EXCLUSIVE: Fresh from winning five BAFTA Awards for The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu is on UK holiday, trying to reemerge from coming out the other side of the most arduous, ambitious logistically challenging shoot since Francis Ford Coppola headed to the Philippines to turn Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness into Apocalypse Now. Much has been made of the $135 million budget, the extreme weather conditions and crew hardships on The Revenant, but none of it was a surprise. When Iñárritu was promoting eventual Best Picture winner Birdman while prepping The Revenant, he was very transparent in how things would unfold: long travel each day to find remote vistas that looked like no human had set foot on them; shoot the next scene in the few hours of natural light available; pack up and do it again the next day, hoping he’d find a movie at the end. Based on the critical acclaim and a $365 million global gross that is still growing, Iñárritu found it. The box office success has halted talk about being over budget, and has allowed New Regency — which primarily funded the film with additional money from RatPac Entertainment — to recoup, and possibly win a third consecutive Best Picture Oscar. The Revenant heads into the final few days of voting with 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography for Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio and Best Supporting Actor for Tom Hardy. What toll does this kind of Heart of Darkness journey take on a filmmaker?
DEADLINE: I just completed a 25th anniversary homage to The Silence Of The Lambs, and director Jonathan Demme was more than effusive about The Revenant. He told me he watched it six times, feeling like a different theme was revealed with each viewing.
ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU: He wrote me a most beautiful note. When somebody asks you the high points of a film like this, love from colleagues you admire is right up there, when they send a text or letter. I’ve gotten several. The night of the BAFTAs, I received the praise of Eric Clapton, which had to be the most cool email I have received in my life. I love Eric Clapton.
DEADLINE: Leonardo DiCaprio told Deadline how much the difficult conditions on The Revenant led to surprise discoveries that became cinematic payoffs. Were there some moments in particular where you and your cinematographer Chivo Lubezki got something exceptional, even if it came at high price?
IÑÁRRITU: No, for me, it was more about coming through this suicidal project, and actually exploring these themes of survival, which couldn’t be more extreme opposites [Laughs]. From the confusing and noisy rhetoric of the creative process of an artist to this attempt to explore the eloquence and the madness of The Shining…to get to this film, which as has happened with many other films, is filled with a visual, cinematic language. [Birdman] was impregnated more with the actor and the character, and sometimes that worked perfectly. This film was not that. I deliberately wanted to explore differently. The script was not relying on dialogue or plot or twists or punch line, at all. I wanted it to be radically a visual experience, a physical experience more than an intellectual one, where people can live it from the extreme point of view of the character. Many times, that meant feeling lost. I don’t just mean feeling lost from an exterior standpoint, but also an interior one, in the vast horizon of the wilderness within the soul. If I want the audience to feel lost or vulnerable or trapped in this character, and in other times to feel alive and reborn, I not only needed to describe visually the exterior situation of being lost in that land, I needed to feel that he’s lost within himself. Who is that guy?
So those moments that we were trying to capture, more than to serve the narrative or to keep the story moving forward, the work had to be done the way it was, visually. I don’t know if you have been in silence, for more than three, four days. If you spend that time by yourself, you start getting in touch with things that you never do, otherwise. I’m talking about memories, and emotions, and you start to visually remember things much more clearly, when the dust settles in your mind. I thought that with this guy, being alone for a month, it was necessary to understand who he was, within, and what he lost. And so all those moments throughout, I was trying be aware of that and improvise things, knowing that in the editing room I would have to find a way to use them. But that was a very fun part of trying to utilize everything around us and play with that, even though it was very difficult. I’m just telling you, there was a purpose for all of that.
DEADLINE: DiCaprio described the only time he tapped you on the shoulder, when you shot a scene with Glass and his son, their teeth chattering in a hailstorm, and the camera froze and it was time to stop. He said watching you and Chivo get so excited with the visuals kept him and the others from complaining because there was a purity in what you were doing. Was there a moment, though, where it got so extreme that you started feeling like Captain Ahab?
