Alejandro González Iñárritu on How Shooting in -20 Degree Weather Made ‘The Revenant’ a Better Film

After sweeping the Oscars this year with Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico’s Hollywood auteur, has been at the receiving end of an unending stream of awards-season speculation and chisme. That’s because after humbly accepting an armful of statuettes in early 2015, Señor Iñárritu hopped immediately back in the saddle with an ambitious, snowbound production entitled The Revenant – which also happens to star the famously Oscar-overdue actorazo Leonardo DiCaprio.

To boot, Iñárritu teamed up once again with his ride-or-die director of photography and undisputed modern master Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, who may be slated for an historical third straight Oscar win after Birdman and 2013’s Gravity with Alfonso Cuarón. Unsurprisingly, the images we’ve seen so far from The Revenant have been arresting and powerful, yet the bochinche making its way onto industry rags over the last few months hasn’t focused much on the brilliance of Iñárritu’s vision. In fact, industry beat reporters have trained their feelers on the supposedly inhuman conditions of the production, and Iñárritu’s stubborn, uncompromising directorial style.

Thus far, talk of -20 degree shooting conditions causing frostbite and hypothermia among the crew has earned the ire of pro-union industry types, while bizarre reports that DiCaprio’s character was raped by a bear in an explicit and drawn-out sequence has added to Iñárritu’s reputation as a maniacal director-genius. In truth, there is no bear-to-human rape featured in this quiet film about a man left for dead after a brutal bear attack who seeks revenge upon the man who abandoned him. There is, however, the stamp of a singular artist doing things with the Hollywood studio system that perhaps no director has been able to do in over a generation.

González Iñárritu and Revenant co-writer Mark L. Smith recently met up at an event organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a typically philosophical Q&A, filled to the brim with reflections on human nature, capitalism, and the painful logistics of shooting in extreme conditions. Here are some highlights.

On Making the Improbable Probable

“I always say that the beauty of filmmaking is to make probable the improbable.”

What was on the page was a very straightforward, powerful story, [one] that was very simple…that comes from a very primitive, almost biblical kind of thing. And it was inspired by this man who was actually attacked by a grizzly and abandoned, and all the suffering he went through. So I think thematically I was attracted to the questions that were in the spaces between the things he did. What happened? I always say that the beauty of filmmaking is to make probable the improbable – so I said, “How are we going to make probable the improbability of this guy?” The way that the story was so clear and straightforward, there was no way somebody couldn’t empathize with that and understand that.

On Spiritual Dimensions

I felt that there was the possibility to contextualize this in a better way than has been told, and at the same time to bring some spiritual dimension to a man who goes through that. And not only as a hero, or frontier man or a macho thing, or this revenge kind of thing. I think it was an opportunity to explore deeper things.

On the Frontier Origins of Modern Capitalism

These corporations were getting these young men – runaways, very poor people – who were exploited. [They] had to sign away their lives, killing every animal, breaking every promise to the [Indian tribes], and cutting the trees and using nature as we are today. So I thought this was very resonant of what we are doing now. This is the start of the regulated capitalism that we live in now. That’s exactly where it was born. That vision of having no responsibility to any community, the greed of that. So I thought that this was a very interesting period of time, but it hasn’t been portrayed because the guys who wrote about these men romanticized the idea of how brave they were, but it’s not true.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith on Avoiding Revenge Stories

We didn’t want to make a revenge story – that was the last thing we wanted to do. It was really about someone overcoming these obstacles, because we both felt that revenge is sort of a journey without a reward, and we were both trying to explore that.

On Adapting or Dying

“The locations became an obsession. We were treating them as temples, as a religious experience, and all of them were chosen very delicately, but the process was painful.”

The locations were one of the toughest things, because there’s like 100 locations, and each one can be anywhere from 20 miles to 100 miles in distance…Production-wise they were very difficult decisions for all the producers, because some people said, “Well, a tree is a tree, a park is a park,” and we were shooting this in 14 mm lenses, so we were looking almost 180 degrees all the time, so they had to be locations that we really felt. So the logistics of choosing the locations were absolute madness.

Honestly, during shooting we would scout locations in the early morning, rehearse, shoot, then the next morning go location scouting again. Because obviously we would choose a location three months before and then all of a sudden there was no access, there was a flood, the snow was not there, there was a tree that collapsed. Every time we had to be dealing with that, and you either adapt or you die, so that was a challenge…The locations became an obsession for all of us. We were treating them as temples, as a religious experience, and all of them were chosen very delicately, but the process was painful.

On the Odyssey of Making The Revenant

A couple of days we were at 40 degrees below zero, and it was really, really difficult. For the actors there was always a very good cameraderie. I spoke with [Werner] Herzog before and said, what would you recommend to me? And he said, “[The cold is] a state of mind. They should not be complaining, it’s a state of mind. The cold doesn’t exist!” And it’s true, when you access that and you grow that… I think we went into that state. And it was super uncomfortable but for the actors, I think we could have never done this in comfortable conditions, with blue screens and all that. And what you see on the screen, I hope it reflects what we were going through. The odyssey of making this film slowly became what these travelers went through, and in a way we were feeling that.

On Getting Older

“There’s a combination between craft and knowing cinematic grammar, but you never lose the fear, the honesty of the moment.”

I’m less interested in realism now. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m getting older, and the way I perceive life is different than before. And I wanted this film to be much more about the perception of life, through dreams or through the subconscious, or how to get to know this guy who speaks seven words in the [entirety] of film. And I didn’t want to do flashbacks; I wanted to do it in an unconscious way. So in a way I wanted the film to have that distance from realism.

On the Fear That Comes With Rolling Cameras

[When you shoot] it’s very difficult, very nerve-wracking, even if you know exactly what to do, you have to do your best. So there’s a combination between craft and knowing cinematic grammar…but you never lose the fear, the honesty of the moment, because everybody’s aware, everybody’s a participant.

On Whether Leo Knew What He Was Getting Into

I think no, he was drugged. I brought my cartel guys, we had a party and he said, “Yes?” And they said, “Sign the contract!” Chapo Guzmán was happy and then bla, bla, bla. [laughter] No, it was the product of an irresponsible enthusiasm. We knew what we were getting into but never in that scope. We set the standards very high, and once you are there it was like scaling a wall and there’s no way down, you have to go up. And then when we were in the middle we were like, “Oh my God!”

On How He Filmed the Infamous Bear Attack

It was very tricky, technically we used every trick possible… But if I explained to you how I did it, I would ruin your experience forever and I would screw everybody that hasn’t seen it. So I prefer the illusion of the magic of cinema.

The Revenant premieres in select theaters on December 25 and more cities on January 8, 2016.