Alejandro G. Inarritu knew Leonardo DiCaprio would go to the ends of the earth to make the 19th century survival epic “The Revenant” exactly as the famously meticulous director wanted.
For Inarritu, DiCaprio was the best person to play Hugh Glass, a real life fur trapper who survived a bear mauling and then went to find his mates who left him for dead in the unforgiving wilderness. Over the course of the nearly yearlong production, the Oscar-nominated actor and environmentalist proved his commitment over and over. He ate raw bison. He stripped naked in sub-zero temperatures. He even jumped into an icy river. But, early on, Inarritu had one very specific worry: Could DiCaprio grow a beard?
“You cannot shoot this film with a fake beard. It would look terrible,” Inarritu said in a recent interview. “Not every man grows so much hair in his face. That was a bet.”
Thankfully for the director, DiCaprio sprouted a gnarly, unruly beard that becomes a symbol of where exactly his character is on his journey, and how deeply he’s devolved. Makeup added dirt on a daily basis, and a combination of glycerin and grit gave his hair that unwashed, bloody look — the look of someone who’d survived a bear attack.
It’s a minor thing, and perhaps the easiest test DiCaprio had to endure to make the sprawling epic, but it’s one of those details that illustrate the overall production’s commitment to authenticity.
“It’s a really primal story of man and the natural world,” said DiCaprio in a recent phone interview. “It’s almost biblical.”
In an era of computer generated imagery and other post-production fixes, this was an unconventional shoot from the outset. Inarritu traveled with his crew to Calgary, Alberta and then to Argentina when the Canadian snow melted earlier than expected. As if shooting on location isn’t hard enough, he and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki also opted to shoot only in natural light, giving the production a mere 90 mins a day to achieve complex, highly choreographed long takes. The duo had done this before in “Birdman,” but never in the unpredictable wilderness.
But DiCaprio knew very well what he was signing up for.
“When you’re out in the elements like this — and there are people who have much harder jobs than people making a movie — but you just appreciate the endurance of man and how we’re able to adapt to circumstances,” DiCaprio said. “You’re signing on to find elements that will ultimately transform the narrative and find the poetry … It was all basically us really putting ourselves in this environment and seeing what happens.”
Partly by nature of the story and partly for the sake of his character, DiCaprio largely isolated himself from the rest of the cast, including his friend Tom Hardy.
He studied the life of Hugh Glass and the lives of fur trappers at the time. He learned and practiced the choreography for the shots, too. But when it came time for the cameras to roll, everything became very animalistic — a largely silent performance rooted in instinct and reaction.
“For me it was about really thinking these thoughts and really trying to feel this man’s pain,” DiCaprio said.
“Leo thinks like a filmmaker more than an actor,” Inarritu said. “He understands the whole. He was able to be not only a machine doing exactly what we agreed in a natural way but at the same time be absolutely present to react to any improvisation. That’s when I felt that this is one of the greatest actors.”
Little remains of DiCaprio’s full mountain man transformation externally. Production wrapped. He shed the beard. The bumps and bruises healed. But the grit of the shoot, the trials and tribulations, the tension of getting that perfect shot, it’s all left on the screen — particularly in the bear attack.
“I think it will go down in history as one of the most voyeuristic action sequences ever created,” DiCaprio said. “You feel the blood and the sweat. You almost smell the bear. It accomplishes what movies do at their best which is to really make you feel like the rest of the world has evaporated and you’re singularly in that moment.”
Inarritu wants to keep the specifics of how exactly he achieved such a harrowing sequence to himself. Revealing the process would destroy the magic of it all, he said.
q q q
Painstakingly crafted over more than three years with occasional appeals for crowd-sourced financing, the stop-motion animated film “Anomalisa” was, ironically, the easy movie for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
“I had been sort of going through a tough time for several years trying to get things going,” says Kaufman, the writer of funny, melancholy meta movies like “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” “So the idea that this was going to get going didn’t seem realistic to me. The funny thing is, this was easier than anything I’ve tried to get made since 2008 because it actually happened.”
