In early 2015, three months after a strange, taped audition involving my own personal confessions in front of a rolling camera, I was offered a small role in director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu’s new film, The Revenant. I was flown, with ten hours notice, across the continent and wound up spending eight days working on the set, in Alberta and LA. This is a small journal entry written after my first day of shooting, which, unbeknownst to me, was the final day of principal photography. (Re-shoots in LA, including a small scene with Leonardo DiCaprio, were to come a few months later).
April 16th, 2015 ~ Stoney Native Reserve, Alberta
I’ve been waiting all day. Which is all I did yesterday. Fake-filthy on my hands and face, sitting about in my black-waxed soldier’s dungarees and muddy spats. But I’ve finally gotten the call to shoot. Dusk is falling lightly, so is snow on the straw plain, adding a new dimension of bland colour to the scenery. Everything is desaturated this time of year in Alberta. Faded, distant blues and beiges of the faraway peaks, muted metallic streams. It isn’t dull. It’s a muted majesty that matches the eerie loneliness of the winds that blow down the valleys in sudden tantrums.
They have the mound of a Pawnee hut all wired up with pyrotechnics, the fire guy takes me through it, shows me where to touch my torch, both inside and out, where they’ll crank up flames. I met director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu yesterday—he insists on approving every costume in person. Now he’s holding court on set in the field, dressed in full combat-winter gear—heavy black boots and anorak. He could pass for an Antarctic researcher. His face is a healthy deep tan, handsome, with keen, dark eyes. He is shooting with all natural light, a handheld rig strapped to the body of his director of photography, Chivo.
He leads me through the action of this first very wide shot– walk up tired, but driven, to the hut, light it in four places, look around and go in– light it from the inside and emerge, still with the torch, walking toward camera. We rehearse it once. Then Alejandro, in his Mexican accent, yells, Add-rien! You look too casual, man! Like you’re walking down the street or son-thing. You are TIRED, man! You been walking for MILES! And remember—YOU HATE INDIANS! Look! Like this! He mimes stomping through the snow emphatically. We go again, me attempting to emulate his overdone walk. Alejandro cuts and runs over to me, takes me by the arm—Add-rien, don’t do like me. I’m a bad actor, man, don’t do like me, it’s too much. Just.. do better. OK? I smile–OK, I’ll do better, and he runs back to the monitor.
I do better and we shoot the wide a couple of times. But then things begin to get frenetic and I start to see a little of what everyone has been telling me for the last couple days about the unpredictability of this shoot.
The two cast members on set are myself and Young Hawk (Isaiah Tootoosis), the Pawnee boy. Alejandro shouts, Bring the boy! And they begin to shoot him close-up, lit by torchlight. I step away and think, I guess I must be done for now and start walking through the snow to the warm-up tent. Then, I hear—Where is Add-rien?! Where is the soldier?! There is fumbling and shouting and I am rushed back in. Emerge from the hut again, come toward camera, look INTO the camera.. look into the camera? I ask. Yes, yes. Now the boy again, where is the boy?! The hut crackles and groans, it has been burning behind us this whole time and is fully ablaze now, you can feel its heat from 50 feet. Add-rien! Where is Add-rien?! New angles—Throw the torch! Get the sparks in the sky! The crew is on their toes, stumbling to stay out of the shot as the camera swings wildly to capture a different look, a different direction. Meanwhile, dusk is becoming night, they’re letting the hut burn without letting up now, a huge plume of spark and smoke over the plain. It’s treacherous and beautiful. Alejandro continues to swoop us in and out, seeing something he needs, something beautiful, something shiny. I just try to stay as close to camera as possible, waiting for Alejandro to shout, Where is the soldier?! The pace is unpredictable and relentless.
And then suddenly, just like that, a voice screams, THAT’S A WRAP– and we are done.
Not just done for the day—it turns out this is the last official shot of principal photography of this impossibly long and arduous shoot. A cry goes up in the snowy dark, people embrace each other. Amidst the ecstasy and weeping and laughing, Alejandro asks the entire crew to gather around in a huge circle, we all hold hands. They have a wireless handheld mic and a PA system set up that Alejandro has been using intermittently to speak to the crew. He holds the mic and gives a short, eloquent speech in his oaky baritone. That the journey has been long and hard, but beautiful. That this has been the most significant artistic journey of his career. He thanks everyone for their sacrifices and asks for a moment of silence to reflect on the distance they’ve come together over the past seven months. I think to myself, I just got here on Tuesday! But glad to be witness to this moment. Silent in a circle on the frozen field while the pyro team douses the burning hut.
My toes are cold and I’m thinking how film, as an art, really is an artistic journey like no other. Employing entire legions of craftsmen, artisans, technicians and surviving elements and egos, drenched in time and money. A film like this is an Odyssey of art. People around me stand silently with clasped hands, some crying softly to themselves, some smiling wildly, ecstatic to be finished at last. Alejandro’s head is bowed.
I stand there, watching, and wondering at what it must be like to helm something like this.
We’d all like to touch genius but most never will Better to get a good long look from the window-sill A A bird’s eye story is a story still I I can be a messenger, I fit that bill