’s a story of endurance and human spirit surviving tough conditions physically and emotionally. Nothing is literally known but that he was attacked by a bear and has to survive. Beyond that, what really drives a human to survives those conditions. The fillmmaker’s duty is to make the improbable probable. What the human being can have inside his spirit, inside his mind, to survive [when] you are so exposed every day to the environment.”
Golin took the lead in answering questions about the challenges of making the film. “If it hadn’t been for Alejandro and Leo, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. Iñárritu immediately got involved in working on the screenplay, adding characters and story plot to the largely sketched out story.
The original budget, said Weston, was $60 million, but that “was just lawyers making a deal. Then we went out with a different line producer and the budget came in at almost double that. As he was (in post-production) on Birdman, we were in prep on Revenant.” Then they faced that warm winter, when the snow disappeared and the Chinook winds could bring seven weather changes in a day.
“Sometimes you’re God and sometimes you’re a creature,” Iñárritu said of the obstacles they faced. “The film takes a over in itself and you have to be observing. Everybody’s growing as we are doing. Babel took us 11 months or a year shooting around the world. In this case, The Revenant starts in the late autumn and ends in the deep winter. I could not have done it [differently]. We were exposed to extremely difficult circumstances.” Yet he said he never lost the support of the producing team, even when they realized they would have to shoot the end of the film elsewhere, in South America, as it turned out.
“We trusted Alejandro completely to finish the film in Argentina,” Weston said. “You know great movies get made by great directors. We just hang on.”
The film didn’t require a single reshoot, they said. “The worst thing for a director is when you don’t know what you want and don’t know how to get it,” Iñárritu said. The next worst is when “you know what you want but don’t know how to get it. We knew what we wanted to do and how to get it.” Nevertheless, he added, the process inevitably provides unexpected risk. “I have to feel fear,” he said. “I have to feel uncertain, to have a lot of doubts. If I know the answers already, I personally do not feel [it’s the right project for me]. I need that adrenaline. For me, it was a beautiful experience.”