The Revenant: A spiritual journey to salvation

What begins as a relentless quest for revenge becomes a heroic saga against all

Inspired by true events, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s masterful The Revenant is an epic story of survival and transformation on the American frontier, with Leonardo DiCaprio as legendary explorer Hugh Glass who  undertakes a 200-mile odyssey through the vast and untamed West on the trail of the man who betrayed him: What begins as a relentless quest for revenge becomes a heroic saga against all. The film releases on January 22 in South Africa.

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Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio during the filming of The Revenant

Academy Award-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman) brings the legend of Hugh Glass to the screen with The Revenant, an epic adventure set in the unchartered 19th century American Frontier. Immersing audiences in the unparalleled beauty, mystery and dangers of life in 1823 America, the film explores one man’s transformation in a quest for survival. Part thriller, part wilderness journey, The Revenant explores primal drives not only for life itself but for dignity, justice, faith, family and home.

Known for such films as 21 Grams, Babel and the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Birdman, The Revenant is Iñárritu’s first historical epic.

He brings his distinctive mix of visual immediacy and emotional intimacy to a story that transports audiences to a time and place that have rarely been experienced through visceral modern filmmaking.

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The film’s wilderness-based production mirrored the harsh conditions Glass and company actually lived through in the 1800s.

Iñárritu and his whole cast and crew were up for all that was thrown at them, welcoming the challenges of shooting in Canada and Argentina, regions known for unpredictable weather and untouched wilds, in order to fully understand the experience of fur trappers in the early 19th century.

Iñárritu collaborated closely with Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio in a one-of-a-kind role as physically intense as it is emotionally raw. Along with BAFTA-winning actor Tom Hardy and celebrated actors Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter, Iñárritu guided a diverse international and Native American cast into the unseen past.

He reunited with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubekzi to bring their distinctive camera style outdoors, with a camera that floats through the landscape – and gets so close-in at times the very breath of the characters is visually present.  And Iñárritu consulted closely with historical advisors to authentically explore the territorial wars with Native tribes that would later become the stuff of myth.

Says Iñárritu:  “Glass’s story asks the questions:  Who are we when we are completely stripped of everything?  What are we made of and what are we capable of?”

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Adds Leonardo DiCaprio:  “The Revenant is an incredible journey through the harshest elements of an uncharted America.  It’s about the power of a man’s spirit. Hugh Glass’s story is the stuff of campfire legends, but Alejandro uses that folklore to explore what it really means to have all the chips stacked against you, what the human spirit can endure and what happens to you when you do endure.”

For Iñárritu The Revenant is a complete 180 from the interior world of Birdman.  Having honed in on the neuroses of current times, Iñárritu now switched all gears into a grand-scale story from the American past, with its perpetual tensions between savagery and civility, serenity and ambition.

“For over five years, this project was a dream for me,” says Iñárritu. “It’s an intense, emotional story set against a beautiful, epic backdrop that explores the lives of trappers who grew spiritually even as they suffered immensely physically. Though much of Glass’s story is apocryphal, we tried to stay very faithful to what these men went through in these undeveloped territories. We went through difficult physical and technical conditions to squeeze every honest emotion out of this incredible adventure.”

Iñárritu was fascinated by how stark peril strips us down and allows us a glimpse into what sustains us; how it can unearth things that might have remained hidden if that door to mortality had never been opened.  The mountaineer Reinhold Messner once said of facing the dangers of the wild:  “We are not learning how big we are.  We are learning how breakable, how weak, how full of fear we are.  You can only get this when you [are exposed] to great danger.”  Costume designer Jacqueline West echoes him, noting, “Glass is a character coming into touch with his own mortality, and that is a powerful thing.”

That confrontation with mortality also becomes entwined with an unusual father-son love story: that of a man who in his moment of loss becomes more devoted to life than ever.

The Revenant is a story of harsh survival but also one of inspirational hope,” Iñárritu says.  “For me, the important part was to convey this adventure with a sense of wonder and discovery, as an exploration of both nature and human nature.”

Producer Steve Golin observes:  “Alejandro always brings truth to whatever he does.  There’s a grittiness to his work, but there’s also a spiritual element to his work – and in The Revenant that makes for a potent combination we haven’t seen in this way before.”

The legend of Hugh Glass

Hugh Glass Art 001Glass’s mythology began in 1823, when he was among thousands joining the fur trade, a driving new force in the US economy. It was a time when many saw the wild as a spiritual void that demanded to be tamed and conquered by the steeliest of men. And so they poured into the unknown, plying unmapped rivers, disappearing into impossibly lush forests, seeking not only excitement and adventure but also profits — often in fierce competition with the Native tribes for whom these lands had long been home.

