Pain pays off for Leonardo DiCaprio and Alejandro G. Inarritu in ‘The Revenant’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch once said, “Art comes from joy and pain … but mostly from pain.” It’s a sentiment that Leonardo DiCaprio knows well.

“Television interviewers maybe don’t read much,” the 41-year-old actor tells The Japan Times when referring to one interviewer who recently asked if “The Revenant” had been “a hard shoot” — a fact that has been well-documented in the media.

“I had to pause, like kind of stunned,” DiCaprio says. “So he breaks the pause and says, ‘It was grueling, right?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, “grueling” can describe it … and then some.”

The pain paid off and DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hugh Glass in “The Revenant” earned him his first Academy Award after having been nominated four times prior. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu was awarded an Oscar for his work, following up his win last year for directing “Birdman.” He’s the third director to achieve back-to-back awards, and the first since 1950.

DiCaprio admits that winning the Oscar was “like a pat on the back for what I, and all of us, went through,” and he says he wouldn’t have gone through it had it not been for Inarritu.

“His passion is hard to match,” DiCaprio says. “I think Alejandro would literally die to get a movie made he believes in. And he’s not a crank-out-a-movie-a-year guy, if Alejandro doesn’t have something he truly and deeply believes in, he’d rather wait till that kind of project comes along.”

The 52-year-old Inarritu, a four-time Oscar winner, was born in Mexico City.

“I began in radio,” he says with an air of ebullience. “It gave me a sense of the need for a big personality in order to succeed — whether in radio, movies or any field. Doing your work well is important of course, but there is so much competition that unless you also have a big personality — unless you go far outside of yourself — you might not be noticed. The big mouth, the confident man — that gets noticed.”

When told that it was his “passion” that attracted DiCaprio to “The Revenant,” Inarritu laughs heartily.

“Yes, well, what is passion? It is strong belief,” he says. “In this case we tell the story of a man who has every opportunity to die in the wilderness, under inhuman conditions. But he believes there is a chance to stay alive, and he pursues it. He won’t give up. Passion is also that — persistence. Never giving up, not when the goal is so important to you.”

The director says he expects as much from his actors.

“I go to the limit when I make a movie,” he says, “I expect the others who have signed their contracts to work on the movie to do the same.”

“The Revenant” is partially based on the true story of Glass, a frontiersman in the 1820s trying to survive in the wilderness of America’s Pacific Northwest after being attacked by a bear. In the film he is left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and then sets out on a quest for revenge.

The struggle between humankind and nature is a universal one that doesn’t necessitate a lot of dialogue, and that is contributing to the film’s success with international audiences. “The Revenant” opened in China to a strong $33 million box-office take. (As of April 1, the film had earned $518 million worldwide, against a budget of $135 million.)

“It’s like in silent movies, those were for the whole world,” DiCaprio says. “I read that Italy once led the world in historical epics till, of course, the talkies came.

“When Marty (Scorsese, the director with whom Leo has most often collaborated) and I were getting to know each other, he showed me all kinds of silent movies and I wasn’t sure why. Some were comedies, some gangster movies … eventually I (realized) he was showing me the universality of film, of acting, of emotion, what the face can do and how you don’t really need words if the face and circumstances convey the emotion and what’s at stake in a scene.”

Inarritu points out that because he himself is not American “or a Hollywood product” that his outlook and approach to filmmaking is different.

“I know how it can be to sit in a cinema and have to keep reading lines on the bottom while the actors’ mouths are moving and things are going on, and sometimes you can’t read fast enough,” he says. “In ‘The Revenant’ there is enough suspense that it doesn’t have to be explained. There is not much need for exposition, for another actor saying to someone else what has happened or what is going on. This movie is like an endurance contest, and when an audience sees it many of them put themselves into the place of Leo and wonder how it would be if they were really in his place. The movie is very ‘in the now,’ as they say.”

Inarritu adds that he believes Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s cinematography was another key to the film’s success. “The Revenant” delivered Lubezki an unprecedented third Oscar in a row for cinematography — following wins for “Birdman” and “Gravity.”

“Please be sure to mention Chivo’s very big, enormous contribution,” Inarritu stresses. “This movie, so thrillingly visual, is about place and situation — it is about putting the viewer in that place and situation.”

The director then mentions that his own visual style has taken some influence from Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (1910-98), who “had a sumptuous — that is a wonderful word, we have it in Spanish, too — eye, but only when it was necessary. I think of a Hollywood director of the 1960s — who I will not name — but he liked to put something sumptuous, impressive on the screen even when it was not necessary. Kurosawa knew when it was necessary and he knew when simplicity was necessary. He served the movie, not his ego — like that director I am protecting for no good reason.”

There’s no doubt the cinematography in “The Revenant” wouldn’t have been as striking had it not been for the wintry Canadian environment it was shot in.

“Most people in the world haven’t really experienced wilderness,” DiCaprio says. “It’s there, but you have to go find it. But there’s less and less of it. Everyone hears about nature and ecology, the vanishing wilderness and species on the brink of extinction, but (‘The Revenant’) brings it home.”

DiCaprio notably used a portion of his Oscar acceptance speech to raise awareness about climate change. He pointed out that in order to find snow at one point the production had to shift from Canada to Argentina.

DiCaprio’s passion for environmental issues is so strong that at one point during international promotion for “The Revenant” he found himself caught up in a small controversy after voicing support for the Leuser Ecosystem on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The actor cited the negative impact the country’s palm oil industry was having on the area, and there were reports he would be blacklisted from Indonesia because of it. A government minister later refuted the blacklist reports.

At this point in his career DiCaprio seems confident and comfortable with his choices, both personally and professionally. As much as he doesn’t feel the need to censor himself when it comes to speaking about environmental issues, he doesn’t feel the need to take a film role based on the potential of a big box-office payout.

“I have a preference for films with balls. After a while you get tired of the easy or popular thing.

“It’s like Alejandro sometimes said, you want to do work that stands out and is memorable. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do a movie that makes people think. That old Hollywood saying says ‘save your messages for Western Union,’ but I think we live in more sophisticated times when you can entertain and also lead people to think, to question and ponder about today and the past, about our planet and the human condition.”

Inarritu says he is well aware of DiCaprio’s activist streak, and points out that the actor doesn’t want to be just a movie star.

“Leo wants to help improve the world, and motion pictures have a chance sometimes of doing that,” he says. “I very much hope to work with him at least once more. And I promise I will not put him through so much misery again … unless, of course, it is for the good of the movie!”

“The Revenant” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-revenant.