Speaking of his own experience making The Revenant, his award-contending man-against-the-elements (as well as man-against-bear, and man-against-man) opus, director Alejandro Innaritu has said “there’s absolutely nothing that I kept in my pockets. That’s all that I’ve got to give. It almost killed me, too.”
This is somewhat opposite from what his production designer, Jack Fisk, said about the experience, calling himself “the luckiest designer I know.”
In part, he was referring to a designers’ pedigree that stretches from Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, through several Terrence Malick titles (The Thin Red Line, The New World, both his upcoming, and also still-shooting untitled projects), work for Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) and more.
He was also talking about his experiences in the great outdoors for The Revenant, which began for him when he “got in a car April 2014 and finished in August, 2015.”
It’s easy for Fisk to conceptualize his involvement with the film in terms of an epic, globe-spanning road trip because “the biggest element of the design for this film was the locations.”
And the biggest challenge, he recounted, wasn’t merely to find wilderness areas to film in, but landscapes, in particular, where “men look small in relation to the environment,” all to fit the scale of the story that Inarritu wanted to tell.
Finding locations of that scope usually isn’t a one-person job, and Fisk credits the work of supervising location manager Robin Mounsey, who he describes as “kind of a genius. He had spent some time with Alejandro two years before we started and had a good idea what he wanted.”
Some of these were formidable for practical reasons. Rivers might be running faster than any ability to “work” with it, or they were simply “difficult for health and security reasons.” Like, say, potential hypothermia.
“That’s one reason our location scout never ended,” Fisk said. “We were always looking for something more, something different.”
Of course, sometimes they were just looking for some place where the weather hadn’t shifted in such dramatic fashion. “The snow started melting in Canada on Jan. 20. We were continually moving snow into our locations to maintain a winter look. That made it pleasant in some ways,” at least for a warmed-up crew. But finally, he said, “we ran out of winter.”
“We got everything shot except the last battle,” he recounted, of the extensive scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s vengeance-fueled fur trapper catches up at last to Tom Hardy, as the man who’d not only left him for dead, but hoped to speed the process along.
They grapple, stab and chop at each other, during their final reckoning, ultimately sliding down a snowy mountain into a frigid river. All of which was in a different hemisphere from the rest of the film. “That’s all in Argentina,” Fisk said.
The director, however, “liked the look of Argentina. It was kind of natural.”
Which also appealed to his cinematographer, “Chivo” Lubezki, who, with the director, was shooting only in natural light – usually that of afternoon “magic hour,” giving the production only about two hours or so to shoot a scene, according to Fisk.
Not only the magic hour scenes, but those lit only by torches, candles or bonfires. All of it delineating a journey, for DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass “that visually made sense.”
Of course, the experience was a journey for Fisk, too. “I had never experienced that much snow, in that wild of an environment. Wolves, and grizzly bears and mountain lions. You’re careful not to hike alone.”
Fisk says that on those location scouts, there was always the sense that “something’s watching me.”
Now, of course, in the middle of another winter, he’s still being watched. But this time, it’s by award voters.