IÑÁRRITU: [Laughs] There were moments, yeah. This is my theory, my process, and I’m not saying it’s the good way or the only way. I’m just saying I know my thought process and I think that to make a film like this is a…journey. This is not some tourist trip with a GPS, where everything is planned and everything is on time. This is a journey, and my process sometimes in life is to get lost. I personally think that you have to get lost to find something really worthwhile, at least sometimes. Sometimes, you can f*cking die. But sometimes the best journey, and the best things you discover, come when you get lost. All the great archaeological discoveries have happened when you first get lost, and then you discover something that had been lost. I felt like that sometimes, like an archaeologist trying to find something. Now, I knew I was going in some direction; I’m not saying that I was just doing things like a crazy man. I knew where I had to go. But during the journey, sometimes I felt that I found better possibilities only because I took chances. I think that process worked for me.
DEADLINE: Was there a moment where you began to question your strategy?
IÑÁRRITU: Yes, but that is what happens when…I made this film more with my guts and my instinct than with my brain. I think that the best things come from thought, without thinking. I think that’s the smartest use of the intelligence that we all have. That awareness, those things that you know, and that are driving you. I was really driven by that. As I said, the rhetoric of the creative process in depicting a man in survival model. I was there with a character that was trying to survive. I knew that experience will have to be not an intellectual one. Some people in the woods would say, oh, the script…well, I said, this script was relying in the pure cinema experience. Later, it became another thing, but there were few words, not much dialogue, there was not some twist in the plot. I was really using the camera, as a pen. Writing, scratching the film and we were, you know, literally, we were writing with the camera. That was a very powerful experience but a very intense one, because it is a different, it was new.
DEADLINE: Was there a filmmaker who took a similar track who inspired you?
IÑÁRRITU: I think that the film was the result of a methodology that was extremely interesting but that I could only find out as I was preparing the film. When I started, I had a very clear way that I wanted to tell the story, visually. But in the moment that I saw the challenges, once I was starting the early pre-production, scouting locations, and working with Doug Coleman on the stunt and the mechanics and the physicality of this reality, in the very early stages…me and Chivo realized that to make it, we would have to do it almost like we were rehearsing a theatre play, for a month. That we would have to figure it out as we were rehearsing, because what we achieved was very difficult, and I don’t know if it has been done. Who am I to say I was the first one, but I never saw an Indian attack, done in one take. Originally, the take is 9 or 11 minutes, and I have that version. But the choreography and the technicality of that implied so many questions you couldn’t answer until you were there. The methodology became what it was, by necessity. I had a very clear vision and a mission, but I didn’t know how to get there, and I had to discover it. And that was a fascinating process. I don’t think that I would be able to do something that many great directors have done, which is to go out and shoot the film without script. In this case, I came in with a very clear point of view, but at the same time, I discovered many things in between, and that was what made all this a bit different.
DEADLINE: DiCaprio mentioned how Martin Scorsese moderated a Q&A for The Revenant, and you had an epiphany of how certain films Scorsese introduced you to factored into this movie. Can you recount that first encounter? I could see a kinship between you; the movie that Amores Perros most reminded me of was Scorsese’s breakout, Mean Streets.