Kaufman had reason to be skeptical. He wrote “Anomalisa” as a radio play for the stage, with just sounds and dialogue. Starburns Industries, a stop-motion animation outfit formed for a “Community” special, approached Kaufman in 2011 about turning it into an animated movie.
Never one to be overly optimistic, Kaufman went along, doubtfully. “I wasn’t against it,” he says. Duke Johnson, who helmed the “Community” episode, came aboard as director. While Kaufman struggled to find traction for his other projects, the slow toil of stop-motion proceeded. (Such is the pace that there aren’t dailies but “weeklies.”)
The resulting film is one of the most original movies of the year, a regular of top-10 lists (including this writer’s) and year-end honors. After its enthusiastic festival debut, it was picked up by not some indie label, but Paramount Pictures, which opens it Dec 30.
Made entirely with puppets, “Anomalisa” is about a lonely man (David Thewlis) on a business trip away from his family. He’s a star of customer service whose disillusionment with life has gone so far that everyone he encounters appears the same to him. Actor Tom Noonan voices every other character but one: a homely young woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who stands out to him: an anomaly.
“Anomalisa” is a rare exception, itself. In a culture that often drifts toward uniformity, “Anomalisa” is uncommonly human, written by one of movies’ great enemies of conformity. It can be staggering to see emotions and interactions (even sex), rendered more familiarly with puppets in miniature hotel rooms, taxis and bars than most live-action movies even dare.
“I’ve struggled with it my whole life, the bull — of the worlds that are presented to us that are unlivable or unattainable. It adds to a lot of depression and unhappiness and alienation that people feel,” Kaufman says. (AP)
“The only way I know how to fight that is to just represent in my work myself or my thoughts, my worries, my feelings. If you show yourself and somebody else feels connected to that, then they’re connected to something that’s real. When I have that experience watching other people’s work, it makes me feel relieved.”
Kaufman, 57, arguably the most renowned screenwriter of a generation, and Johnson, a 36-year-old up-and-coming filmmaker, don’t share a sensibility so much as an eagerness to ignore, subvert and distort convention.
Whereas most animation is compelled by fantasy, Johnson was excited by the mundane of “Anomalisa.” Most are scenes that would never be animated, like an eight-minute phone call made from a hotel bed.
“That’s, like, the first thing in the textbook of things you do not animate,” Johnson says. “And that took months to do.”
But stop-motion, in particular, has its own unique qualities, Johnson adds, with its own mood, with real spaces, light and gravity.
“We did the opposite of things you normally do with animation,” Kaufman says. “We kept things like breaths and all the sort of overlapping that the voices do.”
It was a new world for Kaufman, but he’s well acquainted with the wry backdrop of customer service in the film. When he was younger, he had jobs answering phones about wet papers and missing sections for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and selling tickets for the Metropolitan Opera. He also worked in a book warehouse and was a doorman for an apartment building.
“Nobody was seeing anybody,” he says, recalling the impersonal nature of those jobs.
It’s easy to see in Kaufman’s movies a great fear of homogeneity: Malkovichs everywhere, Noonan’s voice all around. His movies are radical, heartfelt exceptions to perceived storytelling rules. Kaufman, who has sought to direct again after 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York,” is currently working on a novel, as well a rewrite for a studio.
“The idea that ‘Adaption’ was made by Sony is the thing I think about,” he says. “That is a movie that would never be made by a studio now. They just wouldn’t. It wouldn’t occur to them. And I’ve had people at the studios say to me: ‘I’m sorry to say this, but we need to know what the commercial is.’”
And yet it was a studio that came calling once “Anomalisa” became a hot property on the festival circuit, a surreal ending to a quixotic project.
“There’s always people saying: You can’t do this. We came up against it in this a lot,” Kaufman says. “The answer is always: Why can’t you do this?”
By Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle