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How ‘The Revenant’ immerses its audience in a freezing river, hail of arrows and sense of horror

Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Revenant’

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in the opening sequence of “The Revenant,” when the camp of trappers he’s guiding comes under attack.

(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Very early in director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” a campsite of fur trappers and their guide, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by native warriors. Just like that, viewers are flung headlong into a viscerally immersive period piece. Here, members of the cast and crew — along with script excerpts by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith — reveal how the scene came together.

EXT. CAMP - DUSK

The men building fires … laughing … enjoying themselves.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: Alejandro wanted to do [the beginning] in very, very long shots that felt naturalistic. But he wanted the camera to be objective for a moment; then other moments, it would become subjective — you were seeing and feeling things from the character’s point of view.

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Editor Stephen Mirrione: One of the things we talked about was wanting to be immersive and realistic, but finding poetry in that, ways to let abstract moments inform emotionally — being really careful to not be so realistic and so literal that we end up losing any poetry we have opportunities for.

Tom Hardy in ‘The Revenant’
Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald in the opening sequence of “The Revenant.”
(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Lubezki: It sets up all the principal characters, the period, the economic and social relationships. Fitzgerald [Tom Hardy], he’s trying to protect the commodities. Leo is protective of his son [Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck]; when they’re attacked, he says, “Abandon the pelts!” He’s trying to protect the lives of the trappers.

The Trappers begin to walk back, horrified. As they retreat, silently, trying to guess where the Indians are, Chapman is hit by an arrow in the chest.

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Stunt Coordinator Doug Coleman: It starts out with a guy falling into fire. I mean, this guy is on fire. There’s a guy getting shot in the back with arrows, with muskets. Guys getting pulled off horses, shot off horses, physical hand-to-hand combat. It’s really one big ball of challenge.

Lubezki: It took a long time to find the right location, the topography, the relationship to the river, the hills where the warriors come and attack; it involved a lot of collaborators.

Mirrione: When Leo is running out of the forest, carrying the guy, and the camera pans over and you see the horses on the hill, the riders coming … I remember watching that in dailies and thinking, “That’s the most breathtaking thing I’ve ever seen.”

Lubezki: You don’t realize it, but [production designer Jack Fisk] painted all the foreground trees black. That’s genius because the forest looks more mysterious, more graphic, it gives you more depth. It separates the faces of the actors from the environment. So in every scene … he’s doing little magic things to enhance the drama and power of the image.

Coleman: There were 60 or 70 performers, somewhere in that range. It was 360-degree camera moves, so hiding crew and people who had to be there, that was very, very challenging. The weather conditions were tough on a lot of people.

Actor Domhnall Gleeson: It was ordered chaos. We all had to learn the steps and really, really know them before we could get to the place where you could express yourself at the same time. And so it was really, really wet and it was really, really cold and it was really, really difficult. There was a lot of stuff going on with horses and stuntmen and fires and guns, and all the rest of it. And then once you get past all that and you get to the place where you can start acting in the middle of it, it began to feel amazing.

Lubezki: What you endure in shooting the movie gets into the film somehow. The big spaces and the cold and the nasty weather, it gave the movie an energy that is very different.

‘The Revenant’
Trappers flee in their boat in an early scene from “The Revenant.”
(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)
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Sound Editor Martin Hernàndez: The sounds had to be recorded in the actual environment. Even if it’s a very good Foley stage and Foley artist, it sounds made in a studio. So we needed to go outside and re-record with all the imperfections, and Randy [Thom, supervising sound designer] did the same with the loop group.

Lubezki: A lot of period movies feel like a representation of the past, with sepia filters and grain and all these things that romanticize the past. We wanted to immerse the audience as if they were there.

A rain of arrows. The trappers all hit the dirt. We hear cries of confusion and panic … a Trapper shoots in the distance.

Mirrione: Finding ways to change the audience’s point of view without the normal editing tricks you have of cutting.... A lot of it was using the sound to shape this idea you’re in the middle of the battle, you’re experiencing it — then to suddenly shift it and you’re experiencing it through Glass’ point of view.

Hernàndez: Alejandro thought it was a very good idea to have this microphone distortion because of the wind — so we added that. It doesn’t make any sense; it’s not a documentary, but he thought there was some interesting emotional information in having it. Production recordists are very proud of how clean their recording is, and you’re [expletive] them with this addition of noise.

‘The Revenant’
The Indians who attack the camp are looking for an abducted woman from their tribe.
(Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Lubezki: We’re shooting with very, very wide lenses. Our normal lens was the 14 millimeter. That lens is usually not used on a big Hollywood movie because directors are afraid it distorts a little bit. But it’s so wide you can relate the characters to the environment, constantly. When I’m very close to Leo, I can feel his breath and his sweat and his blood and his tears and everything, but I can also feel the environment.

Mirrione: The sequence has two or three cuts in it — it didn’t have to; we conceived it as one complete strand.... If the audience knows [we’re] never going to cut, it has the effect of distance at a certain point. We wanted the freedom to, in a sense, slap the audience in the face.

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After the guy falls from the tree and hits the ground and another guy comes up and starts hitting him with a rifle, the camera [originally] pans up to his face and continues. Just cutting out that pan kind of resets the sequence in a way that’s hard to articulate. It’s just something you feel.

In the chaos, we see a semi-naked Trapper, scalped, walking like a zombie with a broken violin in one hand and a pistol in the other.

Hernàndez: You start losing the sound. You’re looking at [mouths] moving and eventually where Fitzgerald grabs one of the pelts to leave, you have almost no production sound. The music is growing at this point. There’s no more reality; you’re in the emotional mayhem of “This is it, this is how I’m going to die.”

‘The Revenant’
From the opening scenes of an attack that Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a group of trappers flee, the cinematography and sound in “The Revenant” drag the audience almost physically into the brutality of the frontier and the harshness of the elements.
(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Lubezki: I was walking in the river with a very heavy camera … the camera starts to go lower and lower, I don’t have any more energy to pick it up. But I see that the frame is getting more and more interesting. You start to get the splashes from the actors in front of me. I realized I was going to get those kinds of accidents constantly because of the wide lens and [being] so close to the actors. It makes you feel the river, how hard it was to walk in the river.

Glass grabs Hawk by his collar and drags him toward the boat … Fitzgerald and Bridger join them as they swim toward the boats. ARROWS hiss into the water all around them.

Hernàndez: By the time you’re getting closer to the boat, reality comes again and you hear them screaming, the arrows. Alejandro had planned all this in minute detail.

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