IÑÁRRITU: Well, we had just won Best Foreign Film with the National Board of Review, and I got so drunk. And then Martin invited me to his office to visit him. He was editing Gangs Of New York. I barely was able to wake up. I was so hung over I was about to faint, but then I went to Martin Scorsese’s office and I was so nervous. He start talking, in that unstoppable way of his, telling all of the difficulties and troubles of editing his film. Trying to find the meaning, and nothing was working. And in that way of his, he’s speaking quickly, talking about his process, how nothing worked, I’m lost, I don’t know what this is all about. And I thought, if Martin Scorsese says these things…well it just made me feel good about everything. But I was very, very nervous and so hung over. At the end, we were talking about cinema structure and the possibilities of language in narratives and comparing some directors, Bunuel, Tarkovsky, and all these great directors. He asked had I seen I Am Cuba? And I said no. ‘No? Oh my god!’ So he said I will tell you to see two films, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if that will happen.’ Two days later, they arrive at my house. I Am Cuba, and The Cranes Are Flying. The cinematographer on that Russian film is Sergey Urusevskiy, who was assistant director and cinematographer on Letter Never Sent. If you see that film, literally, the cutting of The Revenant is right there. Those two movies he gave me 15 years ago. I have always admired long shots from Tarkovsky and these others. I love when someone does that well, but you really have to have a lot of craft and a lot of experience and confidence I hadn’t developed at that point. It took me 15 years. As we were sitting there in this Q&A with Martin, he says, well, these shots remind me of I Am Cuba, and suddenly I remember that it was he who gave me that film and The Cranes Are Flying. Right in front of the audience, I realized that this master planted a seed in me that took 15 years to grow, and I realize how much I was impacted visually by I Am Cuba. I said, Martin, now I remember you gave me that film. We laughed, and it was such a beautiful moment. It’s funny, I recently saw Letter Never Sent, and I thought, thank god I never saw this, because I would have been paralyzed by it. It literally is powerfully close to The Revenant from a physical and visual experience. If you see that film, the director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergey Urusevskiy were so clearly on the same search as us.
DEADLINE: Over the past two years, you’ve had to get used to wearing a tux. Can you recall what was going through your head as you sat there hoping to hear your name and Birdman called during the Oscars?
IÑÁRRITU: What I thought, and what I will feel here is, the film has been received so unexpectedly warmly and powerfully by audiences and so many people have seen it. Just to see that people eyes up on the screen…what has happened with the film is really so rewarding that I’m not telling you something that’s not false humble. I really feel that we already won. If the Academy feels that they’ll give me a recognition, that would be incredible to celebrate and show my thanks, but it already has been such a ride, just to have finished the film. What has happened already is amazing. So if it happens, it will be amazing. It’s overwhelming to even just think about it.
DEADLINE: So if they call your name, great, and if not, you’re okay?
IÑÁRRITU: There is the cinematic experience, but for me this film means a lot of things. One of the things that is beautiful and spiritual about the film for me is, I come from a mixed race country. I have dark skin. My nickname is El Negro. They call me El Negro in Mexico because even in my country, the dark skin is evidence of Indian blood, a sign that one technically belongs to a third class. Even my grandmother had some kind of differentiation with me, because I was darker than my siblings. There is a line in The Revenant where Glass says to Hawk, his mixed race, dark-skinned son, “They don’t listen to you. They just see the color of your skin.” This prejudice, which has brought so much pain and injustice, isn’t just limited to my country. This is something I feel very close to. The story of the Spanish colonialism in my country is not very different from the European colonialism in North America. Mixed race Americans went through really intensive pain, and the paradox is, we are all mixed. The U.S. is the supreme mixed race country and that is really its power, splendor and beauty. We can’t keep thinking in a tribal mode at this time of history, or still be differentiating people by their color. This is something I am moved by deeply. But at the heart of this clash, this story of Hugh Glass, I wanted him to be one of the guys, and there were many of them, who embraced and integrated with the Native Americans, and helped in some way to erase those kinds of concepts. There were people who were progressive, but they suffered, and I wanted his character to represent that. I’ve been living in the United States and around the world for 15 years and every country I go to is home for me. But that hasn’t been the same destiny of millions of fellow Mexicans and 60 million people around the world, women and children who are running from war, violence, and hunger, without any possibility or opportunity to be integrated by their color, religion or political ideologies. It’s funny how once you leave your country and you don’t have that sense of color or geographical commodity, you start to realize how to relate to human beings from beyond the commodity of color, and you have to liberate from skin, geographical borders, and nationalism. I have found that in the removal of that, you deal with human beings and can be close to them in a real, deep and profoundly close way. There is a beautiful line from one of my favorite English writers, G.K. Chesterton, who said something like: “It’s true there is a class difference between people. The third class always feels superior. The second class feels inferior. The first class treats everyone the same.” I think we all are and can be first class, but sometimes we forget that.
