The metaphysical description keeps popping up in regard to Alejandro González Iñárritu's vision for "The Revenant." It's not merely a man-versus-nature struggle, but also a death-and-rebirth journey for Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass. Production designer Jack Fisk finds the filmmaker more physical than Terrence Malick: like a wrestler who puts everyone in his powerful grip.
"The setting and wardrobe and the props were so real," Fisk added. "We were [instructed] on how to deal with the environment—how to build a fire with flint and steel and how much wood it would take to keep a fire going to keep you warm at night. It's not for you or against you but just there, and you have to make it work for you."
And Fisk passionately embraced the outdoor settings: he built a fort with a pallet of wood that was being discarded by the Park Service, and created a "dilapidated" church that became a haunting dreamscape.
The designer also aided cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in his quest to only use natural light, making candles with five wicks to get more light. "We used a lot of candles in those interior scenes in the mess hall and the bunk house," he continued. "But we had to be careful. If you put too many candles in, it looks so stylized. We also added a couple of windows in Captain Henry's office [Domhnall Gleeson]. They probably wouldn't have had so many windows in that period but we had to light the scene and I thought it was a justifiable compromise to be able to see the actors."
Costume designer Jacqueline West also embraced the period authenticity as well as the metaphysical subtext. "I showed Alejandro a drawing from that period by [Swiss painter] Karl Bodmer of a native in a hood," she recalled. "Alejandro has such a visceral reaction to things and he loved that very much. And I took a Russian icon of a monk in the same hood almost and he put the two together and that began the germ of the creation of Leo's look because nature is his procedural, and there's a commune with the animals where they're getting by in this world, in this vast church of nature, together. Whereas the other trappers have either mercenary or monetary aspirations joining the American fur trading company. Hugh Glass is looking for something much more spiritual."
West added that Glass' shirt is very practical, rough-hewn, made of long flaxen linen that he would have bought at the local fort. But then the director was inspired to use the bearskin that's left behind in the trapper camp when Glass is abandoned. "I think it’s such a lyrical image, and there’s an irony that the thing that almost killed him saves his life in the wilderness. It keeps him warm, it protects him, it gives him buoyancy down the river. That bearskin travels with him and saves him—and it organically deconstructs as he deconstructs, before there’s a reconstruction."
For sound editor Randy Thom, the journey was about humility. "You have this clash of egos between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy and this man-versus-nature journey becomes a humbling experience."
Nature, in fact, became a sonic character in the best immersive sense. Thom had to find existing sounds: bear vocalizations or trees creaking in the wind were recorded in real places much like the Canadian locations they filmed in.
One of the reasons the bear attack works so well is that they underplayed it. But the biggest single sonic challenge was conveying that the bear becomes injured. "Getting the breathing right was perhaps more important than the vocalizations," Thom said. "And I used the breath of a sick horse at the end, but the transition was tough. I had to gradually ease in the sound of the horse breathing just before the bear gets shot. The trick was to insert the sound of bear breath in place of every third, fourth, or fifth horse breath."
Unlike "Birdman," editor Stephen Mirrione couldn't rely on dialogue to anchor the narrative, and because of the wide lenses and vast landscape, a lot of the camera work was on cranes, which changed the rhythm. Once again, they started with blocking rehearsals, but there were many more moving pieces to play with. Plus, they shot in continuity.
The opening ambush contains shifting points of view and emotional beats, alternating between realism and the abstract. The bear attack contains even greater intensity and sublimity, creating empathy for the grizzly as a mother just protecting her cubs, and Glass emerging from the death-grip as a more spiritually aware person.
"The level of complexity to the cut and the storytelling increased exponentially," Mirrione explained. "And you're figuring it out as you go along and you're discovering things and making adjustments and that takes a lot of time to do in a sensitive, thoughtful way so you're staying true to the DNA of the piece."