Many such men died anonymously, but Glass entered the annals of American folklore by flat-out refusing to die. His legend sparked after he faced one of the West’s most feared dangers:  a startled grizzly bear.  For even the most tested frontiersmen that should have been the end.  But not for Glass. In Iñárritu’s telling of the tale, a mauled Glass clings to life – then suffers a human betrayal that fuels him to continue at any cost. In spite of tremendous loss, Glass pulls himself from an early grave – clawing his way through a gauntlet of unknown perils and unfamiliar cultures on a journey that becomes not just a search for reckoning but for redemption. As Glass moves through the frontier in turmoil, he comes to reject the urge for destruction that once drove him.   He has become a “revenant” — one returned from the dead.

For two centuries, the story of Hugh Glass has stood as one of the most astonishing tales of a man going beyond all expected limits of body, mind and soul.  Born in Philadelphia in 1773, little is known about the real Glass’s early life, but it is believed he spent years at sea as a pirate. He journeyed west in his 30s, and in 1823, fatefully signed up for Captain Andrew Henry’s expedition to explore the Missouri River.  It was when the expedition neared what is now Lemmon, South Dakota that Glass was mauled by a grizzly and abandoned by the men assigned to stay with him who assumed, incorrectly, he would soon die.

Glass himself left no writing behind, save a solitary letter written to the parents of a companion killed by the Arikara Indians. When he turned up alive, newspapermen of the day spread his tale across the nation. Since then, there have been biographies and novels – but in 2002, author Michael Punke published one of the most extensively researched accounts with The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge.  Intriguingly, Punke has a whole other career as a U.S. trade representative, but he also had a life-long fascination with mountain men that led him to comb every resource to give the most life-like rendering of Glass yet.

The book was praised by Publishers Weekly as “a spellbinding tale of heroism and obsessive retribution” and became a favorite of readers who thrive on high adventure. Three of those readers included Anonymous Content producers Steve Golin, Keith Redmon and David Kanter.

“I’ve always loved wilderness survival pictures, and we all thought this could an incredible and fresh adventure,” recalls Golin.  “For David, Keith and me, it’s been a long journey, but we are really excited that it came together the way that it did with the extraordinary group of people that it did. It was not easy, but it was a dream come true in terms of the creativity the story inspired.”

Anonymous Content enlisted Mark L. Smith to pen a screenplay. Smith saw in the story a chance to give people an experience we can barely imagine in our 21st Century technological lives.

“Back in the 1820s, when you were left in the wilderness, you were left in the wilderness. You couldn’t pull an iPhone out of your pocket,” Smith notes.  “Glass is thrown into nearly unimaginable experiences:  from going over waterfalls to fighting wolves off a buffalo. His story is an adventure, but it is also a rich, emotional journey and I felt it could also be an amazing visual spectacle.”

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Tom Hardy

That hope became a reality when Iñárritu came aboard, hoping to take audiences directly into a world that has long fascinated and beckoned – yet remained inaccessible. “This story is so different for Alejandro, I was in shock at first that he was interested in it,” Smith admits.  “But once he began working on the script, everything came to life. He was so invested, so creative. It was a wonderful collaboration.”

New Regency was thrilled to work with Iñárritu. Says CEO and president Brad Weston: “We were fully committed to Alejandro’s vision – we understood the breadth and the scale of it and the need for flexibility and we saw it as a chance to get back to the roots of our company as a filmmaker-driven enterprise.  We saw it as a very creative project but also a story with widespread commercial appeal.”

Iñárritu brought fictional twists to the already apocryphal stories of Glass, while continually diving further down to explore the resonant themes beneath the surface.  “I was interested in exploring not only the physical paths of Glass and Fitzgerald but also their psychologies, their dreams, their fears and their losses,” the director explains.  “The storyline was a great base, as in music, but what’s going on in their minds and their hearts are the solos, the trumpets and piano.”

For DiCaprio, Iñárritu’s stamp on the screenplay was unmistakable.  “When Alejandro came aboard, it became an exciting prospect for me because he is such a unique filmmaker,” says the actor.  “I knew he could give audiences that truly immersive experience.  On the one hand, it’s a primal story of existential survival, but Alejandro brings in so many different nuances, it becomes something more.”

Because only the bare historical facts are known, the story demanded imagination, but two words underlined Iñárritu and Smith’s approach:  cultural authenticity.  “We researched everything from how frontiersmen spoke to their tools.  We wanted to bring audiences into this world fully,” says Smith.

Iñárritu took to heart the responsibility of recreating a lost world.  On the first day of filming, he assembled the production on the banks of Alberta’s Bow River – where the cast would soon wade into the icy waters for an action-packed scene. Each was handed a red rose. Blackfoot cultural advisor Craig Falcon led a ceremony aided by elders from the local Stoney tribe to bless the film, the creatures and the land. After the blessing, Iñárritu asked the 300 people to hold hands in silence. Then, in unison, they walked into the river, scattering their rose petals.