DEADLINE: A few years ago, we discussed your new film Biutiful and you lamented how the 2008 crash put art movies with budgets around $20 million or higher on the endangered list. You’ve made what many would call an art film, at $135 million. I suppose we can agree the art film business has rebounded, but seriously, what sandbox are you most comfortable playing in?
IÑÁRRITU: I have always been always very good at the budget. On time, and on budget, always. We’ve been upfront on the reasons why we went over budget. It was something out of our hands. But, as a director, I have to say that yes, there’s undoubtedly a level of stress when you are dealing with a budget that size, because there’s no way you cannot be responsible for that. I’m very responsible about the people who trust me. In this case, Arnon Milchan is a hero, to me. He bet on us. He supported us. He didn’t flinch. He was seeing the materials, but still. Many producers, or corporations, they just cut, and can easily press you to make the wrong decisions out of fear. Fear is a big commodity, in strong supply everywhere, and that could have been the end of this film. The fact that he supported us, it made me feel even more responsible. I agree with you. Leo, me and Chivo were all the time saying, “Oh my God. We are doing a very expensive art film.” I knew it, that I was playing with fire. I was never asked to change a line. I never had to check with anybody before I did something. I had big support, but yes, I knew that I was doing an art film that was very, very expensive. And it added a lot of pressure and I prefer to be in the lower budget range, making less expensive films, because it doesn’t create such a stressful environment. I feel better in those cases.
DEADLINE: Now that you’ve come out the other side of this journey, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
IÑÁRRITU: There were a moment where there was a lot of doubt, and I felt a lot of fear. It was before we started and I felt myself resisting the idea, and I was in a way questioning whether it would be possible to achieve what I wanted. Even with the resources I was given. Would I have the strength? I felt fear in so many moments. What I found, and I am more convinced about it after this experience, is that that kind of fear is the best ally you can have. Actually, I learned that if I have fear the next time? That’s exactly the kind of project I’ve got to do because that is what I have to feel. Fear is a mirror that puts you against yourself. You have to figure it out and face the best and worst things about yourself. That is what I take away from this.
DEADLINE: I just got an email update from Rolling Stone, which calls you King of Pain. Much has written about the hardships on the crew and cast, and that you were exacting. Your last film won Best Picture and other Oscars, and you are right in the mix again here, so this isn’t about quality. After such a hard shoot, is there anything you want to tell the community about who you are, after coming through such an ordeal?
IÑÁRRITU: Well, I think to involve yourself in this kind of journey that in a way demands so much of you first, and where you have to demand so much of so many people, it’s climbing a high mountain. Nobody can call that somebody King of Pain, because the enterprise itself represents a struggle, and a challenge. I know about myself, and how I have been portrayed. Even the first three films I did, they are called The Trilogy of Death, which I found always troubling. Because I never attempted to do a trilogy of death. I never saw it that way, but that’s the way people know it. Now, I’m the King of Pain? People who know me, I think it’s like how they say that comedians are the darkest people in their ordinary life. There is no way you can embark in these kinds of things or in the film I have done, and go so dark and explore darkness, if you don’t have a very bright eye on things. There’s no way. You have to have both things. Life works in balance and contrast, and arrogance and confidence. I have both sides. I can be very intense. The culture I’m from, it’s extreme. And I have both poles, and these extremes. But I also have a great sense of humor, and laugh, deeply. I enjoy life immensely, and sometimes, not. Deeply not. I feel myself comfortable, diving very profoundly into the ocean and also sometimes climbing to the top of the mountain. I have both sides, and think if you didn’t, you’re somehow reduced, which I don’t think I am. But who I am? Maybe you should ask other people [laughs].
DEADLINE: This is probably like asking a woman who just gave birth when’s the next child, but have you figured out what’s next?
IÑÁRRITU: Honestly not. I really concentrated really hard here, and this dust has to settle. I have been going the last three years on Birdman and this, like I am driving in a car, 300 mph. I have to slow down. What happens, you look down and you see the lines on the road passing whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then you little by little pick up your eyes and you see the horizon in the back and you see the trees and you have some perspective. I have been looking down, so I just need to have a little bit of a break. So I can look up and figure out what I need to do, next.
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